October 8, 2020

How Can I Keep My Kids Motivated and On-Task While They’re Distance Learning?

Ideas for keeping children engaged when school is happening at home

Child doing online schooling on a laptop.

For some families, distance learning is going awesome. For most everyone else, the great distance learning experiment of 2020 is going … less than awesome.

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At kitchen tables and bedroom desks around the globe, kids — even kids who used to love school — are struggling to stay motivated. On-screen school just isn’t the same.

“For children who are used to learning in the traditional school setting, it can be hard to get into the learning mindset at home,” says child psychologist Emily Mudd, PhD.

Hard — but not impossible. Dr. Mudd shares her tips for keeping kids motivated during distance learning.

Staying motivated with remote learning

Engaging in hands-on lessons, navigating peer relationships, mastering the monkey bars, learning to avoid getting hit by the dodgeball in gym: There’s a lot that goes on when kids are at school.

“All of the stimulation in a school environment is good for children’s social, emotional and cognitive development,” Dr. Mudd says. “When children walk into the school building, they know it’s time to learn.”

You can’t mimic all of that stimulation at home. But there are things you can do to help your remote learner stay engaged.

1. Create structure and routines

Routines are so important — especially now, when our schedules have been turned upside down. “It’s essential to create a schedule for learning at home.”

Build time into your schedule for regular school day activities, such as lunchtime, recess and breaks between subjects. Post a simple daily schedule in a place where your kids can see it. For younger kids, use pictures instead of words. Then try to follow the schedule as best you can, says Dr. Mudd. “Children thrive on structure and predictability.”

2. Incentivize them

We all need some encouragement. “Even if you love your job, if you stopped getting a paycheck, you’d probably eventually stop coming to work as often,” Dr. Mudd says. Kids, too, need some outside incentive to keep them interested in learning.

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“Find something that’s particularly motivating for your child,” Dr. Mudd says. She recommends steering clear of cash prizes or new toys, as this may be hard to maintain financially. Instead, kids might work to earn extra screen time, a special dessert or the chance to pick the film on family movie night.

Even breaks can be motivating, she says. “Younger children can earn a sticker or a star for every assignment completed, with the promise that they can take a break after three stars,” she suggests. “For older children, you might recommend if they finish their math and government assignments by noon, they can have screen time before lunch.”

3. Boost kids’ confidence

When kids feel like they’re not good at something, it can be extra hard to stay engaged. To boost confidence, Dr. Mudd recommends a two-part strategy:

  1. Acknowledge your child’s feelings: “Kids are more open to suggestions if they feel understood,” she says. “You might say, ‘I know it’s hard not to be in school. You miss your friends, and it’s hard to focus on math when you’re alone at home,’” she says.
  2. Let them know you believe in them. “Tell them, ‘I know it’s hard, and I also know you have the skills to complete this math lesson,’” she says.

When kids feel capable, they’re more likely to engage in hard work. And you can teach your kids this can-do mindset. Don’t only gush when your child gets an A on her algebra test. Also praise her for how hard she worked to earn a C in a subject that didn’t come easily.

“One of the best ways for parents to build self-confidence and self-efficacy in their children is to focus more on effort than outcomes,” Dr. Mudd says. “Now more than ever, it’s important for parents to provide space for children’s efforts.”

4. Personalize it

“One of the greatest benefits of online learning is that you can tailor the lesson to your child’s learning style,” Dr. Mudd says. Some kids might do better listening to audiobooks than reading a paperback. Kids who prefer to learn by doing might grasp the concept of fractions better if they can measure out ingredients while baking in the kitchen.

“In a traditional school environment, all children receive the same delivery of the lesson, regardless of the child’s learning style. This is an opportunity to take advantage of the way your child learns, whether it’s visual, auditory, reading/writing or through movement,” she says.

5. Be flexible

Some things are nonnegotiable. “Sleep, balanced nutrition and physical activity are the building blocks of cognitive growth. Make time for them every day,” Dr. Mudd says. But be flexible when you can to help your child feel a sense of control during these out-of-control times.

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If they want to do their class chat on the front porch (and it’s not too distracting), let them. If they want to ride bikes after lunch and finish their Spanish assignment later, why not?

“If children have a say in what they’re doing or when they’re doing it, it helps create intrinsic motivation,” she says.

Parents and caregivers can also use this time to show kids how to roll with the punches, she adds. “Things are constantly changing. We might have to adjust our learn-from-home methods,” she says. “Try to model flexibility. Instead of getting frustrated when something isn’t working, say: Well, we tried this, and it didn’t work. Let’s come up with a new plan.”

6. Add some fun

For many kids, online school is a lot like regular school — but without any fun parts. No recess with friends and no lunchtime hangouts. To keep kids engaged, try to find ways to add a dose of fun back into their days. Maybe they can play a socially distanced game of hide-and-seek with the neighborhood kids at recess or spend time video chatting with pals while they eat lunch.

“Parents might have to make peace with more screen time to allow children to connect with their friends. This is just the time we’re living in right now; it won’t last forever,” Dr. Mudd says. “Just be sure to balance screen time and non-screen time.”

7. Adjust your expectations

Screen time concessions aren’t the only adjustments parents might have to make. The fact is, pandemic life is hard for all of us. “This is a huge shift for children as well as adults,” Dr. Mudd says. “We have to expect there will be some tension and struggles right now.”

Give your child — and yourself — some grace as you navigate this new normal. If it’s been a tough day, you might decide your kid needs a break more than he needs another hour of geometry. “Try to avoid power struggles and take time out if you’re feeling frustrated,” says Dr. Mudd. After all, mental health is important for learning, too.

“Adults who are happier are more productive at work. The same is true for kids,” she says. “If kids feel connected to their families and everyone is trying their best, that’s a good goal for this year.”

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