Frustrations over Homework? Practice this Coping Strategy…

“Uuuwwaaaahhhh” I heard from our dining room table and recognized immediately the telltale sign of my son getting frustrated with his homework. “He hasn’t been working that long,” was my first thought. My second was, “this is gonna be a long night.” Children of all ages will experience frustration during homework time. And because we want our children to succeed, our reaction to that frustration might be “oh, come on, you can do it” and also, “dig in, don’t give up, keep going!” But when a child is truly feeling stuck, they may begin to spin their mental wheels getting nowhere. This can lead to a long night of parent-child battles as a parent moves from encouragement to insistence. “You’ve got to get this done!” And the child moves from minor aggravation to giving up. “I just can’t figure it out!

Research confirms that short breaks help a person’s brain refresh and process. Staring at the page may not produce any new thinking in your child and in fact, staying there when irritated can burn valuable fuel and decrease motivation to put in the hard work necessary to get through the learning process.

But if he walks away, gets some fresh air, or moves a bit, he might feel differently. This small change of scenery can boost thinking skills in powerful ways. He can think more clearly and become a better problem-solver when he returns. He may even gain some new ideas or solutions to his problem removed from the work setting. This functions in the same way that we experience the “shower effect.” Do you get your best ideas in the shower too? Or perhaps your most creative thoughts come when you are driving in the car with no laptop or notepad at the ready? Or maybe when you’ve laid down to go to sleep for the night, your brain starts firing off brilliant thoughts. In order to access our top thinking skills, we require a mental rest. Consider that a short brain break for your child is working with their natural thinking processes to facilitate them, not fight against them.

So although our intention to promote grit and “stick-to-attive-ness” in our children comes from a genuine hope to help them be successful, teaching and promoting brain breaks can help children learn to manage their emotions more effectively while working. And in addition, they may be able to extend their focused attention when they return to work with added motivation from the fuel they’ve gained.

Here are some simple ways to teach, practice, and promote the essential brain break.

Talk about the Brain Break during a regular (non-frustrating) homework time.

Or if homework is consistently frustrating, then pick a non-homework time to talk about how to take brain breaks.

Brainstorm ideas.

See if you can come up with a few ideas together. What can your child do when taking a brain break? You might ask: “What makes you feel better or gives you comfort when you’re feeling frustrated?” You can share some restorative ideas like walking outside and breathing in the fresh air, doing some jumping jacks or a yoga pose, getting a drink of water, or visiting a favorite stuffed friend. For young children, imitate your favorite animal. Hop like a bunny or jump from limb to limb like a squirrel. For older children, listen to your favorite song or play on a musical instrument. Have your child write or draw their ideas. Keep that paper in your homework location so that when it’s needed, you can remind your child to take a look at what ideas she’s had and pick one. Daniel Goleman’s book entitled “Focus; The Hidden Driver of Excellence” recommends getting outside in nature as one of the most restorative (and just stepping outside your front door counts!). He also writes that checking email, surfing the web, or playing video games are not restorative so avoid those when you are generating brain break ideas.

Discuss school brain breaks.

Yes, brain breaks are key at school too. But does your child’s teacher offer them? Even if they do, they are likely structured breaks for all students and may not serve your own child’s needs at the moment she has them. Help her learn self-management skills by figuring out what she can do in the midst of frustrating moments when she is sitting at her desk completing a worksheet or taking a test. Because mindfulness simply means becoming aware of your body and your thoughts and feelings (and holding compassion for those feelings – not judgement), it can be done anywhere. Your child could count to ten slowly while breathing deeply. Your child could tap each finger on her page individually while breathing noticing the touching sensation. She could wiggle each toe in her shoes noticing how that feels. These pauses can help her bring her focus back to her work.

Set a timer.

Brain breaks should not be long. After all, your child has work to accomplish and especially on school nights, time is limited. So allow enough time to move away and change the perspective but not so much time that your child gets involved in another activity. One to three minutes could be enough to accomplish that goal. Also, put your child in charge of the timer. You don’t want to be the one managing this break. Give your child that responsibility.

Do a dry run.

Practice is important before using it. Include deep breathing in your practice. For young children, try out hot chocolate breathing or teddy bear breathing to practice this important part of the break. For older children, you can merely count to ten while breathing or exaggerate the sound of your deep breathing together. Call “brain break.” Move away from work, breathe deeply, and try out your child’s idea for one restorative practice. This practice will ensure that she is well-rehearsed and can call upon that memory when she’s feeling frustrated and taken over by her flight or fight survival brain.

Notice, remind, and reinforce through reflection.

After you’ve generated ideas and practiced, then notice when you see your child getting frustrated. You might say, “I notice you have a frustrated look on your face. Would a brain break help?” Then after she does a brain break and her homework is complete, reflect. “Did that help you and how did it help you?” in order to maximize her learning.

For parents, teaching and promoting brain breaks with your child can serve as a helpful reminder to us. Yes, we also require brain breaks as we deal with a myriad of responsibilities and attempt to use focused attention with our child, as well as our work, as well as our household and social responsibilities. If you notice you are feeling overloaded with it all, how can you incorporate brain breaks into your own day to help you become more effective? I think I’ll take one…right now.

For Educators, check out this great article on Edutopia on how to incorporate brain breaks and other focusing activities into your daily classroom routines.

Brain Breaks and Focused Attention Practices

References:

Goleman, D. (2013). Focus; The hidden driven of excellence. NY: Harper Collins.

Kim et al. (2018). Daily micro-breaks and job performance: General work engagement as a cross-level moderator. Journal of Applied Psychology. 103 (7) 772-786.

Originally published on February 17, 2019.

7 Comments on “Frustrations over Homework? Practice this Coping Strategy…

  1. Thanks for your share. There are as many ways to learn as there are people. Since college, I found methods for learning that reduced after school study time from 20 hours to nearly none. As a teacher, I shared some of these ideas, but encouraged the kids to find what works for them. They could use what I shared, try it, but find what works for them. Here’s what I shared: As the teacher lectures, read the book/text (splitting attention for high functioning students), or read the book soon after the lecture (which I gave time). I would take notes as the teacher talked, but also summarize paragraphs as I read (like one or two phrases each). I also got into the habit of drawing pictures to explain each page (main point). Now, this sounds complex, but it isn’t, all happening at the same time. She lectures, I’m reading and listening: listening for the main points. As I’m reading, I’m summarizing paragraphs and drawing pictures so I can visualize what is happening. At home, all I do is read the notes and look at the pictures, while it’s fresh, to review. Never had to study for tests except to review the notes and think about them. The students who understood this improved in grades. I taught them to learn through understanding, not memorization. Understand and all the pieces fit. Some kids used aspects of this, borrowing, but including their own ideas. The main thing is to understand as you go.

    • Wow! Thank you sincerely for sharing how you study and advise others! This is so excellent. I really appreciate how you incorporate multiple ways of grappling with the material as you are learning it – summarizing, drawing pictures. These are terrific study methods. I think this is a blog article of the future since very few schools actually take the time to teach study skills. Are you a parent too? My criteria for writing an guest article is that you are a parent (of an 0-18 year old in your household) and have experience/expertise in child development or social and emotional development. If you are interested and fit that criteria, I hope you’ll email me at confidentparentsconfidentkids@gmail.com. Thanks for the excellent comment! Best, Jennifer

      • You’re not going to beleive me when I explain. I was married once, but no children. However, as a teacher, I gathered that if I didn’t have my own children, the work of teaching would be worth the time. But, I think, my friends and family would tell you they think I’m unusual. I’m not. I simply wanted to understand learning and how best to learn, since I hated school while growing up and looked for easier ways. I’ll share something, and people can read my site for other articles (Those articles aren’t the most popular, because writing seems to block the communication that happens in person.). This was when I trained a horse. I had learned some riding in college, then helped people learn beginning riding in summer camp. But I had never trained a horse. **One day, while at work, a friend told me of another friend who was looking for someone to train his 2/3 year old thoroughbred horse. It had never been trained, never been saddled: basically, it was a pet. So, I told him I could train the horse. He didn’t ask if I had ever trained a horse, just if I could. Of course I could. Had no idea what was going to happen. I read one book on the horse whisperer and one magazine about horse training tips. I thought about horses. I knew I liked them, been around them while learning riding, so I figured all would be good. Then, I thought about what training might look like, visualized lessons, wrote down ideas, then went one step at a time. Met the horse, with the owner. Got to know the horse. Two weeks later, we could walk, trot, cantor, gallop, walk backwards, and open gates while sitting on the horse. But we were a partnership. I just listened to what the horse was telling me. This isn’t hard. It’s just all too many of us have been educated out of our common sense. We’ve lost that innate knowing that children have. When I teach, I try to support what children already have, teaching them to trust themselves, but they must do the work. Hope this helps.

      • Oh my goodness! I love it! I love your example of training a horse and how you learned what you could be then and then deep dove into a partnership of learning with the horse. That’s beautiful! That is how we all learn, isn’t it? It’s just that we adults seem to run into many fears and barriers as we attempt to let go of some of the control while we allow for our learning partner to try and take chances and experiment. It’s a dance for sure. I also love that you hated school but loved figuring out how learning takes place and how you could do it in a way that your students actually derived joy from the experience. Just wonderful! Thank you for writing! You have a whole lot of wisdom to share! Glad you are blogging about it! Please keep in touch. Best, Jennifer

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