When we buy a fancy piece of electronics or machinery, it generally comes with instructions. If it’s particularly complicated like a motor vehicle – we even need to be licensed to use it. The most complex, sophisticated and powerful tool in the world is the human brain – yet where’s the instruction manual?
As kid are developing throughout their schooling years, one of the most important functions to operate this fantastic piece of machinery, is to learn how to switch between 3 seperate buttons:
- WORK MODE
- REST MODE AND
- PLAY MODE.
Imagine if it was as simple as switching one of these buttons and our brain would just follow. It would be great but the reality is most people never learn to control which mode their brain is in – at least not very well. Most peoples brain switched to play mode when it should be on work mode, so they put things off and have to cram at the last minute. Then it has to switch to work mode when it should be in rest mode. And because they don’t get proper rest, they end up playing when they should be working and so the cycle continues.
After having worked with so many kids from primary through to high school, I can report one very obvious observation. If these self-discipline skills are not down pat at a young age (ideally not later than around year 5-6) then it becomes harder and harder to train them with each passing year beyond that. It’s easier to get a kid in year 3 to do their homework than it is to get a kid in year 8 to do their homework.
I’ve assessed enough kids and spoken to enough parents to know the predictable pattern:
Years 3-4: “Yes they do their homework fine. They get a bit distracted easily but otherwise no problem.”
Years 5-6: “They seem to have lost a bit of confidence since years 3-4 and they hardly ever take the initiative to do their homework unless I give them constant reminders.”
Year 7-8: “Since they’ve gone into high school it becomes a wresting match to get them to do homework. I think they need to learn some time management skills and get organised because they’re leaving everything to the last minute.”
Year 9-10: “They get really overwhelmed easily and seem to have given up. They’ve got more assignments than ever but seem to have less motivation than ever.”
You know what I really wished? That the parents of kids in years 3-4 could hear from the parents of those in year 9-10 more often to trace the predictable pattern we see day in day out.
THE SIMPLEST SELF-DISCIPLINE HACK
So what’s the simplest way to teach young learners how to reach inside and control the WORK switch so that they can take the initiative to study in between school classes?
The answer is to have an opening and closing routine.
Consider this. When athletes run out onto a field – they don’t start playing straight away. They stop to sing the national anthem. When religious people sit down for dinner – they don’t start digging in the moment the food is on the table, they start by saying grace. Throughout any culture, any people who have anything important at all, always have some kind of ritual to open and close – especially to open. It is simply a way to switch the brain into a new mode.
So when it comes to homework time – here’s what you DON’T want to do.
- DON’T just go and study whenever you’re ready.
- DON’T study in the same place as you would play or rest.
- DON’T make it all about the study topic and forget your physical and mental state.
- DON’T open a study routine with something different each time.
So what should a good opening routine include then?
- The first thing is to have a predicable time to get started. That doesn’t mean that if you miss the time you should avoid it completely and wait until next time. But the closer it is in time each time, the more it becomes engrained as routine.
- The second is to have a particular place to study which is different. If you sit in a particular chair to play games or watch TV – choose a different chair to study. Or at least a different position to put the chair. Out brains become conditioned to repetition, so if you’re trying to study in bed (where you rest) or study in the same room or table or seat where you play games, then the brain signal becomes scrambled.
- Once you sit down in your study place to get started, don’t just go into study straight away. Take a moment to adjust your posture. Sit with both feet flat on the floor. Sit back in your chair with your shoulders back and chin up. Take a few deep breaths and clear hands of all fidget distractions. Take a moment to close your eyes and tell yourself something positive to get your mind primed to focus and feel more confident.
- When you’re studying, your brain is in problem solving mode. It has to consider lots of variables and think hard. The best way to create a conditioning routine is to go through a series of steps that are predetermined. That is, all you need to do is remember to do the steps – not have to figure anything out. The simple example we use at our Tutoring Baulkham Hills Centre is as follows:
- Take a seat
- Clear everything off the table except your book and pen
- Open to a new fresh page
- Write the heading of the class (whether it be Comprehension, Writing or Maths) and todays date.
- Clear everything out of hands – ideally hands flat on table.
- Sit back up straight and take deep breaths – look teacher directly in the eye.
- When everyone is ready, teacher will shake hands and say hello.
As you can see, the steps don’t need to be complicated – in fact, quite the opposite. Without doing this, the lesson is likely to not start off with a calm sense of discipline, and once it’s opened without discipline, it becomes much more difficult to get the discipline back later on.
The only other suggestion I’d make after this point is to spend a moment reflecting back on what was learned last lesson. And then come up with a plan about what will be achieved this particular lesson or study session. This helps to connect the dots and tell the brain that this learning process has momentum which makes it easier to keep going – kind of like one of those addictive soap operas that open with “in the previous episode” and then show you enough snippets of next weeks episode to make you want to keep going.
So whether you’re a parent applying this with your kids, a student applying this with yourself, or an employer applying this with your team. Remember – the simplest way to train the brain when to switch between WORK, PLAY and REST is simple – remember an opening (and closing) routine. It makes a massive difference and, if taught at a young age, makes time management and other organisational skills much easier later down the track.
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