The fastest way to help your child perform better in school

Jan 15, 2016 at 12:00 p.m. ET
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Perfect "silver bullet" solutions are rare. Easy-to-implement ones are rarer still, as it generally seems like there’s a whole bunch of interdependent stuff that needs to be done to achieve a goal. For instance, with 2016 upon us, many have long lists of resolutions to become healthier — go to the gym regularly, eat more vegetables and less processed food or get better sleep.

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Fortunately, there is one silver bullet that we can use to help our kids do better in school by helping them work smarter and harder. And, it’s easy to implement — relatively. Significantly increase your child’s focus by stopping them from “multitasking.” 

Multitasking — it’s a myth, just like Big Foot and fat-free food that tastes good. We can’t do it because our brains aren’t capable of it. What we can do is switch really quickly between tasks. The problem with doing so is there are very high costs: It can take twice as long to do each task we’re switching between, we usually nearly double the number of mistakes, while significantly draining our energy and increasing stress.

So, 30 minutes of math homework becomes an hour and has a number of mistakes if your child is texting with friends the whole time. They might even end up accidentally sending an "uncool" text because of their split attention. You can add on the fact that they will have lower energy because it’s taxing to bounce back from activity to activity, especially if they end up doing the same thing with their history project, like cruising Facebook while trying to figure out the causes of the Industrial Revolution.

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You can double your child’s efficiency, reduce their mistakes by half and decrease stress by helping them see why focusing their attention on one task works better than trying to multitask during homework time. To get the multitasking to stop and get the grades up, here’s a two-step approach you can use.

1. Prove it to them to get them to buy into the idea

Assuming a significant body of scientific research showing the negative impact of multitasking from places like Harvard, Louisiana State University and Stanford isn’t sufficient enough to convince your kids to stop multitasking, here’s an activity you can do with them to make it real that comes directly from Psychology Today:

  1. Draw two horizontal lines on a piece of paper.

  2. Ask your child to do the following and time them while they do it. (First do it yourself, so you see the big effects.)

    On the first line, write: "I am a great multitasker."

    On the second line: Write out the numbers 1-20 sequentially, like this:

    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

How much time does it take you/your child to do the two? Usually, it’s about 20 seconds — longer for younger kids.

Now, for the multitasking:

  1. Draw two more horizontal lines.

  2. This time, again timing yourself/your child, write a letter on one line, and then a number on the line below, then the next letter in the sentence on the upper line, and then the next number in the sequence, changing from line to line. In other words, you write the letter "I," and then the number "1," and then the letter "a," and then the number "2" and so on, until you complete both lines. So, it looks like this as you start:

Line 1: I a

Line 2: 1 2

If you’re like me, you probably read the activity and didn’t actually do it. However, when I did actually do it, I found it incredibly frustrating, made a lot of mistakes and it took over two times as long to do. Seriously, give it a shot, and then do it with your child.

2. Set up a plan of attack

  • Cut out distractions — Even having the TV on in the background without active watching hinders memory recall and performance. Certainly do not have an email inbox open, or phone on silent but screen up so they can read new updates. No distractions!
  • Chunk the work — Divide studying and homework by subject into meaningful chunks focused on only one activity. For example, 20 minutes per task for your third grader, an hour for your 11th grader. You can adjust the time based on how it goes — shorter if need be, longer if doable.
  • Take breaks — After a chunk of work, have your child take a five-minute break. It makes a big difference.
  • Jot down random thoughts — If an unrelated idea comes up while working on a given task, tell your child to jot it down, so as to not recycle it over and over and accidentally distract themselves.
  • Make sure they have the skills — No amount of focus will help without the academic skills necessary. If they’re struggling, ask the teacher for how you can help, and consider tutoring.
  • Discuss and reflect — Sit down with your child and chat about if it’s working and how to further improve. If you’re following the plan of attack, the results should be substantial.

Finally, a parting thought: These same techniques work well for grown-ups too, in our interconnected digital world. Good luck!

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