By Francoise Lartigue, content manager
As I hung up the dog leash after a long summer stroll, I casually asked my son why he wasn’t taking advantage of his Friday morning TV privilege. Wide-eyed, he turned to me and said, “It’s Thursday Mom!” “Naah, buddy” I said, “it’s Friday – my phone tells me so.”
Suddenly he burst into tears. “I’ve lost a day that I’ll never get back!” (BIG feelings in our house too).
After some comforting and reassurance that he had in fact lived through all the days he was entitled to, I was able to get to the bottom of it. He had been using a 2021 calendar to mark off days as they passed. Wrong year, wrong day, confused child.
(Sometimes I read too much into things, but maybe my little boy had gotten so tired of 2020 that he just moved on to 2021!)
Despite this moment of confusion, calendars & checklists have been one of a few key tools in helping all three of my kids weather the world of remote learning and the new normal of life during COVID-19.
School is More than Content
Like many parents, when remote learning started my husband and I became acutely aware of all the ways the traditional school environment had supported our children. In addition to teaching them new material, of course!
Now with school closed, the social and emotional support provided by the school experience was obviously missing. But the slightly-less-obvious executive functioning supports were clearly missing, too.
An often overlooked component of Social Emotional Learning, Executive Function skills include working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. These skills help kids do things like pay attention, organize, plan, start tasks, stay focused and keep track of the task at hand, and manage emotions. You know, function!
All children have the ability to learn these skills and none are born with them. As we know, all children are different, so some require more direct instruction to help these skills come to life. For many children, the structure and routine of school can be enough to hone these skills. However, when faced with the type of disruption that a pandemic provides, all children need the support of at-home learning strategies — even ones as simple as asking questions — .
There are so many factors that make remote learning a challenge for families. The struggle with remote learning can have less to do with content and more to do with all the skills needed to make the learning happen. Executive functioning skills! All the routines inherently built into the school day. All the conscious and subconscious ways teachers work to make learning possible.
From What to How
Reflecting on my own experience as a teacher, I focused primarily on helping my students and their parents know what kids needed to learn. But I gave little explicit direction on how they were expected to learn in my classroom. Now, during remote learning, parents are struggling to learn both the “what” (assignments) and the “how” (executive functioning supports).
But there are ways we can make it easier. Here are a few of our go-to “how” at-home learning strategies that can help your families, too.
- Have a space for children to keep their “school” things
Giving “school stuff” a dedicated space shows these items have value. It also helps keep things organized. At school kids have a desk, cubby, or locker. At home it can be a permanent spot, mobile push cart, or a kid-decorated cardboard box.
The first few times you might have to help your child organize it, but they’ll get it soon enough.
- Routines matter!
The structure that school provides helps kids feel secure. When you know what to expect it’s easier to stay focused and it helps build a feeling of control. This is incredibly important during times of stress and uncertainty. Remember the right routine is the one that you can do daily because it works for YOUR family.
- Checklists rule!
Checklists are a clear visual reminder of what needs to be accomplished for the day. Creating the list gives kids a sense of control over their day. Checklists also touch on developing a number of executive functioning skills. It’s the magic of the check box!
Every school morning my kids had to make a checklist of the things they needed to do and the things they wanted to do. In the beginning we made them together. After about a week my 4th grade twins could make them on their own. For kids who aren’t reading or writing yet, make the list together. Creating checklists also builds lots of great literacy skills.
- Use the Checklist
Let the checklists become a key part of our routine. It will allow you to say things like “Did you finish your list?” instead of nagging your child about things. It also allows you to say “If you get stuck on one thing on your list, try something else until I can check in with you”. By empowering your kids to manage their to-do list, it can give you more time to complete your own workload.
- Include FUN in your routine
Having something to look forward to is important for everyone’s mental health. It can also help kids keep focused. For my kids, being able to play a favorite video game for 30 minutes or going to the lake at the end of the day helped. Other things to try: movie nights, playing a board game, having a family dance party, or doing an art project together.
And here’s an executive functioning bonus – board, card, and memory games all help build executive functioning skills!