It is commonly agreed that taking a break increases efficiency and productivity in all tasks. Revision is one such task where we generally understand that taking breaks can be helpful, but what should those breaks look like, how often and for how long should we take them and which activities are most restorative?
How long should we expect children to concentrate for?
It is generally understood that an adult’s optimal concentration decreases after 90 minutes, but for children especially those with executive function challenges this can be much shorter. Teachers are trained to never have any classroom activity last for more than 20 minutes. As a rule of thumb, most parents are taught that children should only be expected to concentrate for as many minutes as they are years old and this can be a helpful tool to manage expectations. I personally do not expect my students under 13 to concentrate on one task for more than 10 minutes, with some older students or those on medication sometimes being able to concentrate for a maximum of 20 minutes on one task.
So should I give my child a break every 10 minutes?
Not at all, shifting to another task allows a child to shift focus and start a new concentration period. For children under 13, I suggest 4 x 10 minute activities followed by a break. For older children, 4 x 20 minutes is plenty in one sitting. Back in 1953, Nathaniel Kleitman – physiologist the university of Chicago discovered that the body worked in Ultradian rhythms of 90 minutes, in my view this understanding still stands and is an excellent reason for adults and older children to keep revision sessions to around 90 minutes before having a break. All this said, each child is different so talk to your child, be prepared to try out different strategies and work out with them what rhythm of revision works best for them.
How long should I allow for a break?
This depends on how long it takes for them to feel restored. Most schools recommend 10 – 15 minute breaks, with a longer break for lunch. Nathaniel Kleitman recommended 20 minute breaks. Experiment with different lengths of breaks until you find a time at when your child is refreshed and able return to work ready to start again.
What are the most restorative activities to do during a break?
These days most of us gravitate towards social media during our breaks. Whilst connecting with our peer group and family can be restorative, it is often better done face to face if possible. Exercise is often heralded an excellent restorative activity; in a recent study at Princeton University they found that exercise releases the neurotransmitter GABA, which has a calming effect on the brain. Being with nature can also be important, indeed a recent paper in the Journal for Attention Disorders offered proof that a walk in the park was more restorative for children with attention deficits than a walk in any other environment. Other restorative activities include short naps, or short periods of meditation – I find the OMM app for one minute meditation an excellent resource.
We advise you to break revision down into small chunks, liaise with your child to help them workout their own concentration/productivity rhythm, and encourage them to take regular breaks of about 20 minutes: a walk in the park or the countryside has been proved to be the most effective activity to do on a break.
Mrs Victoria Bagnall, MA (Cantab), PGCE.
Parents want to do their best to support their children at all times, particularly during exam times, but it can be hard to know what and how much to do, especially when they can be grumpy and rude. There are some key things to remember and top tips here.
- Scaffold the young person’s life – this may well be happening anyway, but making sure that the structures and scaffolds of family life are securely in place during this time is important. This means having clear bedtimes, meal times, periods of quiet for studying etc. Routines make children feel safe and secure but supporting the brain and body with regularity is also going to be really helpful at this time. So now is not the time to have house parties, be absent as a parent or suggest all night box-set binges!
- Communication: Think carefully about what you say and how you say things to the young person. For example, try to make sure you always ask how the child is generally and focus on things they value before asking “what are you going to revise today?”. Use open-ended questions (“do you have a plan for how you are going to spend your day?”) rather than closed-ended questions (“are you going to do any revision today or just sit on your phone all day?”, with sarcasm). Show empathy for their situation (“it must be hard to have to work during your holiday period”) rather than disdain (“everyone else in the world does this too, you are not so special”).
- Watch your own emotions: we all want our children to do as well as they can in exams, particularly national exams, when stakes are high. This can raise our own emotions as we feel increasingly anxious about how they will do and frustrated by them not always seeming to do their best. We need to take time out when feeling overwhelmed and not pass on our anxiety or irritation to the young person as this will not help them. Be aware of your own bodily sensations and practice self-regulation and taking time out when feeling stressed. Notice thoughts you have that trigger feelings of stress (“he’s never going to get the right grades at this rate and then won’t get a good job and will end up homeless”). This is time when we can tend to catastrophize and over-generalise. Despite our desire to act when our children are stressed, what we really need to do is be truly responsive and listen to what they need. The more you are able to tune into how they are feeling, the more connected they will feel to you which they need more than ever right now. If a child feels like you are sensitive to their needs they are also more likely to be responsive to your advice.
Most importantly, remember that the results of these exams will not be the only determinant of the child’s success in life. Every child and young person will learn and grow just from taking part in the exams and offering an open space for reflection whatever the outcome is what counts.
Bettina Hohnen, Clinical Psychologist
It is revision time in the UK, with many children facing internal and national examinations in the next few months. Here at Connections in Mind we have been reviewing the research evidence for the best revision strategies so our coaches can provide the best advice to students at this busy time. The evidence is surprising as many of the strategies students turn to have a poor evidence base for being effective ways to learn and commit information to memory.
Three key strategies are the winners when it comes to revising and they all fit with what we know about how the brain works. The following have been shown to be the top three ways to learn information:
- Distributed learning – also known as the spacing effect, is most effective. This means learning information more than once and distributed over a period of time. Cramming is not the best way to learn as things get quickly forgotten. The forgetting curve (see table) shows us that information is quickly forgotten and needs refreshing. The spaces between each ‘refresh’ can increase as the information becomes more embedded. So learning something on day 1 and then refreshing on day 3, then 7, then 20 is a sure way to learn. This fits with what we know about brain circuits needing reinforcing to strengthen and increase in efficiency.
- Testing is best – the fluency illusion is the term used to describe the fact that we often have a false confidence about what we know. Students can read through something and think “oh I know that” but when tested, they don’t remember as well. Testing has been shown to be the most effective studying technique to commit things to memory. Unfortunately, testing is loaded with negative connotations and students’ sense of self is often tied up with how well they did on tests. However, kids testing themselves on material learned, without the associated link to how ‘clever’ or not they are, is one of the most effective ways to learn.
- Mixed drill practice – mixing up your practice within subjects such as maths and science is important. For example, in maths, rather than doing a whole page of fractions, mixing up a fraction question with a simultaneous equations questions with a BIDMAS question is best. This prepares the brain for the unexpected and encourages students to recall the strategy or technique independently.
Some of the strategies known and loved by students have been shown by research to have low impact on learning and remembering.
- Re-reading – reading is a passive activity that has been shown to be an ineffective strategy for later recall. Perhaps reading something through once to familiarise yourself with the topic at the beginning of revision is helpful, but re-reading over and over again is not the best way to use your time.
- Highlighting and underlining – this can be helpful as a first step towards further more detailed study but it won’t be a good way to actually learn that information for later testing.
- Summarising – summarising is a skill that takes quite a bit of practice to get right. At the beginning of the learning process it can be helpful if done correctly and with support, but as a learning strategy it is also not a good use of time.
The take home messages:
Executive functioning skills are going to be key to ensuring your child is most effective in their revision and are therefore able to use time most effectively to not only do well, but also to have time off to relax and stay calm during the examination period. Skills to support are:
- Planning – having a good plan for each topic which ensures each subject is covered and they are reviewed a few times with increasing periods of time in-between sessions.
- Organisation – having access to testing questions and past papers will be crucial for enabling that all important ‘testing’ session at the end of each block of revision.
- Time management – this is such an important skill when revising to make sure sessions are started and finished on time. Breaks are as important as study sessions and sleep is crucial as this is when the brain consolidates memories. So without sleep the information may not stick!
Many other executive skills will be drawn on at this time, most notably emotional regulation which will enable the young person to stay calm and keep focused in the moment.
The answer to this question is simple – all students can benefit from input across childhood and adolescence. Childhood and adolescence present an opportunity to embed strong skills early on that are the foundation for success in later life (Dawson and Guare, 2009).
Studies have shown that executive skills keep developing through adolescence until they fully mature in early adulthood (Best et al., 2009). During the early years, there is particularly rapid developmental change, but much of the development of executive skills happens gradually over time, as is demonstrated by studies that show that children perform better on executive function tasks beyond early childhood (Miller and Best, 2010).
Supporting children to practice and strengthen their executive skills during childhood can prevent them from facing challenges later in their school careers when they are required to be independent learners and to manage their own workload. For some students, it is not until they are in secondary school when more demands are placed on their executive functions that it becomes evident that they require extra support.
All students can benefit from our executive skills workshops that help children to understand how their brains work, how it effects their learning and behaviour and how they can use this information to revise, complete homework and manage everyday life. However, there are some groups of students for whom more intensive support to develop good executive skills can be critical in helping them to reach their potential.
These children and young people with executive skills challenges are often bright and able, but just can’t manage their daily lives. These children are often seen as lazy and unmotivated and adults become increasingly frustrated by their apparent difficulty in doing the ‘basic things’ in life. Problems with task initiation, time management, planning and organisation, shifting and task monitoring can have a significant impact both academically and behaviourally. The result can be a young person who is isolated from adults around them and achieving well below their potential in school.
There is also a well-established link between poverty and EF deficits, which can translate into students experiencing the challenges described above and displaying behavioural issues linked to the executive function inhibitory control. Children from low socio-economic status backgrounds can benefit from additional support to strengthen their EF skills.
Best JR, Miller PH, Jones LL. Executive functions after age 5: Changes and correlates. Developmental Review. 2009;29:180–200.
Best, J. R., & Miller, P. H. (2010). A Developmental Perspective on Executive Function. Child Development, 81(6), 1641–1660. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01499.x
P. Dawson & R. Guare. (2009). Smart But Scattered: The Revolutionary “Executive Skills” Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Potential. New York: The Guildford Press
One of the key functions of the pre-frontal cortex of the human brain is to facilitate planning and prioritising and goal persistence. These skills are essential for being able to master everything from the basic requirements of life such as making a sandwich, to more complex activities such as revising for exams and learning to drive.
Children with executive function deficits often struggle with these skills and they feel like they are being pulled along by the tide, helpless and overwhelmed against the current of homework, exams and chores that they are never quite on top of. Respite often comes in the form of activities that are unpopular with parents such as watching countless youtube videos and playing video games.
One of the crucial strategies of an EF coach is to help children with EF deficits to set achievable goals and to stick to them. Goals can help children to regain a sense of autonomy and to feel more in control of what is required of them to succeed at school and home. Studies have found that setting goals increase motivation and academic achievement. An EF coach supports a child to generate their goals ensuring they are specific and achievable to avoid disappointment and frustration.
However just setting goals is not enough. We are all familiar with enthusiastically committing in January to go to the gym more, and then finding ourselves in July with an underused gym membership. To help children to persist the role of the coach is to regularly be helping the child to connect the dots between what happens today, tomorrow, next month and next year. Studies have found that providing feedback is essential in helping people to pursue goals. The coach acts as a mirror, helping the child to evaluate their actions and to consider them in the context of their goals.
In the words of one 15-year-old young man with a diagnosis of ADHD, ‘I set goals because I won’t do it otherwise. I have tonnes of work, setting daily goals helps me to know where I am, it makes life manageable.’
In order to help children then sustain motivation, the daily grind also needs to be connected to the bigger picture.
Thinking about the bigger goals helps me do the small things. For example, the subjects I picked: I am bad at physics, but I carry on because it is something to work towards in the future because I want to be an engineer’.
Researchers have also found that what can make the difference between reaching a goal and not, is taking the time to consider the obstacles and developing alongside a goal a rule for what to do when the obstacles present themselves. This process which is referred to as mental contrasting has been found to help people stop smoking, reduce eating and improve grades. For example, implementing this strategy could look like identifying that what prohibits a child from getting started on homework when they get home from school is the temptation of the television, and then deciding that their rule will be that they never watch television before 5 pm every evening.
Parents can also learn from these insights and incorporate them within interaction with their child. It can be frustrating for parents when a child’s actions are holding them back, but coaxing and reminding can often quickly turn into nagging and a child stops engaging. Parents can instead consider sitting down with their child and working with them to come up with realistic goals. In helping children to identify possible barriers it can be useful for adults to give examples of areas they have struggled with in life. To get the balling rolling external incentives can sometimes be useful and then more often than not when a child sets a goal and reaches it, the taste of success (which can be rare for children struggling with executive functions), leads to intrinsic motivation kicking in!
Give it a go and let us know how you get on.
Helping Children Succeed – Paul Tough https://hilt.harvard.edu/files/hilt/files/settinggoals.pdf http://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/ayelet.fishbach/research/Feedback_Frontiers.pdf