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3 ways to improve Homework Hygiene

A major reason I started filming Screenagers in the first place was that I saw how homework was going to be more and more on computers. I was thinking, "wow, being a kid or teen trying to stay on task for homework when the tech world is so entertaining, how is that going to work?" I compared it to my trying to ignore a plate of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies while doing a writing assignment—and I can tell you how that went 9 out of 10 times.

As much as I feel for kids and teens, I also feel for us parents. It's really painful to think about how our teens are switching tabs when they should be on task. According to psychologist Larry Rosen’s study, middle school, high school, and university students focus on average for six minutes before they switch off of homework to a technological distraction. For the study, students were in their home and instructed to study something important while a person observed their activities for 15 minutes.

I have some suggestions for improving study habits that I call Homework Hygiene. Sleep hygiene is something we talk a lot about in medicine because sleep problems, particularly insomnia, are so common. We help people set up practices and habits to increase a good night’s sleep such as going to bed at the same time each night, setting an alarm for earlier wake-up times to reset their internal clock, and other techniques. Homework Hygiene is all about helping kids develop effective practices around homework such as writing to-do lists, developing the habit of prioritizing the list and checking things off.

It is a top priority to engage our kids in conversations in which they become aware of the challenges they face in having good homework habits.

Delaney’s super-duper 3-part conversation tactic for helping kids gain insight and ideas for optimal homework hygiene: 

1. Empathize
Start by saying you have empathy for all kids about homework—you understand that after a full school day how difficult it is to do repetitive or hard work. Validate that having to do homework can feel tortuous at times, and now with distractions at our fingertips, there is a new, unprecedented level of challenge.

2. Get curious
Have one good conversation about homework that is calm and curious, not personal and judgemental. Here are two good ones to consider:
Talk about the science of homework. For example, mention the study I described above and ask for their guess about the average time it took before people went off task.
Discuss the difference between external distractions vs. internal distractions. How often do they experience an external distraction, i.e. they have their phone near them and see that someone has pinged them and they feel the need to check the message? Internal distraction is a psychological pull towards doing something other than homework—like a sense of a need to check into social media or to switch to a favorite website.

3. Explore effective strategies
After the non-personal conversations, get your kid to talk about their current homework strategies and habits. Ask questions like, “Do you start by writing a list of what needs to get done?" Now is a good time to throw out ideas.

Examples of good Homework Hygiene:

  1. Do homework after physical activity because the body is physiologically primed to learn more efficiently in this state.

  2. Start with the task that they least want to do and set the alarm for 10 minutes. That helps get over the hurdle of doing it. Then, after the 10 minutes, coming back to it will be much easier.

  3. Have a rule that all tech is off by a certain time so homework cannot be done late at night.

  4. Put phones out of sight and decide when it is reasonable for a tech or phone break. My 10th grader takes a short phone break about every 30 minutes.

  5. Put in place other breaks, not just checking phone, such as playing with a pet, or doing part of a crossword puzzle with them.  

  6. Get a system that monitors what the student does on the computer, i.e. how often they check other sites. If they know this is on the computer, it can help keep them stay on task until they get a break. Check out our website for computer monitoring systems. Another way to do this is to tell your child that the two of you will check their browsing history from time to time. It is vital to be upfront about this because kids can easily erase their history.  

There are many other strategies that I will be sharing in upcoming TTTs. I hope you will tell your friends about TTTs so together we increase the number of calm conversations happening in our communities. Meanwhile, I always love hearing from you!

For this week’s TTT try the 3-part conversation tactic I described above:

  1. Express your empathy around why doing homework feels so hard
  2. Talk about the science and internal vs. external distractions
  3. Ask kids about their current homework strategies and brainstorm new ones