a mother and son working together

5 Tips that Keep Learners Engaged and Brains Focused

5 Tips that Keep Learners Engaged and Brains Focused

By Blair Lee, M.S.

Homeschoolers are dreamers. We spend months dreaming about what the school year is going to look like for our learners. It is easy to romanticize how it is all going to go academically. There is only one problem standing between our hard work and making our secular homeschool dreams a reality — our children.

Don’t they realize how long and hard you worked to make this year perfect? Are you beginning to wonder just what you got yourself into? Or, you might be reading this and patting yourself on the back because your kids agree with you and think you put the perfect academic year together. Regardless, we are homeschoolers, which means we care a lot about how engaged our kids are. Even in the best of times, it is a good idea to have a few easy-to-implement teaching strategies to help keep learners engaged and focused. Read on for five tips that keep learners engaged and brains focused. Looking for more support? Check out The SEA Homeschoolers Masterclasses!

1. Get Up and Move Around, but Keep It on Topic

In the hour-long, Elementary-level online science classes I teach, I weave periods of movement throughout each lesson. For example, I might ask kids to jump up to investigate the pulling force of gravity, twirl around to model planetary rotation, vote using thumbs up and thumbs down, vibrate like a greenhouse gas, fly like a bee, and call out answers. Why would I introduce what could easily devolve into a chaotic Zoom debacle into my science lessons? I do it to keep kids focused on the science, that’s why. When I write my teaching notes for each class, I am intentional about adding in movement that relates to the topic. This way, I am able to keep students “on topic” while grabbing their attention and energizing their brains.

This is not hard to do, either. For example, if your child is learning a basic multiplication fact like 3 times 2, ask them to do 3 movements 2 times, for example, 3 claps with their hands 2 times. For spelling, you can use a version of the YMCA song. For grammar and vocabulary, act words out. For history, act out historical scenes. Don’t be shy about doing these movements with your kids. In my science classes, I do the movements along with my students and explain what we are doing while we do it together. Usually, these movements take 30 seconds to 2 minutes. They do not disrupt or take over the class because I design them to dove-tail into our next lesson.

This technique is not something I thought up all on my own. The fact that movement engages the brain and helps kids learn has been well-documented by pediatricians, pediatric occupational therapists, and elementary school teachers. As pediatrician Dr. Niran Al-Agba says, “Exercise stimulates the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for focus, concentration, planning, and organization. Movement is a natural way to help kids focus and pay attention better.”

a girl working on a laptop outside
a family baking together

2. The Power of Touch

What would happen if someone touched you right now? Would it draw your attention away from this article? My hypothesis is that it would. Many years ago, I read an article that stated that an effective technique to bring a child’s attention back to you is a gentle touch. I began using touch while doing academics with my son when his attention would drift off or when I noticed he should be working on something, but instead he was staring at the wall. This doesn’t work with every child, but if yours is like mine, this gentle and warm act can grab the learner’s attention and help them refocus on the task at hand. This is especially effective when you use a warm tone of voice to gently remind them what they should be working on. When done correctly, this practice can help make your secular homeschool curriculum more effective.

There is science explaining why this technique works. In her 2015 article, “The Social Power of Touch”, Lydia Denworth explains that touch is the first sense to mature. A gentle, affectionate touch reaches the brain through a class of nerve fibers in the skin called c-tactile (CT) afferents. The CT afferents are nerves, which respond to slow, gentle strokes and touches to the skin. These nerves are fully functional soon after birth. Stimulating these nerves activates a network of brain regions that process information. The hormone oxytocin, for example, is released by gentle touch and increases our social interest. In the context of learning, I have observed that a gentle touch is a very effective method for bringing a learner’s focus to you and then back to what they were working on.

3. Teach in Small, Manageable Pieces

There is no timeline for learning. This should be part of every homeschooler’s mantra. Do not get caught up in the rat race of thinking that there is one schedule that should be used for every child of a certain age and grade level. It sounds a little ridiculous when spelled out, doesn’t it? And yet, that is what happens all the time both at home and in traditional settings. I write and use curriculum, and I really dislike programs and materials that do not have a schedule. However, it is important to remember to use these schedules as guides, not as a hard timeline. If a learner takes two months to complete a lesson that was scheduled to be completed over two weeks, who cares, as long as they learn the material. If a learner takes two days to complete a lesson that was scheduled to be completed over two weeks, awesome. Once you’re confident that they’ve learned the material, I recommend adding related material that brings breadth around the topic.

The crucial point here is that you show that what is being learned is important for the student to learn, and that meeting an arbitrary timeline is not the goal. This means you have to pay attention. If your child needs more time, you need to make sure that the material is presented in small manageable pieces. A course I wrote, R.E.A.L. Science Odyssey Biology 2 is a great example of this. The course comes with a 36-week schedule. I know of homeschoolers who used the course over two years, while other learners finished the course in less than 36 weeks. In both situations, by the end of the course learners had a solid foundation in biology.

a mother and daughter working on the ABC's
a father and soon making a model solar system

4. Use a Non-Traditional Approach

What do Bear the tardigrade, space dust bunnies, and qwitekutesnutes have in common? They are all fictional characters that I made into core parts of academic, non-fiction science courses. This approach is unconventional and at times silly. It is also a very intentional strategy and a great way to introduce and discuss higher level content. Both Bear and the space dust bunnies are in elementary level courses in the R.E.A.L. Science Odyssey series. They are humorous and have distinct personalities that make them good vehicles for introducing topics that are often omitted from elementary level courses. Once you engage a student’s interest, however, you can get them making intellectual leaps and bounds.

This is a technique you can adapt for any subject in your secular homeschool curriculum. For example, if your child loves art, but not more technical subjects, weave math and science into art. Or perhaps you have a child who loves science and math but not language arts. You can use science and math as vehicles for writing instruction. Music is a wonderful way to teach almost anything. Think outside the box, like discussing X-Men when learning about genetic mutation, or using comic books to teach vocabulary or the structure of writing.

This technique, like movement, is also a great strategy for refocusing a learner’s attention. Can you remember a time when your attention was drifting and someone said something unexpected that reengaged your attention? It is sort of a “Wait a minute. What did you just say?” moment. If this is done with a meaningful tie-in, this can renew focus and enhance learning.

5. Show Your Own Interest

Showing your own interest in a subject area makes a big difference in how engaged your learner is. If you cannot figure out why something is interesting and important to learn, it can be hard to convince others that it is. In extreme cases, if you know a subject is important but you just cannot find a way to be interested in it, you might want to outsource the teaching of the subject. Before you go looking for an alternative teacher, however, there are some techniques you can use to show your interest.

Sometimes, (this happens to every homeschooler sooner or later) it is that you don’t really understand the topic. The best way to show interest in this case is to learn along with your child. Discuss what you are both learning. This happened with history for my child and me. My history education was pretty spotty. My son and I learned history together. He and I became most fascinated with the stories that were too often left out of traditional history books. We became immersed in learning about the history of the indigenous peoples of North and South America. My son, now a sophomore in college, is taking American Indian Heritage this semester. He still finds this area of study fascinating. He recently told me it is the most interesting college class he has taken.

a father and daughter building robots together

One way to show your interest is to discuss what you are learning outside of the classroom. For example, one of my stepsons really struggled with math. I would make up fun (yes, he really thought they were fun!) math games and brain teasers using his favorite super heroes to bring math into casual situations, or when we were stuck in traffic. I thoughtfully paid attention to the subjects my son was studying and made real-world connections when they came up. I shared 60-Minutes’ segments, emailed articles, and texted memes that related to what we were studying.

Did you catch that I said “we” not “he” in the previous sentence? Another way to show your interest is to work alongside learners. In her 2012 article, Cindy O’Donnell-Allen states that “the best writing teachers are writers themselves. Why? Because we know the writing process inside-and-out, we can support our students’ work in authentic ways.” I was lucky enough to read something along those lines early in my son’s homeschooling journey. I took this information to heart, and I wrote with my son. I shared what I was writing and occasionally received brutal feedback. In every case I can think of, he was right and a rewrite was in order. Writing alongside my child made writing a family affair. It made it easier to give him valuable feedback and it helped him see how writing happened. I didn’t just write science with him, either. He and I wrote pieces from numerous genres. I wanted to make sure he saw me writing in areas where I wasn’t very skilled so he could see me improve with practice. This is not a technique that I used just with writing. I made working alongside him a cornerstone, especially for those subjects he seemed to struggle with.

a grandmother and granddaughter doing a science experiment together

Learning is an interesting phenomenon. It isn’t always easy to measure when it happens, and often learners are absorbing more than is obvious when you are in the thick of it. You might be surprised a few months from now when you realize that your plan really was a great one. And whether you use touch, movement, shared interests, a non-traditional approach, or none of these, one thing is certain, this journey you are on with your children bonds you in unique and special ways that really are idyllic.