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Today's Family Magazine

Homework Help

By Christa Melnyk Hines

By the time Meira Mednick's daughter was in third grade, homework time had morphed into lengthy, embattled evenings fraught with angry tears as frustrated daughter and frazzled mom squared off.

"My daughter began showing signs of difficulty in focus on homework in kindergarten.  By second grade we were drowning," Mednick says.

Mednick tried tactics like feeding her first grader an early dinner as soon as she got home from school and giving her time to relax before starting homework.  Instead, "We ended up spending the next two years in a tug of war of time, and many tears were shed," she says.

Many parents can relate and dread the contentious homework hour, which can plunder an otherwise peaceful evening.  For kiddos, who struggle to tune out distractions and concentrate on the task at hand, sitting down to do homework doesn't rank high on their list of priorities.

Thanks to the distractions of technology, the inability to focus is a growing problem in our culture.  The number of children who are diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) also continues to rise.  The Centers for Disease Control reports that ADHD is "one of the most common chronic conditions of childhood." 

Experts agree: the ability to focus is crucial to achieving goals.  How can we create a more calming homework atmosphere that will enhance our child's ability to concentrate and get the job done quickly--without the draining drama?

Work in short bursts. Kids get overwhelmed with long worksheets and multiple assignments. Break homework into timed chunks.  After a busy day at school, parents can typically expect their youngsters to focus on a task for one minute for each year of their age. That means a six-year-old should be given a two or three minute break every six minutes. 

"Expecting 30 minutes of homework out of a first-grader isn't realistic without breaks," says Rachel Rudman, a pediatric occupational therapist.

The timed approach made a big difference for Mednick's daughter.

"Previously she would be discouraged even before picking up a pencil. By having a timed environment, she knew that she could tackle one interval at a time," says Mednick, whose daughter is now an eight grade honors student.

Create smart brain breaks. During the timed breaks engage your child in short activities that help reorganize and refocus the brain, like jumping jacks, playing with Legos or Play-Doh, or snacking on crunchy carrots or pretzel rods or something chewy such as fruit snacks.

Blowing up a balloon can also help ease frustrations. "Blowing forces the child to take deep breaths which increases relaxation and focus," Rudman says.

Avoid electronics, which can be harder to pull a child away from.

Strike a pose.  Yoga stretches and breathing exercises can calm and re-energize a tired body. Balancing poses like bird or airplane, and a full body twist combines breathing and concentrated stretching movements.

"Balancing poses require a level of concentration that are a great way to strengthen those 'focus muscles' and create a body and mind that is strong and relaxed," says Mariam Gates, the author of the new children's book, "Good Night Yoga: A Pose-by-Pose Bedtime Story."

Integrate natural elements.  Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have found that including ornamental plants in a learning area can further enhance a child's ability to concentrate and learn.

"And weirdly, the more involved the child is in the plant's life or maintenance, the more learning goes on," says Magalie Rene, a classroom design consultant, who works with parents and schools to create study spaces that foster learning.

Place a plant in your home's study area and have your child water it as a transitionary cue before beginning homework, Rene suggests.

Chew gum.  Although the "no gum allowed" rule was grilled into our psyches when we were students, more schools now allow kids to chew gum during state assessments.  The chewing movement has an organizing effect on the brain and can help kids focus.

Energize with aromatherapy. Scent can have a powerful effect on our emotional well-being. Fill a spray bottle with water and two or three drops of peppermint, rosemary or citrus essential oil.  Spray the scent around the study area to enhance concentration, focus and creativity.

Get organized.  Make a homework box either out of a large shoe box or plastic container.  Have your child decorate it and store homework supplies, like pens, pencils, crayons, markers, scissors, paper, a glue stick and anything else he might need.  "Having everything together creates an atmosphere of organization and success," Rudman says.

If your youngster continues to struggle with focus and concentration, consult with your family's pediatrician or a child psychologist.