Whether your child is learning remotely, on a hybrid schedule, in a pod or back in the classroom, school is different this year. While the change isn’t what anyone planned, it doesn’t have to necessarily be a bad thing for your children’s education.
For many parents, the current situation provides an opportunity to zero in on just what helps their children thrive. If this sounds overwhelming, don’t worry — techniques borrowed from educators can help you find a way to support your child, in ways that work for you.
“What hasn’t changed is who your child is and what he or she needs to grow and develop, not just for academics, but learning in general,” says Shelley Pasnik, VP and Early Childhood Practice Lead at Education Development Center (EDC), a nonprofit education consultancy.
Since every child is different, the right approach will vary. Try these techniques to enhance your child’s learning experience, improve communication with them and support their social needs.
Focus on your child
How can you help your child feel engaged if they’re learning remotely or are part of a learning pod with another family? The answer lies in their interests, stage of development and disposition.
Start thinking about what will help support your child by asking these questions:
- What are their interests? Foster a connection between school and what matters most to them. If your child has an artistic bent, stock up on art supplies like markers, scissors, glue and construction paper or crafting supplies, so they can turn to these when assignments allow. With a sports buff, talk scores and stats to reinforce math concepts.
- What do they want from you? Remember that your child’s developmental stage will dictate how much you can engage them. While an elementary-age child may be starting to crave just a bit of independence, a middle-schooler may assert independence quite strongly and want to connect with peers to figure out an assignment or a solution to a school challenge.
- What kind of help works for them? Some students like it when you check on them to see how they’re doing. Others feel pressured and only want help when they ask for it. Take note of when your child responds best to your support, and shape your approach accordingly.
Create structure for the day
Having a set learning schedule will make it easier for children to focus and use their energy for learning.
"'Understandable structure' is important — otherwise, you’ll be expending a lot of energy constructing a schedule every day,” says Pasnik. “It will take up a lot of cognitive time, and there won’t be the space to do the real work.”
Your child’s age can guide your approach to creating a schedule.
- Younger children. Consistency and predictability are key, so they know what will happen and when throughout the week.
- Older learners. Create an opportunity for ownership by letting them co-construct a schedule, including breaks. Make changes as the school year proceeds.
"Structure is important to clear the way for learning,” says Shai Fuxman, a Senior Research Scientist and Project Director at EDC. “One of the things we talk about in psychology is ‘locus of control,’ which is how you perceive what aspects of your life you can control versus what you can’t.”
When a schedule is set, it’s one thing your kids don’t have to think about.
Caregivers should support children’s progress toward learning goals and key milestones, but this year in particular, they need to avoid stressing out about how their child compares with peers.
“You can always find someone who’s excelling more than your child,” says Pasnik. “This year is an opportunity to gain empathy toward your child and all children.”
She advises watching how your child learns to gain a better understanding of their skills development. Then, you can partner with the educators in your child’s life to determine what else, if anything, is required to support them.
Go about this incrementally.
- Set goals. Give your children time to find their footing with learning early in the school year. Then, establish goals to help them continue to progress. Talk with teachers, if possible, to set appropriate goals for mastery, independent work and other important milestones.
- Provide the tools they need. Make sure you have the school supplies your child needs to learn. Many schools may not be using textbooks this year in favor of online resources. But, if your child would benefit from a textbook to guide their learning, be sure to get one. Also, ask teachers for suggestions for building note-taking skills, finding good vocabulary definitions and other tools.
- Ask for educator input. If you see that your child is struggling with math, or can’t get started on a writing assignment, this is a point of entry to have a conversation with his or her teacher. Ask for their assessment, and then figure out a plan.
Find ways to connect
At any age, it can be difficult to get children to open up about how they feel. This may be particularly true if your child feels overwhelmed by a new learning arrangement.
As any parent knows, peppering your child with direct questions typically leads to few responses. Consider these other approaches.
- Discuss your feelings. In an age-appropriate way, share what might be frustrating or difficult about your own life or work. Modeling your own feelings can be a conversation opener.
- Watch a movie or TV show, or read a book. Many kids feel a kinship with the characters in the media they consume, and that can help warm up a conversation when a direct question is off-putting.
- Ask your child how their friends are doing. Discussing what other kids in their social circle are going through might shed light on what your child is feeling.
Focus on quality, not quantity, with screen time
Rather than measuring your child’s time on devices in hours and minutes, think instead about the actual experience they’re having.
“There’s no magic number of hours to be on a screen, because the quality of the engagement can be very different depending on what they’re doing,” says Pasnik.
There are many ways kids can benefit from screen time.
- Exercise. Videos can get kids to try something new, like dance, yoga or a physical education class. And, these activities get them moving, so they can work off energy and focus on schoolwork. There are many fun options. In the PE With Joe series, British fitness coach Joe Wicks takes viewers through an energetic, 30-minute class. You won’t be alone if you watch — the March 24, 2020 class holds the Guinness World Record for most watched livestream workout.
- Social engagement. For many children — particularly teens and tweens — gaming online isn’t just about the video game itself; it’s the 21st century equivalent of chatting on the phone. This is how they connect with friends they don’t get to see in person at school.
- Emotional support. At the end of a long school day, your child may be longing for human connection. “That may come in the form of a Facetime call from Grandma, and just because it happens on a laptop or phone doesn’t make the connection any less valuable,” says Pasnik.
Of course, it’s important to make sure that your child isn’t getting burned out sitting in front of video calls all day. If they seem like they need a break to give their eyes and minds a rest, make sure they take one, even if it deviates from their usual schedule.
Make socialization a priority
For many young people, school isn’t just a building they visit to take classes. It’s their social hub and where they engage in extracurricular activities. That absence is something parents need to keep in mind.
What your child misses most may vary, and video playdates can only go so far, says Pasnik. Some may crave being in a group, while others want one-on-one time with their best friend.
Many options exist for prioritizing social interaction in safe ways.
- Initiate family chats, both in person where appropriate and online, so kids can connect socially. Get creative, and plan things like Zoom dance parties, so everyone can turn on their camera and see one another having fun.
- If your kids like watching videos, encourage them to watch DIY kid-created content, like Bailey Makes the Cake or Sunny Side Up. Seeing other children their own age online can make them feel less isolated.
- When possible, get kids together physically in safe ways. Arrange outdoor games like hide-and-seek, where kids can wear a mask and move around. Just keep in mind that breathing with a mask after running can be tough, so make sure everyone takes a break when needed.
Of course, families have different areas of concern, acknowledges Pasnik. “If a child lives with someone who is compromised and really can’t be exposed, that family will make a different decision than a family with a different makeup.”
Remember that you can’t do everything
Whether your child is six or 16, keep in mind that learning is a process, and it’s important to remember that they need to support themselves, too.
Take a step back, Pasnik says, and avoid rushing in to help or supply your child with the answer to a problem. Hold back, and encourage them to think it through themselves.
“You need to think about when you intervene and when to hold back,” she says. “Frustration is a part of learning, and sometimes, a struggle can be productive. Give your child confidence by letting them do things for themselves.”
Visit Staples' Back to School Center to find the resources and supplies you need to support your child’s remote and hybrid learning.
The good news for parents is that they’re not alone in their quest to improve their child’s education experience. There are many resources available to help support home education. Here are a few to consider incorporating into your child’s curriculum.
- Common Sense Education. The editors of CommonSense.org have curated a selection of free apps and websites to support home learning for K-12 students on a wide range of subjects, including English, math, science, social studies and art.
- Cosmic Kids Yoga. Geared toward younger children, Cosmic Kids Yoga videos teach kids yoga and relaxation techniques. Led by instructor Jamie Amor, the cheerful videos incorporate animation and storytelling to get kids engaged and stretching.
- EDC. EDC offers a variety of home learning resources, such as a free toolkit with ways technology can support learning at home, and a website featuring ideas and materials for teaching math to kids in grades K-6, which includes a library of frequently asked math questions.
- First Book. Parents and guardians can download activities and free resources in English and Spanish on a wide variety of topics, including diversity and inclusion; ways to promote empathy and respect; STEM; healthy relationships and more.
- Khan Academy. Students can access interactive math problems in areas ranging from arithmetic to calculus on Khan Academy’s free homeschooling page. Each child gets their own dashboard to help track progress.
- Marshall University. This West Virginia-based university has compiled a collection of sites and apps to support home learning, including ideas for virtual field trips to museums and cultural institutions around the world.
- Mystery Doug. Kick off a science lesson with one of these entertaining clips from educator Doug Peltz. The free series of five-minute videos for elementary school students is based entirely on questions real kids ask, such as, “Why do we get goosebumps?” “Why does soap make bubbles?” or “Where does salt come from?”
- Prodigy. Students at different learning levels can explore game-style math exercises for free on Prodigy. Parents can create an account to monitor progress and receive monthly “report cards.”
- Scholastic Learn at Home. For a monthly subscription fee, Scholastic offers lesson ideas for pre-K, grades 1-2 and grades 3-5. Lessons on a variety of topics include vocabulary exercises, interactive quizzes and outdoor activities.
- Wide Open School. Created in partnership with Common Sense Media, Wide Open School offers many activities, such as creating a DIY putt-putt golf course out of things in your home, workouts inspired by Marvel’s Avengers and jumping jacks contests.