How Can You Keep Your Teen Focused While Learning at Home? 10 Ways to Engage Your Middle Schooler Longer in Academic Work


by Samurai Mom

This fall is going to be like no other. Parents and schools are making decisions about how children will experience their school day based on current health data, but we all know that the course may change direction quickly. No matter what your school model – in-person with homework, distance learning, hybrid or straight up homeschooling – there’s one constant: your student’s attention needs to be on learning the content.

So, how can you keep your child focused while learning at home?

  1. Create a schedule together
  2. Help them understand the relevance of the material.
  3. Ask them to paraphrase the directions.
  4. Break down the assignments into manageable chunks.
  5. Vary the types of assignments.
  6. Set a timer and set a work goal.
  7. Plan on frequent breaks with exercise.
  8. Try tactile fidget objects.
  9. Use music for studying.
  10. Be sure that everything needed is within reach.

1. Create the Schedule Together – Pinpoint the Best Times for Learning Different Subjects

Involve your middle schooler in dividing the day into blocks for learning. The more they control the experience, the more invested they are in their own learning. Also, your child likely has some insight into when they learn best and for how long.

Would they like to begin the day with independent reading and then ease into math mid-morning? Even if their proposed schedule seems a little unorthodox, give it a spin to see if it works. Middle schoolers will often invest a lot of energy to prove their point. This can boost their commitment to getting the work done during the times they proposed.

2. Why do I Have to Learn This? Connect the Dots to Help them Understand the Relevance

Talk about the real-world context of the work. How can the knowledge be applied outside the textbook? Sometimes middle school assignments appear unrelated to the knowledge and skills that adults need to function in the world. Because of this, students often ask why they have to learn a skill. And nobody – not even the biggest edu-geeks among us – likes to learn isolated sets of facts without a purpose. 

If you can relate the lesson content to a real problem, it will help them invest more in the learning. 

For example, if you’re learning percentages, use minilessons which use real world examples from shopping. Students can calculate discounts, sale price, sales tax, and final cost of items. Saving money to be able to buy more things that they want is likely to keep their attention.

3. Check Understanding of Directions & Visualize Challenges

Before you set them loose on a task, ask them to paraphrase the directions. It may feel silly to do with an older kid, but many frustrating moments can be averted just by making sure they understand the assignment. And by the way, this isn’t just a middle school thing. I’ve worked with many high school and college students who seek extra help without first reading directions.

You can go a step further by asking them to predict the toughest part of a task and how they can overcome the challenge. This visualization sparks the metacognition of the task itself. In other words, thinking about thinking helps them mentally rehearse strategies and resources that will help when they get stuck.

Having a plan can strengthen their ability to focus for longer periods, which is a major goal of middle school!

4. Chunk Assignments 

If your child struggles to stay on task through a long assignment, break up the work into smaller chunks. This will provide a clear idea of what needs to be done and will give a sense of completion for each piece.

This is a common strategy used for kids with attention and learning challenges, but it can work for every kid. Instead of answering 20 questions at once, start with 10 and give the option to keep going or finish the remainder later or even the next day.

If you’re beginning a research task, break up the steps. Here’s example of what it might look like to chunk the beginning of a research project:

Day 1 – brainstorm topic ideas and narrow to a specific topic in which they have strong interest.

Day 2 – create a set of broad and narrow questions about the topic and locate an introductory article in a credible source.

Day 3 – read and annotate/take notes on the introductory article and revise the questions to reflect the new learning. 

You get the idea. Again, here’s another chance to let your middle schooler take ownership of the learning pace. 

Customizing projects to student interests and chunking each part is a great way to increase focus over longer periods of time.

5. Vary the Instruction

Kids and adolescents are hard-wired to seek novelty and variety. If you have control over the curriculum, consider varying the format of instruction as much as possible. Worksheets are useful in some ways – in moderation.

But asking your middle schooler to slog through worksheets as the primary method of instruction is deadly to focus and long-term learning

That said, not all worksheets are created equal.

This graphic from Jennifer Gonzalez of the Cult of Pedagogy website distinguishes between what she calls a busysheet and a higher level learning tool:

Changing up instruction or coaching to honor teen’s developmental needs for novelty, variety and real-world application will keep their attention more than any other single thing you can try.  

Here are some examples of ways to introduce, review or extend material in both analog and digital ways to avoid straying into busysheet territory: 

 

Create a YouTube video to explain a concept, process or procedure. Create an advertisement. Brainstorm ideas that relate to a concept or connections to other concepts.
Create a comic strip to explain a concept. Go on a fact-finding mission (new knowledge) and create a chart to hang on the wall. Add questions that you think of while researching. Write a paragraph to summarize the most important points in a video or article.
>Annotate an article to remember important points and connect to prior learning. Write a skit/role play. Play a game to review material.
Create a game to teach others the content. Respond to learning in an interactive journal. Construct a model demonstrating content in a different format.
Create a list of broad and narrower questions to learn more about a topic. Revise the list as you understanding grows. Create a blog, and write a series of posts based on new learning. Learn fractions with baking.
Use virtual reality to experience an event or place through technology. Measure and calculate real objects, Complete a hands-on science experiment.
Go on a field trip to experience something IRL (in real life). Discover geometric shapes out in the world.

6. Set a Timer

For middle schoolers, 30 minutes of focused work is enough before your student takes a break. If your child struggles with attention issues, aim for a shorter block, maybe 20 minutes at a time. Let your kid take the lead on setting a focus goal and the timer. 

7. Plan on Frequent Breaks with Light Exercise

After your teenager sets and meets a goal for time on-task, they should reward themselves with a mini-break and some activity to get their body moving. This could be as simple as a short walk with the dog or dancing around the house to the music of their choice.

8. Try Fidget Objects

Though the research on the effectiveness of fidget items has been mixed over the past few years, some teachers and counselors swear by using small manipulatives like fidget spinners, stress balls, or seat rubber bands – even sitting on yoga balls – to help keep kids keep focused. This is highly individual. It will work like a charm to channel the excess energy for some kids, but manipulatives may become distractions for others. You could give it a try with lower cost manipulatives or make a DIY version to test them out.

9. Use Music for Studying 

Maybe you’ve seen the “music for studying” kind of videos on YouTube. I use these videos for sticking with a batch of grading for an hour or more when I really want to put it off another day.  I’ve experimented with what types of music works best to play in the classroom to motivate students. My own informal conclusions are that music needs to be played low enough to have a conversation over it and have a consistent beat. Music without lyrics seems to have an edge for concentration. If students enjoy the genre, it keeps them more engaged in the work.  

10. Have Everything Needed within Reach

It is oh-so-easy to fritter away time sharpening a pencil, getting that snack and wandering around looking for the book I need to get to work…finally. And that’s me, an adult with a sense of purpose and an equally strong desire to procrastinate. You don’t need to imagine how this works with a distractible tween or teen. You’ve already seen it and that’s why you’re reading this article, right?

Have everything that your student needs within easy reach and you can minimize some of the procrastination. Here are some tips to design your home classroom  for focus and productivity.

This school year is sure to be a challenge, but some of these ideas can help get your teen focused and working more independently. It may help to know that every teacher I’ve worked with uses most of these strategies to encourage classes of teens to get the most out of our time together. If it works for a class of 25+ restless middle schoolers, it may just work for you!

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