With a number of possible educational scenarios this fall, the new school year will look different for everyone depending on school district, family decisions, parent availability and more. But one thing is certain: It is necessary for parents to continue to partner with teachers in order to achieve academic success for kids.
The best way for families to adapt to what lies ahead and ensure that learning is productive is for parents to continue supporting their child’s education at home. Here are potential challenges, along with steps to meaningful student engagement.
Clues that kids are NOT engaged in learning:
- Attention span. I learned that my kids (ages 9 & 10) have an attention span of about 45 minutes during moderated Zoom sessions and no more than 20 minutes on self-paced assignments. Know your child’s limitations.
- Body language. My son is pretty straight-forward. When he isn’t engaged in schoolwork, it manifests as frustration and then tears. For my daughter, who is a “pleaser,” clues are more subtle. Her eyes gloss over and her shoulders roll forward. Be sure to pay attention to body language.
- Extended time on assignments. During distance learning in the spring, I would review assignment directions with my son, walk away for 30 minutes and return to find him staring at a blank screen. Does it seem like it’s taking your child forever to complete an assignment? That’s a big indicator that he’s not engaged, which is understandable when a child isn’t naturally motivated by a particular subject, or there isn't an authority figure (or other peers) to encourage completion.
- Extended silence. Research tells us that learning is social, so when a child is silent, it could mean he isn’t engaged in learning. If kids are unable to answer questions about what they are working on, you know they are “checked out.”
- Working the system. Some app assignments (for example, ST Math or Khan Academy) generate what I call “guess and click”—kids poke at the screen and guess answers just to move along, rather than learning or understanding the content presented in the program.
- Off-task behavior. When a child is not working on what is assigned, it can mean a variety of things. It could be attention span issues, technology distractions, and/or that a child is bored with the task at hand.
If any of this is familiar, know that you are not alone and remind yourself that we are all navigating unprecedented times. Whether your family plan is distance learning, learning pod, homeschool or creating a homework routine to support teacher assignments, here are tips to help keep children engaged in learning.
- Create goals. Ask your child to develop and write a goal for the task (in teacher speak, we call this success criteria) by filling in the blank: “When I’m done with this assignment I can/will be able to…”. Keep this goal visible at all times while your child is working. Our family loves to use Post-it notes for this.
- Create motivation. Dangle a “carrot” to keep kids working toward their goals. I’m not suggesting extrinsic rewards (such as food or money), but help your child come up with an “end game” to create a sense of accomplishment. My kids presented their final work to grandparents via FaceTime, and I shared finished projects on social media. Creating an audience may help kids feel like their work matters.
- Create real-world context. Connect the content kids are working on to the real world. For example, if they are learning shapes, point out those shapes when talking a walk in your neighborhood. Keep conversations going as much as possible about what they are learning and how it relates to things around them.
- Break the day (or study time) into 30-minute chunks. If distance learning at home, consider developing a daily schedule that includes bursts of physical activity throughout the day—dog-walking, kicking a soccer ball, etc. Consider starting with a subject the kids like least, so they work on them when they are fresh. Reserve the end of the day for favorite subjects and projects.
- Reimagine learning space, if possible. Newly reimagined space for kids to learn makes basic tasks feel exciting. Our family set up a hammock in the backyard or a fort in the living room for reading and we created an art and tinker space in the garage. Consider clearing out a closet to make a comfortable (and trendy pre-teen) seating option for Zoom calls. Kids whose families are participating in learning pods will have the advantage of someone else’s house to mix things up.
- Have no-tech learning options. My son loves puzzles and circuit boards and my daughter loves art. These are important skills and talents that aren’t largely tended to in virtual learning, so keep children engaged at home to develop different parts of their brains. Access my No-Tech Matrix at www.craftedcurriculum.com/pbl-lite-no-tech-matrix.
- Work with the teacher to design a passion project. Passion projects are based on student interests and, in a perfect world, are tied to content standards (but don’t have to be). Time spent on a passion project could be considered “genius hour”, which allows students to explore new ideas and interests. If the teacher doesn't have the bandwidth to do this, families can launch their own. Sample projects include the following, which I recently did with my children. Get started by filling out the printable Passion Project Proposal (in English and Spanish) below.
We are all trying to balance the demands and challenges of these new circumstances, while caring for our childrens’ well-being. I hope these ideas help parents engage children in meaningful learning.
Be sure to pick up the September issue to read the second part of this two-part series.
Dr. Jenny Pieratt is a native San Diegan, award-winning author, speaker, business owner and mother of two. She loves sports, yoga and adventure. To learn more about her work visit www.craftedcurriculum.com and follow her on social media @crafted_jennyp.