Helping Your Child Succeed Working from Home

Helping Your Child Succeed Working from Home

By Dr. Ferguson

Face it. Children aren’t returning to school anytime soon – at least not in body (perhaps, in spirit if they get bored enough!). This, of course, means more responsibility now rests on the child (and parents) to get his or her work done.

Schools were caught unaware when the pandemic touched our shores in early spring. To put it bluntly, the transition from in-person to what turned out to be cobbled together online learning was a hot mess. Children simply did not show up for “virtual office hours”; and, honestly, schools gave children a “free pass” – waving usual work requirements. And you can’t blame schools. They did the best they could. So did children in this topsy-turvy world of the pandemic. None of us knew a pandemic would cripple us to this degree, bringing the world to heel.

Fortunately, the summer break has afforded schools an opportunity to reconvene and organize so they can get it right this time. Online anything, though, is no replacement for work done in the classroom. Children work optimally in classroom environments with teachers and support staff present. Moreover, online anything does not provide the same emotional/psychological enrichment of seeing other young humans seated next to you in the classroom. After all, we are first and foremost herd animals – not virtual talking heads!

Find The Right Spot for Your Child To Work
Stimulus control is a scientific term to describe what occurs when an individual behaves in one way in the presence of a given stimulus (or situation) and another way in the absence of it. Paying attention to schoolwork and on-task behavior, for example, are more likely to occur in a quiet classroom, with a teacher physically present. In contrast, doing homework while seated on the couch dramatically decreases the chances that the child will pay attention to schoolwork – especially while sitting next to a sibling (or dad!) playing videogames. So what should we do?

Create an environment dedicated only for schoolwork. That way, your child won’t be reminded or tempted by other things. Certainly, doing schoolwork where the child also plays is a bad idea. The play area is mostly associated with toys and off-task behavior. It’s nearly impossible for children to ignore their lonely toys staring right back at them with their longing, puppy dog eyes. The couch, too, is mostly associated with other things not homework (e.g., watching television, playing videogames, snacking, napping, wrestling with little brother, petting the cat, etc.). There are simply far too many distractions.

A little desk or table tucked away from high-traffic areas is ideal. Make sure the workspace itself is reasonably clear – no piles, electronic gadgets, etc. It also doesn’t make sense parking a desk at a window, as virtually everything going on outside is more likely to draw a child’s attention away from, say, algebra or Hamlet.

Getting used to the workspace takes time. I would imagine it might take a week or more before a child settles in. After all, how many months has it been since your child stepped foot in a classroom?

Turn on a fan or anything that produces white noise. It will mask ambient noise. Fans are also soothing in and of themselves – especially for “active” brains in search of constant stimulation. Sometimes quiet environments where you can literally hear a pin drop are maddening for a child. Soft classical music might work too, but avoid YouTube or Spotify that run distracting ads.

Chunk Assignments
Break down tasks into meaningful, doable units. Like a hill that’s too steep and too high to climb, a child is inclined (pun intended!) to give up if the pile of work is too daunting. If, say, your child has to complete 30 math problems, break it down to 6 to 10 at a time. If a child has to write a 1,000-word assignment, break it down to 250 words at a time. Every word processor has a word count feature so this is relatively easy to do.

Between chunks of work, structure break time. Ideally, have your child engage in physical activity during breaks (e.g., jumping jacks, 10 minutes on a stationary bike, stretching, yoga, chasing the dog in the backyard, etc.).

Get Up and Move (Regularly)
Online learning means fewer opportunities to exercise. Scientific studies show that aerobic exercise improves alertness, attention, motivation, and helps the brain memorize facts (i.e., memory consolidation). Aerobic exercise includes brisk walks, hiking, jogging, kayaking, skipping rope, dancing, swimming, bike riding, etc. – anything that gets your child’s heart pumping. Regular aerobic exercise can also improve your child’s sleep (just don’t exercise right before bed), improve mood, and boost energy. Exercise, above else, should be fun.

Think of your child’s brain as a gas gauge. Because schoolwork requires mental energy, break time activities requiring mental energy (i.e., video games) further depletes the mental gas tank. Instead of getting on his or her electronic device, have your child get up and move.

Reinforce (Reward, Praise) On-Task Behavior and Do So Often
If you pay attention to behavior and reward (reinforce) it you are more likely to see more of it. Parents often want to reward a child’s behavior by rewarding him or her for good grades. This is not a good idea for two reasons. First, the “reward” is too far from the behavior you are trying to promote. Rewards (so-called “reinforcers”) work best if they follow the behavior as close in time as possible. Second, there are many factors outside the child’s control that are related to good grades. Some teachers are hard graders. The material might be incredibly challenging. Some children, too, through no fault of their own, struggle with certain subject matter or otherwise have learning challenges. Accordingly, some children – despite their best efforts – cannot earn “A” grades. Praise or reward your child for his or her EFFORT instead. You are setting them up for failure by insisting on unreasonable expectations.

When you praise your child for his or her effort, say something like, “I love how hard you worked at studying for this exam.” You should praise him or her even if your child performs poorly but clearly made the effort at doing the best he or she could.

Praising your child for positive behavior should entail five things:

  • Be specific – Tell your child exactly what he or she did that was good.
  • Be close – Stand next to your child when you are praising him or her.
  • Use touch – High-five, hug, kiss, pat on the back, or fist bump each time.
  • Be immediate – Praise right after the behavior you want to see.
  • Be enthusiastic – Sound over-the-top excited! (This, of course, might backfire if your child is a teen!).

If you want to get fancy, you might develop a contingency contract or success in school contract. Behavior contracts often involve answering key questions. Who is the person who will be performing the task and earning the reward (i.e., the child)? What is the task or behavior the child must perform (e.g., 10 math problems, etc.)? When must the task be completed (e.g., before 6:00 p.m. today)?  Or, How Well must the child accomplish the assignment to be considered successful (e.g., 70% of the math problems correct, otherwise redo incorrect problems until reaching this goal)?

On the reward side of the contract, there are also key questions to answer. Who will be judging task completion and control delivery of the reward (e.g., mom)? What is the reward (e.g., screen time for videogames)? When can the reward be received by the person earning it (e.g., after completing 10 math problems, 70% of which are correct)?  And, How Much reward can be earned (e.g., 1 hour of screen time)?

Please see the short video on how to develop your own contingency contract titled, “How To Use A Behavior Contract in 15-Minutes,” at the following URL address:

Concluding Remarks
Online schooling is unnatural for most children not accustomed to it. Be kind. See your child’s world through his or her eyes. Can you imagine just how hard it would have been for you to learn math, English, history, Spanish, etc., online? Please cut your child slack. Love them. Create a supportive home environment to help him or her learn and grow in this incredibly challenging world of the pandemic.