Why it's important for students to take breaks during homework

Written by Cindy Hovington, Ph.D. Founder of

Montreal, Canada

Both parents and students are always surprised when I tell them just how often students need to take breaks. We tend to have the mindset of, "sit down and stay their until you finish your homework", however, this is not necessarily the best practice for students. There are different types of attention, one known as  "sustained attention", which is the ability to maintain control of your attention for longer periods of time. Sustained attention is fundamental to learning and memory (Lee et al. 2015, Journal of Environmental Psychology). The average adult can remain focused for about 20 min. Meaning if they are in a 1 hour meeting, odds are only the information during the first 20 minutes are retained. Are we actually surprised about this?!!!

Ditch the "sit down until your homework is finished" rule!

In children, their sustained attention is much less than this, so we can't expect them to sit down for an hour during class or homework. I have a vivid memory of this little boy (let's call him Jacob) from a grade 4 class I was giving a presentation in. I gave the students this information and told them to tell their parents that Ms. Cindy, the neuroscientist told them to take breaks every 10-15 min. When I returned to teach their class the following month, we discussed how these breaks had helped their attention. Many students were elated to tell me that they were enjoying homework more and that they felt more focused during those short periods of time. However, Jacob raised his hand and told us that his father refused that he take "too many breaks" during homework and that "rules are rules". This saddened me immensely. I thought I would share some information with you with the hopes that more parents can see the importance of taking breaks. 

How can we help students focus during homework?

On average, the attention span of a child is about their age, give or take a few minutes. Through activities and games they can  build a longer attention span (quiet time activities for preschoolers and board games in children....stay tuned for this post!). In the meantime, we need to respect a child's brain and their attention. Gauge how focused they are during homework. If they start looking around and you need to repeat what you said, ask them to stand up and move around for about 1-2 minutes. Help them take their mind off homework by grabbing a bite of their snack, taking a drink of water, doing some jumping jacks, walking backwards while trying to also say the alphabet backwards (this will get a good laugh out of them!).....anything to take a short break (even looking at pictures of nature...see research study info below). Then have them come back to the table. Some kids might want to stay standing to do their homework and this is fine too. As long as they are focused.  

What have we learned from research studies?

An interesting study in 2013 (Lee et al. 2015, Journal of Environmental Psychology), demonstrated that breaks, or micro-breaks as they called them, lasting only 40 seconds can boost attention. They used images of nature to help their participants relax during an attention test. They concluded that these micro-breaks are important for productivity. 

This post focused on homework, however in one of our upcoming posts, I will discuss sustained attention in the classroom and give some tips on how teachers can help their students maintain their attention.