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Berens: With students learning remotely from home, now is a great time for parents to teach their children a better work ethic

Kimberly Nix Berens | June 15, 2020



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With every breakdown comes the possibility of a breakthrough. I live by these words in my personal life as a parent and spouse; in my professional life as a mentor and parent coach; and in my career as a scientist-educator working with kids. Breakdowns are a part of life. They offer powerful learning opportunities.

We are experiencing a breakdown the likes of which none of us have seen before, and we are all suffering the effects, some more tragically than others. None of this has been easy for any of us — especially parents. So as we simultaneously juggle our full-time roles as professionals, parents, housekeepers, chefs, foragers and teachers, here is some advice around how to take charge of this moment and the learning environment, and to help your child learn some critical skills. We often take for granted that kids will learn no matter what, and if they don’t, we assume something must be wrong with them. However, nothing could be further from the case.

A major detriment to learning and performance occurs when work time becomes difficult to distinguish from break time. An arrangement where kids might be simultaneously working on an assignment, daydreaming and playing on their phone sets the stage for bad study habits — and a lot of parental nagging.

Kids need clear signals. Kids need structure and boundaries established such that they can effectively complete assignments and acquire strong study skills. So, make sure your child’s workspace is free from distractions. Remove their phones. The only electronic device they should have access to is what they need to complete the assignment. Make sure the workspace is well lit and free from clutter, and that there are a stable chair and a sturdy desk or table to work on.

Once you create a proper workspace, make sure your child always works in that space and never does anything else there. That space should signal work time. It should be associated with working and being productive, which makes the transition from break time to work time a lot easier. Surfing the web, texting, checking social media or anything else not school-related should take place away from the workspace.

One game-changing tool for helping kids to be more focused and productive during schoolwork is a timer. It is the most effective way to create a clear distinction between work time and break time. Kids shouldn’t be expected to work for unlimited periods, or even until they have completed an assignment. They need to learn how to work for longer periods of time without stopping.

So, time how long it takes for your child to go off task — staring into space or fidgeting with something. Once you have that period identified, set the timer for that amount of time and instruct your child to work consistently until it goes off. Make it clear that if they go off task, you are resetting the timer — and that if they work until the timer goes off, they’ll earn a break away from their workspace to check their phone, stretch their legs, get a drink or play.

You can also set the timer for the break period, for as many minutes as you see fit in relation to how long your child actually worked. Shorter work periods should equal shorter breaks; longer work periods should equal longer breaks.

When your child successfully completes several work/break periods in a row, gradually increase the work time. Keep track of how long the new work period is and reward your child with praise and longer breaks for completing it. You should continue training your child in this way until he or she is working continuously for 30 minutes before earning a break. I find that kids usually max out at 30 minutes. Once kids get better at working, they tend to not want to stop once they’ve started. It’s a pretty awesome moment when that happens.

Kids need to learn how to work effectively. Taking this opportunity to train them to work hard, to be productive and focus can yield amazing opportunities — not least because when your kids learn to effectively work on their own, that frees you up to focus on your own work.

Putting forth some effort now can change the course of your child’s life forever. Not only are you imparting strong study skills, you are establishing a strong work ethic — the kind of skill that enables people to make a profound difference in the world. Your child just might become that remarkable person who ends up saving us all from the next pandemic.

Kimberly Nix Berens, Ph.D., is founder of Fit Learning, an international outcome-driven, mastery-based method of instruction that combines 20 years of experience with cutting-edge science.

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