Just when you think you have this whole back-to-school routine down to a finely oiled machine, you get a note from a teacher informing you of missing homework. All those innocent claims of “I’m doing my homework!” shouted from behind a closed bedroom door might not have been – in the strictest sense – lies. We live in distracting times. Turn on a computer and the option to watch Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime make perfect sense over the prospect of writing a book report. We know all too well, just how easy it is to lose hours to wildly entertaining procrastination.
Take a proactive approach and create a homework space in a place in the house that it’s easy to keep an eye on. Set up snacks, beverages, guidelines, and study-conducive technology to make that space turn what might have been hours of procrastination into an hour of productivity.
Find a Space
Maybe you have room for a desk in the family room. Maybe your only convenient space is the kitchen or dining room table. Perhaps you can find a spot to stash the ergonomic and compact Edge Desk in a corner or closet. Your supplies might take up a shelf or they might fit in a Tupperware box. It doesn’t matter as long as you set it up in advance so you don’t spend half the homework hour gathering pencils, tablets, a laptop, and paper. A lot of studying, writing, practice, and reading happens on the same screen these days, though, so you might want to consider adding a nice power strip to the homework space so everything is easy to keep charged.
Install a Router with Parental Controls
It isn’t your kids’ fault that the Internet is so distracting. It happens to all of us. You open a browser to look up something important and find yourself – an hour later – watching the myriad ways cats leap — hysterically — into the air. The Amped Wireless Ally Router, Luma Whole Home Wi-Fi router, Google Wi-Fi router or the Circle with Disney router accessory can solve this. Use the built-in parental controls to block everything your student can access from any of their devices that does not encourage the doing of homework. Choose a clear starting time and duration for the homework hour. And then let the technology enforce it. Block Netflix. Allow Wikipedia. Block Hulu. Allow the Khan Academy. You can add to the distraction and to the educational apps that are blocked or allowed as the year goes on and your needs evolve.
A time limit
Spending too much time on homework can be counterproductive. Some kids love to study. For others, an afternoon spent in front of lessons when the outdoors is going to waste, is torture. So set a time limit. “People work in containers,” explains Dr. Kenneth Goldberg, clinical psychologist and author of The Homework Trap. “We go to school for five hours. We go to work for eight. But a homework-trapped student has to do homework until it is done or everyone is too exhausted to care.” Eventually procrastination becomes a survival skill and nothing gets done. An hour drags into many and fighting ensues. It can destroy family life and sap everyone’s free time. So, to make this time productive, make it finite. (Unless your student wants to keep working. There is nothing wrong with that.) “Set a fixed amount of time for homework,” says Goldberg. “Ten minutes per class is a good amount.” If that’s not enough to get the work done, consider discussing it with the teacher.
Set up a Tablet Loaded with Apps
Similarly, a standard phone or tablet can be distracting by offering games or other distractions at the tap of a finger. Create a tablet – or at least a page on a tablet – that has on it only apps that are useful to the homework: A calculator, games that reinforce math facts, Khan Academy, BrainPop, online tutors, and other tools that encourage the mind to stay on the task at hand. (Check back here for more apps you to install on this tablet.)
Even going to Google to find an answer can be a distraction. But asking Google – out loud – for the answer you need can be very helpful to students – and writers (like yours truly) – doing research. Google Home can sit on the desk, ready to provide exactly the needed answer. The Amazon Echo can do the same thing. But Google Home taps Google search for answers. While Amazon’s Alexa searches Bing.
Shut off the cell phone
Snapchat, texting, hilarious cat videos, and all the sites you blocked on Wi-Fi to improve focus are still available through the data connection on your student’s cell phone. So either disable or remove that thing for homework hour. Your cell phone service provider offers a way to shut off the data plan or cell phone service altogether for an hour, every day at the same time, or right now until you decide to turn it back on. I subscribe to AT&T’s Smart Limits ($5 a month) to control the signal to my daughter’s phone. From an app on my phone, I can quickly set schedules for bed time or homework hour, or just turn off her phone — right now. Verizon offers a similar service called Family Safeguards and Control. T-Mobile offers Family Allowances.
This technology is a gift to parenting. Take advantage of it. It is as invaluable to this homework hour as it is to bedtime, moments of horrifying backtalk, and all manner of advanced rule breaking. Just establish a time of day that homework hour starts and set cell service to shut off a few minutes in advance. Your student will probably show up ready to work in order to get that service back.
Noise Cancelling Headphones
All over corporate America, a vast experiment in open work spaces is underway. It was intended to improve collaboration. But it was a huge hit to personal quiet space and solo productivity. It also provided a boost to the over-ear, noise-cancelling headphone industry. On the plus side, many workers discovered that there is nothing like the kind of focus you get when you don a good pair of headphones and queue up the right music. (What’s right is, of course, a personal choice.) Consider adding a pair of these to your homework space. If your home is full of ambient distractions, it might be just the thing. It will eliminate interruptions from siblings, ambient noise, and whatever else is going on in your family’s world. I’m a big fan of the affordable Plantronics Backbeat 500. Or, if it’s just quiet you want, noise-cancelling ear plugs work. Jenn swears by the ultra-affordable DUBS Noise-Cancelling Music Ear plugs.
A Great Note-Taking App
Taking notes in class is one of the best ways to retain what happens there. Having those notes already on your homework computer, when you get home from school is one of the brilliant conveniences of growing up in the information age. OneNote, part of the Microsoft Office Suite, takes notes via photo, audio recording, handwriting, or by typing. And it organizes them into familiar notebooks. It syncs with your computer so that notes taken in the phone app are at your desk when you sit down. (I rely on it.) Livescribe is a smart pen that records audio while you write so you never miss a word of that class lecture. Evernote has apps for every operating system so you can store notes online and get them wherever you are. Nebo lets you write — with a stylus– directly on your (compatible) tablet and turns your handwriting into editable text.
A Connection to the Teacher
Your first impulse when setting up a digital homework space might be to shut out social media because it can be a huge distraction. But your approach to social tools will require some nuance. It’s possible that the class’s Facebook study group is the best way to find out about the homework, ask the teacher a question, or get some help with a finer points of a science lecture. That class social connection might also happen via Class Dojo, Skype (which is out in an entirely new version), Study Blue, or some other social tool conducive to online collaboration and learning. Ask your student.
Just because we live in an era of seriously cool educational innovation doesn’t mean great snacks are obsolete. Popcorn is the perfect homework snack. It’s light enough not to spoil your dinner and always delicious. Make popcorn for homework hour and the smell of it will imbue the entire experience with a pleasant visceral response. If you spray the butter on with the Biem Butter sprayer, which heats a stick of butter to perfection and sprays an even light coating, your snacks will be as nerdy as your homework tools. Or, even easier, sign up for a healthy snack delivery service such as Graze and combine homework with snack exploration.