Learning to Estimate Working Capacity Will Pay Dividends for Life

Dear Dr. Fournier:

The other night, my sixth grader told me, “I feel overwhelmed. I have so much work to do, I just don’t know where to start.” You write about strategies and come up with solutions for these types of issues, don’t you? What do you do for this sort of paralysis?

How can I help her when I have the same problem myself?

Carita P.

Jonesboro, AR

Dear Carita:


What adult hasn’t felt overwhelmed when the “To Do” list at work and home keeps getting longer? Unfortunately, this feeling is now experienced by school children at younger and younger ages.

Now as early as kindergarten and first grade, children are overwhelmed not just by homework, but by the work they were unable to finish in class. Their feelings of panic and dread spread to parents who are forced to spend hours with their children every night to get through the school work load.

How many hours of family calmness, family bonding and family togetherness turn into hours of family squabbles and tension over schoolwork?

As adults, most of us fight our feelings of being overwhelmed by work as we schedule our tasks with appropriate completion time:

I’ll do it tonight. It won’t take more than half an hour.

I’ll have to do this over the weekend when I can work on it all afternoon.

I have so many errands; I’d better make a list so I use my time efficiently.

We can make these instant assessments only when we understand our personal working capacity – the ability to make appropriate time estimations in judging how long a task will take us to complete. Children are not born with this skill, and even many adults have not fully developed it.

Students must be taught how to develop a sense of personal working capacity and an understanding of what time is all about. As parents, we must focus on this long-term issue of finishing school work each night.


Discuss with your child’s teacher how you plan to shift your focus from simply finishing homework to teaching your child how to develop a sense of working capacity. Ask if your child can be graded only on the homework he or she completes until you have made progress in teaching how to judge and use time wisely.

At home, you will need a digital timer of some kind that counts down without making a noise. Place it where your child is working to assure she can see it at all times. Most smartphones come with various timers/stopwatches standard as well.

Begin each task by having your child tell you how much time she believes it will take. Write this time estimate in two places – at the top of the page your child is working on and on a separate tally sheet with four headings: Subject | Time I Think It Will Take | Time It Took | The Difference.

This exercise is a process of self-discovery for your child, so allow it to happen without attempting to force the issue. Regardless of what estimate your child gives, write it down without discussion. If your child estimates three hours for a task you know should take 10 minutes, write down three hours. This tells you how overwhelmed your child is by each task.

Next, have your child set the timer and place it right in front of her. Make sure your child sets the timer – not you – because as you teach her to take control of time, it is important for her to take physical control as well. Have your child start the timer and begin the task.

Once it is completed, have your child stop the timer and write the number of minutes left on the timer. Have her calculate the time it took and the difference between the actual time and her estimate. Have her record these numbers on the tally sheet, and review the results together. Sometimes, your child might see that a task takes longer than she anticipated, and others she will discover that she overestimated greatly.

Slowly, you will be able to celebrate with your child when her “guess” becomes closer and closer to the actual time tasks take. That is a skill for a lifetime – not just for one night of homework.

P.S. This strategy works for adults as well.


Yvonne Fournier
Dr. Yvonne Fournier has been a pharmacist, public health administrator, demographer and entrepreneur. She has followed her own roadmap in becoming arguably one of the most prolific of educators and child advocates in America today.