Unplugging your Student – Focusing and Communicating in the Present

Training your student in good orderly habits for studying is the BEST preparation you can give him or her for college.

Training your student to sit still, to be still, to focus is absolutely essential for higher education.
Many do not have it. Many do not finish college – ever because they cannot get out of bed, they cannot get themselves to class, they cannot stay awake or focused in class, they cannot focus enough to study to do the homework and pass the tests.

Note this:

59 percent of full-time, first-time students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year institution in fall 2005 completed the degree at that institution within 6 years. ~ National Center for Education Statistics. http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=40
That is the SIX YEAR graduation rate for a bachelor’s degree. The four year graduation rate nationally in the United States is about 44%!

One of the biggest obstacles to learning that I see in my college students is the inability to focus for more than five minutes without having to check a cellphone or a tablet. Basically, students struggle to sit still and focus on a difficult topic. I do not permit electronics in my lectures, and yet, in the back, I see students ‘sneak’ a peek at a phone when they think I am not looking.

OK, let’s be honest. There is something pathetic about me when I am so absorbed in my smartphone that it cannot be put away for even fifty minutes while I attend to something else. There is something rude about me being in the physical company of one person, while more so attending to my phone, be that in line at the grocery store, in my car when I should be driving, or when I am having coffee with a dear friend.

I take my own adult children to task with this phone problem occasion with the admonition that “you are here with me in my car right now, please be present.” Not that any of us mind a quick message or quick peek, but no persistent phone checking and messaging. It is the sort of thing we do when we are alone.

And I don’t say that in a judgmental or angry tone. I am more so saddened that our advances in technology (while it is marvelous that we can Skype with a person who is half way around the world) are destroying our abilities to be present in the moment and give the flesh and blood humans who are in the same room as us our attention.

Do not get me wrong, I am not advocating that we abandon electricity, phones, and zippers and return to the 1600s. I know distractions have always been an issue for humanity. Before computers, dads hid behind the newspaper when they came home from work. We all need down time, and we all need to be excused from exerting ourselves, so we can recharge after a long day. But we don’t need to be excused all day simply because the distracted life is the easier life. I know that focusing on anything for any length of time takes effort and concentration. It is easier to let your mind wander, or to attend to less demanding things like laughing at the class clown or paying attention to the little skirmish that is taking place in the hall outside the classroom. It takes effort to understand and memorize the abstract concepts presented in a high school or college classroom. These classes can be difficult, and on first encounter, the all-important nuances of a technically difficult subject may seem irrelevant to the distracted soul.
OK, now that I have admitted that humans have always been distracted, I want to add that I still believe that the current generation of young people attending college are, perhaps, the most distracted generation we have ever dealt with in higher education. The entertainment at their fingertips in terms of music, videos, texts from friends, that constant shifting of their attentions from one thing to another in a desperate search for something that will capture their scattered minds is extremely damaging to the functioning of their minds.

No, I am not preaching doom and gloom here, but I am recommending that your young homeschool students be removed from their devices during school time. I am recommending that they focus on their handwriting or spelling lessons without distracting noises in the background, and without a phone sitting on their desks. I am recommending that not every subject be taught online or at a computer, and that when a subject is taught on a computer that you safeguard the computer such that only the software needed for the task at hand is available to the student at that time.
This need not be done in a paranoid, angry or suspicious manner. You can freely admit to your students that you too would struggle with distractions with every two seconds your email beeped or your phone sent you a text. We are always curious when we are alerted that we have a message, and the easiest way to not divert our attention to that fact, is to turn off audible alerts, and to not open the software with the messages until we have time to attend to it.

You could, for example, have the student work for 50 minutes and then he or she is allowed to check messages.
So… back to my topic… writing. Students who cannot focus for long periods of time on a subject will never be good writers, will never string long complex arguments together, will never go into depth with any subject because they never dwell on any one subject long enough to go deep at all.
Focus – How do you and your students focus? And how do you pull yourselves back from a distraction when one happens?

1. Have an uncluttered environment for your students to study in. Leave electronics in another room.
2. No music or background noise. It is time to be quiet, to focus on the task at hand (be that lecture time, writing time, math problem solving time)
3. Ensure that everyone has had a bathroom break before getting started.
4. Help your students get in a routine of gathering all the materials you need before you start, so they do not have the excuse of having to get up and get stuff before they can continue their task. For math that would include pencil, paper, eraser, ruler, calculator (perhaps?), math book, etc.
5. Make each study session 45-50 minutes (depending on the age, for 1st graders start with 20 minutes), and let the students have a 10 minute break to go outside, or check electronics, and then call them back to their work.
6. I say OMIT snacks during study time. Set a separate time for food and drinks. Surely anyone can go 45 minutes without needing to snack on something.

If you have a student who cannot function through these 5 points, patiently and persistently ‘train’ him or her. Start with as little as 5 minutes. Increase the time, and provide tangible rewards (that otherwise would not be available) to bring him or her to the point where studying undistractedly for the requisite 45 minutes is possible. This will take some time, perhaps the better part of a whole school year. Training may involve your sitting with the person at first, for accountability, but eventually, unless there are other issues looming, you should be able to leave your student to work on his or her own for 45 minutes. Certainly that is the minimum requirement for success in college.

The younger your kids are, the easier this is to do. Simply set new guidelines for how we function around our electronic devices. Model healthy use of electronics yourself. Show your kids that you are able to put them away, that you can sit and play a game of Sorry without having to check your phone— and that if the phone rings (cell or otherwise) you are able to let it to your voicemail, because YOUR KIDS and your time with them are more important than whoever is at the other end of that tyrannical little $300 smartphone. Model judicious cell and computer use, and your kids (with your guidelines firmly in place to help them when they are tempted) are likely to imitate you.
Let me close with this analogy: Good electronic use is like good eating. It is a matter of discipline. There is candy and chocolate, and cake, all high carbohydrate, high fat, low fiber quick fix energy sources that we gravitate towards. And then there is the high fiber, vegetables and fruits, and the lean meats and whole grains, which take longer to digest and which do not give you an immediate sugar high. We need to gravitate towards long term good health in our eating in order to serve our bodies best. We need to gravitate towards judicious electronics use for the sake of our minds and souls. (And the soul component will be for another day, another blog).

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Scheduling and Consistency

Go Dog Go

A couple of months ago, I talked about consistency as related to homeschooling little ones. I talked about how we need to do a regular daily session of language arts every day just 30 minutes (and perhaps only 4 days per week). A little adds up to a lot over time, and consistency will count for a lot more than just random marathon sessions.

As mentioned between reading, spelling, letter formation, and simple copybook and writing, in the early years that 30 minutes, distributed amongst a few simple tasks, such as our Primers provide, is all you need in those early grades.

Some people questioned me, relating to this, about scheduling it all, and I do recommend one source that I used way back many years ago. It is a book called “Managers of their Homes”. It has its title from Titus 2 in the Bible. This resource has now expanded and I don’t know what all it includes, but it may be worth a look to see what the books they offer there are now.

Now, I would say, even if you are not a Christian, or if the flavor of Christianity at this website is not the one you subscribe to, I would still recommend looking at the organizational resources available there. You can study organization and become organized regardless of most of your religious, political, or moral convictions. It is a matter of learning a few principles.

This particular web site is really good at teaching step by step management (in particular) of your time. You get to evaluate how much time you have in your week, prioritize how you would like to spend it, balance that with the tasks you must do (including homeschooling each child and time with the toddler), and then their books help you REALISTICALLY draw up a schedule that it would actually be possible for you to follow. I think I started this when my oldest was in about 6th grade or so, and it made a huge difference in my homeschooling. Even just the time inventory—learning how much time I actually have and learning how I actually spend it vs. how I would like to spend it— was worth the whole book for me, at the time.

So back to writing, which is the topic of our blog here— the most important thing you can do in writing education is to be consistent. A lot of little writing assignments spread over weeks and years do a lot more for a student than a couple of inconsistent killer projects.

Young students should read and be read to — not A LOT, but consistently. Young students should do regular copybook work — not A LOT, but consistently. And as the language they read and hear during read aloud time and also absorb during copybook work is cemented in their brains and hearts as proper speech pattern they will ‘by osmosis’, if you will, begin to form writing habits of their own, simply as a result of the language habits they hear consistently.

In short, there is much you can do in homeschooling in terms of the 3 Rs, in terms of sports, in terms of music, in terms of social studies and science — in my opinion there is nothing as important in education as the 3 Rs. You can short change computer science or history, perhaps, but do not short change the 3Rs. Get them done consistently every week, all the time.

🙂 Your students’ long term academic performances will attest to this.

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