School from Home: Hacks to Get Your Kid to Virtual Class On Time

Help! My kid can’t follow the distance learning schedule!!

Hey Tribe!

Did you blink and this week was over? Or, did it stretch out to feel like about 5 months? Maybe it was both at the same time. That’s probably what I’d say for myself. I’ve been so lucky to work with so many amazing families and schools lately, as we team up to support EF and the new demands of schooling in a pandemic.

One of the most common concerns I’ve heard from our Tribe is that of keeping our kids organized and on track for distance learning or hybrid models. This concern touches deep into layers of EF, and I’m going to share some great hacks today.

Before we get started, though, I wanted to adjust our perspectives a bit. Here’s the truth: schools have an advantage over homes as learning environments, one that stretches beyond having teachers physically present with students. And this is not my advocating for opening schools broadly. I advocate for listening to science and prioritizing safety. But, I think understanding the changes in demands on our and our children’s EF can help us reduce frustration in order to better see potential solutions.

The most obvious part of the advantage of physical schools is proximity of help; when students have questions, staff is there to answer pretty quickly. Now, unless the questions come up during a live session, students may have to wait for clarification or help…meaning their memory system is in charge of keeping track of asking the question, remembering to look for the response, and using the respond to finish the work they put on hold. That’s a long feedback loop compared to just raising your hand in class. Teachers are also astute people watchers and can sense when students are not understanding by students’ body language. We can then adjust our lessons for misunderstandings. In online teaching, I can see very few to no students on my screen during a lesson, depending on what program I’m using. This means I have to just ask what questions they have and wait for the brave, lone wolf to type in the chat or unmute their mic. Sometimes students aren’t yet aware of their own misunderstandings, so it takes a little time processing learning for them to come up with questions. When our live sessions are limited, we just miss that opportunity. I know many teachers are innovating ways to check for understanding, but it’s just not yet at the same in-person level for anyone. This means your child may be lost and not have the chance to catch up. Once he or she is lost, attention to the lesson will also decrease, and you could see some disengagement with the lesson or its connected independent work. Again, I’m not saying this justifies a rush to reopen schools, but it is good to wonder about next time you see your child “off task” during distance learning.

Schools also have the advantage of subconscious influence and built-in social constructs that support “student” type behaviors. Here’s what I mean: Imagine yourself walking into a quiet place of worship, where a session is already going on. The volume in the room, everyone facing forward, even the physical structure and decorations on the walls would impact how you behave. Cuz no one is about to go into a place of worship and talk on speaker phone with their doctor or dance to loud music. You get the idea. Schools also have this advantage. Classrooms are set up to encourage engagement with certain materials and focus on certain areas. Schools are largely only associated with academic uses, unlike a house which is where you can watch tv in your PJs and eat any meal. Our brains take cues from the environment to help us decide how to behave. Social constructs also support “studenting” at school. We’ve trained kids how to act and encouraged them to support each other in behaving like students. And now, with school from home, we’ve lost the advantage of designated focus space and subconscious associations.

We’re asking our kids to pivot how the environment impacts them, during certain hours on certain days.

Setting up a physical space for school, one that can possibly only be used for school tasks, is a great way to help (and episode 28 has some great ideas for you!), but we can’t entirely overcome this setting-based disadvantage right now. Home needs to be a place to relax and connect. School is a place to learn and grow. When we see our kids being lured into home-behaviors, like watching tv or wandering into the kitchen for a snack, keep in mind that these are strange times driving these choices, not naughty kids. Gently help your child meet his needs then get back to school. If this becomes a pattern, then strategize from there. Maybe he needs more scheduled breaks or snacks closer to his study space?

So, to start, let’s agree to explore quick hacks to combat some of the disadvantages we can foresee right now:

  • Create a physical, school-only space for your child to work in. If this space has to be used for something else at different times in the day (say, it’s also the dining room table), then use a big visual differentiation, like table cloth, to help really experience the difference between settings.
  • Encourage your child to ask questions and help him practice doing so, especially during live sessions.

Today, I want to teach some more quick hacks to support our kids staying focused and showing up to live sessions in distance learning.

First, they are missing the bells.

School has very loud and dependable ways to get kids where they need to be: bells. So, if you’re finding yourself frustrated that your fifth grader isn’t signing into class on time, you’re likely seeing her struggle without the auditory prompts of bells. At home, we can create a similar structure by setting alarms on phones, timers, or learning devices. We can reward our kids for being “on time” when they respond to the bell systems. And, please keep this in mind. It’s not ONE bell on the time when students need to be in class. Sometimes there are up to 3 bells per passing period: one to end a period, one to warn students to get to the next class (maybe one minute to go), and a final bell. So, if, for example, your child needs to be in a Zoom class at 9 am, you may need to set an 8:55 get ready bell, an 8:59 sit down and log in bell, and a 9:00 class is starting bell.

Second, we gotta get real about expectations.

Saying and doing are two very different things. Your child may be able to state when he needs to be starting class, but then you find him late or missing classes. He can state what to do but then those statements don’t actualize. You could punish and interpret this as a naughty choice, but I’m willing to bet it’s not that. Plus, who needs extra stress of arguing with a kid right now? Extra plus, arguing won’t solve the pattern; he’ll tell you he’ll do better but things won’t’ change….because it’s missing skills, not a bad choice. Listen, when school is on campus, teachers are doing kid-wrangling all day, for all  ages. We remind, we physically walk with or behind groups of kids, we have systems of kids paying back time they waste being late (like detention)…we have ways to get your kids to work, on time. But I can tell you, very, very few students are able to consistently reference a clock and independently engage in scheduled activities. Shoot, I think most teachers even use an attention-grabber, like counting down or ringing a bell, when it’s time for students to orient their faces forward, stop talking, and listen. Expecting our kids to have magically acquired skills that were never taught or even expected in physical school is a recipe for frustration. We will need to support their getting to live sessions! And I know that sucks, because you’re also trying to work. And I know you’ve probably said (at least in your head) that they should be able to remember to sign in every day at 9…but the cold, hard truth is: their brains are not yet set up for this level of independence. And, none of us is working at full capacity in a pandemic anyway.

So, what do we do? Again, it’s our usual pattern: observe the problem, guess what skill is lacking, and teach and augment the skill. As far as reasons for these struggles, most of our kids are experiencing feeling lost, tired or demotivated, or struggling with their own time management. You’re probably extra frustrated because things are more stressful than usual, and these simple acts (just show up and press “join” at 9, ok??) seem so easy to implement from our adult, well-practiced perspectives.

For showing up on time, there are a variety of supports we can implement for our kids, including:
  • Creating a home bell schedule, with actual sets of bells that start, 1-minute warn, and end passing periods (so to speak).
  • Having intermittent reinforcement for being on time. Drop a piece of candy or assign extra game time when your child is on time…once in a while. Don’t do it every day. The inconsistency of the reward makes the brain work harder for it. Plus, that’s less pressure on you to be reinforcing all the time.
  • Network with others to support on time. Encourage your child to set up a network with his friends to prompt each other when it’s time to go to class. Work with other moms, dads, or guardians to take turns being the reminder for a group of kids.
  • Schedule texts and emails ahead of time. I was facing this same issue. My first week’s attendance for some of my classes was shameful, and I knew I needed to hack the system. So, I asked the kids who made it on time how they did it. Many used alarms they set on their ipads (basically self-made bell schedules), and others relied on daily reminders from teachers. The trick here was, I thought I did a good job explaining the weekly schedule, so I took it for granted that kids would still need reminders. When I set up the reminders, I only used one learning management system, Google Classroom, but not student emails. Some of my kids were waiting for emails and assumed I just didn’t hold class. This was my fault, and I knew it meant I’d have to change my communication and, sigh, email and post in Google Classroom before every class, every day. Gross. That’s a lot on my already busy brain. SO…I learned how to schedule messages in batches. You can do this too. On Android phones, you can schedule texts to go out in the future with reminders of anything. I can also schedule emails and posts in Classroom for each class period. Once I’ve gotten on a roll, I can schedule the week’s communications in about 10 minutes. And, attendance has increased over 500%. Worth it. See if you can schedule reminders ahead of time, especially if you know you will have important meetings or obligations during a time you’d typically be reminding your child to sign on.
  • Body double when you can. Work next to your child when you are available to do so. Sometimes being in a parallel work space can help a child stay focused and tuned in to needed lessons. Being physically that close also allows you to quietly prompt when she needs a gentle reminder and to do some recon to better understand her struggles. Another plus is that proximity is a great tool to get kids to do the desired behavior without saying a word or arguing at all. Think about it…how does your behavior change when you know your boss can see and hear what you’re doing? Teachers use proximity all the time! We stand and teach from all over our classrooms, so it’s easy to walk near a student who’s off task and just stay close for a while. 9 times out of 10, the student stops whatever distracting thing he was doing because it’s awkward to be a goofball when your teacher (or parent) is right there.
  • Keep flexibility and sustainability in mind: not every school schedule will work for every kid. You’ll have on and off days. That’s ok. Be sure to communicate, and encourage your child to also communicate with teachers, letting them know when your child needs support or had to step away for a bit. Feedback will help the teacher know that you and your child are invested in success and, if the teacher gets a lot of the same feedback, she may use it to modify her pacing to be more kid-friendly. It never hurts to communicate, especially now.

Tribe, things are strange at best and really rough at worst right now. I’m so thankful we have each other to lean on! Today you learned several hacks to support your child showing up on time to virtual class as well as some hacks to keep him engaged. You reflected on the structural and social supports that exist at schools that help students behave and brainstormed some ways to manufacture similar set ups at home.

Flexibility and innovation are our keys to success right now. This is a unique time to engage with our kids in new ways and ultimately, possibly, help them grow their EF muscles while we all make it through the school year. Time for this week’s pep talk.

Hey, Kid!

How are ya? Enjoying some online school or maybe savoring the last bites of summer before school starts? We’ve been in virtual school for a month now, and I’ve heard a lot of teachers and parents complain that kids aren’t showing up for their virtual classes on time. Listen, being on time is important, but I think these grown ups are forgetting just how many tricks physical schools use to get you where you need to be, like bells, people telling you to “get to class” in the hallways, and tardy consequences like detention. None of that is possible right now, so it kind of makes sense if you’re having a hard time staying on schedule. This isn’t an excuse, but it’s an opportunity to understand what’s frustrating you so we can strategize your struggle!

Bells ring at school to remind you to start walking to class, when there’s one minute left, and then when class is starting. You don’t have this at home. So, the reminder you get might be an email from your teacher after you already missed the session. Oops. No more of this, ok? Instead, you can create alarms on your phone or device (or even Alexa) to tell you when to get ready, log in, and start. You can basically make your own bells at home. Your grown up might also schedule some texts and emails to remind you as well. You can do this for yourself too. Lots of programs allow you to pick when they send a message, so you can load up a bunch in advance. (Sometimes I do this for my friends’ and students’ birthdays!)

Another thing your grown up might try as a way to help you get to virtual class on time and keep your brain in the learning is called “body doubling.” Your grown up might invite you or join you to work side by side. You’re both working, probably not even talking much, but there’s really some magic in being close to someone who is also focused. This is one of our favorite strategies at my house. It  tricks my brain to focus every time, even when I think it won’t work. Give it a try!

Kid, I wish I could wave a magic wand and bring things back to better than usual! We will stick together through these challenges and grow our awesome selves! All my love to you,

Sarah