Executive Functions and Our New Normal: How to Make Remote Learning Work for Your Family
For students and parents across the nation (and the world), the COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting education in a truly unprecedented way. With schools switching to various kinds of remote instruction and timelines for the future remaining uncertain, it’s very difficult for families to know how best to serve their children’s educational needs at this time and to develop new and effective online learning routines.
But while the situation is evolving rapidly, there are nonetheless some concrete steps you can take to meet this challenge and make the situation easier on your kids—and yourself. The first thing to realize is that you’re not alone in your confusion. No one is completely sure what to do right now, and that’s okay! Know that if you’ve got your children safely at home and their basic needs are being met, you and your family are already in a fortunate situation compared to many.
What’s more, this unique set of circumstances can also provide some surprising opportunities for growth that your child’s regular school year might not have. Without the day-to-day pressures of school, extracurriculars, and social commitments, you and your family have a chance to dig into some of the skills that can get lost in the shuffle. Think executive functions, organizational skills, building new online learning routines—all these are skills that are critically important to academic success, and transitioning to remote learning can be a valuable way for your child to practice them. Students who have been homeschooled (myself included!) often report that these skills are the key assets that help them succeed later in life.
Plus, when it comes to executive functioning, you don’t need any special background to support your child. For instance, if you’ve been fretting that subpar multiplication skills will hold your child back during their remote math classes, you can breathe easy; you don’t have to be a content expert to help your child get a lot out of remote learning. By shifting your expectations for the rest of this school year and focusing on the following tips, you’ll be able to support your child in building valuable skills and effective online learning routines during the coming weeks and months—even though the learning experience looks much different than we all thought it would.
Keep Things Predictable
In executive function coaching, we often focus on the value of routines, especially during the school week. You’ve probably experienced this yourself—for example, you may have noticed that your child does better in school or is in a better mood when they do their homework on a consistent schedule. The same thing is still true now: having a steady routine can help students feel balanced and give them a chance to practice being responsible and independent, even though the routines themselves will be somewhat unfamiliar.
As your family is building your new routines, including online learning routines, consider the following questions:
- What does the school require of students right now? When are online classes, and what do students need to do to prepare for them? How about homework?
- What extracurriculars can we try to maintain at home? For example, kids who are missing out on a school play can write skits with siblings, or kids who usually play sports can come up with warmups and stretches to do at home.
- What hobbies does my child enjoy? Now is the time to give kids space for activities—reading for fun, playing games, doing crafts—that might not usually fit into their daily schedules.
- How can we socialize right now? Consider FaceTime with friends and extended family, or visits to open spaces like parks where you can still practice social distancing.
With all of the above laid out clearly, you can piece together structured days that meet your family’s needs and give your child a sense of stability amid the chaos.
Plan With Your Child
As important as routines are, it’s also important not to force them on your child unilaterally. Helping your child develop a sense of ownership and responsibility in this situation is key to supporting them in building their executive function skills. Even more important, making sure your child buys in to your family’s new day-to-day life will give them a much-needed sense of agency in these uncertain times—and likely help you avoid fights and tantrums, too.
Where you can, give your child choices about how to structure daily routines and online learning routines. You might ask:
- Which tasks would you like to do earlier in the day? How about later on?
- How would you like to organize your workspace?
- What would you like to do during breaks in your schoolwork?
- What should we try to do the same way as your school does? What would you like to try doing differently?
- Which tasks (or school subjects, or kinds of homework) do you want to try doing on your own? Which ones would you like more help with?
All these details will vary according to your child’s age, their learning style, and your family’s circumstances overall. And of course, not all of your child’s ideas and preferences will be practical. But even with very young children, it’s worth opening up these conversations and working together to make sure their voices are heard.
Prioritize Mental Health
Especially during times of crisis, it’s important to remember that your child’s mental and emotional health are even more important than their academic development. As you establish your family’s new routines, make sure that you’re paying plenty of attention to managing stress and giving your child outlets for their feelings. Taking some responsibility for these needs is also another way for kids to build executive function skills—maybe they can use their newfound free time to help you plan healthy meals, for example.
This will look a little different for every child and every family, but a few essential areas to consider include:
- Sleep hygiene: As much as you can, try to maintain regular sleep schedules for everyone in your family. Just because you don’t need to leave home early in the morning doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to stay up late or ignore the difference between weekdays and weekends.
- Physical exercise: Make sure your child stays moving! Go for walks or jogs outside if you can, take your child to play in an open space like a park, or explore child-friendly online yoga videos.
- Nutrition: Kids generally eat at set times at school, and they should do the same at home. Make sure that meals and snacks are predictable and wholesome, and that kids don’t see being at home all day as permission to snack whenever they want.
- Setting boundaries: As any adult who works from home knows, it can be hard to switch out of work mode when your workspace overlaps with your living space. Try to set up a designated space for children’s schoolwork and online learning routines, and then use that physical boundary as a way to mark transitions from work to play throughout the day.
- Managing anxiety: Understandably, a lot of kids are anxious about the current state of the world. Acknowledge their fears, give them space to talk, and lead them in calming activities like painting, listening to music, or even simple mindfulness meditations.
The coming weeks and months are bound to be challenging for all of us, but by focusing on the unique opportunities of these very strange circumstances, you can help your child come out the other side with new skills that will support them long into the future.