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Homework: Is Multitasking OK?


Q. My son regularly sits in his room, listening to music on his headphones, with a textbook open, typing on his computer doing Instant Messenger with his friends. He says he's learning fine, but his grades are far from perfect. I've been wondering whether he's putting his brain on sensory overload and we ought to put a stop to it.


What? He doesn't have the TV on, too? Of course that's facetious. This is not a laughing matter. It's true: you really can overdistract yourself to the point where you can't focus and concentrate, and therefore can't learn. It becomes addictive, just like all the substances and activities we all try so hard to keep our kids from getting hooked on these days.


Multitasking may be a way of life for teenagers today, but it's hard on the mind and makes it awfully tough to think seriously and retain knowledge for any length of time.


The brain learns in two ways: declarative learning, in which you learn facts that can be recalled and used with flexibility, and habit learning, in which repetitive uses of the same fact or skill allow you to recreate the motion and repeat the task.


An example of declarative learning is when you memorize someone's phone number and can recall it whenever needed, no matter where you are or what you're doing. But with habit learning, you have to be standing with a phone in your hand, repeating the order of the numbers or listening to a musical cue.


The preferable way of learning is declarative learning, but when you are distracted, you tend to slip into habit learning. It is believed that having music on is probably OK during homework, if it makes you happier. But ix-nay all the other distractions, or the quality of schoolwork will suffer.


What smart parents do is set reasonable rules, and stick to them like glue. If your child is now spending hours and hours "plugged in," it might be too extreme to just go unplugged. So start with a reasonable, stepped system: allow one hour of electronic use per school night. If your child's grades stay the same or go up, increase that to two hours. If your child's grades go DOWN, cut off the electronics entirely. You've got to "pay" to "play"!

Homework: See a 2005 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation that showed that youngsters in third grade through senior year spent an average of 6 hours a day on TV, videos, music, video games and computers. Among its most important findings is that the kids who are using the most media are the least happy. See:


By Susan Darst Williams Homework 05 2008


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