Deborah Farmer Kris, child development expert and author, shares the Pomodoro Technique and how parents can use it to assist learners in starting a task. Lowering anxiety and decreasing what, at times, becomes a youngster-parent struggle. Parents can use the strategy for themselves too.
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PODCAST TRANSCRIPTSteve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello, and welcome to the parents as learning coaches edition of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. Parents and caregivers play many different roles, and even sometimes conflicting roles as they support children’s development. The pandemic has shown a light on the importance of parents supporting learners. In this podcast, I’ll share my experiences as a teacher, educator, parent, grandparent, and continuous learner that can support your coaching efforts.
Steve: 00:34 When your teenager or preschooler can’t get started on a task. Today, we are joined by parent teacher, author and child development expert, Deborah Farmer Kris. We’re asking her for an answer to this question about getting started on a task. I’m going to be listening closely as I think her strategies for kids just might work for me. So welcome Deborah.
Deborah: 01:03 Thank you for having me.
Steve: 01:05 Deborah, would you share a little bit about your experiences that have given you a chance to work with students at all levels?
Deborah: 01:13 So I got my degree in elementary education, but when I got out of college, the job I took was a seventh grade English teacher at a new K-8 charter school. So I spent many years doing middle school, which I loved. I feel like if you can teach middle school, you can teach anything. They are such a mix. And then, I became an assistant principal of a K-8 school so I had that full range. And then when I went back to the classroom, I ended up going to high school to teach high school English and now I work as a parent educator, but I still spend a lot of time in classrooms with my new books. I spend a lot of time in preschool classrooms, but I also help with college admissions process. And my own kids are elementary so I am really working with two to 18 year olds all the time and I love every single age.
Steve: 02:05 Terrific. I started my career at the at the middle school level and that’s pretty good training to head off in any direction. I ended up going from there to first but the surprise is you never know who they are.
Deborah: 02:22 Right? The emotions of a five year old and an 18 year old and the insight of an 18 year old in the same moment.
Steve: 02:28 You just have to stop and turn and say, okay I’ve gotta change my behavior now because I’m dealing with somebody different that I was dealing with a few months ago.
Deborah: 02:34 Absolutely.
Steve: 02:36 So talk a little bit about why do we find getting started to be so challenging both for young people and I think for adults too.
Deborah: 02:47 Yeah. The way I talk about it with students, they know it intuitively, is that the hardest part of any job is the first step
because often we imagine in our brains that it is harder than it is. And that is where anxiety comes is when we have in our brains, oh my goodness, this paper I have to write this phone call I need to make is so big. And so what our brains try to do to protect us is avoid it. We avoid the the thing that might give us psychological pain because our brains try to help us. And so, we get distracted, we suddenly discover there are dishes we need to do. We go on and get distracted by social media, anything but getting started on the task. But once we actually get started on the task one, it kind of helps us reset and realize it’s not as hard as we thought usually.
Deborah: 03:39 But also, we often are driven to finish a task that we started. And so if you can actually kind of hijack the system and just get started, it’s much easier to complete the task. But for kids, this is where it’s so painful for parents and students is the parents trying to get the kid to sit down and start. And that’s where the power struggle comes in. And so the technique that I have found is transformational. I have taught this to thousands of students and parents and it is by far the technique that they come back and say, this is the thing that’s helped me is something called the Pomodoro Technique. And the Pomodoro Technique really is pulling on this system that our brain needs to focus, but also needs to relax and that we can’t focus for two hours straight usually unless we’re really in the zone and that this kind of breaking up focusing and relaxing time is really good for the brain.
Deborah: 04:39 So basically the Pomodoro Technique is simple. You set a timer for 25 minutes and you get started on a task. Any task. You don’t think you have to finish it, you just have to start. And something about having the timer next to you or the app, which I can talk about a little later, having that near you for some reason, tends to be motivating. Also because it’s only 25 minutes. And frankly, if you have a seven year old, set it for 10, like they need to practice piano. It feels overwhelming. Scale it down, set it for five. We are gonna work on cleaning your room for five minutes or when my kids are young, I’d say for two songs, we’re gonna put on two songs and when it’s done, we’re done. And then when you’re done, you take a break, the timer goes off, you stand up, you stretch.
Deborah: 05:24 And what students so often discover is that once they get started, then they get into the zone after about 15 or 20 minutes. And then they take that break, but it’s much easier to get back into it after the break because they’ve already gotten into the zone. And this is one of those techniques that seems so simple that a lot of people resist trying it. And when they do, they have this aha moment. There was an eighth grader who I think almost any teacher would’ve said she has great study habits because she gets great grades, everything gets done. And I was teaching a study skills class and I explained this and most everybody tried it, they were excited about it. April comes along. She found me and she said, “I finally tried Pomodoro last night.” I said, “really, how did it go?” She said, “I got to bed before nine o’clock for the first time all year.” She’d been staying up late, getting her work done.
Deborah: 06:19 And what she discovered is that this kind compressed the work like 25 minutes, break, 25 minutes. And she said, “I got my work done and under an hour and I usually spent two and a half to three hours. How did this work?” And it was one of those, again, just those amazing moments where she realized that a lot of the things we think we’re doing when we’re focusing are actually avoidance principles. I had a similar experience with a high school senior who was on a total mind block about getting her college essays done. And she, for two months, it was just this pain and suffering. And finally I said, “sit outside my office, I’m putting on my Pomodoro app, I use one called Forest and I said, “you don’t have to get it finished. You just have to sit there for 25 minutes and get it started.”
Deborah: 07:02 And after 25 minutes, she came in with half an essay done and her whole demeanor had relaxed because she had broken that back of anxiety of that thing that was causing her brain to avoid the task. So this technique, there are a ton of free apps you can use. I use one called Forest because it when you set the timer, it starts to grow a tree and it gets smaller and smaller. And if you like click out and start to check your text, you’ll get a message saying your tree are going to die. Your tree is dying. And so for me, it’s this emotional manipulation.
Deborah: 07:34 And then once it’s done it like actually builds in the forest. But you can even get Pomodoro extensions for your browser. And so one teacher said, “I now use a Chrome browser that has this so I can see the amount of time that I’ve worked.” So it’s super simple, but part of what it’s doing is helping them realize that without distractions, because that’s the other key piece of this, it’s 25 minutes, no distractions – how much we can get done when we are actually focused. So that’s the hack that everyone thanks me for.
Steve: 08:06 Would you say that it’s what you get done in that first shot that then motivates you coming back and moving ahead from the break?
Deborah: 08:18 Yeah, 100% because I think so often it is the loomingness of the project we haven’t started yet that is so terrifying. I have this whole room I have to clean, I have this whole science project, this article I need to write, but once I sit down and start to organize my notes, it just calms down that anxiety enough that I’m not in the avoidance mode as much. And the avoidance mode, which really triggers the fight or flight, it seems like it’s going to be painful and so I have this kind of mini fight or flight mode. It may not come out as a meltdown, but it might come out as I’m just going to flee to Twitter or I’m gonna flee to something else to a YouTube video rather than face what feels psychologically painful.
Steve: 09:04 I frequently write in my podcast for parents, the concept of of parents modeling and I was listening to you, it kind of struck me that this could pretty easily fit into that structure of a parent looking at something they need to get done and setting the timer and using the strategy for themselves while their kids had a chance to look on and then turn around and use it…
Deborah: 09:35 Not just to look on, but also even to do it at the same time.
Steve: 09:38 Do it together. Yeah.
Deborah: 09:39 So, my daughter, who’s 10 and I, will sometimes – it’s a matter of saying, okay you need to get started on math. I need to be working on my article and so I’m setting this for both of us. And after 25 minutes, we’ll stand up and stretch and take the dog out for five minutes and come back in. And so it’s like, especially with all of us working from home or at least so many of us, it’s a really great way of structuring that so we all are having our quiet focus time and that we’re practicing this. In fact, I’ve given enough parent workshops. I’ve had several students come up and say, “my mom is using this to get work done.”
Steve: 10:12 That’s cool.
Deborah: 10:13 And again, for the little guys, rather than the timer, I often do music, especially if it’s a task, like a chore. So I put it on and say, we need to clean for them, the playroom for three songs. And so they pick their three songs and once the songs are done, we’re done. It may not be perfect, but it gets us started.
Steve: 10:36 Well, the the article that you wrote on this caught my attention so I’ll be sure to put a link to that and the lead-in to the to the podcast. Would you tell people a little bit about the work that you do with schools and with parent groups and how they might be able to find you and follow up further with you?
Deborah: 11:00 The easiest way to find me is parenthood365.com. 365 because parenting is a 365 day a year job. And from there, you can find my articles, my social channels, my newsletter, my books and all of that.
Steve: 11:17 Well, thank you so much. Really appreciate it.
Deborah: 11:20 Thank you.
Steve [Outro]: 11:23 Thanks for listening, folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.