Learning at home — 4 strategies to stay focused with children around

3 min read


I love working and learning from home. I’ve been doing it for years, for several organizations, as a freelancer, and as a PhD student. For a long time, my office was at the top of the stairs, tucked away but not behind a closed door. I wanted to be able to keep an eye on the youngsters in the house. As I should have suspected, my child didn’t understand the concept of working from home or its requirements. Neither did my two dogs and two cats.

When you’re trying to work in a full house, there can be plenty of noise as well as frequent requests for attention.

Here are four strategies I developed over the years that transformed my work life and reduced daily frustration. I saved the best for last, so if you only have time to read one strategy, jump to No. 4.

1. Winners begin early

In finances, as in biology, the dividends of early efforts are worth more. I found the same to be true with attention I gave my child (and my dogs). If I spent five minutes with my child when they wanted it, as early as possible, I was often released from duty sooner and left in peace for longer. I noticed that if I put it off until my child’s pleas for attention got to the breaking point, the attention I was required to give to get back on track was longer and more painful. This all makes sense if you think about it… giving attention early, before insecurity develops, means the need for it will be satiated, and quicker.

2. Concentrated attention

All the attention I gave to dogs and children was not just as early as possible, it was undivided. Again, I found this satiated the need more swiftly and more fully. The result? I got back to work and my child was satisfied — and a satisfied child makes for a satisfied parent. I avoided the frustration wrought by negative attention-seeking behaviors, which got me annoyed and less able to give positive attention.

I still use this strategy with my dog if he gets needy. I give him all the concentrated attention he wants, and then some more: I go all out rubbing his ears and his belly until he really can’t take it. Then, he walks away and leaves me alone.

3. If you can’t beat it, join it

The first two strategies are about getting rid of distractions, this one is about how to focus despite them. For me, noise makes staying on task particularly difficult. My solution has been to make my own noise — loud enough to cancel the cacophony, so I can work to my own beat.

I use the Deep Focus playlist on Spotify, especially when I have intensive thinking to do, but there are a multitude of other options. You might be able to focus better with an instrumental film soundtrack or the sounds of a thunderstorm generated by a background noise generator. When I’m working on a repetitive task requiring efficiency, but not heavy thinking, ‘80s rock songs work for me. I choose a tempo that matches the speed of my work. Basically, you need to experiment and see what beat works best for you.

4. Take a page out of Pavlov’s book

This is my favorite strategy because it has worked so well for me. I discovered it by accident, after using music frequently enough to help me focus that my brain came to associate deep focus with the wearing of my headphones, just like Pavlov’s dog came to associate the ringing of a bell with dinner. I noticed after a while that just putting on my headphones, even without any music, resulted in deep concentration.

The genius of this strategy is not so much that I became conditioned but that the other people in my home became conditioned. They saw me with headphones on, and that signaled that I was working, could not hear them, and hence was unavailable.

Wearing headphones, with or without music playing, can fulfill both ways to deal with distraction at once:

  1. It decreases the distractions; and,
  2. It increases my focus.

Speaking of which, I think I’d better go find my earbuds; I think I hear a child coming…

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Judy Wearing, PhD


Judy Wearing, PhD

Lead Learning Architect at OpusVi™


Judy Wearing, PhD

Lead Learning Architect at OpusVi™

Judy has worked as an educator and curriculum developer for over twenty years, designing programs, courses, and learning activities for a broad range of learners both online and in person. She holds two PhDs, one in biology from the University of Oxford and the other in education from Queen’s University. She specializes in supporting teachers and learners in the competencies particularly creativity, critical thinking, and communication. She is the author of more than twenty books for adults and children.