Kids are doing a lot of multitasking these days. From surfing the Web to texting, instant messaging and listening to their iPods, constant distractions compete for their attention. With so many potential interruptions, it can be difficult for children to stop, shut out the noise and truly focus on the task at hand -- whether it be their Kumon work, homework, studying or cleaning their rooms. The demands for time, attention and concentration will only increase as they get older. Helping children develop self-discipline, effective focus strategies and concentration skills at an early age will set them up for long-term success in high school, college and the professional working world.
Here are some smart and doable tips parents can use to help children focus, complete their work and ultimately succeed:
1) Set Expectations Early. Explain to your children that just like you have many important responsibilities (at home, at work, in your community, etc.), learning is their most important "job" right now. The earlier you set your expectations and establish a routine for learning, homework and studying, the easier it will be to maintain. Make it a family tradition: Allow older children to set an example for younger children, and include younger children in homework and study hour by having them quietly color, look at books or do some other learning activity during this time.
2) Manage Distractions. Although eliminating every single distraction is nearly impossible, there are ways to manage and minimize the number of things that can pull a child's focus away. Start with technology: No television, phone or computer until homework is done. Total silence isn't required, because research has found that certain types of music help people concentrate better -- especially classical and instrumental music. If your child will tolerate it, consider playing Bach, Mozart or Beethoven.
3) Establish Rules for Homework Time. There is nothing more distracting than a knock on the door and an invitation to play when it's homework time. Require that your children's Kumon work, homework and studying be completed (neatly and correctly) before they go out to play. This can be hard to enforce in the summer (when other children are off from school and Kumon students still have daily assignments), but Kumon only takes 15 to 20 minutes per day, per subject, so agree on a time when homework and Kumon will be done and make it part of the daily routine. As seasons and activities change throughout the year, be flexible and adapt to changing schedules.
4) You Do Homework, Too. If possible, take this time to quietly do your own "homework." This might be work you brought home with you, reading that you need to catch up on or sorting through mail and bills. Your children will be more focused if they see you setting a similar example. Though it may be difficult, try to be disciplined about your own use of computers and phones during this time. During homework and study time, think of your home as a library, and do all you can to make it a place that fosters focus and limits distraction.
5) Set a Place. Create a designated place in your home for independent study. This space should have a table or desk with plenty of room for books and papers and should have all homework supplies readily available. Keep a few extra supplies on hand to avoid those last-minute, late-night dashes to the store for printer paper, poster board, paint, etc.
Also, try to establish this space in a quiet, low-traffic area of your home where distractions can be managed and minimized. Keep the area conducive to study by ensuring that it is well lit and ventilated. If you have more than one child and they can work together quietly -- great! But realistically, you may need to create a separate area for each child.
6) Have a "No Texting" Rule. -- As adults, we know how text messages and e-mails can interrupt our own concentration. Let your children know that they cannot read text messages or use their cell phones during study time or homework hour. Questions related to the assignment that you cannot answer should require only a brief phone call (monitored by you, of course)!
7) Reward Your Child. Rewards can be controversial, because they can easily become bribes. But the fact is, human beings respond to positive reinforcement. If you think a reward system will help motivate your child, avoid material, monetary or food rewards. Instead, negotiate the rewards based on spending quality time together. Ask your child to think of things he or she would like to do with you, and make that a monthly goal.
Create a homework chart or download a free, printable chart online. For each homework assignment completed neatly, in a timely manner and without complaint, your child gets a star. These stars could then add up to an end-of-the-month treat: a new book, a trip to the park or museum, a bike ride or a family movie night.
8) Be Specific with Praise. Even with the best intentions and optimal study conditions, getting children to settle down and focus can be challenging, especially if they have difficulties with concentration and attention. But with practice, patience, persistence and positivity, a good routine should be established within a month. Remember to use positive reinforcement and verbal praise, since negativity and punishments only make children feel worse and do not motivate them to try harder. Offer specific praise to children that highlights their progress, not results, such as, "I'm proud of you for completing your Kumon math worksheets and for getting to the next level," versus a general, "Good job!" Don't forget to also praise the child's progress, and not just the end result.
9) Practice Consistency. Be sure to communicate homework guidelines to after-school caregivers so that they can create a consistent, positive and focus-friendly work zone. Create a written list that after-school caregivers can follow that details all of your expectations, from the quiet, distraction-free environment to the amount of time that should be allotted for homework and study time. Even if you are not home while your children are doing their homework, take time to check it and let them know you are engaged.
10) Work With Teachers and Instructors. Partner with teachers and Kumon instructors for advice and support. They may have insights, observations and suggestions that you haven't considered. Be open to trying new ideas. Work together to establish short- and long-term manageable goals, expectations for improvement and progress.
11) Learn What Work Style Is Most Effective. Children need to see and understand the value of study, but remember that people have different ways of learning and processing information. Make it a collaborative effort to find the methods that work best for your child's study style. Some children may work better if they are able to walk around and think out loud. Some do better lying on the floor with their books spread around them. Others need quiet, stillness and structure. As long as your children are making good progress, be flexible about what works for them.
Having good focus, concentration and study habits are important skills that will set your child up for success in all aspects of life -- from the baseball field to the stage. It's not just about completing assignments; it's about establishing self-discipline and perseverance that will give them the ability and confidence to pursue goals, manage setbacks and know what it takes to achieve.