While Kindergarten in public schools generally starts at age 5 or 6, many homeschoolers choose to begin some type of academics much earlier with their children. While every schoolteacher knows that the early elementary years are synonymous with short attention spans for many kids, homeschoolers also have the added excitement of trying to involve children as young as two. Fortunately, homeschooling offers the flexibility to accommodate the wide range of focusing ability that children bring to the table, whether the result of age, maturity, or special needs. Here are some simple tips for keeping children engaged:
1. Start with a good breakfast. Nutrition affects every aspect of how we function. Researchers at the University of Washington found that hyperactive children who ate a protein-rich meal performed as well as (or better than) non-hyperactive students who did not have the meal. Likewise, numerous studies have demonstrated that there is a strong link between a good breakfast and student performance. Providing a protein rich breakfast is a simple way to set children up for success in focusing, concentrating, and performing well academically. So avoid the sugar cereals or other empty carbohydrates in the morning (or at all!), and serve up some eggs or yogurt.
2. Follow a schedule, or at least some type of a general routine. For many kids, it is helpful to write out the schedule so he/she can follow along throughout school time. Students who struggle with paying attention benefit from structure and routine; from knowing what comes next. A schedule provides predictability and also serves to let children know when they will be finished – when they no longer have to maintain their concentration.
3. Plan academic work in short snippets of time. Rather than trying to spend 45 minutes on a Math lesson, give a 5-minute explanation of a Math concept and then move on to something else. Come back later to work on Math problems that allow the child to practice what you discussed earlier. Again, keep the practice to a short period of time. This technique works well for other things, such as piano practicing. Rather than trying to push through a 30-minute piano practice session, break the practice up into 5 or 10 minute increments throughout the day.
4. Change location. Everyone gets bored with staying in the same place for long periods of time. A great benefit of homeschooling is that you can do work anywhere. Change the place that you do each subject; Start with Math on the dining room table, then move to the living room couch for Reading, then downstairs to the computer for a video, then back up to the kitchen for a Science experiment. Simply by changing the child’s environment, you can increase his interest and attention in what you are studying.
5. Keep it active. Some academic work just has to be done at a table, there’s no doubt. But to keep children engaged, intersperse times of working at a desk with learning tasks that require the student to move around. This generally requires some creativity on the part of the parent; playing charades to guess vocabulary words, or review games where the child is chased around the room and has to reach “base” when he guesses the right answer, to avoid being tickled, can make learning any subject a blast for children. Also, some kids are able to focus more effectively when they are standing or moving around, so consider allowing the child to listen while swinging on the swingset or rocking in a rocking chair.
6. Use art to your advantage. Children love to be creative, so harness this interest to your advantage! Many children, even as young as 2 or 3, can listen to a brief story about history, if they are coloring a picture that relates to the information being shared. Consider giving your child paper and crayons and having him or her draw the science concept, or paint a picture of a story that was just read. For coloring pages of all types, check out DLTK’s Growing Together, Edupics.com, Crayola.com, Freeprintablecoloringpages.net, Activity Village, or Apples4theteacher.com. Or simply put the item for which you would like to find a coloring page into Google’s search box, and click on "images" to the left of all the search items that appear. You can often find black and white images that will work for coloring this way.
7. Try out different media. Everyone knows that books are the foundation of academic learning, but too many workbooks and textbooks can become boring for children. Think about changing up your materials and interspersing a variety of vehicles for learning into your curricula to add interest and keep attention. For example, check out Youtube videos on just about any academic subject for brief, interesting supplemental material. Create a lapbook or collage on a certain topic. Check out videos related to your subject topic from your local library, or let your child try out an educational website (Starfall.com, for example, is an excellent interactive website for beginning readers). Even the iPad and smart phones have applications specifically developed for children’s learning!
Stay tuned for more tips to keep children engaged in part 2 of this series!
 Taras, H. (2005, August). Nutrition and Student Performance at School. Journal of School Health 75.6. p. 199 (15).
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