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When Your Student Mentally Checks Out
We’ve all seen those looks: the glazed-over eyes, the dulled expressions, the partly-concealed yawns. Let’s face it, sometimes our children just “check out” during the school day.
What is a homeschool parent to do?
Charlotte Mason gave great advice for those situations.
“When a child grows stupid over a lesson, it is time to put it away. Let him do another lesson as unlike the last as possible, and then go back with freshened wits to his unfinished task” (Home Education, p. 141).
So let’s say Joey is working on his math assignment. When he started, he was giving it his full attention, but now you can see that he is losing momentum. His eyes dart to the window, the floor, his pencil, the clock. He starts examining the pencil more closely and tries balancing it on his finger.
Now, if he is almost done with the assignment, you may be able to simply call his attention back to his lesson and set the timer to add some incentive to finish up. But if you see that glazed-over look in his eyes when he is only part-way through, and you know he is beginning to mentally check out, it’s time to do what Charlotte recommended.
Set the math assignment aside and do something totally different—a lesson that uses a different part of Joey’s brain. You might do a picture study or go outside for nature study or call him over to the couch to listen to a poem and draw a picture of it. Try to choose an assignment that is on your schedule for today anyway. You want to continue to get things done; just switch up the order a little bit.
Don’t think that Joey is getting out of his math assignment. He’s not. Once he finishes the totally-different assignment, come back to his math and have him work on it again. Most likely, he will find that the mental cobwebs have cleared and he is able to give it his full attention once more.
Sometimes parents think that a break is the only way to regain a student’s attention. But a free-for-all break is not always necessary. A simple change can accomplish the same purpose much of the time.
The key is to pick something totally different from what he was doing when he checked out. Remember, Charlotte described it as, “do another lesson as unlike the last as possible.” Here’s why.
When a person uses one part of his brain for an extended time, that one part wearies. The more the person tries to use it, the more difficult the work becomes. That part of the brain is fatigued and needs rest. By switching to an assignment that uses a different part of the brain all together, you allow the fatigued part to rest; and when the person comes back to the original lesson later, he finds that part of his brain is ready to work again.
By simply switching to a different lesson, you accomplish two very important things. First, you teach the student that dawdling over a lesson does not earn him some discretionary free time. The more often we take that approach, the more it will become a habit. Second, you keep the momentum of your school day going. Granting breaks and then trying to round everybody up again can wreak havoc on a homeschool morning.
Those of you with older children, who are doing a lot of their work independently, may want to let them in on this little “secret.” Tip them off that if they start getting bogged down in one assignment, they should try switching to another assignment that uses a different part of the brain, then returning to the first one. They may be surprised at how revitalized and refreshed they feel.
Give it a try next time a student begins to mentally check out.
Sometimes a change is as good as a break.
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Very helpful, thank you!
Just one problem with multiple children: I can’t switch to nature study / poetry / Picture study, because this is Family work and I don’t want to interrupt all the other children because of one.
Yes, you don’t want to interrupt everyone on account of just one student. So in that case, try switching the student to another individual assignment that uses a different part of the brain. You might switch from working with words to working with numbers, or switch from handwriting practice to typing practice, or maybe even have that child go do one of her assigned household chores and then come back.
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