As we near the mid-semester mark, you’ve probably had one of those nights already. Those nights where your student, maybe despite their effort, was not quite aware of the fact that the quiz or the test was--gulp--the next day! Students have different reactions to the stress that comes with, “I messed up.” Some shut down and give up entirely. Some take it in stride and do what they can to be prepared. Some study all night, or turn into what Mr. Plummer, our Head of School, has called “a pile of goo” in his talks with 9th grade parents. This is what the teenage brain does. It misreads time. It procrastinates. It overestimates. It underestimates. It freaks out.
It helps to remember that teen or pre-teen you live with is undergoing a transformation as dramatic as learning to sit, speak, crawl forward, but not nearly as visible as those early milestones. He or she is still working to build organization, time-management, planning, and study skills that they will carry on with them to adulthood. These skills fall under an umbrella term that cognitive scientists call executive functioning. Like many other skills they exist on a continuum for each individual. Your children will be well into young adulthood before their executive functioning skills are fully developed.
We as adults do have the power to “teach” strategies and habits that will help inform the development of executive functioning skills. We can model and show students how they might manage their time and prioritize their work. Below are some things you can do at home to help your student stave off stress and adopt a routine that works for him/her and your family. Many of these tips come from publications of the National Middle School Association and others are specific to Tampa Preparatory School.
DESIGNATE A SPACE AND TIME.
Together with your student designate a space in the house for homework completion. Some students work better with a little background noise, but most do their best with relative quiet. A space near an outlet for charging the iPad may be necessary for writing assignments. Teens may want more autonomy in going to their room, and my general advice is, “I trust you are doing your homework, until you give me a reason not to.” If you know your teen tends to be distracted, then you may have to set additional limits (i.e. phone stays downstairs during homework. Homework has to be done at the kitchen table.) Even though your teen may push back, this is part of teaching him/her a life skill like how to be productive and limit distractions in a world with unlimited access to information, entertainment, and social media. Common Sense Media’s video on helping your kids to not multi-task during homework.
TALK ABOUT ROUTINES.
If needed, help your child evaluate what time is best for him/her to start homework. Do they need a snack and a break after school before starting? Do they work best when they get right to it after school? Will they need to do some of it at school before athletics? Do they spend a few minutes previewing the week ahead on Sundays? Middle school students, and many high school students, are still developing in their ability to plan effectively. Some children work much better in small chunks of time with frequent breaks. Visual timers are now available for your computer or as smart phone apps: http://www.timetimer.com/ . You can always use the good old-fashioned stopwatch or egg timer!
USE A CALENDAR.
Purchase a big monthly or even academic-year calendar to post in your home. Or create a shared “family calendar” on your mobile device to share with members of the family. Mark the dates of your family events, "no school" days, and important appointments to help your student learn to plan around and anticipate these events. Encourage your child to post his or her due dates for projects and papers on the calendar. These types of time management skills are intuitive to some learners and completely foreign to others. Even as adults, our skills vary in terms of planning ahead and using a calendar or agenda helps us to make our time visible.
PROVIDE MATERIALS FOR EFFECTIVE STUDYING.
Have some real paper, pencils, highlighters, colored pens, flashcards, and a timer on hand for study sessions. Your student should be using active study strategies at home. Rehearsing, quizzing themselves, creating flashcards, designing study guides (on paper or on their iPad), taking new notes on top of old notes; these are all active strategies that help us encode information into memory. Studying in small chunks in advance (spaced repetition) is much better for the brain than several hours the night before. If your student needs structured expectations for studying, we coach students to plan two to three 15-20 minute study sessions before a quiz and four to five of those 15-20 minute sessions before a test. Then they should adjust this formula based on whether their efforts yielded the results they wanted or not.
HELP YOUR STUDENT LEARN TO PROBLEM-SOLVE.
Self-advocacy is one of the most important skills you can instill in your student before s/he leaves for college. Help your students see the steps in problem solving when they are stuck. Don’t rescue them. Give them the tools to rescue themselves. The first step might be to re-read the directions to the assignment. Second, phone a friend in the class. Third, have they crafted an email to the teacher? Even in middle school, we try to build self-advocacy. Ideally, the students themselves should be emailing their teachers when they have questions about assignments, not moms, dads, tutors or grandparents. Some children may need some help with thinking about "what to say" to the teacher.
EASE STRESS & ANXIETY.
Tampa Prep is academically rigorous. Still, often students have a hard time recognizing that teachers here care more about the process of learning than the final product or the grade. There will be some nights when they forget an essential material, or complete something incorrectly, and that is all part of learning. Help your student do the best s/he can, then minimize stress by putting the problem in perspective and moving on to activities he or she enjoys. If your students are spending too much time on homework, ask them to talk to the teacher about how much time they should be spending on assignments before putting them aside. You can always give your student’s advisor a heads up that your child is on overload. In Upper School, students who take several AP classes often have difficulty balancing the workload with having time for family and things they enjoy. Talk to your child about self-care, taking breaks, and creating a balanced schedule.
KNOW WHEN TO STAND BACK.
In adolescence, homework and studying can become a major point of tension and frustration between parents and children. It's a time for adolescents to find independence with schoolwork and learn that making mistakes is learning. They should learn how to take risks and how to ask for help from their teachers when they are truly confused. Homework is supposed to be independent work. Naturally, some students need support to learn how to manage and approach homework, but if you are doing the homework with your child, or revising his or her work, it does not tell teachers anything about the process/quality of his/her independent learning.
KNOW THAT YOU'RE PART OF A TEAM AT TAMPA PREP.
If your student struggles consistently with homework and studying, please communicate with your student’s advisor or teacher. We can help you assess the situation and figure out what strategies might help.
Wishing your family a happy school year!