Educator, Administrator, Writer, Mom to 4, Guest Contributor to the Maileg Blog
You’ve set up a great learning environment. Your child has a quiet-ish place to work, notebooks, paper, pencil. They have crayons and scissors. You made a schedule together and it says it is time to work. They have an assignment. But they just won’t do it. Or it is time for live online class. You see the teacher’s face on the screen, and the faces of attentive classmates. But your child won’t sit still and pay attention. What is a parent to do?
Figuring out how to help your child focus is one of the ways that we tend the stream bed(stream what? take me to part 4 to learn what we are referencing here)to keep things flowing along in the right direction. When I watch the stream flowing, I see the water swirling and rippling as it flows. Hidden from the eye, there are fallen trees, large stones, holes, and old dams that create the action of the water. But if you step into the stream and look closely, you will see what is beneath the surface giving the river it's character.
Children are moved by things that may be hidden from us. You may find that although you have done all of the right things to set them up for learning, they resist sitting down and working. Before you get frustrated, consider that they might be responding to a hidden force. They might be sensitive to noise, need to move around, or just not know where to start. Don’t assume that what works for you will work for your child. I work best in the morning, when the house is quiet. My eldest needs to be in a place with a lot of people, like a library or cafe, to concentrate. Another needs to be completely alone; she finds the presence of other people distracting.
There are a number of common distractions that can keep your child from focusing. Simple solutions can help clear the path. First, you have to wade into the stream and peer below the surface. Watch your child, and take note of when they are working well and when they are not. Talk to them about how they are feeling. As you try to find solutions, keep in mind these common obstacles.
Does your child skip breakfast and then get hangry halfway through the morning? A hungry child will have a hard time thinking clearly and will be more easily frustrated by difficult tasks. If you are managing other children and responsibilities, it may be difficult for you to produce healthy meals every time they are hungry. Engage your child; this is a great time for them to develop kitchen skills and self-care strategies. Make healthy snacks together the night before so that your child can eat when she or he needs to.
Is the dog barking at a passerby? Is an online science lesson zooming into your living room? Since we are all home all of the time now trying to get our work done in close quarters all day long, there will be noise. Sound is a common obstacle, but the solution can be as simple as headphones. Experiment to figure out what helps your child focus. I like to play nature sounds for my students, but some prefer white noise or music. If your child is going to listen to music while they work, try something without words or make a playlist in advance. With headphones, a child can tune into his or her own work without being thrown off course by the rest of the family.
Let your child move around! Sitting still does not work for every child. Some children learn best when they move. During the elementary school years, my son passed the soccer ball while he listened to his history read aloud. And before we sat down to read a family story, I made sure my youngest had something to do with her hands, whether it was playdough, kinetic sand, or yarn. When it was time to practice math facts, we went out to the swingset. This may sound like a distraction, but it actually helped them to pay attention. For some children, physical activity improves concentration. If your child struggles to sit still, finding an appropriate activity can help them think. You can try simple solutions, like playdough or even chewing gum. There are also lots of things on the market designed for the child who needs movement. Don’t be afraid to provide these tools for your child and let them move if it helps them think.
Sometimes a child doesn’t start their work because they feel overwhelmed. If you think this is the case for your child, help them to break their assignments up into small, achievable goals. Make a list; if your child doesn’t read yet, use a simple symbol for each topic or task. A visual list will keep them engaged and support their feeling of ownership. Schedule an exercise or fresh air break after each task is completed, or use a timer to set achievable goals. Breaking the work up into manageable sections with built-in rewards will encourage your child to tackle his or her work. The feeling of success from meeting these smaller goals will give your child the confidence he or she needs to tackle the next assignment.
The stream across the street is shallow and fast-moving. There are large rocks and fallen trees, but there is also a great swimming hole. A person with a careful eye worked with the flow of the water and the shape of the land to create a wonderful spot for a swim. It was hand-dug over the course of years in a place where the water was deeper and slower. Take this approach to your child’s learning. Look closely and find ways to create an approach to learning that will sustain them for a lifetime.