What do the couch, the floor, and the kitchen counter have in common? They are all appropriate places for kids to do homework. Similarly, silence, music, and conversation are all appropriate backdrops for getting homework done. The key is knowing what works best for your child and matching the environment to her needs.
“First, get away from the idea of one size fits all,” says Neil McNerney, a child and family counselor and author of Homework: A Parent’s Guide to Helping Out Without Freaking Out. He encourages parents to observe their children to see what works—some kids can sing lyrics while completing math problems, some need to dance while reviewing flash cards, and others need silence and a desk.
McNerney says that recent scientific research on study skills and the way people learn “is really turning the educational environment on its ear because some of the stuff is very different from what we have been telling parents for years.” What follows are five unexpected tips to make homework time more effective.
1. Use Helpful Distractions
Ignore the common advice of eliminating distractions and studying in the same quiet place at the same time each day. “We have found these three things are the exact opposite of what most students need,” McNerney says. “A little more distraction, but not too much, allows the brain to hone in more on what it is supposed to focus on.”
Distractions can include music, background conversations, and different places and times for doing homework, he explains. Changes in routine and environment increase most students’ ability to learn because the more novel the environment, the more likely the brain is to retain information.
Distractions don’t work for all kids, however, and not all distractions are equal. Some children need a quiet environment, and as McNerney points out, “music doesn’t usually work for reading.” He also says the television should always be off-limits when studying because “the television sucks you in.”
2. Get Moving
Some children are more physical than others. “If you have a kid who needs to move, let them move. It’s important,” McNerney says. To help his son study, the two would throw a small football back and forth. McNerney would ask a question and toss his son the ball. His son would answer, then toss it back.
“If kids need to stand up when they study—fantastic—let them stand up,” he says. Encourage movement for kids who need to fidget by using silly rewards like running to the kitchen for a pretzel after each correct answer.
3. Study With Friends
Some children like to study in groups. Nowadays, the groups are as likely to be virtual as they are in-person. “If your child can handle studying in a group, then let them message with friends while studying,” McNerney says. “When kids [physically] get together to study, they are going to do some work, chat, do some work, talk again, and do some work.” When kids text, he says, “to them, there is no difference in the medium—it’s all ‘talking with friends.’”
Children who do better studying alone and children who spend more time on social media than on schoolwork should put aside their devices, however. They can connect with friends during regularly scheduled texting breaks.
4. Take Frequent Breaks
“Taking short, regular, frequent breaks helps children stay focused for longer periods of time,” McNerney says. For example, he suggests that elementary school students work in 10-minute blocks followed by five-minute breaks. “Parents often think this is inefficient
because kids spend a third of their time on breaks,” he explains, “but the interesting thing is that the 10 minutes they do spend is so much more efficient that the total time they spend on homework is normally a lot less.”
5. Train the Brain
“When studying for a test, study as if you are taking the test,” McNerney says. Most students study by reviewing information from a textbook or their class notes. On test day, however, they’ll most likely need to work from memory. Forcing your brain to recall information through quizzes and flash cards “dramatically increases the learning and the ability to remember things.”