For many people during the recent lockdown, establishing a successful homeschooling routine has proven a hugely challenging task. Could a better understanding of our brains’ daily emotional patterns help?

Last week I received an email from a teaching colleague titled simply “Homeschooling horror!

In it, my friend described a host of stressful situations involving the daily challenges of motivating and supporting her three kids to learn at home. Phrases like “a rollercoaster”, “surreal”, “a daily battle”, “nerve-wracking” and “up-and-down” appeared throughout. As an online tutor during the pandemic, I found her account was all too familiar: countless parents and children have confided in me their dismay, anxiety and stress over the difficulties of doing all their schoolwork around the kitchen table.

When chatting on Zoom later that day, my friend and I agreed: at the core of education lies routine. Without a daily framework in place, it’s hard for most children to develop or maintain new knowledge and skills. Fewer things, though, could compound the difficulty of establishing a brand new learning schedule more than the general anxiety that has become part of daily life for many families during the Covid-19 pandemic.

There’s no doubt that these are unsettling times we’ve been living through. However, it’s possible that in facing the challenges of homeschooling, it could help to consider a strange and interesting fact: across the globe, nearly all human beings experience the same basic emotional pattern every day- even in times of war, crisis and adversity.

The pattern goes something like this: people’s most positive emotional states occur in the morning, giving way to a sharp decline in the afternoon, before a final recovery takes place in the early evening. Odd as it might seem, the evidence for this is irrefutable: studies across all continents for decades have shown that for most of us, the “peak-trough-recovery” phenomenon is an ineffable feature of human daily life- as constant and predictable as the ocean’s tides.

There is some mystery as to why this hidden pattern seems to be almost universal. However, we do know that it involves something called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (or SCN). This rice-grain sized cluster of cells inside your brain is your internal clock, and it’s silently responsible for many of the mental fluctuations you and your family experience each day. That you possess an internal clock that affects your mood might not sound like a major revelation. But the SCN’s secret power over your emotions, your interactions and your decisions is enormous. What’s more, no one is immune to its influence.

To demonstrate this, researchers studying the impacts of the peak-trough-recovery phenomenon discovered that discussions between millionaire CEOs and shareholders were significantly affected by the time of day at which they occurred. Discussions held in the morning, for instance, were overwhelmingly positive and upbeat in tone, while afternoon communications proved more negative and combative. As a result, timing had a measurable impact (for good or ill) on companies’ stock prices.

How might this phenomenon affect children’s learning? Well, in Denmark, a study involving two million school children all taking standardized assessments showed that pupils tested in the morning consistently performed better than those tested in the afternoon. Indeed, astonishingly, the researchers determined that the later in the afternoon the test occurred, the scores fell correspondingly, precisely as the peak-trough-recover phenomenon would predict. In fact, the study concluded that a test’s time of day had causal significance on a par with factors such as having lower-income parents, or sizeable educational gaps. Of course, time of day wasn’t the only thing that determined children’s scores- but it was a big thing.

Surely then, the takeaway here for home learners is simple: kids should be encouraged to tackle important tasks earlier in the day, when their brain is in its “peak” phase; failing this, the evening (or “recovery” period) is better than scheduling the bulk of schooling in the afternoon “trough”. This might indeed be a good starting point for many people- yet it’s not the whole story. So before you re-arrange your schedule, consider the fact that not all tasks are the same.

While it’s certainly true that your kids might benefit from fitting some types of learning into their morning routine, this is only true for tasks which require method and concentration- such as drawing geographical diagrams, dealing with physics equations or filing UCAS choices (psychologists call these “analytic” tasks). Doing these things later in the day might often be unavoidable, but by then your child’s brain is likely prone to apply sloppy logic or fall prey to distractions, having entered its “recovery” phase.

Yet for some tasks, an alert and vigilant mindset is the exact opposite of what a pupil needs. If you’re skeptical about this, try thinking of a time when your child struggled with a problem that they couldn’t methodically solve – perhaps coming up with an idea for a creative writing assignment, or completing a design challenge. If your child battled with the problem for a while, it’s possible that they eventually threw up their hands in despair and decided there was no solution. However, it’s also possible that after tussling, they had what psychologists call a “flash of illuminance”- a light-bulb moment- that helped their brain see the problem in a new light. Bingo.

Why is this relevant to the peak-trough-recovery pattern? Because researchers have discovered that certain tasks- called “insight” problems- are actually easier to solve when the brain is less vigilant and inhibited. Simply put, light-bulb moments are much more likely to strike during the “recovery” period, when the brain’s defenses are lowered and your mind is more open to distracting input.

All of this means it’s likely that it could be helpful to factor in this hidden pattern into your family’s home learning schedule. This could involve rearranging the order in which your child tackles their work- ensuring that the lion’s share of analytic tasks are dealt with in the morning (when the brain is at peak vigilance), and insight ones are saved for the afternoon (when the brain is less inhibited).

If you’d like to explore further ways to help your child in their home learning, you might also consider contacting We Make Academics for specialist input. Our elite tutors are highly qualified to provide targeted, structured support for your child in any areas of their learning (whether insight or analytic-based) which they find challenging- our goal is to ensure that the help we provide will prove key in averting future “homeschool horror” stories!

All studies referenced from:

Pink, D. H. (2018). ‘The hidden patterns of everyday life’ in When: the scientific secrets of perfect timing. London: Canongate. 2018, pp. 1-25.