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What are child development scientists advising parents to do about learning at home during COVID-19 lockdowns?
With no advance notice, children and teachers were thrust into using online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, a crisis that is far from over. Those who are self-isolating face the prospect of distance learning for the foreseeable future; for others, positive COVID-19 test results or COVID-19 symptoms combined with the absence of testing will mean significant periods of time away from school. And as we face a second wave of the disease, many schools could close for long periods yet again.
What do child development scientists have to say to parents who are tackling the issue of learning at home? We asked members of the Scientists’ Alliance for Communicating Child Development Knowledge, who provided a wealth of insights.
Parents are the main influence on learning, but the pressures are great
Parents are the main influence on learning, writes Jennifer Lansford on the Child & Family Blog. “Demonstrate to your children the value of education – that’s one of the most important ways a parent can encourage their learning.” But, as Suniya Luthar writes on our blog, the pressures on children at home are great. “In our research, by far the most important factor predicting anxiety and depression in children was low quality of relationship with parents. Following this was lack of structure to the day (separating time for leisure or fun), and high levels of distraction or inability to focus on schoolwork.”
Children learn through play and curiosity: an opportunity for parents
During the COVID-19 pandemic, parents may feel pressure to teach children in traditional school-based ways. Yet there is nothing wrong with learning in playful ways that keep children’s interest and invite them to have fun at the same time. Numerous studies suggest that learning is a fundamental part of what occurs during play: Playing and learning are inextricably linked. For children, playing with adults is likely to be even more enriching.
Play helps children explore a wide variety of emotions, and not just pleasant ones like excitement and joy. These experiences help children grow emotionally and cognitively. What’s more, children are aware that they are learning through play, and a study of 400 children showed that many of them thought the worlds of play and learning overlap in many ways.
Lockdown learning through play can help build on children’s natural ways of learning by building on their curiosity and self-direction. Play with family members could also be essential for mitigating the loss of learning related to the pandemic, particularly for disadvantaged children.
At the same time, playing with children is important for reducing stress and improving mental health among parents and caregivers.
Top tips for parents on home learning
The Internet features great material advising parents what to do. Below is a guide to it all. Another good place to start is asking children what was good and bad about the lockdown from March to June because, as Roberta Golinkoff and Marcia Halperin explain, children have insights on the benefits and challenges of remote learning: Just ask them.
One of our favorite resources is Jelena Obradović’s tip sheet for parents supporting online learning at home. The sheet covers the themes of learning spaces, daily schedules, routines, goals and progress, as well as managing frustrations and ensuring closeness and connection. We have reproduced this sheet here:
- Find a space in your home that can be used every day for distance learning.
- If the space is shared, create a cardboard or cloth separation to minimize noise and distractions.
- Offer your child the chance to decorate this space to feel welcoming (draw a sign, bring a favorite pillow, etc.).
- Make sure the space includes essential learning materials. Ask teachers for help.
- Understand what teachers expect from your child. Email, call, or text to clarify.
- Write a simple list of activities that your child needs to complete each day.
- Include breaks for snacks, physical activity, wiggles or stretches, and free choice time. Younger children will need more breaks.
- Encourage your child to decorate the schedule and post it in their space.
- Revise to fit your family’s needs. Be flexible.
- Start early when your child is rested.
- Review the daily schedule and make sure your child understands it (e.g., first you will…, then you can…).
- Help your child build independence (e.g., learn to prepare their own snack, troubleshoot computer problems).
- Let your child know when and how they can ask for help.
- Keep regular sleep times.
Goals & Progress
- Together with your child, set behavioral expectations and review them daily.
- Set goals and timelines that your child can complete. It’s about progress, not perfection.
- Teach your child to use a timer to stay focused for a period of time. Start small!
- Mark daily progress (even on not-so-good days) with stickers, pennies, pebbles, etc.
- Use your child’s favorite activities as rewards for showing effort and progress.
- Use simple calming strategies: counting to 10, taking deep breaths, a short break.
- Help your child describe the problem and express their feelings (I feel…, when…).
- Together, come up with a potential solution and connect it to previously set expectations.
- Explain how the child’s behavior is linked to consequences. Set gentle and firm limits.
- Assume that everyone is trying their best. Be kind to yourself. Be patient with others.
- Ask teachers and others for help.
Closeness & Connection
- Start each day with a brief joyful experience: a fun greeting, song, dance.
- Create opportunities for your child to be helpful (e.g., household chores, cooking prep, reading to siblings).
- Each day, try to connect with your child without any distractions. Highlight positive experiences. If you have time, do a fun activity together that the child selects.
- Create opportunities for your child to share their worries, and provide reassurance.
You can download the tip sheet in English, Arabic, Cantonese, Filipino, Mandarin, Portuguese, Spanish, Urdu, and Vietnamese here.
Another great on-line resource is from Mental Health America, How to cope with the stress of home schooling (for parents). This recommends three steps:
- Adjust your mindset – get support from other parents and homeschool teachers, remind yourself why you’re homeschooling in the first place, practice gratitude on a daily basis with your household, adjust your expectations on a day-to-day basis, and switch up your teaching style if your kids aren’t interested.
- Reduce stress with a routine – outline a rough schedule for each day, divide the day into large blocks instead of specific classes, give yourself more time than you actually need for lessons, multi-task if you’re caring for more than one child, be flexible with your daily routine, and set aside time to unwind.
- Plan for rough days – identify the root of your children’s problems as they arise, write a list of calming activities for yourself and your children, calm your child down before disciplining them, practice mindfulness as you go through the week, ask friends and family for support if you need it.
Our search found other good top tips on-line.
If possible, dedicate a specific device to learning. (NPR, How to turn your home into a school without losing your sanity)
Schedule and routine
Plan the day together, including when to do activities. Engaging children in creating a schedule helps build their self-awareness and motivation. (Catherine Tamis-LeMonda & Erin Bogan, The science of learning and teaching at home during Covid-19)
Have a good shake at the end of the day! (NPR, How To Turn Your Home Into A School Without Losing Your Sanity)
Be a good role model: Parents should stick to their own routine, too! (Catherine Tamis-LeMonda & Erin Bogan, The science of learning and teaching at home during Covid-19)
When children aren’t motivated to learn, parents and caregivers can make it more fun by incorporating documentaries, or changing the topic and giving children the choice to return to the work later. (Catherine Tamis-Lemonda & Erin Bogan, The science of learning and teaching at home during Covid-19)
It is important for parents to manage their own emotions because children can’t learn in high-stress environments. In doing this, adults provide the conditions necessary to learn. (Catherine Tamis-Lemonda & Erin Bogan, The science of learning and teaching at home during Covid-19)
Working with teachers
Schedule time with teachers, both to clarify what is expected of your child and to make use of available teaching resources. (Catherine Tamis-LeMonda & Erin Bogan, The science of learning and teaching at home during Covid-19)
Consider if your child can join meetings with the teacher. This can help children feel more motivated and closer to the teacher. (Catherine Tamis-LeMonda & Erin Bogan, The science of learning and teaching at home during Covid-19)
Be specific with questions when meeting with teachers. (Catherine Tamis-LeMonda & Erin Bogan, The science of learning and teaching at home during Covid-19)
Doing things with your child
Break down tasks into bite-sized pieces. (APA, Recommendations on starting school during the COVID-19 pandemic)
Friends and family can help with teaching, especially if parents don’t feel comfortable with certain topics. (Catherine Tamis-Lemonda & Erin Bogan, The science of learning and teaching at home during Covid-19)
When parents aren’t sure about something, they can model problem solving with their children. By working out something together, they help improve children’s practical problem-solving skills, which shapes the way they approach future challenges. (Catherine Tamis-Lemonda & Erin Bogan, The science of learning and teaching at home during Covid-19)
Make learning meaningful. If children don’t understand why they’re learning something or why it’s important or useful, they can easily disengage from the material. Other ways to make information applicable to students’ lives are to include material relevant to students’ race, culture, and ethnicity. (APA, Recommendations on Starting School during the COVID-19 pandemic)
Allow children to use a variety of approaches for completing tasks and solving problems. The strategies they have been taught may not be the only or best ways to answer a specific question or solve a particular problem. (APA, Recommendations on starting school during the COVID-19 pandemic)
By asking your child to teach you the content he or she has just learned, it will be easier to identify gaps. Parents can then work with teachers on these gaps. (Catherine Tamis-LeMonda & Erin Bogan, The science of learning and teaching at home during Covid-19)