As a parent of a 6-year-old and a 12-year-old, a long-time homeschooler, and a professional online teacher, I have experience on both sides of the fence. While online classes last spring didn’t go well for many families, there are some things parents can do to help their children succeed in this new online environment.
Make sure your child shows up to class with at least one question, every day. This requires them to think about the topic at hand and gives them a reason to pay attention to the teacher from the beginning of class. As Dr. Willingham says, “Memory is the residue of thought,” and you want your children to think about the class—before, during and after.
Let your child know in advance that you’re going to ask them to summarize the class afterwards. This gives them motivation to pay attention, but you must follow through. Again, it’s less about what they say than the fact that they can say anything at all. Bribery helps—M&Ms are a tried and true favorite in my house.
Resist the urge to help your child with their schoolwork. If your child can’t complete the assignment independently—don’t do it for them. Instead, email the teacher. This is new ground for many teachers, and they do not know how well these assignments are working for students unless someone tells them.
Ask your teacher to provide guided notes, or an outline of the synchronous class session. That way, students can mark up the notes while taking the class to help them attend to the speaker and stay on track. Make a habit of asking to see your child’s notes after class—again, it’s not what they write down, it’s that they wrote down anything at all.
Help your child with their executive functioning. The prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully mature until the mid-20s, so even if you have a teenager, give them a hand sorting out their weekly assignment schedule. Younger children do better with visual calendars, so consider investing in a dry-erase weekly calendar, or even go old school and buy removable chalkboard contact paper for a wall ($10 on Amazon). Once a week, review everyone’s assignments and write them on the correct days so everyone knows what is due and when. And just like you make sure your child would get on the bus, do help your child charge their device, wrangle Internet access and set timers to remind them to show up to synchronous (live) classes. Many families will have difficulty making sure that children have devices or good Internet access—again, let your teacher know if you have a problem.
Break it up, redirect and review when necessary. Children are often wiggly, and younger children in particular will have difficulty attending to lengthy synchronous sessions. If possible, opt out of anything longer than 25 minutes for K-3. Even for those 25 minutes, you’ll almost certainly have to sit with them and gently redirect their attention to the screen. Furthermore, you’ll probably end up helping your child review the material. Inexpensive index cards make good flashcards for spelling words (put a picture of the word on one side) and math facts. Older children and even teenagers can be hard-pressed to attend to an hour-long session. Most of them are capable, but you’ll need to set limits and reinforce expectations for teachers.
Limit digital distractions. Add a browser extension like BlockSite to help keep children (and adults) with poor impulse control from absentmindedly surfing away from school work. It can also block adult content. You might try it yourself—sometimes it’s surprising how often we get distracted online. While we have all used the Internet to distract us while we’re stuck at home, put a limit on it. Experienced homeschooling mamas will tell you that the first two weeks of limited screen time is the worst—there will be temper tantrums and tears. If you can get through those first two weeks, you might find that your children’s temperament evens out. I use the Disney Circle device to set time and content limits without arguing.
Plan for brain and bio breaks. Make sure your child has breaks between synchronous (live) class sessions. Insist that your child get up and move around. Jumping jacks, a quick run around the outside of the house, or a quick session on a trampoline all work. Make sure they’re properly hydrated and that they go to the bathroom if needed. That way, they don’t have to miss part of class.
Encourage your children to move. All children benefit from an hour of aerobic exercise every day. While many of us have had our usual sports teams and normal exercise routines curtailed because of the pandemic (our aquatic center membership has lapsed), we can set up exercise routines at home. For example, I keep a mini trampoline in my living room, and my 6-year-old practices skip counting, addition and subtraction while jumping.
Plan healthy, well-balanced meals. Well-balanced meals help wiggly children pay attention. Fruits and vegetables provide vitamins and minerals that help brains work better, while a meal with limited fat helps them stay awake. My children eat a cold lunch, with raw fruit, fresh veggies, a lean protein and a carb every day.
Be present and check in. Always have your child attend class in full view of the family. Even my computer is positioned so that the monitor is visible from my office door. This is a subtle way to ensure that they’re always on task and it allows you to easily check in on the class. You might invest in an inexpensive gaming headset to let your child attend to the class without distractions and speak without too much background noise. Consider it a backpack replacement this year.
Follow a bedtime routine. Anxiety makes poor sleepers, but it’s easier to pay attention when you’re well-rested. While it may be tempting to just keep staying up late like it’s summer, put those kids to bed. Early sleep is what sleep researchers call “golden,” while late-night sleep is not. Set a normal bedtime routine, with a bath, pajamas, and a book. Everyone will feel better for it.