Homeschooling rarely looks like we imagined. Instead of dutiful, clean lines of children sitting around discussing Socrates and jumping rope, the kids are running around like a wind up monkey clashing its cymbals.
Some days kids can’t pull their mental stuff together. So how should we handle those days? There is no simple answer to this question. It requires evaluating many variables and weighing options.
First, I want to reiterate that in homeschooling there will be days when your kids can’t pull their mind together enough to tackle their school work. Even adults have bad days when concentration is elusive. This is not a big deal. Work with it to make every day productive. Use these days to concentrate on teaching life skills like cleaning, home, or car maintenance.
Second, I would like to point out that only about half homeschooling is learning academics. The other half is learning character, self forgiveness, emotional intelligence, and interpersonal skills. Talk about how it’s ok to take breaks or switch tasks if needed, but channel your energy into something productive (this includes fun), diligence, responsibility, wise time management, trustworthiness, and how to handle doing things we dread.
Third, focus on keeping your cool. These days are the hardest. We question our competence, desire to do this, our methods, our sanity. If this means you gotta park each kid in their own space with quiet toy, so you can sneak into a room to regroup, don’t feel guilty. SuperMom doesn’t exists. Focus on finding what productive things you can get accomplished and running that smoothly.
Where to start?
Begin by reflecting on possible causes.
Every change of seasons presents a challenge for my family. They each bring their unique mix of weather, sights, smells, animals and activities for experience. I find that a quick trip outdoors to explore is well worth the investment of time.
A tired, hungry, anxious, sad child can’t concentrate.
Has there been a recent change in the child’s routine or other aspect like the birth of a sibling?
How active have they been? Studies show active kids retain more and are more engaged during school after having a lesson outside. (https://ti.me/2pJeDvr retain) (nature https://bit.ly/2mTYnq7)
Some of these are easily solved like feeding a hungry child or separating kids that distract each other. Others are not.
What should we do if it’s more abstract, unchangeable, or there is no seemingly obvious cause?
Start with fun. Get everybody up and move. Have an impromptu dance party. Have a family race. Sing “Heads, Shoulders, Knees, Toes”. Go outside (I really can’t stress this enough) and play. Set a timer so you can get back to school in a reasonable amount of time; however, be sure to give transition warnings. With kids that need help calming after activity, make sure to save time for some calming stretches and deep breathing exercises to ease the transition.
If activity doesn’t help, try engaging the child with connection. Touch the shoulder or give a hug, then look into their eyes and ask if they need help.
Often an overwhelmed child reduces their effort which looks like refusal to work.
Instead of saying, “Do your work”, ask them to read the directions. Listen for mispronounced words. This can be a good clue about what is keeping them from understanding. Ask them to repeat what they read in their own words to check understanding. Lead them through an example while asking questions to check their understanding. If they continue to be overwhelmed, let them copy an example or work the same problem over and over. It helps to remember the steps.
If being overwhelmed or misunderstanding isn’t the cause, try moving school outside. There are countless ways of doing this. Send the outside to read. Take your work to the park. We alternate playing with completing one subject. Integrate outside into your school. Catch bugs or take a picture on your phone) and identify it. Go fly a kite then figure out how it flies.
If doing lessons outside doesn’t help, then maybe it’s best to quit academic work for the day. In my house, these days are still productive. We clean together or do other household type chores. I don’t frame this as a punishment but rather a way to harness the power of activity to help us concentrate and improve our lives. So instead of learning multiplication, my kids may learn how to fold laundry or mop. All are valuable skills.
I also use this time to reinforce our character traits like diligence. When I decide to quit school, I would say something like, “Let’s be done for today. You are having problems staying focused. It’s ok to take a break. Let’s go outside for 20 minutes then come back in and clean.” After coming in, “We still have to work today because work keeps our home clean and tidy, so we can be well. It’s our responsibility to clean. Let’s be diligent so we can be done quickly.”
When it’s a long term problem
If trouble concentrating is a long term problem, don’t be afraid to ask for help from your doctor. Learning disorders like dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, ADD/ADHD can all manifest in very different ways (for example ADHD can manifest without hyperactivity; replacing it with impulse control issues). Only a professional can screen for them and connect you with knowledgeable therapists and useful techniques to manage and overcome the challenge.
Last, anxiety (and depression) are affecting much of our youth, but because these insidious disorders manifest quite differently in kids, most are going undiagnosed and untreated. A professional can screen your child for these mood disorders and teach both you and your child coping mechanisms and how to tweak your routine to reduce anxiety.
Every child will have times when they can’t concentrate. Don’t sweat the occasional setbacks. If it becomes a predictable pattern, talk to your doctor to explore causes and options.