With the global pandemic of COVID-19 shutting down schools, support systems and businesses around the world, many parents have been put in the position of having to assume new roles with their children, including teaching and enforcing daily curriculum provided by teachers.
Children have also been asked to adapt to this “new normal” without very much understanding of what is happening in the world and without knowing when they will be able to return to school or see their friends again. When you pile this new workload onto the existing stress and uncertainty in our world, it can be a very overwhelming task for even the most seasoned parents and teachers.
This traumatic experience can make even the simplest of academic tasks excessively daunting. Not only are children and parents being asked to adapt to emergency online learning systems, they also have to learn new technologies and be able to access information faster than ever before. It’s no wonder emotional warning bells are going off for children and parents alike!
Nevertheless, it is important to press on and to teach children about resilience and perseverance. This is a wonderful gift of time to be able to work with your child one-on-one and learn how to best support them in their learning journeys. Contrary to popular belief, most children don’t need support with the actual academics – they need support with the invisible skills that make the academics possible. In the world of education and neuroscience, these skills are known as Executive Functioning skills.
Executive Functioning skills are core capabilities that every adult uses to manage life, work, and parenting effectively. These include, but are not limited to: planning, focus, self-control, awareness, and flexibility. Children are not born with these skills, but rather they are born with the capacity to learn these skills. In our busy lives of the 21st century, parents and teachers often forget that many children (especially those with any learning exceptionality, including ADHD, ASD, and Giftedness) need explicit teaching to be able to learn and apply these skills. Here are seven simple strategies to help teach these skills and set your children up for success.
Strategies to Set Students up for Success
1. Be patient and compassionate. Reassure your children that it’s entirely normal to be overwhelmed and upset with these changes. Remind them that everyone is having to adapt and that this isn’t “easy” for anyone. Often, children just need to have their feelings acknowledged as part of the emotional regulation process. When they feel safe and supported, it will be much easier to tackle more challenging tasks, like homework or household chores.
2. Set clear expectations. Everyone performs better when they have clear expectations. These expectations may not be coming in clearly from every school and every teacher, so help your child determine what the expectations are for work completion and quality of work. Set expectations for the amount of time spent on work before access to video games or TV is given. Also set expectations for how this time will be monitored. Is the child self-monitoring, or are you (the parent) sitting with them the whole time. It may seem like a lot to have to monitor, but I promise that an hour of devoted attention will earn you several more hours of uninterrupted work time for yourself later. It’s a good trade-off!
3. Establish environmental supports, like schedules, checklists and clear workspaces for your child. As they say, “Well begun is half done”, we need to teach our children how to set up their workspace and plan their tasks. Once there is a checklist or schedule to follow and a workspace free from distractions and with all the necessities for completing work, then the work itself becomes significantly less daunting. When it comes to creating a schedule or list for your child, ask them to be part off the creation. Each of us has very different needs when it comes to schedules, so it’s very important to ask your child how THEY need to see the information so it makes sense. Some children like charts and some like lots of pictures. Some like checkmarks for completed items and some like stickers. Personalize it so your child will actually want to keep using that system.
4. Use metacognition techniques and modeling to help children learn how to recognize what they need and where to look for support. This might look like a parent offering a statement like “It looks like you might need a pencil to start this activity. I don’t see a pencil on the table. Where might we look for a pencil?”. Very often, this simple form of modelling self-talk helps children develop the self-awareness and self-starting skills that many of us take for granted. It also works much better than barking “go get a pencil” which usually just leads to tears and shut-downs.
5. Establish external reminders for time. Use a large clock on the wall, or digital alarm clock nearby to help your child keep track of passing time. Set goals for time limits for academic tasks, chores and breaks to help children learn about the value of passing time. It’s so easy to get lost in a video game or TV show when we don’t “see” the minutes passing, but a simple visual reminder can help cue children into self-regulating their time on various tasks. A phone time or kitchen timer is an excellent way to help give audible reminders when it’s time for a break or when it’s time to get back to work.
6. Switch it up. Build frequent breaks into your daily routine and allow for these breaks to be free from high expectations. Allow time for children to hit “reset” on their brains and their emotions, especially when engaging in highly cognitive tasks like homework. In studies of teachers and students, results have shown that frequent, short, “Brain Breaks” are very effective at increasing student focus and productivity. These same studies have shown that working in 10-minute lesson “chunks” is often much more effective than asking children to listen or work for 30-minute stretches. Now, once a child has gotten into an activity, it is also just as important to let them work on it until they feel like they are finished, so don’t cut the activity short just because the timer goes off. When the timer goes off in my classroom, I always ask students if they are ready to be done or if they want to keep going. Often, they ask to keep going, in which case, I will set the timer for another 10 minutes before we take a break. This is also an effective strategy to help them learn to self-monitor their own progress and level of work quality.
7. Create a reward system. Parents are often wary of using external rewards to motivate their child’s behaviours, but any teacher will tell you – “bribes” work! Rewards can take many forms, and often what children are really looking for in a reward or motivation system is the recognition that they have achieved something. Many teachers have a “Prize Bin” in their classroom, and parents might have a “Treasure Box” at home that a child can choose something from when they’ve done something above and beyond the basic expectations. Or perhaps they have to collect a certain number of checkmarks, smiley faces or stickers on their reward chart before they can “cash in” for a prize. Some parents and teachers get really creative and even create “Class money” or use Monopoly money to create a commerce reward system that also teaches children about financial literacy while reinforcing that hard work really does “pay off”. Regardless of concrete prizes, continue to regularly offer pep talks to your children and teach them positive self-talk to help build intrinsic motivation to work hard and continue learning and improving their skill set.
In the end, we can all think back to a memory of time spent with our parents, or time spent learning something new through an immersive experience, but not many people can remember how they learned how to do homework. For many, it can be a really frustrating memory!
What you want your children to hold on to during the work-from-home days is the way that being at home makes them feel. Nurture their mental health before enforcing academic standards. What we know about the brain is that no brain functions well under chronic stress and trauma. So take away the stress, go slow, and have fun!
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