Do you know what it looks like when your child has completely tuned you out? I do. Dead stare straight ahead, barely blinking, barely even breathing. Sometimes I throw soft objects at them to get their attention. Sometimes they just flat refuse to do their school work. This is the moment that I am forced to choose between being the bigger person, and entering into an epic power struggle to attempt to regain control. I usually choose the high road. This means I have to acknowledge that what we are doing is just not working.
One of the first things I do when getting to know my students is to watch facial expressions and body language while they are working. I want to get to know their signs that tell me when they are losing focus or interest. There might be subtle changes in posture, tensing of facial muscles, staring off into space, or verbal expressions of frustration. When I see these signs, I determine whether they need assistance or a complete shift in activity. Every student has different cues, different needs when they get to this point, and varying abilities to rein it back in.
Exhaustion and/or boredom can set in pretty quickly, especially if it’s a subject in which they don’t have a high level of interest. Check the time, how long have they been working one activity? It may be that the student just needs a break. In this case I have them grab a snack, walk around, or burn off some excess energy outside. It may be that they have spent enough time on this activity for the day.
If you find that instead of returning to the activity, you need to take a longer break, make sure you talk this through with your student. Let them know that it’s ok to put a task aside for another time, but that you aren’t leaving it altogether. When you pick it back up, talk about how you can work through the frustration, distractions, etc. Make a plan to successfully finish the activity.
Sometimes a simple change of subjects or activities is all that is needed to recapture the student’s attention. It is for this reason that I usually schedule favored subjects in between the less-liked ones. Sometimes a simple change like reading aloud, or drawing what they learned instead of writing can accomplish the same goal, but with less resistance. It’s ok to cut one subject short and move on, as long as you have a plan for finishing. Sometimes students can get so frustrated and emotional about what they are doing there simply is no way to continue. That’s ok. Take a deep breath and decide together what to do. Giving the student options allows them an amount of control and can help restore peace to the classroom.
During this process it is valuable to help the student learn to identify when they are not focused, getting frustrated, or need to take a break. This self-awareness will go a long way. When your student identifies that they need to shift focus to another subject or take a break, honor that! Sometimes we need to help them push through some frustration so it’s good to check on why they want to put it aside. Knowing your student is key in making the right decision here.
Teaching new concepts to our children can be a difficult and frustrating process if you aren’t sure how to do it. Whether we are teaching them how to cook, clean the bathroom, or complete a new math concept there’s an effective way to do this that eases the student into mastery. It’s called, “I do, we do, you do” and works for any age level, and nearly every subject.
“I Do”: After you have laid the foundation of information the student needs, you demonstrate the process in its entirety. Explain the steps as you go so the student can see your thought process as you work it out. This step might need to be repeated a few times if the student still has questions. You might even need to demonstrate the process in a different manner. Once the student has a good grasp on what you’re doing, it is time to move on to the next step, “we do.”
“We Do”: This is the step in which you and the student complete the process together. This should be as hands-on and involved as you can make it. You may want to do this a few times so that you can be sure the student is comfortable with the process. This is also a step that can be revisited when the student needs to review the concept. Once the student feels comfortable in this step, it is time to move on the final step, “you do.”
“You Do”: In this final step a student demonstrates and practices what they have learned. They should be able to independently complete the process with accuracy. If they are unable to do so, you can go back to the “we do” step and work through it together.
This simple teaching method is one of my favorites. I have applied it to handwriting, composition, math, science, art and many more subjects. Sometimes the entire process takes two minutes. Other times it takes a whole subject period. When needed, we spend a lot of time going between the “we do” and the “you do” depending on the level of difficulty for the student. The goal is always to get the student working independently with confidence and accuracy.
“Mom! Where’s my book?” “I can’t find my homework!” “Help me, Mom! My project is due tomorrow and I haven’t started it yet.” – Sound familiar? What about this scenario: You’re once again running late for an appointment. You have no idea where the time went, let alone your keys, your purse, and that paperwork that must be turned in today. You blame it on pregnancy brain, but then you remember your youngest is five, and that excuse no loner flies.
This is all related to something called Executive Function. Harvard University’s Center for the Developing Child says, “Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.”
We are not born with these skills already in place. However, they can be developed through example and training. You may notice that your child has a natural gift for organization, and that is great! However, most of these skills will need to be cultivated and taught over time. Whether you homeschool or not, your student can benefit from training in this area.
Having structure and routine allows kids to develop a rhythm in their day; and they learn what to expect and how to plan for it. It helps to also develop independence as the student learns to complete daily chores and tasks on his own. You don’t have to structure every second of the day, there should still be free time and choices. Having some form of schedule helps kids learn time-management and how to complete a task on time. The schedule should be written down, or in pictorial form for younger students.
Older students, particularly those in middle and high school, benefit greatly from learning how to manage their time, keep a schedule, and set goals. Complex assignments, or long-term projects require the student to break down the process into small, achievable steps to complete it by its due date. This prevents students from resorting to “cramming” sessions one or two days before the assignment is due. This requires a lot of training through practicing together until they have demonstrated proficiency. Do not expect even a high school age student to be able to stay on task all day, manage their time well every day, or complete every task without prompting. This is where routines and structure help build habits; and encouragement is key to prevent frustration. No matter the age, goal setting, both short and long-term, should be practiced regularly. It could be related to a test score, a grade, and number of books to read, a physical ability, anything! Guide your student through the goal setting process and the steps they will need to take to accomplish it. And don’t forget to celebrate when they reach their goal!
Another way we can help our students in their development of these skills is to model and provide organization of schoolwork and materials. Orderliness in the work environment helps students be able to better focus. If students know where to find the things they need, it cuts down on wasted time and distractions throughout the day. By requiring students to maintain this organization, they are developing their own skills in this area. Some students come by it easily, while others struggle with getting a single sheet of paper anywhere near the section it belongs. Create notebooks with clearly labeled sections; provide storage for books, pencils, paper and other required supplies. Color-coding can help students distinguish between subjects, or time periods, or whatever you are wanting organize.
Investing time and training into the development of executive function skills will always be worth your time. Use these basic concepts to build a homeschool program that educates and equips!
The Harvard Center for Child Development is an excellent resource for more information on this topic. http://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/