cognition

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

Written by Cindy Hovington, Ph.D. Founder of www.curiousneuron.com

Montreal, Canada

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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. 

 

Reasons Why parents should never do their child’s school project

Written by Cindy Hovington Ph.D. Founder of www.curiousneuron.com

Montreal, Canada

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Montreal, Canada.

After surveying parents on social media, it became clear why my first Curious Neuron article should be on executive function skills (see Fig. 1). Completing a school project can be tedious for children because it is indeed a complex task, but the learning process that occurs is invaluable. Over 65% of parents stated that they have completed their child's school project at least once. Reason's included: "helping them get a better grade", "the child ran out of time", "too difficult for the child to do", and "difficulty concretizing their idea". The most popular answer was that the child found the project too difficult. Interestingly, all the answers parents gave fall under the same scope: executive functions. Read below to find out how to help your child excel at school projects!

Fig. 1. Results from our poll question on social media (Facebook and Twitter).

Fig. 1. Results from our poll question on social media (Facebook and Twitter).

Executive Function Skills and School Projects

Completing a school project requires "executive function skills", which are the mental processes that allow us to set goals, plan, organize, stay focused, and remember.  If a student struggles with executive function skills, they will have difficulties at school. We are not born with these skills, they need to be developed through an enriching environment. If parents complete their child's school project, these skills will not fully develop.

Identifying Difficulties with Executive Function Skills

Let's use the example of a student preparing a school project. 

When working on this project, they might struggle with the following:

  1. Getting started

  2. Applying creativity

  3. Making a plan

  4. Setting goals for themselves

  5. Organizing and gathering information

  6. Managing and estimating time requirements

  7. Remembering what they learned

  8. Problem Solving

  9. *Lacking the "self-talk" skill to get back on track if they are having difficulty

  10. *Behavioural issues when encountering difficulties

*Note that #9 and #10 are part of "self-regulation", which will be discussed in a future blog post.

It is important to keep in mind that specific populations, such as children with ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, learning disorders, or Tourette's Syndrome, are known to have executive function difficulties and require greater assistance in developing these skills.

Is it normal that my 6 year old can't stay focused, organize, or plan?

Yes!! Although these skills start developing when we are babies, they are not fully developed until we are well into our 20's. We can't expect a 4 year old to avoid distractions as this skill develops between 6-10 years of age. Other aspects of executive functions, such as planning, begin to develop around age 3, but greatly improve only by age 7 (Jurado and Rosselli, 2007. Neuropsychol Rev).

Tips on Improving Executive Functions

Research has shown that successful programs that target executive functions involve lots of repetition and a progressive increase in challenge level. It is also important to take part in activities that help build these skills, such as martial arts and yoga (Diamond and Lee, 2011. Science)

If you have a child who seems to be struggling with executive functions, here are some examples of ways to help them build their executive function skills:

  1. Planning and organizing. Have them write the title of the project at the centre of a sheet of paper and create a mind-map to help break the project into sections and make the task less daunting.

  2. Time management. Start small by helping them become more aware of time by using a visual timer. Set time limits for chores for yourself and for them. Later, have them determine the time needed to complete given tasks. Slowly progress to eventually have them manage their own time, for example, between playing with friends and homework.

  3. Behaviour. Praise them when a job is well done... and be specific. For example: "Thank you for being ready on time with all your equipment for your soccer practice. It makes it so much easier for me!"

  4. Setting goals. This develops much later. In elementary school, you could give your child an allowance and have them save up for an item they want to buy (create a "Goals" chart to help them visualize the progress). You can also help them set a goal in sports (i.e. number of goals or assists they would like to make in a game).

Next time your child complains that their school project is too difficult or that they ran out of time to complete it, I hope your "executive functions" alarm goes off. Building these skills will help them throughout their education and life!

References to Help You

Websites:

  1. For more information on executive functions, have a look at Harvard University's Center of the Developing Child. Here you will find lots of helpful tips on how to help your child from 6 months of age to their teenager years.

  2. Visit Edutopia to learn read about teaching strategies and executive functions.

Books:

  1. Smart but Scattered: The Revolutionary "Executive Skills" Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Potential by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare.

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