When you vary your children’s homeschool activities you can accomplish more school work in less time. You’ve heard the expression “A change is as good as a rest.” The same idea applies to your child’s school morning. Take a few minutes to think about what each subject requires of your children – fine motor skills, careful thought, quiet listening – and then try to make sure that as they move from one subject to the next there is variety in what is required of them.
Determine your child’s attention span
As a general rule, children in early elementary years have an attention span of 10-15 minutes. Do a little internet research and you will find more specific information for each age. Then think about your own child. Are they below average. Work with them where they are and build up. Does your child have a longer attention span than other kids their age? Use that to your – and their – advantage, without stretching your child so much they hate school.
When the kids were young I scheduled lessons based on 15 minutes of intense concentration. There were days I was lucky to get 5 minutes of focused attention, especially in a subject they hated. Every once in a while my kids gave me the impression they would be happy to continue all morning. Sometimes I stopped at 15 minutes anyway, so my kids would be eager to come back the next day. Other times, especially when I was reading aloud a fun book, or the science experiment worked (woohoo!) and we wanted to repeat it over and over, I would just relax and forget the clock for as long as the activity held their attention. Look for the average time your child can concentrate, and allot that much time to each subject.
Are you aghast at the the idea that your child may only concentrate for five minutes? You know spelling takes at least 20 minutes, and math much longer. How can you quit after only 5 minutes?
Make it your goal to lengthen your child’s attention span
Your goal is not to get 5 minutes of concentrated effort, in each subject, out of a sixth grader, or a ninth grader. Begin at 5-15 minutes of focused attention in the early years. Each day consistently require your child to give you their best for the entirety of whatever realistic time frame you set.
Then you can begin to lengthen the amount of time you expect your child to spend on lessons. 5 minutes is where you start, not where you end.
As you require focus day after day, eventually you should notice your child can consistently meet that average time you first established. As soon as they can do that, add a few more minutes to it. Every half year, and certainly every year, you should expect to see improvement.
Evaluate what is distracting your child
Don’t just say you require their undivided attention, figure out ways to help your child accomplish the goal. Look around for distractions. Is there music or TV blaring in another room? Are they talking to their siblings?Are they playing with a toy they brought to the table? Make some changes in your household so that the environment is conducive to concentrated effort on school work. Consistent rules such as no screens during school hours, or establishing a play area in another room for younger siblings will help.
Maybe sitting still for that long is hard for your child. My boys both struggled to sit still all the way through a math lesson when they were young. I could have fought the battle to have them physically sit in their chair – while their mind wandered. Instead I realized a person can concentrate just as well standing. They were both allowed to stand at the table and work on math. As soon as standing at the table degenerated to hopping around the dining room, I put them back in a chair. After a few years they both outgrew the need to be on their feet and could sit still all the way through a math lesson. Are there actions you can allow that help boost concentration?
Children’s attention spans naturally lengthen as they grow older. Time may be the only factor you need to consider when seeking to lengthen your child’s attention span. And there’s no rushing time.
Once your child has given you focused attention for 15 minutes, they’re ready for a play break, right?
Wrong. Remember, a change is as good as a break. Guide your child to another school subject that requires a different type of concentration from them.
For example, I would never have my kids go from math to copywork, spelling, and handwriting in one long marathon session at the table. Those require different types of mental focus – math is hard but handwriting is fairly mindless. But they all require sitting at the table and holding a pencil. They require a lot of physical control and fine motor skills. Little hands get tired.
Instead, go from math to reading history aloud. Require a narration. Then have your child come back and pick up the pencil again for spelling. Follow that up with science – perhaps you read the lesson aloud and the kids do a hands on experiment. That’s just a sample schedule. The principle is writing, listening, speaking, writing, and so on. Vary activities to keep them engaged.
Vary the difficulty level
Each child has different strengths. Every child has a subject that is difficult for them. After your child has finished a difficult subject, reward them with an easy subject. Or as a reward for their hard work, give them a real break and send them out in the back yard to play.
Remember, you want to see your kids working hard. But hard work doesn’t always mean the lesson will be fast and easy. Your struggling child may labor away, the task may take twice as long as it does for their siblings, there may be confusion. Or even tears. Should you reward that child? Yes! Yes! Yes! Praise them for their effort. Tell them you know how hard they worked. And give that kid a break. They earned it.
Reward attitude not aptitude.
Your job as the mother is to learn to tell the difference between a child who is resisting the learning process and resisting you, and a child who is struggling to learn something. Sometimes some of the outward signs may look the same. But if you are paying attention, are engaged, and spend plenty of time praying for wisdom, I think you can learn to tell the difference.
But I lecture for much longer than 15 minutes
The question isn’t how long you can talk, the question is how long your child can listen. Remember the teacher in Charlie Brown? At some point all your kids will hear is “wah-wah-wah-wahwahwah.” You could force them to write or listen or sound out words for an hour straight, but how much are they really learning?
In every subject you want to push your kids so they excel, but don’t push so hard you’ve pushed them out of the way and charged ahead without your child.
And you don’t really need to lecture anyway. There are much better ways of teaching.
Give your kids a real break
The next obvious way to vary activity in a school morning is to give your kids a break. It’s recess time! Recess is a necessary part of every school day.
Your kids shouldn’t need recess every 15 minutes, but once or twice in a school morning (depending on age) recess is just what they need. Then bring them back inside and ask them to do something hard – whether it’s mentally challenging or you’re asking them to hold the pencil again.
Is Reading a relaxing activity?
When you come up with a plan for how to vary activity in your school morning you may wonder how you should view Reading. Is it hard? Easy? A lesson that can be used as a reward? The answer depends on your child’s reading stage.
Brand new readers work very hard to decode a page or two of text. Last year phonics was hands on and fun. Now suddenly, you’re asking them to sound out words. For some kids it takes a lot of work. So consider Reading a challenging subject and reward them with something fun afterwards, like reading aloud to them.
Advanced readers will love to lay down with a book. When my kids have a fun historical fiction novel, they could read it all afternoon. So for older children, I use Reading as a relaxing reward.
What if a subject takes longer than 15 minutes and I can’t vary the activity?
Math is one subject that takes much longer than 15 minutes, but we still like to focus on one math lesson until we get it done. In early elementary years Saxon includes teaching time, hands on activities, and worksheets. Variety is built into the math lesson. My children never struggled to pay attention all the way through a math lesson.
In later years there is less variety in a math lesson, and there is a lot more writing and figuring involved. I would schedule a one hour time slot, and if my kids finished early they could use any remaining time for a play break. A natural reward for hard work! (Remember – you may need to adjust this for a child who struggles through math and takes over an hour but has worked hard every minute. She deserves a reward too!) Some years I gave my kids a five or ten minute break halfway through the math lesson. If that’s what your kids need to work their hardest, break the lesson in two.
Use short breaks and rewards as incentives during longer lessons.
Reading aloud is a special exception
Most kids will love you hear you read aloud to them. Their attention span may be much longer than 15 minutes. Plan on reading for longer stretches of time – if the toddler allows it.
Remember there is no need to have kids sit quietly on the couch while you read. Legos, art, and sewing projects are quiet activities that can keep little hands busy while they listen. Mass battle formations on the living room rug are also good, as long as the shooting doesn’t start in the middle of a chapter. If you’re lucky at least one little person will snuggle up beside you while you read.
I guarantee these will be your favorite homeschool memories.
Varying activities in junior high and high school
By the time your children are in junior high and high school they should have much longer attention spans.
In junior high I like my kids to read an entire section of science or a whole chapter of their book at a time. Thirty minutes of concentrated reading isn’t too much to ask. Expect them to work through an entire math lesson in one sitting. You may still have to watch and be sure this happens, but they can do it.
By the end of high school I basically leave my kids alone. They manage their own time. My kids like to focus for a longer period on just science or just history and alternate which days they focus on each subject. I only expect them to show me their completed work.
In between junior high and the end of high school I help them transition to being independent. We sit down at the beginning of the year and talk through what a sample schedule should look like. I check in with them every day to see how the schedule is working. Then when I am confident they know the plan and are sticking to it, I leave them alone. They can easily plug away all morning.
Vary activities to accomplish more
When you vary activities throughout the school morning, your children will be able to concentrate for longer periods of time without a play break. You will be able to accomplish school in a couple concentrated hours. Then you all have the afternoon free to rest and pursue personal interests.
Begin by studying each of your children: their attention spans and strengths. Then evaluate what each subject demands of the your kids if they complete it with full concentration. Now you’re ready to guide them through a school morning that is varied and challenging without burning them out.