At Ivy Tutors Network, parents often come to us with these complaints about their children's study habits:
- Lack of organizational skills
- Forgetting to hand in work
- Not staying focused when disinterested or when a subject is hard
- Procrastination: working on a paper or studying for a test at the last minute
On March 9th, Ivy Tutors Network founder, Lisa Speransky, moderated a panel discussion with Sue Groner, and tutor and special educator, Shakir Stephen, to unpack these problems and offer some solutions for parents and their children.
The panel explained in detail that it is a process (sometimes one that spans years) to teach kids to be driven by internal motivation and have pride in their work, to really “care” about doing well in school. Parents can be a huge help in this process by noticing the strengths and weaknesses of the child within their ‘executive functioning,’ and helping to create systems around the strengths to complement the organizational weaknesses. It’s important to model the behavior of asking questions and a trial-and-error approach to empower children to ask questions and problem-solve issues.
On Being the "Homework Warden"
Sue: Being ‘the homework warden’ or any ‘warden’--screen time, free time-- boils down to being the punitive-based ‘bad cop,’ which we hope will make our children behave a certain way to get to a certain place. However, instead of being the ‘warden,’ parents should be pivoting their parenting style to teaching their children to be self-reliant, problem-solving and self-motivated. It’s important to note that what works for you, may not work for your child because people strategize differently. Taking the punitive approach will never work because it means they aren’t developing the skills to advocate for themselves and learn to create a system that works for them.
Tools for Better Organization
Shakir: Brainstorming tools around organization should be a collaborative effort between kids, their parents, and their teachers. In the classroom setting, it’s impossible to teach to every person’s learning style. When trying to find the right organizational method for a child, collaboration gives kids more options. It’s also important not to assume that one organizational method will work all the time and to remember that a method that once worked, may not work now and so there needs to be room for changing the way things are done.
When I work on organization with students, in order to help them find the right method, I’ll often move from one method to another very different method. For example, if I start with a visual tactic around writing notes or using a calendar one week and that doesn’t work, then we’ll try something more list-based the next week. For many students, it’s important to have a physical place to put homework that is done. I’ve found that asking kids themselves for feedback on what they like and don’t like about the method makes kids really excited. I think kids enjoy learning new skills and like being asked to collaborate to find the right method of organization for them; when adults give kids the space to try something out, the kids are more willing to participate in trial and error.
Lisa: Trello has been a great tool for some students. I am thinking of an example in which one student had a very messy backpack and could never remember when things were due. We recommended to the parent that they use Trello to help with organization issues and realized it was an incredible tool for any student, but also great for attention issues such as ADHD. In that app, students make quick lists of what they need to accomplish and then physically drag those items into other columns like, “Work in Progress” and “Done.” It’s satisfying to watch items go from “Need to do” and end up in “Done.”
Shakir: Executive functioning is the buzzword for a skillset to help us organize ourselves relating to time management, impulse control, planning, memory, and task initiation. Generally, they’re the tools needed to help get someone to a place where they can get work done. An ‘executive functioning issue’ generally relates to a problem with two or more of these areas. The best advice I can give from afar is to pay close attention to your child’s strengths and weaknesses, and creatively think together with teachers on how you can use their strengths to cover their weaknesses.
For example, one condition where there can be impairments in executive functioning is ADHD. For some with ADHD, their working memory can be excellent, but switching between tasks or staying focused when disinterested can be difficult. Creating lists and keeping a calendar may not be the right tool for them. But for kids who like starting a task, but may not be great at finishing them, then the tool could be to take a long task, like homework, and break it down into say, four chunks. Breaking homework into chunks means kids can start a task four times and that can help them get things done. As mentioned before, it can take ‘creative thinking’ to find the right tools for optimal executive functioning.
Sue: I think the best way we can help kids is to really understand and agree as adults that the process of learning is more important than performance. Your child may not be successful at everything they do in school, but they need to have that negative experience, be reflective, learn to pivot, and get themselves out of the rut on their own. Talk to your child and do that often. Tell them that you are on their team and ask what’s working and what’s not. Kids can have great insight when they are really heard. We all remember being kids to some extent: some lessons in school don’t make sense and homework can feel like nonsense after that. I can’t stress more how important it is though in the long-term for your child to feel like you’re a partner in their schooling success rather than a punitive figure. Fear of punishment or losing a privilege leaves kids with a negative feeling around school and around the parent-child relationship. As a parent, one of your jobs is to help your child learn how to help themselves.
Forgetting to Turn in Work
Shakir: This is tough for everyone. I was an educator at Mansfield Hall, a school for children with learning differences. I can think of a few students who I would sit with to make sure they completed their homework, only to then find out they had not turned it in the next day. It was tough because no matter how perfect the work was, they could never get the full points if they didn’t turn it in on time. We also used to talk about the importance of a physical space where homework existed, like a homework box that you would put it in. Another suggestion would be upon completion, creating a clear marker beyond finishing the homework to signal that work has come to an end. One marker I’ve used was a quick chat and ask, for example: ‘What was the point of that? Why did my teacher have me do that?’ It’s one more step after turning in the work but it can trigger them to remember the next day to turn in the work.
As mentioned earlier, Trello is a great project management system and it’s really fantastic also when it comes to learning online. Beyond that, you should watch students turn in and have dedicated ‘homework time’, say 4pm, when all homework has to be finished and submitted.
Sue: I would add that there is no need to shame kids when they didn’t do something on time. If they depend on you to keep them on track all the time, they will never develop the skills to track themselves.
Attention & Focus
Lisa: At Ivy, we would first try to find out why: is it disinterest? Did they fail to learn a subject well so now it’s hard to stay focused? Is it someone in class? Do they need more movement in their day? Is it ADHD? It’s very hard to suggest a tool without knowing the why! Finding out why is also important because it helps kids develop accountability, and to be self-reflective, which are important for self-monitoring, an executive functioning skill. It should also be said that in today’s world, it is truly hard to focus. There are many distractions online, especially. Empathize with your child and tell them stories of when it’s hard for you to focus and how you solve that issue… or maybe how you’re still trying to solve the issue too! What kinds of things have you tried to help you focus?
Sue: I love the Pomodoro technique -- and use it myself! Work for 25 minutes, take a break, work for 25 minutes, and so on. I’m a big fan of the kitchen timer for this so that there are no phones around. It helps kids conceive of time better, and track their progress so they don’t take forever to finish an assignment. It’s a great time management technique.
Shakir: We also have used timers. Visible timers not only help kids manage their time, but also teach them how to work on a schedule. I would also recommend resetting timers during breaks too, so that kids can register it as a break in the workflow rather than an ‘end of working.’ Oftentimes, if the break isn’t timed it can go on for too long and it’ll be hard to get the student back to focusing.
Sue: Again, it’s important to stress to a child that learning is a process not a performance. It shouldn’t matter if they do everything perfectly. Performance anxieties, like testing anxiety can come from parents and teachers who kids are afraid to disappoint. If a child knows she’ll get in trouble for a poor grade or a missed assignment, this can be the beginning of some very serious anxiety around academics in general. Make sure your child feels that you are on their team!
Shakir: Testing anxiety and other performance anxieties, more often than not, stem from how a child sees their general worth. Schoolwork generally isn’t the source of the anxiety, but the focus of it. It’s important when it comes to performance anxiety to see it as part of a student’s struggling, but not rush to fix it as if it’s the only problem. If you’re seeing anxieties in your child, I would have a conversation with them around this idea of worth, maybe even with their teachers, to tackle the issue head on.
Refusal to Do Homework
Sue: First, validate that homework isn’t fun. Next, I would say that for adults and children, when the only feedback we’re willing to accept is praise, it’s hard to accommodate anything less. It’s important for children to develop resilience to displeasure, and again, to learn how to problem-solve rather than dwell on a problem or issue, like homework. Rushing through work can be a sign that your child hasn’t quite grasped that good work is an effort, and conversations around effort can hopefully motivate them in many areas of their lives.
Fear of Being Wrong
Lisa: At Ivy, we really stress the idea of ‘growth mindset,’ which is the idea that your basic qualities are things mainly cultivated through effort. It’s an important topic to bring up with your kids so that they know that in order to grow and learn better, they need to put in the effort. Kids should understand that physiologically, studying actually changes the brain by creating new neural pathways and then strengthening them through practice. Every time you study, you strengthen that pathway and become better at something. No one is born knowing the times tables! Think of it like a muscle. For a child who’s worried about what others think, it’s important to remind them that they look smart when they ask questions. Teachers love when kids ask questions. This is helping the teacher and makes you look like a star student. It doesn’t show weakness.
Sue: I second modeling for your child how important, and easy, it should be to ask questions and how common trial and error is in all stages of life. Talk about something that didn’t work out, and what you’re going to do about it so they see you taking initiative and taking on challenges--with or without success!
Lisa: What a great way to teach ‘growth mindset’. Shakir, Sue -- it was so wonderful talking to you. Thank you so much!