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Academic Success: Time, Balance, and Space

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Many books over the last few years focus on the workings of the brain and how the pathways must be exercised and hydrated to facilitate connections, which speeds the way for learning. JoAnn Deak talks about "bushy dendrites," what makes students successful studiers, and the end of homework. U.C.L.A.'s Dan Siegel speaks of the wonders of examining the brain and how little we actually know, especially how two brains work in concert and how that affects learning. In many respects all educators try to keep up on the latest theories of how the brain works and how as teachers, parents, and students, we can begin to set children on a course to be the navigators of their own learning. Certainly recent brain research doesn't tell us exactly what parents can do to help all children be successful in the every day of school. As many know, not all students learn at the same rate. Many have severe impediments and challenges learning at all. For all students, a little extra time, knowledge of how their own brain processes information can lead to a lifetime of successful habits.

Learning takes real fortitude and stamina to achieve any gains at all for students with learning differences. Kathy Qualman, the Learning Center Specialist at the Catlin Gabel School in Portland, Oregon, offers practical advice on what students and parents can do to facilitate their learning. For a variety of reasons, Qualman urges parents and students to keep learning strategies simple and uncomplicated.

Yet, how can students become better studiers and learners? Qualman offers five basic tips:

1. Uninterrupted Time: Successful students set aside uninterrupted study time to complete tasks. Starting in middle school, parents must set aside the time for their children. One parent of an eighth grade girl will set aside an hour to and hour and a half of "think time" where her daughter can just decompress from the rigors of the day. The period of time just after coming home from school allows the student to process her day while waiting for re-entry into the routine of family and then homework. In high school, students must take more responsibility for setting organizing their own time. For instance, many students who report a high degree of success block out chunks of time to get large assignments done. These students won't answer phone calls, turn on the television or radio, or get sidetracked by non-productive activities that interfere with the aims of completing the days at home assignment.

2. Time Away: Again, for younger students and older students who have a hard time focusing, parents may need to manage their time with a set schedule. Forty to fifty-minute blocks of time with ten minutes off seems to work best. Remember homework should not be viewed as a punishment but rather a way to deepen what students may be learning in school. The time away from studying becomes very valuable, especially where attention issues are concerned, so that students can restore their energies and focus after diving in deeply into another school subject. This method is called spaced study time, which may or may not duplicate the discreet periods that students have at school. The lesson learned here is that you have to give your brain a break at regular intervals.

3. Physical Organization: The way the student's physical space is arranged in his or her study space becomes tremendously important because the less a student has to go away from her desk to find the right colored pencil, text book, tape, or highlighter, then the more focused she will be on the task at hand. Also, what condition is the student's study room in? Are the obvious distraction hidden away from view, like a younger siblings constant interruptions or a good deal of clutter on top of the students desk. Clear away the distraction and student's often find the solace that comes with sustained thought.

4. Making Choices: Of course, the toughest part about being a student of any age involves making choices. Students must make hundreds of decisions each day. In fact, making more and more sophisticated decisions leads students to make better choices in life. The power of fine discrimination begins before pre-school and works its way up to the what children will do after they complete their secondary education. Whether the choice is apple or orange juice for lunch or deciding between Yale and NYU, students have to get good at making decisions, which of course is a tautological argument put forth by Mark Twain when he supposedly said, "Good decisions come from bad decisions which lead to good decisions." If those words are true in any sense of the word, then helping children decide their own way of attacking a problem, doing homework, or what to study first should be the paramount mission in the lives of parents and care-givers.

5. Do Today What You Could Put Off Tomorrow: It's Friday night and students want to get away from the grind and rigors of school. Great they should. No one wants to be unbalanced or obsessed about school or anything else. Yet, what successful students see school as is a place where getting ahead makes all the difference in the world. Being able to study on one of the break nights, especially for high schoolers, posits information deeper into working memory. Many students often report not being stressed as a result of pre-planning or Friday or Saturday night homework sessions. Maybe it's the dinosaur book that they always wanted to read or topics in advance chemistry, studying today rather than tomorrow can lead to more balanced sleep times and better week days.

Credits: Brian Thomas

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