Practical Tips for Guiding (and Surviving) your Child's Digital Education

PART THREE: Getting Ahead and Staying Ahead (or Staying by and Getting by)

Try to stay a step ahead: Thankfully, our children’s teachers are finding ways to bring back basic instruction in core academic areas. Many of them are uploading a daily plan, or even weekly schedule, to give parents a heads-up about their upcoming lessons and video class meetings. If you’re lucky enough to get these in advance, take a moment to run through the plans the night before or even grab a quick glance at breakfast, just before things start to feel hectic. If you as the parent can exude even a little confidence with the day’s plan, a struggling child can often follow suit. Fake it ‘til you make it.

Move beyond the basics: While core skills like math, reading, and writing are at the top of nearly every parent’s wish list, don’t overlook the value of the lighter, often optional, opportunities to reconnect your children with their school communities. On the surface, video class meetings or virtual scavenger hunts may not offer much in academic content, but what they might be actually providing is a sense of belonging or a boost to self-esteem that may be a bigger motivator to children when it comes to re-engaging later with some of that harder school work. Collaborative activities with peers like class art, group story-writing, or the sharing of baking recipes or homemade riddles may give just enough sense of community to make even the most reluctant learners care about their schooldays once again.

Free, free, set them free: We’ve all heard that a healthy mind can’t operate without a healthy body. Even for those without easy access to a sunny yard or park, consider a ten-minute stretching or active video courtesy of YouTube every hour or two. You’ll find capable, high-energy, and often hilarious instructors guiding kids through everything from animal-shapes yoga to superhero workouts; get those kids moving and maybe even give yourself time to grab that second cup of coffee and a little slice of sanity.

A little boredom goes a long way: Release yourself from the feeling that you need to keep your children occupied for every moment of every weekday. Although extracurriculars rule the afternoons of so many families in typical periods, consider the pandemic a time to return to slower, easier days when kids spent more time programming themselves. A growing number of expert voices, from pediatricians to child psychologists, are calling for parents to allow a little boredom to return to kids’ lives as a way of building a child’s sense of identity and own well-being. So, relieve yourself of that counterproductive parent-guilt and turn the keys to the afternoon over to them from time-to-time; you might be surprised where their imaginations take them.

Take “family fun day” if you need it: When all else fails and you or your family have just hit your limit, it’s okay to take a knee. Call it a mental health day, call it a “family fun day”; no matter what you call it, every family has been there and one morning or full-day-off here or there might be just enough of a charm to restore order to your world. At the end of the day, with our family’s needs stretched in so many directions, go easy on yourself from time-to-time; we are all just trying to get by. Our kids will survive and will likely be better for it in the long run.

PART TWO: Rewriting the Three R’s:

How to make digital learning more effective and more meaningful for your child

In Part One, we detailed how providing a secure and positive environment will give children a stable base for digital learning. In Part Two, we provide concrete suggestions for parents to use as a springboard from which they can build a productive learning routine for their children.

Refresh them with their favourite subjects: “Work before pleasure” is a useful mantra for most parents struggling to guide reluctant learners at home – as much as they’ll hate it at first, save your child’s favourite subjects for after they have finished their most dreaded work. Dole out the art, reading, and engaging science videos like rich desserts and spare yourself the tears and power struggles of trying to accomplish a few pages of challenging math or detailed writing just as their body’s natural rhythm is telling them to curl up for a nap.

Remember that energy levels naturally fluctuate: Take advantage of what teachers consider to be peak windows for most children’s learning, from 10 AM until noon and the first hour or so after lunch. Savvy planners will use the mid-to-late morning to plug in attention-heavy tasks like learning new concepts in math, foreign languages, and structured writing. Are you a parent used to grabbing a 2 PM coffee just to get through the hump of the day? Identify your kid’s equivalent of an afternoon pick-me-up, whether it’s a spin around the block on their bike or 10 minutes of YouTube. A little refreshment goes a long way.

Reinvent your child’s concept of time: Does your son or daughter lose focus easily? Ever have that moment where you leave them to work for half-an-hour and come back to find they are still struggling through the same exact question they were starting when you left? Attention experts state that a typical student can stay focused on a single task for up to five minutes per year of their age, meaning that a mature 5-year-old might be able to handle a 25-minute task at most in one go, while a typical ten-year-old should manage closer to an hour of sustained focus. But that’s at the high end of the scale, and this varies considerably child-to-child. Consider using an online timer (especially something visual like an hourglass) to break down hours into more manageable chunks. Ten or 15-minute blocks are a good starting point that should help children improve their productivity while giving them a useful lesson of how time really works and what can reasonably be accomplished.

Reflect on core concepts: Too many online study apps are designed like their adult social media equivalents, keeping kids clicking buttons and racing through to clear the next stage or earn the next badge. Never overlook the value of an end-of-the-day (or breakfast) face-to-face chat with your child, checking exactly what they retained from their core subject work. Ask them to recall three facts from the day’s math lesson or the three key concepts from their social studies tutorial. The very act of retelling this new information will help many students retain much more information in the long run. The bonus for busy parents is that it doesn’t need to take more than a few minutes, leaving you both to feel you have connected and the child feeling that their learning is valued.

Recognize when enough is enough: Hit a wall in your child’s learning? Having one of those days? Know that teachers are often struggling too with the digital experience. Some may have erred on the side of providing too much filler for your child’s day. An open and honest email or a prearranged phone-call may be just what it takes to inform them what’s happening in your own home, including what is a realistic workload and when your family just…needs… a break. You may find an empathetic ear, someone willing to negotiate a bit, and hopefully an appreciation for what your child can reasonably accomplish. Reach out and you may be surprised – a successful teacher will be happy to work together with a proactive family.

PART ONE: Providing a Secure Environment

As any parent knows, raising young children during the Covid-19 crisis is proving more challenging than anything our generation has ever seen. We are simultaneously juggling the roles of parent, employee, and make-shift teacher with few, if any, of our trusted supports to ease the challenge of raising and nurturing our children. This is a daunting reality for every parent, and keep in mind that this can be just as unsettling and under-stimulating for our children, despite our best efforts.

The New Normal If you are like most parents, you found a way to squeeze out the first few weeks as we eased towards the “new normal.” Gradually you swapped sleep-ins, movie marathons, and back-alley Tour de Frances for your new part-time-job providing tech support for your child’s videoconferences or downloading apps on an old work laptop so that their scavenger hunt answers can to be uploaded to their class website. But now that we might have just settled into the semi-long term of this new digital education, what can we do to make things easier for us, for our children, and for our whole family?

Here are some tips to help get you and your family over the hump:

  • Develop a routine and (and stick to it):
    Provide each child with a predictable place to study, even if it’s just the end of the kitchen table or part of a desk in the spare room. Demonstrate your commitment to their learning by keeping it uncluttered and free of distractions; it’s important for kids to know they have a place to call their own for study purposes. Consider playing soft music each morning as another cue that they are about to begin a new day. Try and keep the home-study day as similar as possible to the rhythm of a typical day at school. The early start will be tough for some families, to be sure, but this and other simple adoptions like recess or an exercise break after lunch are all school essentials, and easily could make the transition to your home learning environment. This schedule may also provide the added bonus of a little more credibility for the routine you are trying to re-establish in your own home.

  • Use visuals to plan your days:
    A timetable-style day-plan on a mini whiteboard, on poster paper, or even on the back of some salvaged cardboard is an effective way to remind the children what is expected of them (and you) throughout the course of the day. Without a guide, without some accountability, these long days are likely to feel like one tedious homework session after another with no end in sight for either of you. A monthly calendar is another essential visual for young or old; keep it displayed in a central location up on a wall or even on a device.

  • Include the children in the planning:
    A simple and empowering way to get buy-in from many children is to include them in part of the process, whether that be in helping to decide which subjects they will focus on that day or to help plan and prepare their own recess snack. This might also reduce some of the helplessness that so many children feel during times of crisis.

  • Build-in mini-rewards and end-of-week celebrations:
    It’s so important to take the time throughout the day to mark a child’s successes, be they little or large. It needn’t be connected to screen time or sweets either – don’t discount the value of a high-five or a well-earned pat on the back for a kid who might have struggled to finish a section of math or spelling. Remember, they have lost so much of that built-in confidence cushion from their teacher or closest classmates, so your role is even more important as a regular source of positive feedback. Finally, finish the week off with a Friday dessert treat or a family movie night to help celebrate all of your hard work.


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