How To Focus On Homework

I hate homework day.

Five minutes into my daughter starting it, she’s asked 4 irrelevant questions and walked across the room twice – for no reason.

She had a break when she first got in from school, and had a snack. Then we agreed to a little outside time before starting homework.

She’s got the book open and a pencil in her hand, but that’s the sum total of her achievement so far.

Her mind doesn’t seem to want to sit still – preferring to bounce all around the place. It’s like her mind is a magnet, and when it’s put near homework, it repels away from it.

When she was 5 I thought she would grow out of it, but at 8 years old I was beginning to worry.

As someone who likes to get in and get things done, it drives me nuts.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my daughter dearly. But the way she gets distracted every 5 minutes during homework time is enough to make anyone go crazy.

She’s highly intelligent, has loads of positive energy and is warm and engaging. She can focus long and hard on anything she is interested in. But getting her to focus on homework she isn’t keen on? Damn near impossible.

I just couldn’t sustain parenting positively unless I got this under control. I wanted to take some action.

At one point when her distraction was driving me nuts, I had started to wonder if I should get her tested for attention deficit disorder (ADD). My research on this topic led me to discover some behavioral techniques used with ADD kids, that are also applicable to any child having difficulty focusing.

I decided to try them for teaching my daughter how to focus on homework. Some worked better than others but overall it has been a great success. Here are the ones that worked for us –

Editor’s Note: From homework to discipline, for a slow and steady, positive approach to raising kids, check out our FREE mini-course How to Be a Positive Parent.

#1 Keep It Short

When it came to doing homework, we kept it short and broke it down. Generally, that meant one ten-minute stint a day, instead of one 30-40 minute block each week.

Each time she wandered off task (mentally or physically), I would gently guide her back to the homework.

I kept the focus light and pointed out the fun parts of her work. And I bit down hard on my tongue every time I felt like screaming “If you just stuck to the task and focused you could be done already!”

#2 Use A Timer

We looked for fun and novel ways to get homework done and one was to race the timer. The trick to this was to set her up for success.

So, if I estimated a task could be completed in about 2 minutes, I’d set the timer for 5 minutes. Each time she started chatting about something, I’d say something like “I hope you beat the timer!” or “Don’t forget – you want to beat the timer!”

#3 Wear Them Out

My daughter has loads of physical energy, so I made sure she got lots of exercise. Even now she needs to do lots of running around, or physical activity to wear her out a bit.

I’m not talking about making her run a marathon every day. Just encouraging and supporting her to move her body.

I worked with her natural rhythms as much as possible. I realized she had more energy in the afternoon, so we often went on outings in the morning.

If she’d been to school for the day and we were going to spend a few minutes on homework, I’d encourage her to go and jump her jiggles out on the trampoline before we sat down to focus.

#4 Kept It Positive

I focused on her positive outcomes as much as possible. Whenever she breezed through an activity I would give her positive feedback.

“Look how quickly you finished writing out your words! You stayed focused and you finished that in no time. Well done!”

We’d always start homework early and allow extra time to get things done, so I had to be organized and plan ahead. This meant I could sometimes say, “Wow! You finished your homework the day before it’s due. Great effort!”

#5 Give Up

There were times when I just gave up. Now, I’m not usually a quitter (our family motto is “persevere”!) but there are times when it’s clearly not the best course of action.

If we’d been working on a homework task for a long time and she was just getting less and less focused, I’d call a stop to it. When a five-minute task is only half done after 25 minutes, and there’s no momentum, there really isn’t any point continuing.

This is a tricky one, and I didn’t use it often. She’s a bright girl and she knew she hadn’t finished what she set out to do that day. But if we kept trying and getting nowhere, we would both become very frustrated and dejected – no good ever comes out of that.

So I’d suggest we leave it for now, and come back to the task when we were fresher. This way she wasn’t failing, it just wasn’t the right time.

#6 Eat More Fish

Crazy as it might sound, eating more fish or taking fish oil supplements, is apparently helpful.

Now, I’m not a nutritionist and I understand that the fish oil theory is unproven. But there seems to be research to support the fact that fish oil high in EPA (rather than DHA) can help improve focus.

I figured it was something that couldn’t hurt, so I did it. It seemed to me that each time her fish oil consumption dipped, she became less focused.

I’ve no real evidence to support that – it may just be in my head. 😉

#7 Encourage Self-Management

This is something I’ve only just discovered through reading the book Nurture Shock which discusses a preschool program called Tools of the Mind.

The Tools of the Mind program produces brighter children who are classified as gifted more often, but more importantly, it also produces kids with better behavior, greater focus and control.

Classes involve role play and each child creates their own detailed plan of their part. If a child gets off track, the teacher refers them back to their plan.

One of the ways the program helps is through encouraging planning and time management by setting weekly goals. This helps to wire up the part of the brain responsible for maintaining concentration and setting goals.

The Tools of the Mind philosophy is that every child can become a successful learner, with the right support. Children learn by using the skills they currently have – such as drawing and play. They think through their play plan, then draw a detailed record of it, then carry it out.

Using their skills in this way teaches children to set achievable goals, work out how to reach them, and stay on track. They learn they can be responsible for their own outcomes. We’ve been using this to teach my daughter self-management.

#8 Work Together

My daughter is nearly eleven now and has matured a lot over the last year. And I’ve just started using self-management techniques to help her set goals and plan how she’ll achieve them.

Earlier this year she said she really wanted to improve her grades, which I said was a great goal. Then she said she wanted to be involved in band, which means taking some band lessons in class time.

I asked her to plan how she intended to achieve both goals, given she has other extra-curricular activities she wants to keep up.

She created a plan to practice her instrument regularly and do more homework than she has previously. We’re at week 7 of our school year here in Australia, and so far she’s on track.

She dives into homework without being reminded and gets it done early. She’s also completing homework tasks to a higher standard, rather than madly (and messily) rushing through them.

Since starting band she’s been practicing twice a day, every day – without being asked. I know that if she loses momentum, or strays off track, I can direct her back to her own plan.

#9 Understand The Scale

At the end of the day, these traits are all a scale. Many of us can be inattentive and unfocused at times.

We all have different strengths and weaknesses. And attention and focus can vary wildly, particularly in the early years.

It partly depends on the environment, and partly the child.

Try and take the pressure off, and work with your child’s strengths.

Break tasks down and keep them fun.

Aim for a balance between physical and mental focus, and remember it’s OK to give up if the timing isn’t right.

Have realistic expectations, and know that your child’s focus will improve with age.

Don’t be scared to quit when things really are not working. Not doing a perfect job on the homework once in a while is not the end of the world. If it comes to a choice between quitting for the moment or screaming and yelling at your kids through the task, choose love and call it quits.

And finally, hang in there. It’s all going to be OK.

The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents

Take a moment to consider your child’s behavior.

  • How does it compare to other children? Either their siblings or a number of other kids of a similar age? (Try to compare them with a range of other kids – rather than one or two)
  • Does your child seem to have age-appropriate behavior and focus? If you’re concerned, do you need to seek help?
  • How can you start breaking down big tasks into manageable (snack-sized) sections?
  • Is your child able to focus on things they like doing? Can you use that in your favor?
  • Are your kids distracted by things that could be controlled?
  • What strategies can you put in place to keep your kids focus?

The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents

  • Brainstorm some roles that you can use to elicit certain behavior. If you need your child to be quiet and still for a few minutes, what can they pretend to be? A King or Queen on a throne? A soldier on guard? Good posture during homework is a good idea, but if the only way to get your child to do it without a fuss is to let them pretend to sit on a throne or stand in attention, go for it!
  • Think back over the things that your child struggles to focus on. How can you get them to use self-management techniques to improve?
  • If it seems impossible to get your child to focus and pay attention ask yourself this: “If it were possible, how would it be achieved?” Make some notes.
  • Take a moment to check out why Tools of the Mind works so well and think about how you might use their strategies at home.

You really need to finish that English paper about some 19th century novel that you don’t understand. On top of that, you still have a packet of problems to complete for that AP math course you decided to cram into your schedule. Wait, there’s more. That lab report for biology is due later this week and there’s a DBQ about colonialism in America that you have yet to start.

But instead of working on this ridiculous amount of work that your teachers have assigned you, you’re [insert super distracting activity here, e.g. watching baby videos on YouTube or stalking people you don’t like on Facebook]. YOLO, right? Yeah, no. You know you need to focus, but how? Fear not, young Padawan (I’ve been waiting for a moment like this to use that), I have some tips for you so that you can concentrate on your work!

1. Stay organized. It’s pretty important to know when your assignment is due. It will help you budget your time. It can be pretty rough if you’re working on 4 different assignments the night before they are all due. Try to keep your work area organized as well. Having math work in the middle of all your English notes isn’t the best way to stay focused on your work.

2. Make a schedule. Without a plan, it can sometimes be pretty hard to stay on task. Try setting a certain block of time for each thing you need to get done. For example, science homework will be done from 4:00-5:00 and then math work will be completed from 5:00-6:00. This will help you stay on track so you’re not straying from your work. The deadline for the work will help you complete tasks with some intensity, so that you’re not leaving it all to the last second.

3. Get rid of distractions. Turn off that phone! Close that teen novel about vampires! Block Facebook (or whatever website you’re spending all your time on) for an hour! Stop trying to watch the latest episode of that TV show! No really, do these things. I promise, you will get significantly more work done if you’re not checking you’re phone every 5 minutes to see how many likes you got on your latest profile picture.

4. Work in the presence of other people. It can be kind of hard to focus if you’re alone in a tiny room with just your books and papers. Sometimes it can be helpful to work out in the open where there are other people. They can be helpful in keeping you accountable. If you say that you’re working on an essay and they see you browsing Tumblr, they can point it out and keep you in check.

5. One thing at a time. Don’t try conjugating Spanish verbs while listening to the audio book version of your social studies textbook. For rizzles, don’t. In fact, humans can’t actually multitask. According to neuroscientist Earl Miller, when you think you are multitasking, you’re merely switching between two or more tasks very quickly. So you’re not even multitasking! Studies have shown that multitasking can temporarily drop your IQ. The lesson here? Don’t multitask. It makes getting work done even tougher. For more information about multitasking, click here.

6. Take breaks. Working for extended periods of time can be exhausting, so treat yourself to a 10 minute break for every 50 minutes you work. During your break, try to move around or get something to eat (fish, blueberries, and chocolate are some great foods that can help you concentrate!). Hopefully this will rejuvenate you and you’ll be ready to work some more!

Find the technique that works best for you and stick with it. Good luck!

Here’s a baby video for your time:

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the author

Jenny Zhang is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, who is thinking about majoring in economics (but that is definitely not set in stone). She has many talents such as falling asleep anywhere at any time (this can be verified by her roommate) and procrastinating. Jenny likes to spend a lot of her time on YouTube watching baby videos and obsessing over anything Jeremy Lin-related while eating various forms of food that are high in sugar and/or fat. She is currently trying to learn how to play Ultimate Frisbee to avoid the Freshman 15 and attempting to perfect her street-crossing techniques. Her spirit animal is a panda. You can follow her on Twitter @JenKnee_Z

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