If you’ve ever helped a child with their homework, you’ve probably wished you could find ways to help them focus for longer periods of time. Focusing on a task is important to a student's success. However, research shows that taking frequent breaks can also help students process and remember material better than if they just powered through without a break.
As students get older, the amount of time they spend on homework increases. By the time they’re in high school, the average student is spending more than an hour a night on homework. We might think that the best approach is for students to “focus,” stay in one place, and don’t get up until they’re done. But research has found that taking a mental break improves performance even if a task is as short as 50 minutes. This is because looking at the same material without a break actually causes the brain to stop noticing the details of the task at hand. So, staring at an algebra problem for half an hour can actually make it harder for a student to figure it out. On the other hand, stepping away from an assignment to take a quick walk or have a snack helps to restore focus on the details of a task.
If we want children to develop healthy homework habits, it’s important to teach them the importance of taking effective breaks. The key is to build breaks into homework time responsibly. It can be tempting to give children permission to step away from a project when they feel tired or when they become frustrated with an assignment. Although these are important times to take a break, students shouldn’t necessarily wait until they’re feeling negative emotions to try to relax. Instead, students should get used to working for a set period of time and taking scheduled breaks to help them stay motivated and focused throughout a project.
What’s the optimal time to work before taking a study break? Well, that all depends on the student. Some students do well with a 5-minute break every 20 minutes. Others can study for an hour or more before taking a well-earned 10-minute break. If students are working on a long-term project, like SAT/ACT prep, they might take a short break after completing a certain number of problems. This can help them stay motivated and avoid burning out during the long months of study. (For additional help with studying for standardized tests, Best Brains offers specialized SAT/ACT instruction. )
The key is to be flexible. If you notice that your child focuses well for a little while and then struggles to stay attentive to tasks, perhaps the answer is not more focus, but more effective breaks. By giving them time to refresh between tasks, you can help ensure that they’re clear-headed and ready to tackle the next project.