3 Creative Strategies for Distracted Homeschoolers

“A watched pot is slow to boil.”

It’s a saying that many of us have heard, though we may only tend to think of it when we are hungry and trying to cook spaghetti (at least that’s when it always springs to my mind.)

Be that as it may, this expression is powerful in its universality.  It can be applied to all kinds of scenarios. Often, when you are watching something for a long period of time, constantly awaiting change, it seems to take awhile before anything interesting happens.

Though this concept of the “watched pot” has been around for a long time, recent research supports the idea that our brains actually function according to a similar principal. A 2011 study out of the University of Illinois indicates that, given time and exposure to a particular sensation, external or internal, the brain will actually begin to ignore it.  Alejandro Lleras, the psychology professor who led the study, summed it up this way: “Constant stimulation is registered by our brains as unimportant.”

Lleras’ study indicated that our brains could grow used to internal stimulation as well, meaning that the more we concentrate on a particular thought, the more inclined we are to get distracted!

That’s right: your brain may literally be designed to be distracted from the things you are trying to concentrate on. Nice, right?

Distraction Pitfalls in a Homeschooling Environment

In a way, it seems that homeschooling would be the very least distracting form of education, given that there are less unwelcome distractions and many more opportunities to personalize the educational experience.  While these things are true, homeschooling still has its own pitfalls when it comes to students’  struggle with distraction. Below, you’ll find some situations that can lead to distraction for homeschoolers.

1. When “the watched pot” becomes a pressure cooker.

There is a much smaller student-to-teacher ratio in homeschooling environments, which is, in many ways, great! In fact, according to this study on distraction in education, students were typically less on task in a standard, public-school sized classroom environment than in a private school/homeschooling/smaller classroom environment. This isn’t shocking; it goes along with a great deal of other research that praises smaller student-to-teacher ratios.

However, one of the downsides to the small student-to-teacher ratio of homeschooling is that the environment can begin to feel very intense and pressured (AKA “watched”), especially if a student is already feeling distracted or struggling with a particular subject.

For instance, maybe one of your children struggles in math, and you keep trying the same curriculum/approach in a one-on-one situation. An approach that becomes too pressured, or doesn’t adjust/change, can result in the following distracted/negative patterns:

  • a student putting off the particular subject until the end of each day
  • unfinished assignments in that subject
  • an increasingly frustrated attitude (for both the homeschooling child and parent)
  • taken together, these can build some negative associations with learning and create some difficult patterns in homeschooling as whole.

2. When They’re “Independently Learning” (But You Discover They’ve Actually Been Studying the Art of Procrastination)

Homeschooling can incorporate a lot of independent study, particularly for older students. Again, this is by no means a bad thing. Many students work well independently, and being able to do so is an important life skill that often serves homeschoolers well in adulthood.

Unfortunately, independent study also puts students (particularly teens,  who are the ones most often engaging in it) at a high risk for distraction if they don’t have accountability.

For one thing, modern teens (and adults, too) are almost always multi-tasking and never without their phones.  This article in Psychology Today does a good job at explaining how the very act of being “plugged in” (as most adults and teens are), impacts both focus as well as  IQ (even without actively surfing social media or sending texts).

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t trust capable homeschoolers with independent study, but it does mean that we should first help them learn some effective, distraction-busting strategies and study skills to help them learn how to do it well.

3. When Distraction Was Always the Main Issue

Though this technically isn’t a “pitfall,” one likely reason you are reading this article is because you have a homeschooler (or more than one) who is particularly prone to distraction!

A very common reason that parents choose to homeschool is because they have a child who learns differently.  I shared a little bit about my struggle with ADD and how it was part of my mom’s “why” for homeschooling me in this post. Many homeschool parents choose this form of education for their easily-distracted children because, in many ways, it offers a less distracted environment than public school.

However, that still doesn’t make it easy to keep your ADD/ADHD child on task.

As we’ve discussed, there are pitfalls for distraction everywhere, even in homeschooling!  And if distraction has always been an issue for your child, it will likely continue to be something that he or she will need to learn how to cope with.

As a homeschooling parent, one of the best tools you can give your distraction-prone child is the ability to recognize and combat distracted tendencies. Again this is an opportunity to teach life skills hand-in-hand with academic ones. In addition to personally dealing with ADD, I’ve also tutored many students who also share this struggle. Several of the tips I’m going to share below have helped in those situations, and I hope they help you and your student(s), too.

Creative Strategies to Defeat Distraction

If, for whatever reason, your homeschooler suffers from distraction, there are definitely strategies that you can employ to keep your homeschool experience engaging and focused. The 3 strategies that I want to share today all have something in common: a creative perspective.

Creativity is all about learning to see something old in a new or unique way. As the study on distraction indicated, our minds have a natural tendency to turn “off” when they are forced to process the same sensory input, the same way, over and over again. A creative perspective, one that offers a fresh and original approach to sensory input, is a great natural remedy to distraction.

Therefore, here are 3 simple creative strategies that you can use to defeat distraction in your homeschool!

1. Taking Short “Brain Breaks” for a Fresh Outlook

It’s not as hard to get a fresh and/or creative perspective as it might seem.   The research study on the brain’s tendency towards distraction found a very simple solution to prolong focus: take a short break every once in awhile!

In the study, the control group was given a single task to focus on for 50 minutes, compared to a “switch group”  who were given the same task, over the same amount of time, but with two breaks. The outcomes demonstrated that the “switch group” performed much better in terms of memory and focus. Lleras, the professor in charge of the study, proposed that the act of “deactivating” and “reactivating” your goals is what helps you stay focused.  

Schools with smaller class sizes often use brain breaks to great effect! These breaks involve a short, creative or physical activity that can reset a student’s mindset, emotional state, and perspective.  Here are some great situations to pull out a short brain break in your homeschool:

  • Whenever a student has been working steadily/independently in a subject for 30 + minutes.
  • When switching between subjects.
  • After you’ve introduced new material and it’s been understood/processed.
  • After (or in the middle of) working with a difficult-to-understand subject/ topic.
  • Whenever there’s been conflict (emotions are high/emotional break is needed.)

You can schedule brain breaks as part of your school-time, or pull them out as needed (like in the “pressure cooker” situation described earlier). Most of the time, a brain break will only take a few minutes, but it can help students come back to the material with a fresh outlook.

This Website provides a free printable with 54 short brain break ideas that you can use for your homeschoolers. The author suggests cutting the ideas into strips that can be randomly pulled out of a jar whenever a brain break is needed.  Some really simple ideas you could use for brain breaks include:

  • A short dance party.
  • Coloring or drawing for a few minutes.
  • “Simon Says,” (for younger kids.)
  • Singing a song.
  • Exercising (timed push-ups, running in place, etc.)
  • Working with hands (playdough, kinetic sand, Legos, etc.)

2. Get in the Learning Zone: Internally and Externally

Brain breaks are a great, short pause to “deactivate and reactivate your goals” (I like that expression). However, sometimes a longer break, or different kind of shift, is needed.  Basically, I’m talking about the mental shift of getting in the productivity/learning zone. This “zone” is going to look different for each person.   There are many things you can do and try with your homeschooled student to help him/her figure out how to create the  ideal learning zone. Here are some suggestions to try:

Establish a Consistent Morning Routine 

Find a morning routine that works for you, your child/ children and your homeschool. Not every homeschool family rises at the crack of dawn. Some sleep in, and that’s ok! However, consider setting a consistent waking pattern that will get brains wired, organized, and ready to roll.

Starting with showers, breakfast and getting dressed for the day is often thought to promote a working mode much more than staying in pajamas all day, for instance.  This list of 14 things that successful people do each morning is more for adults than kids, but it still offers some great ideas to get you started! Some ideas you might consider are:

  • Drinking water first thing in the morning.
  • Exercising first thing in the morning.
  • Starting the day with gratitude (this could be family prayer time together or taking a moment at breakfast for everyone to share something positive.)
  • Starting the day with something creative.

Activate the Brain with Art

Starting the day with something creative is beneficial in more ways than one.  The above link about habits of successful people mentions that starting the day with a “personal project” (often something creative like writing or art) can create a positive pattern of productivity that you look forward to, every morning.

However, art (and drawing in particular) may also be a great way to exercise your brain, and get into a “learning zone,” first thing in the morning.  The extremely popular art instruction book, Drawing with the Right Side of the Brain, goes into detail about how the act of drawing can potentially activate both hemispheres of the brain. This is especially true as the artist gains techniques that allow him/her to start thinking differently about shapes, shadows, etc.

The author’s official Website states: “learning to draw means learning how to make a mental shift from L-mode to R-mode…this ability to shift thinking modes at will has important implications for thinking in general and for creative problem solving in particular.”

Starting the day with drawing can help your homeschool student get in the “learning zone” for other academic subjects.  If you are looking for high-quality art instruction that you can use as part of your homeschool on a daily basis, check out our programs at Sparketh.  Sparketh offers over 1000 art video lessons, as well as tracks to help your students document and keep up with his/her progress.

Create a Productive Workspace

Students can also better combat distraction when they’ve created a productive workspace that works for them.  A major pro of homeschooling is that it allows homeschoolers to have a lot of flexibility in terms of when and where and how they work. We all have work environments that work best for us as individuals. Allow your student to try learning in some different spaces and circumstances to see what helps him/her focus best.

Here are some different places you might try:

  • A homeschool room or their bedroom
  • Different rooms/places in your home
  • At the park
  • Coffee shop
  • The Library
  • The backyard

Other considerations:

  • If your student has a phone/is on social media, consider “unplugging” during school time.
  • Some people find that classical/calming music helps them focus
  • Others need as little noise as possible to concentrate.
  • You may want to use a clock/timer to keep timed breaks in mind.

3. Embrace Creative Learning Techniques

A third strategy to fight distraction is to integrate some creative learning assignments into your daily homeschool life.  Reading, summarizing and regurgitation (while necessary) all offer temptation for distraction to creep in. In contrast, engaging your homeschooler in creative assignments  requires him/her to synthesize learning in a different and original way.

This is an especially great thing to do once your homeschooled student has a fairly good grasp on a topic. It will give him/her a chance to show what they know about a subject in a fun and personal way.

Learning Styles

One thing that’s really good to keep in mind when coming up with creative assignments is your homeschooler’s learning style.  This link explains the seven most common learning styles (excerpt from link is posted below):

  • Visual (spatial):You prefer using pictures, images, and spatial understanding.
  • Aural (auditory-musical): You prefer using sound and music.
  • Verbal (linguistic): You prefer using words, both in speech and writing.
  • Physical (kinesthetic): You prefer using your body, hands and sense of touch.
  • Logical (mathematical): You prefer using logic, reasoning and systems.
  • Social (interpersonal): You prefer to learn in groups or with other people.
  • Solitary (intrapersonal): You prefer to work alone and use self-study.

While people may present a blend of learning styles, most tend to have a dominant style.  You can definitely consider your homeschooler’s learning style as you come up with creative learning assignments!

Assignment Ideas and Examples

  • For a visual learner:

    • Science/ literature or history: create a comic strip or movie poster that represents the concept or book you’ve been studying.
    • History:  draw a portrait of a historical figure, done in an art style that was popular at the time.  Sparketh has designed a course that you could use for this!
  • For the verbal/linguistic learner: 

    • History: write a week’s worth of journal entries as a famous historical person, incorporating events from his/her life.
    • Literature:  write a creative re-telling of a popular work of literature.
    • Science or mathmatics:  craft a poem or song about a concept being studied.

I hope that using these creative strategies help you and your children cope with distraction in your homeschool environment!

Before we’re totally done here, let’s go back to that ” a watched pot is slow to boil,” proverb. This expression actually comes from The Poor Richard Almanac, written by Benjamin Franklin under his pseudonym of “Poor Richard.” Benjamin Franklin was one of the great thinkers and inventors of early America.  He was also homeschooled!

Franklin is a great example of how homeschoolers can embrace chances to learn independently and creatively. (This is the guy who discovered how to conduct electricity–talk about thinking outside of the box for the time!) May you find as many ways as possible to be creative in your homeschool journey. Creativity isn’t just a great way to counteract distraction,  it’s also a wonderful approach to learning in general!

Written by Kathryn Gustafson