Have you heard comments like these? I have! Have you ever said any of the following? I did.
“We are not doing well in school lessons. I cannot get my son to sit still for any length of time, and he cannot tell me about what I have read to him.”
“My daughter cries every morning when it is time to start lessons. I don’t understand it.”
“My high school student is losing interest in his studies.”
“I am burned out. I cannot wait until this year is over.”
What should you do when a child isn’t learning, doesn’t cooperate, loses interest, or struggles on and on with the same lesson? The remedies to situations like these are as varied as the number of children who experience them. So where do you begin?
Look at your schedule first. Evaluate your schedule using the following steps, and quickly make adjustments. Establish new habits and routines according to the behavior and needs of your child.
1. Understand the difference between a tutorial setting and a traditional classroom setting.
No student requires fifty minutes or an hour per subject on a daily basis, not even your high school student. A tutorial setting, one-on-one with parent and student, requires much less time than the traditional classroom. If your child can complete his assignment in twenty minutes, he should be free to move on to another assignment or a different subject. The length of a lesson depends upon the age and developmental level of your student. Because this point is crucial to the behavior and success of your student, I will talk more specifically about lesson times at the end of this post.
2. Secure what your child needs for adequate mental focus while doing the work of learning.
Two needs are imperative for mental focus—a good night’s rest and an ample supply of blood flow to the brain.
Your child must have the hours of sleep needed for health and for the mental demands of lessons. Every child is unique, but appropriate sleep is a must for everyone, and especially children and adolescents. Insufficient sleep hinders brain development. Appropriate sleep enhances neural connectivity in the brain1. Lack of sleep can also cause attention problems2. Many variables affect the quality and quantity of sleep your child receives. I will name just a few for you to consider.
- Too much exposure to blue-violet light from computer screens and other devices.
- Stress in the home, whether it directly involves your child or not.
- Too much sugar or caffeine in the diet.
- Not enough physical activity and mentally engaged play.
In addition to a good night’s rest, your child must have an ample supply of blood flow to the brain. Your child’s blood flow in the morning will be directly related to what he had for breakfast. Nutrition gained through healthy foods will benefit your child. But too heavy a breakfast will require the blood flow to be used for digestive purposes, and he will lack what he needs in his brain for mental focus. Be sure breakfast is sufficient, though. No one learns well if he is hungry. Offering a healthy light snack in mid-morning will help keep blood sugars balanced, but the majority of the blood flow will be in his brain, not his gut.
Most children are mentally alert and function well during the morning hours. If your child, however, is especially sluggish in the mornings, and you know he has had enough sleep, try postponing his more demanding subjects for later when he is at his best. Remember, there is no perfect time for lessons. You must discover what works best for your family. Trial and error is not failure. It demonstrates flexibility and a willingness to keep at it until you find what habits and routines work best for your family.
4. Provide frequent changes in brain function for your child.
A child’s brain requires periods of rest or a change of function frequently. Intersperse reading times with math, a science project, or nature study. Don’t give two writing assignments one right after the other. The variety will keep your children mentally sharp and interested in their studies. Consider this need as you plan your daily schedule of lessons.
I used to encourage my children to go outside and literally run around the house to clear the cobwebs and freshen their minds. I also gave them longer independent play time later in the day. Heather Haupt has designed a wonderful resource of ideas for taking brain breaks. Do your part to provide those necessary changes in brain function.
If your child has that “glazed-over look,” change the function and demands made on his brain. “You will sit here until you have finished,” when your child hasn’t completed an assignment because he was day dreaming or dawdling, will not help him successfully complete his work. Let him face the natural consequences of his actions. “You must finish this during your free time this afternoon.” No lectures, but rather planning for changes in brain function on Mom’s part, and natural consequences given to a child who still chooses to be inattentive.
5. Determine if your expectations are appropriate according to your child’s age and development.
Consider the developmental level of your child as you plan your schedule and the time allotted to complete each lesson. Beware of the temptation to require your child to work beyond his developmental level. We often feel pressure to be sure our children are excelling. Study your child, and know his abilities. Inspire and encourage, support and challenge, but don’t push him.
- Short, interesting lessons at the right level keep school time lively and children mentally fresh.
- Sitting at a desk is NOT the only way a child learns. In fact, it is hardly EVER the way he learns. Broaden your concept of education and learning for your children’s sake.
Regardless of your curriculum choices, I recommend the following guide from Charlotte Mason when determining the length of each daily lesson.
Realistic Lesson Times
Grades 1-3 10-20 minutes
Grades 4-6 20-30 minutes
Grades 7-9 20-45 minutes
Grades 10-12 30-45 minutes
Short lessons do not hinder your child from quality work. The shorter times actually increase mental focus and encourage the habit of attention. Even your older students will be more effective and efficient in their studies when the lesson time is shorter. I am NOT advocating that you set a blaring alarm to announce the end of every lesson, but rather to plan for more appropriate lesson times. And if you feel the need to make your children aware of the time, a lovely-sounding timer that only has one gentle ‘gong’ is a very helpful reminder to wrap up the lesson, so you don’t run out of time and feel pressured at the end of the lesson-time window. Everyone will benefit from changes in brain function, and the variety will enhance interest and effort.
Equipped with the knowledge above, create new routines, and see how your child’s behavior improves. Taking the time to establish new habits regarding lesson time may be all you need to do in order to experience the transformation you are seeking.
1Jane M. Healy, Ph.D., Your Child’s Growing Mind, (Broadway Books, New York: 2004), 122.