Nuts and Bolts of Working With Your Child

I have received an overwhelming number of questions from parents asking about the nuts and bolts of how they should work with their children. These parents have age-appropriate printable worksheets, they know what developmental areas they want to work on with their child, but they just are not sure how to get started.

These are great questions! During the next 3 weeks, I will address the following questions:

  1. When, where, how frequently and for how long should I work with my child?
  2. How can I get the most out of the time I spend with my child?
  3. How can I minimize my own frustrations and anxiety about my child’s progress (or lack thereof)?

When, where, how frequently and for how long should I work with my child?

It is important to choose a quiet place with a comfortable and appropriate workspace. This could be a dining room table, the kitchen counter, a small table for your child, or your personal desk.

If your living arrangement permits, consider finding a place in your home that you can use only when working with your child. That way, when you sit together in that area, your child will know it is time to focus and work productively – as opposed to wondering if he’s about to eat a snack. If your home doesn’t allow for such a single-purposed quiet area, consider clearing the entire counter or table before you begin working, so you can minimize distractions for your child.

Young children thrive on routines. So, you will likely experience the greatest success with your child by establishing a fairly consistent schedule of work times that is repetitive from day to day. With a routine, your child will learn to anticipate when a learning session will occur and will be ready and eager to focus on the activities at that time.

In creating your routine, take advantage of various times during the day when your child’s energy and attention span are greatest. For most children, this may be after a meal or snack, first thing in the morning or after a nap.

How Frequently
I recommend incorporating two or three relatively short learning sessions into each day. In this way, your child can concentrate on one skill during each short session instead of trying to switch gears during a longer learning session that tries to include more than one activity.

For example, in the morning before breakfast, have your child complete a visual discrimination worksheet or two. Then, play a rhyming game with your child after lunch.  Before bedtime, pull out the scissors and let your child complete a cutting activity. Highlighting a different activity and developmental area for each learning session will also help to keep things interesting and fun.

To maximize your child’s progress and rate of achievement, I also suggest working with your child at least five days a week and ideally seven days a week. First, by making it fun, it won’t truly feel like “work” for you or your child. It will just be fun time that you spend together with your child each day. Second, by working with your child with such regularity, it will be easier for him to carry knowledge over from one learning session to the next.

Also, since the length of each learning session normally will never exceed 20 minutes (and will normally take 5-15 minutes – more on that to come), even two learning sessions a day will easily fit into any schedule.

How Long
When you first begin working with your child, start with a very short time period for each session. Working in shorter, more frequent sessions is recommended for three main reasons.

  • A child’s attention span is limited. By offering several short work periods, you can take advantage of the multiple times each day when your child is most focused and able to learn.
  • Understanding the busy schedules many parents and children have, it is easier to fit in several shorter times each day than it is to block off a longer period of time.
  • As your child grows, his attention span will naturally increase as he becomes increasingly comfortable with the activities you present. And, as his attention span lengthens, you can gradually increase the length of each session.

I know from experience that working alongside a child for 5 – 10 minutes, offering undivided attention, support and encouragement, far exceeds any benefits gained by allowing him to work on an activity or with certain materials for an hour or longer unsupervised. In fact, allowing your child to work independently can actually increase his frustrations and hinder his progress as he may be unaware of his mistakes.

As a basic guideline, based on my experience working with children of this age range, I suggest the following time frames for each activity session:

Length of learning session by age of child: 2.5 - 3 years | 5 - 7 minutes, 3 - 4 years | 7 - 15 minutes, 4 - 5 years | 15 - 25 minutes

When working with your child, be aware that it is normal for attention spans to vary from session to session or from day to day. At the first sign your child is becoming distracted or restless, assess your child’s interest level:

  • Is he bored by a certain activity that may be too basic or too challenging?
  • Is he frustrated by a lack of success?
  • Is he genuinely tired, hungry, or preoccupied with a different issue?

If you believe he is bored or frustrated, consider stopping the current activity and introducing a different one.

If you think he may be genuinely tired, hungry, or preoccupied with a different issue, I suggest you immediately begin to conclude the learning session. As soon as children disengage from an activity, the learning stops. They may passively continue to work or, more likely, allow you to finish the activity for them, but it is unlikely that your child will benefit from this type of passive work.  Then, when your child is well rested, try to reintroduce the activity. Often a short break is all children need to recoup and re-energize.

More to come next week

Next week I will focus on ways to encourage your child’s success and minimize his frustrations as you work together with him. I will discuss simple tricks to keeping an active child engaged in learning and easy ways to ensure your child stays relaxed while learning skills.

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