Learning Tips Blog

Life may feel a bit tense as our routines are upended, but here are ways to help your kids make the best use of their time while they’re home from school.

First, you’ll want to immediately establish a daily routine that includes time for academic work, outdoors/exercise, chores, and relaxation.

While a computer may be necessary and even advantageous for your child’s academic work, fast moving screens have taken a toll on their ability to focus. This forced time at home can be a good opportunity to practice detaching from “screen time” and social media, while increasing time to do things that take more focused attention.

For teens, try to encourage reading (i.e. books, magazines) as much as possible. Board games, playing cards, cooking, puzzles, and artwork are all preferable to watching screens. Try to limit television viewing to quality, educational movies (i.e. “NOVA”, “JFK”, “Planet Earth”, “Selma” …) or documentaries (i.e. “He Named Me Malala”, “The Cove”, “Hoop Dreams”). Youtube also has some quality shows such as BBC’s “Shakespeare’s Animated Tales”and “Ted Talks”.

For younger grades, a controlled amount of computer time (one hour per day) can be beneficial if used properly- for example there are several good educational computer programs on-line (i.e. “KidsEdu” on Youtube). Opt for a limited amount of quality television (“Disneynature”, “Bill Nye” shows) and shut the t.v. off when the show is over. Brainquest offers great workbooks for most grade levels (Amazon). Additionally, level appropriate baking, science experiments (including seed-planting), drawing, painting, or puzzles, are all fun ways to spend time with added benefits of learning and improving focus. And of course, READ READ READ!

The stress of this recent pandemic, combined with non stop access to news, is negatively affecting adults and kids alike. Spending time outdoors, especially doing something physical, is important for good mental health. In bad weather, urge indoor exercise. Speak to your children about what’s happening but try to be optimistic and reassuring. Suggest that they keep a daily diary to both relieve anxiety and have a record to look back upon. Lastly, everyone should try to be selective with what they watch or read- avoiding anything that makes them anxious.

These are just a few basic measures that will help your children and family during this time. Stay tuned for more articles and suggestions to help your kids be better learners!

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  • Nicki M. Dakis

Social media may be killing our ability to pay attention. Researchers claim that the human attention span is now below that of a goldfish! According to a Microsoft report, the average human attention span was 12 seconds in 2000, and down to 8 seconds in 2013. (A goldfish’s attention span is 9 seconds.) The fact is, the more we participate in the rapid-fire pace of digital media, the more our brains will become more adept at short and stimulating over more focused tasks like deep reading and learning.

The same Microsoft report shows that there is a direct correlation between increased digital consumption (i.e. social media, playing games, browsing the web) and inability to focus. The problem is worsened by multi-tasking, especially “multi-screening” (e.g. simultaneously on a computer and a cell phone or watching t.v.). Multi-tasking was once thought of as a skill that we proudly put on a resume, but new thinking is that when our brain switches tasks, productivity is lost. Studies show that each time we are disrupted from a task that requires our complete attention, it can take up to 25 minutes to regain our focus.

Even when people believe they are only doing one thing at a time, they often have a quick look at their texts, emails, or social media accounts. Microsoft reports that 52% of 18 to 24 year-olds check their phones at least every 30 minutes. According to computer scientist Cal Newport, “even those very brief checks that switch your context even briefly can have this massive negative impact on your cognitive performance. It's the switch itself that hurts, not how long you actually switch”.

The problem is twofold: Our ability to sustain focus plummets when our brains get in the habit of jumping from subject to subject; and our working memories can only hold so much. Our brains absorb every headline, message, and photo that we see and hear. So, if a student is simultaneously trying to focus on schoolwork while intermittently processing a barrage of new information from their device, the ability for their brain to retain what they are studying is significantly reduced. Researchers Eyal Peer and Allesandro Acquisiti of Carnegie Mellon claim that “the distraction of an interruption, combined with the brain drain of preparing for that interruption, made our test takers 20 percent dumber. That’s enough to turn a B-minus student (80 percent) into a failure (62 percent)”.

Why is it so difficult to turn away from technology? Most humans enjoy the sense of connectivity and social support that social media offers (i.e. getting a “like” feels good). Fear of missing out or not being up to date with news and events (aka ‘fomo’) can be a cause of anxiety for some. And then there is the dopamine factor: The thrill of seeing or experiencing something new triggers the neurotransmitter that controls the brain’s pleasure centers. We keep surfing the web looking for more things to make us feel good.

Digital media is the culprit only so long as we allow it to be. The deterioration of sustained focus is reversible with some effort: Plan more person-to-person interactions; routinely read something that takes thought and concentration; keep distractions and interruptions to a minimum while you work; commit to doing one thing at a time; and don’t be afraid to unplug.

Studies show that each time we are disrupted from a task that requires our complete attention, it can take up to 25 minutes to regain our focus.

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  • Nicki M. Dakis

Years ago, while attending a college counseling conference, I received a piece of advice from the former Dean of MIT that I’ll never forget: Referring to a choice of college she said, “There is no such thing as a soul mate ”.

While students or parents may have a “dream school” in mind, the reality is that for any student there are many colleges that the student will be just as happy attending. While as a parent I understand wanting the best for our children, as a college professor I have seen what happens when students are put into a situation that they’re not academically or psychologically ready for. Colleges can’t seem to keep up with the number of mental health counselors needed on campus, and self-medicating to relieve stress has become dangerously popular.

I’ve taught several students whose college experience would have been much richer had they delayed or chosen differently.

Now more than ever, college choice should be a business decision and just one part of a student’s overall career plan. Before beginning a college search, students need to make a comprehensive list of priorities. For example, consider degree options, class size, direct access to professors, or internship and research opportunities. This list, along with location and campus culture, will help narrow down the list of options considerably.

Of course, attending a traditional four-year college directly after high school is not the only option. An increasing number of students are benefitting from a structured gap year. Examples of this can range from employment, enrolling in a post grad year at a private school, or travel programs. Furthermore, while a community college can be a practical choice for a lead-in to university, both vocational schools and community colleges also offer a wide variety of practical career options, either in the trades or for careers not requiring bachelor’s degrees.

There are many different paths students can take to achieve their goals. I favor the college experience as an invaluable opportunity to meet people with a variety of life experiences and perspectives. It is also the time for students to test independence and learn more about themselves. But with college costs being as high as they are, it is more important to look seriously at the cost versus benefit of your student’s options.

Education is largely about timing. There is an old saying…When the student is ready, the teacher will arrive. As parents, it’s important that we take a step back, forget about what others are doing, and work together with our kids to determine a path that is best for them.

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