Maybe a bit of an exaggeration, but my enthusiasm is sincere. Not only can nearly every problem be solved with some time-management and prioritizing, which is another great abstract thing. But this is the literal thing that can help you do it.
This is the visual timer by Yunbaoit and it is the holy grail of my tutoring sessions, and my own work sessions. I might be giving away some of my secrets in this post, but it's worth it because it could save some people from a lot of struggle. You might be wondering why a regular digital timer like the one on your phone isn't ideal; in my opinion, there is an element of reward in the visual timer, seeing the color decrease in size. Plus, it is more suited for younger learners who are still developing their sense of time. When I use it, I find it just overall more friendly and easier to glance at for a general idea of how long I need to work on something.
I'm going to go through some scenarios in which this comes in handy (minus the obvious "time we have left in our session" angle). You might find your student, your child, or even yourself in some of these:
The "We Have to Work for an Entire HOUR?!"
To some kids, especially those who are younger or otherwise predisposed to see an hour of focus as undoable, the visual timer is the aid they need. A technique best suited for tutoring and long-lasting success is the Pomodoro Technique. This common 'life hack' is based in timed intervals. In this technique, named after a novelty tomato kitchen timer, you determine what tasks need completing, how long each will take, and you go through them in intervals of 25 minutes with 5-minute breaks in between. After 4 "pomodoros" of 25 minutes with 5-minute breaks, you take a longer 30-minute break.
This might not be the most effective in an hour tutoring session, which is why I modify this technique. It is often taught in college teacher training coursework to use intervals for students who cannot focus, when really it can and should be used with all students. In a classroom setting, you can display a timer on your smartboard, too.
If I am with a student for general homework guidance, we do list the items of homework and determine how long each will take. I often do 15-minute intervals with 3-minute breaks and start each assignment with the student for them to finish once I leave, or dedicate more time to something they need more clarification on. This works on a few levels: for one, listing their tasks and thinking about how much time they will take reduces their brain load and makes the homework much more doable. I can't stress that enough-- in a student's head, if they think they're bad at math, they will think their math worksheet takes 30+ minutes. In reality, when you have them think about it and see how proficient they are in the topic, they will report that it will take them 10-15 minutes (and they're usually right). Sometimes it can be the opposite, where they think it will take less time than it actually will, but again, it's the budgeting for it that makes it more doable.
On another level, the breaks allow for actions and routines that signal a change is taking place in that we're about to work on another piece of homework. This helps students compartmentalize, and in the realm of tutoring, it means that they focus in on what they need the most help with with me, since we're only working for a certain amount of time on each subject. This is what Angela Duckworth, author of Grit, might call "Deliberate Practice." That topic is for another time.
The "I Don't Know Where to Start!"
This is the overwhelmed student. This is also me when I'm overwhelmed. Let's say I know what to do and I know how much time it'll take, sometimes the hardest thing is just to start. This is especially true for those of us with perfectionistic tendencies. It can be hard to start if we think we might fail, but what's worse is not starting and failing for lack of trying.
This is where my best friend, the visual timer comes in. I think we've all had moments where we have trouble starting something, but once we do, momentum keeps us going. The timer works in this scenario because sometimes starting just means sitting with it. Sitting with it means getting in front of your computer, your binder, whatever else is your work, and dedicating the time to thinking and being there without distraction.
The knowledge we need and motivation we need does not come to us when we let ourselves be distracted. Getting work done does not always mean typing, writing, doing. Sometimes it means thinking for an amount of time, making little notes, complete with the discomfort of not opening up a new tab, or the discomfort of not having the perfect idea right off the bat.
The good thing is that the discomfort will end soon (check your timer), and that will be time you have thoughtfully dedicated to your task, and yes-- it still counts.
The "This is Too Much and I'll Never Get it Done!"
Oh how I feel so sad for the student who looks so defeated before he even starts. I've been there. I can see the tasks mounting in my head and how it feels like they must be done at the same time and how I don't even have the adequate information to do them.
The best lesson I can teach is that everything takes some amount of time. It sounds obvious, but it's something we rarely think to ourselves. Often our anxiety and frustration doesn't come from the problem at hand, however seemingly small, it comes from not budgeting for the correct amount of time. Here is this frustration and realization in a recent incident of mine:
The other day I had to call the power company and talk to customer service about recent outages. It was primarily robo-run and thus very difficult to talk to a real person. I was getting upset; they didn't have a number to press for what I needed, so I went through many different menu options and kept having to enter the account information only to get nowhere. I hung up. I was then reminded of the fact that I had nowhere to be at that moment, the call was important, and it's going to take more time than I want it to. I was able to calm down once I told myself "This call is probably going to take 20 minutes." I could deal with the tediousness and focus better on my goal. I knew it would take some time, and that there was nothing inherently upsetting about the situation (yes, pressing numbers instead of talking to someone can be annoying, but it is to be expected).
With our students, the same is true. We need to teach them to budget for time, and that that time does indeed include finding the adequate information, solving problems that come up, and often more than what's on the agenda. The timer helps with this because it accompanies us saying "We are going to work on this task, everything that is included in this task, and anything that comes up, for 20 minutes." We are not saying we are finishing this task in 20 minutes, because that creates frustration at the things that seem to get in the way. This is also why teachers get work that is not double-checked and essays riddled with spelling mistakes. Students would rather get it done than get it done right.
Let me give you this way of thinking (finishing the task) in action. If a student must complete 20 sentences around their vocabulary words for that week, they are inclined to sit down and focus on completing the assignment without thought to how long it will take. Without thinking how long something might realistically take, we expect it to be done as fast as possible and with ease. So this student gets to word 8, "diaspora", and they forget what it means. This was not in their plan! They were supposed to get this done quickly! Well, now they're upset and would rather just give up on this because they got "stuck."
Again, let's focus on solving problems as they come and then solving more. Let's encourage our students to think that they just might have tasks within tasks and research within their homework; and that this is what the rest of life looks like. Let's work with time, instead of against it.
The "Can I Tell You What Happened at Recess Today?"
Yes, absolutely, we should share stories and tangents, but only on our breaks. Students who are easily distracted are the greatest beneficiaries of the visual timer. There are also students who, when stuck, are inclined to start talking to whoever is nearby.
The benefits of using the visual timer in this scenario are two-fold. We are increasing their attention span little by little if we increase time intervals over the course of the sessions. We are also giving them the outlet they need with the small break. And as an added bonus: to make sure that thing they want to tell you doesn't distract them while they work: have them write a one-word reminder on a post-it note to tell you later, like "recess."
The Extra Tips and Reminders
- Engage your younger students and keep them motivated by having them set the timer, within certain parameters.
- Write down any distracting thoughts or chores as you go to take care of later, but keep working on your task as long as your 'work' timer is going.
- Give your timer a name. "Elsa says we have 10 more minutes!"
- Adjust intervals depending on the task, and adjust break time accordingly.
- Use positive encouraging language while using a timer with a student; empathize with them. "Just a few more minutes to go!... I'll be so satisfied when that timer goes off... That break was just what we needed..."
- Implement a task-switching routine in your breaks. One of my students responded really well to just tossing a small ball to one another. Another student and I do some stretches and talk about what we're about to do. You may have time to go over the post-it note story and get it off their mind. It's important to help the brain switch gear, and the easiest way is usually by moving around out of the chair.
You know, I always think my posts are going to be very short, because my point seems obvious: visual timers are great. But once I start writing about a topic, I realize just how much really does need to be said about it, and if I don't say it, who will? Even something as obviously helpful as the timer has so many other benefits besides counting time left. I feel like there's something deeper here to be said about time, but maybe that'll be another post. This one's long enough!