Do the work when you're feeling good

Whatever you’re trying to do is only going to work if you are feeling good.

If you are miserable, there is no point in even attempting it.

This comes up all the time with homework. Picture the scene: It’s 9:45 P.M. on a Wednesday night and everyone is exhausted.

There are twenty math problems to do, and three have been completed. Each one is taking four minutes, and it’s slow going.

A parent is attempting to help, and growing frustrated. The child is attempting to do the work, and is growing tearful and also frustrated.

This is a disaster. Please understand that there is no point in doing the work. No point at all.

The child is not going to arrive at an understanding of decimals in the middle of a family temper tantrum. There is just no way.

Ideal learning conditions require the right temperature, being well-rested and well fed, and physically comfortable.

Even then, many students struggle with feelings of low self-worth and “feeling dumb” when they sit down to work on something that they are struggling with.

These feelings distract them from the work at hand and they are unable to process new information.

A huge chorus of, “you’re so dumb, you’re so dumb” becomes loud enough to drown out any useful information that comes from the book, the teacher, or the student’s own other mental voices.

What is the solution?

Well, the solution is not to keep going.

As a parent, it’s important to have some perspective. What are the consequences of not turning in the assignment? Well, they may be significant. But we’re talking middle school — this is the time to focus on process over product.

You see, high school is where results matter. We know that colleges will receive a student’s entire high school transcript.

But nobody cares about middle school. Part of the problem with middle school, in fact, is that the kids can sense this.

Everyone is telling them that it matters, but they know that it doesn’t really matter.

So what does matter in middle school?

The process. Middle school is the perfect opportunity to learn how to deal with negative emotions that get in the way of performance.

It’s the perfect time to learn to break down a problem that you don’t understand. To practice asking for help and seeking resources (be they human resources, online resources, or books) to help shed more light on a problem.

It’s also a great time to rebuild the foundation, because usually the late-night homework freakout is not an isolated incident and is the result of years of struggling in a particular area — and it’s well worth the time it takes to go back and figure out what the missing skills and knowledge are and fill in those gaps.

In the moment of freak-out when it’s after bedtime, this is not the right time to go into all of this.

That means that it’s very important to work on it when it’s not an emergency. It’s important to invest time in preventing problems in the first place, or solving the problems that exist even when there is no assignment currently due.

So I recommend shelving the work for now.

If you’re feeling bad, you have to stop and take a break. Or quit for the day, depending on the circumstances. No work is going to get accomplished when you’re feeling awful.

If you wait until you’re feeling good, you will get the same work done in less time.

If that doesn't happen, then there are some underlying issues that need to be addressed - which, again, is not going to happen at 9:45 on a school night.

The flip side of this is that students need to learn how to identify the times where they actually feel up for doing work.

Some of our students at the Little Middle School, realizing that there is no time where they are actually going to want to do their work at home, have wisely decided to stay after school to work. In other words, they do their work at “work”, so they won’t have to bring it home — a recommended strategy for work/life balance among adult knowledge workers. What a concept!

If you decided, “no, I’m not going to do math right now, it fills me with a sense of dread,” you’ve got to be willing to look for that moment where part of you goes, “You know what? I would actually feel some satisfaction in getting some of those problems done.” This is highly useful self-assessment.

If the student never, ever, in a million years would have that feeling, something is wrong. That student is working too far out of his or her Zone of Proximal Development. The work is either too easy or too hard.

Yesterday afternoon, I spent some time playing Mozart. It was fun for about forty minutes. And then, I got tired of it, just as surely as if I was eating a slice of pizza and suddenly became full (usually happens on the fourth slice, to be honest).

Now, this doesn’t mean that I never want to play Mozart again. It was just time for a break.

It’s important for kids (all of us, really), to learn what that “full” feeling feels like.

In order to do that, we actually have to offer space for them to be “hungry,” so to speak.

Going back to the homework drama: What if the assignment itself were only four problems in the first place?

Perhaps with only four problems, the student wouldn’t be putting it off until bedtime.

With only four problems, perhaps the student would do it right after school.

And with only four problems, the student would also, ironically, start to be aware that he can’t even find his way through one of them!

By making things smaller, they are more real.

So maybe, just maybe, the student would ask for help.

It could happen!

What if the problems were easier? What if they were right in the Goldilocks zone? What if the student could get those problems done very quickly?

Again, procrastination is much less likely to happen.

These entrenched homework battles have deep roots. In order to solve the problem, it’s necessary to delve into how the problems started.

But this only works if we back off a little in the first place. The bottom line: It only works to do work if you’re feeling good.

If you’re feeling bad, stop. And let’s see if we can solve the bad feelings.

Casey von Neumann