Getting kids to sit down, focus and learn their schoolwork is an age-old problem. Today, parents face the added challenge of cell phones, portable music devices like iPods, and the many distractions of the World Wide Web. There are so many things that can pull your kids’ attention away from what needs to get done for school. How can you help them focus and succeed?
Scientists funded by NIH and other federal agencies are trying to find some answers by studying how kids learn, remember and think. They’ve discovered that children are more likely to become successful learners when their families actively support them. Reading with your kids, talking with their teachers, participating in school-related activities and helping them with homework all can give kids a tremendous advantage.
“There are many ways parents can help kids study,” says Dr. Janet Metcalfe, a psychologist at Columbia University. For instance, Metcalfe’s research shows that children in grades 3 and 5 are about as good as college students in recognizing what they know and don’t know—an ability called metacognition. But unlike college students, the younger kids often have trouble choosing the right things to study.
“College students usually won’t want to study the things they’ve already mastered, and they won’t study the things that are extremely difficult. They’ll pick things that are sort of in the middle,” says Metcalfe. “That’s the best way to learn.”
But grade-school kids, when given an option, often choose to study things they already know. “They say, ‘I want to study that. I know that. I like that.’ But that won’t help them learn,” says Metcalfe. “Instead they should study things that are just beyond what they already know. I call it the Goldilocks principle. They need to choose what’s not too easy and not too difficult, but just right.”
Parents can help by guiding younger kids to focus on concepts and homework that’s just beyond what they have already mastered. For instance, if you’re using flashcards and a child always gets the 2-times table correct, put those cards aside for a few days or weeks and focus on problem areas.
Flashcards can also help kids learn in another way. Research shows that most people remember better when they come up with answers themselves—as with flashcards or quizzes—than when they simply read or sit through a lecture. “It’s called the ‘generation effect.’ Children learn best when they generate answers for themselves,” says Metcalfe. “You may be tempted to give kids the answers, but be patient. Wait for them to come up with something on their own, even if it takes a while.” She adds that hints are OK if kids are really stuck.
If children have study sheets with both questions and answers, cover up the answers so they have to come up with solutions on their own. “Otherwise, they can fall into the illusion that they know the material when they really don’t,” Metcalfe says.
Another effective study technique involves waiting for a few days or weeks between study sessions. Relatively short review sessions that are spaced apart can significantly improve memory and test scores compared to a single, longer review session, many research teams have shown. “You’re much better off in the long run to study for about 20 minutes a day for several days than to spend an hour-and-a-half on the last day before the test,” says Metcalfe.
One recent study of more than 1,000 students showed that larger gaps between review sessions can lead to better recall of facts for longer periods of time. The research, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, found that the ideal spacing between initial learning and review depends on how long you want to remember the material. For example, if your test is in a week, it might be best to review the information the day after you first learned it. If the test is in a month, study a week after your first learning. Parents should encourage their students to study in smaller doses and not wait until the last minute.
Another way parents can help is to remove distractions during study time. Children may think they can learn and write papers while texting friends, listening to music, Twittering and playing video games. But the research says otherwise. “Many studies have shown that as you multitask, and the closer in time that you’re doing 2 or more tasks, the greater the number of errors you make, and you slow down,” says Dr. Jordan Grafman, a neuroscientist at NIH.
Some studies have shown that people can become better at multi-tasking the more they do it. But these improvements are limited to easy, superficial tasks done so often they become routine. “Any type of deep thinking—creative, inventive thinking—is not likely to come from multitasking,” says Grafman.
Grafman and his colleagues used MRI to pinpoint the brain regions important for multitasking. “These include the frontal lobes—one of the most evolved areas of the human brain,” Grafman says. “It’s also one of the last areas to mature in people—often not until they’re in their 20s.”
Grafman notes that many of the distracting devices and websites favored by students provide instant enjoyment, which can be hard for kids and even adults to ignore. The rapid-fire feedback they provide may ultimately stunt attention span and focused thinking.
“It’s important to have kids engage in activities where they are forced to turn off their devices and interact with each other, to actually have quiet time,” says Grafman. “Sit by a river or walk in the woods, but leave the devices at home. This pushes kids to learn how to think about things, and they become engaged. It may be difficult—especially with teenagers—but it’s worth the effort.”
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