Evidence-Backed Ways Parents Can Think Like a Teacher to Improve Virtual Learning
You can't become an experienced educator overnight, but these strategies might ease the pain of remote schooling.
Let’s get one thing straight this back-to-school season: Teachers are professionals. They go to school, complete student-teacher training, garner experience and receive continuing education, all in order to hone a highly skilled craft. Anyone who thinks parents, tutors, grandparents and other caregivers can truly fill teachers’ shoes during a pandemic by picking up pointers from an article is ... well ... mistaken.
That said, teachers learned from professors and those professors can explain education concepts to parents like me, helping to make our poor imitation less poor.
At Vanderbilt University, Professor Ilana Horn has been studying the challenges of pandemic teaching. Though her research hasn’t been published yet, she’s finding “motivation is a huge issue, and it has a lot to do with not being in that setting where this is just what everybody is doing.”
Lack of positive peer pressure isn’t the only motivation-killer though. Facing an unfamiliar learning experience can incite fear that manifests in different ways, including “becoming withdrawn, acting out, crying or being more aggressive than usual,” says Erin O’Connor, Ph.D., director of NYU’s Early Childhood Education Program. And Professor Horn reminds us that teachers spend years “figuring out what kids like, what gets them going.” As they take their lessons online, inevitable “bumps in the road” can make kids lose interest.
So how can parents help kids focus and make the most of what their teachers offer remotely? By understanding that a handful of feelings have been shown to enhance motivation: a sense of safety, meaningfulness, competence, belonging, autonomy and connection. What different children need will differ, of course, but a few evidence-based guidelines can help caregivers improve distance learning.
Create the best space possible.
Abigail Amoako Kayser, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Virginia. She says now that our homes have become classrooms, we can learn from research on “the complexities of these spaces.” She and her husband Brian Kayser, Ed.S., a former teacher who's now also at UVA, report that to feel safe, children need a designated work space that’s comfortable.
To create a feeling of belonging, they suggest asking kids to pin up artwork or otherwise personalize their learning space. Help children feel more autonomous by keeping the materials they’ll need — not just pencils but also pencil sharpeners, for example — close at hand.
Ideally, the Kaysers say, kids will have multiple distraction-free work spaces, such as one for class Zooms and another for quiet time. This is a piece of cake for some families and a downright laughable proposition for others. But knowing what the ideal is can help us get as close as possible with what we have. If a straight-backed chair and desk setup isn’t available, for example, try making a “work throne” out of pillows on your child’s bed each morning. In the spring, one of my kids liked to work in his office, a.k.a. my bedroom closet.
Establish rules and goals.
“Research shows that students will work hard when expectations are clear,” the Kaysers say, and teachers are also taught that kids “are more likely to follow the rules when they have a voice in co-creating them.”
That’s why Charis Lauren Wahman, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Michigan State University, recommends having an explicit discussion about home expectations. “Use loving words,” is one of her suggested house rules.
You can also earmark time at the beginning of each day to set goals. Gregory Fabiano, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Florida International University, provides an example of how to communicate one to an elementary-age kid: “Stay in your assigned area with no more than two reminders. That means stay in this chair. You can stand, you can kneel, but you really have to stay in here to get your work done, and if you get more than two reminders, then that would mean you didn’t meet that goal for the day.”
For older children, rules might revolve around eliminating “technoference” or “media multitasking.” Teenagers often think they can scroll Instagram on their phone while listening to a teacher on Zoom, but Michael Rich, M.D., and his colleagues at Boston Children’s Hospital say doing so has been shown to make them “take longer to finish, make more mistakes and remember less of the material.” So ask your teen: “What could work here? Maybe your phone stays in the kitchen during class time?”
Once you’ve clearly and jointly defined expectations, it’s important to model compliance by following the rules yourself, no matter how hard it is to muster those loving words after the ninth interruption in 20 minutes. Be consistent in reacting to broken rules and unmet goals. The Kaysers say teachers strive to use logical consequences and give an opportunity to repair whatever harm has been done, all while remaining supportive and empathetic.
Rely on routines and systems to get and stay organized.
Lack of predictability is often what’s causing the emotions that derail learning, says Professor Wahman, which is why increasing predictability can help. And rules and goals alone aren’t enough.
Teachers can’t control whether kids show up to class tired and hungry, but we can make sure kids get sleep, waking up with enough time to eat a hearty breakfast and get dressed in school clothes — a subconscious cue that it’s time to focus — before distance learning begins.
Last spring, my kids and I did “Circle Time” each morning, going around the room and sharing what we planned to work on that day as well as answering an icebreaker-style question. At first this attempt to boost connection, belonging and autonomy (routine boosts a sense of safety too, though I didn’t know it at the time) felt like a net-loss of 10 minutes for my work day, but when I started looping the kids in on my big deadlines and calls, they demanded less of me later.
Professor Horn says an up-front investment in other systems pays off in the same way. Instead of just creating checklists and whiteboards or setting timers, problem-solve solutions like these alongside kids to increase their buy-in. (Miriam Romero, a fifth-grade teacher at my children’s school in San Francisco says parents can propose programming Alexa or another smart speaker to tell their child when a new Zoom session is starting.) Then revisit your systems regularly. Professor Horn gives an example of how that could look: “So I see this checklist isn’t working, and I noticed you were supposed to have 20 minutes to play with the dog and you ended up playing for an hour and not getting the rest of your stuff done. What can we do about that?”
Bolster autonomy in a second way by setting up systems that kids can navigate independently as much as possible. Try keeping a bucket of healthy snacks out on the kitchen table so a child can leave their work space after a lesson ends, help themselves to a snack and return afterward. It’s important to plan for transitions like these, Professor Wahman says, and Professor Fabiano suggests helping kids get organized each day, walking through a schedule and which passwords are where, before expecting them to be self-sufficient.
But don’t go overboard with the scheduling, either: Dr. Rich reminds us that loads of research shows kids benefit from free play and unstructured time. Time spent outside and physical activity have both been proven to reduce kids’ stress levels and increase their readiness to learn. There’s a reason schools have recess and Free Choice Friday!
Make work meaningful.
Professor Horn says one of the biggest challenges with distance learning is that “the person who is designing the work is at a remove from the child” and a parent can be left without an answer to the question, “Why do I have to know this?” As much as possible, steer clear of the knee-jerk response “because your teacher said so” and take a minute to engage the question (I know, yet another 10 minutes, gone forever). Professor O’Connor started the website Scientific Mommy with Robin Neuhaus, a doctoral student at NYU. They recommend “encouraging students to look for ways that academic content aligns with their personal values.” If that fails, try telling a story about an experience of yours that makes the assignment more relatable.
But let’s be real. You can also use a backdoor to make the work meaningful. As Horn says, “Even though in a perfect world, we want kids to be intrinsically motivated, everyone is just doing their best right now.” It’s not the worst thing in the world to use your kid’s preferred activities as incentives for completed work. Professor Wahman agrees, noting that extrinsic rewards have been proven to support new skill acquisition.
But O’Connor and Neuhaus say here too we have to strike a delicate balance between structure and flexibility: “Parents can undermine motivation if they are overly controlling and create a home learning environment characterized by surveillance, pressure and extrinsic rewards.”
Play to their (and your) strengths.
To help things flow more naturally, consider a strengths-based approach. To understand strengths-based education, teachers learn that focusing on what kids don’t do well can cause them to become disengaged, while focusing on their strengths — things they enjoy doing, are good at, and choose to do, explains psychologist Lea Waters, Ph.D. — increases feelings of competence, meaning and autonomy.
You can start with a strategy dubbed “catch them being good.” As Professor Horn explains: “You definitely want to say, ‘It’s so great that you used the timer.’” But a strengths-based approach also requires some deep thinking about what engages your kid. O’Connor and Neuhaus say it’s important that students can express themselves in a “format that fits their individual strengths.” If a teacher has assigned a book report but you know your child will be more engaged in producing a video news story, encourage them to ask. They (and you) can also request homework arrangements that play to your kid’s strengths.
It’s not just kids’ strengths that need honest assessment though. Research ties a parent’s belief in their potential to positively impact their child’s learning (called “self-efficacy”) to stronger academic outcomes, O’Connor and Neuhaus report. For me, feeling efficacious has meant acknowledging that, as a former English teacher, I’m qualified to help with reading and writing, and I legitimately enjoy it. But science is another story; it’s messy and makes me anxious. So my kids’ dad handles the outdoor education, and their step-dad-to-be runs experiments the teachers assign.
Focus on relationships.
A lot of these suggestions boil down to a fundamental truth: There is no better way to give kids a sense of meaning, connection and belonging than to intertwine schoolwork with supportive relationships. Research shows that “children will work hard for their teachers, be cooperative and follow rules and routines if they perceive you to be supportive and caring,” say the Kaysers.
As you pivot from parent to learning-facilitator and back again, Professor Horn says, “Most of us fear our whole relationship with our children becoming about nagging them to do their things.” When things don’t go well in the classroom, she says, teachers are taught “about how you pull a kid aside and how you don’t just reprimand or chastise. You start with a curiosity, like, ‘I noticed this isn’t going the way we talked about? Tell me what is going on.’”
Notice her use of “I-statements” and the “say what you see” method. Both are meant to make kids less defensive and more open. Which brings us to two other things Horn says teachers are trained to do: Avoid overt power struggles, and, relatedly, keep things light and playful whenever possible. (Before I had kids, one of my favorite strategies as a teacher of physically full-grown ninth graders was to sillily chant, “Butt in seat, butt in seat” rather than ordering them, “Sit down!”)
Since that’s hard to do when you’re burned out and isolated, make distance learning as social as possible. Encourage teachers’ attempts to bond with your kids. If they send a postcard or letter, give your kid a nudge and the supplies to write back. Horn recommends setting up virtual study dates with friends “to give that shared experience of, ‘My friend and I can talk about the funny video that the teacher posted’ instead of ‘It’s just me in my living room, watching this video.’” Others have gotten creative about finding or maintaining community in ways that are both safe and equitable.
Embrace a growth mindset.
No teacher education program today graduates students who haven’t heard the term “growth mindset.” Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, Ph.D., explained the basics for Harvard Business Review: “Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies and input from others) have a growth mindset. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts). This is because they worry less about looking smart and they put more energy into learning.”
When a child encounters a lesson they expect to be able to do and can’t, Professor Horn says try, “Okay, so you don’t get it now, but what questions do we need to send to the teacher?” Somewhere along the line, I picked up the trick of adding the word “yet” to the end of a kid’s sentence. “I just don’t get it,” my daughter will say, and I’ll chime in with “yet” so frequently that my kids now add “yets” to each other’s self-criticism.
Stay as positive as you can.
You’ve got all this right? No problem?
For many of us, life already felt like a juggling act before we heard the term “coronavirus,” with balls dropped at work and balls dropped at home, never enough time or energy to catch and relaunch all those little red balls. Now, we’re still releasing and watching and welcoming and cradling — only we’re doing it while standing on a surfboard, on a wave, on the River Styx, in a pandemic. We don’t have 10 more minutes here and there and everywhere and always. It can be impossible to catch them being good and also finish a slide deck on time. Even the most well-resourced among us can’t do a teacher’s job and our own, regardless of how much of a growth mindset we embody. And some have much more immediate needs like shelter and food taking precedence. There just is no “yet” in this situation.
Yet, say O’Connor and Neuhaus: “Children, especially young children, look to their parents to figure out how to react to new or intimidating situations. If their parent seems skeptical or defeated, then they’re likely to follow suit.”
So motivate them, not just by creating a work space, establishing rules and systems, making work meaningful, playing to strengths, encouraging a growth mindset, and focusing on relationships, but by staying as positive about distance learning as you can. “If their parent is enthusiastic about their child’s new teacher, about the things they can learn,” O’Connor and Neuhaus say, “then they’ll be more likely to be excited.” And you don’t need a professor’s advice to know a more excited kid is a more motivated one.