By Patti Drapeau, author of Inspiring Student Empowerment: Moving Beyond Engagement, Refining Differentiation and Diane Heacox, Ed.D., author of Making Differentiation a Habit: How to Ensure Success in Academically Diverse Classrooms (Updated Edition)
Online learning has been the go-to since schools closed at the beginning of the pandemic. We are still unsure whether schools will reopen in the fall. If they do, it is likely that some sort of online learning will continue. There is talk of staggered school schedules or hybrid models where students spend some time in the classroom and some time at home with online learning. In any case, it is unlikely that educators can revert to old ways of teaching.
As parents, you have been trying to optimize the home learning environment. Beyond what you are already doing, what else can you do to ensure that there is enough rigor and active learning for your children, even if the teacher is not providing it? You can maximize your children’s learning by considering the following tips and putting in action those relevant to your situation.
1. Find a Work Spot
The home environment, like the classroom, must feel like a safe place to learn. A threatening environment inhibits learning. Look for a comfortable work spot with minimal distractions. Children need different levels of quiet to be able to focus on learning. Consider your child’s best conditions for learning and determine what degree of quiet is needed, and then agree on the work spot best suited to these needs. Others in the household may need guidance about their level of noise and appropriate interruptions when work time is scheduled.
2. Agree on a Schedule
In many cases, students are working with shared technology. Thus, parents and children should create a schedule, along with rules and procedures that pertain to learning situations, to minimize negative behaviors and maximize learning conditions. Rules might include who uses the computer when, where the learning takes place, whether disruptions like text messages are allowed during learning time, and how often and how long learning breaks occur.
Set a daily schedule, then revisit it frequently. You may want to consider when the most favored subjects are scheduled as well as when the most challenging or difficult ones are. Keep in mind, English-language learners need shorter chunks of focused time to overcome fatigue from moving between their native language and English. Special needs learners may need changes in the kind and amount of work expected. Gifted and talented students, who typically finish early, need to know what happens if they do not need the full designated time. Remind children that the goal is not to see how fast they can do the work, but rather to use the time to do quality work.
3. Build in Breaks and Use Incentives as Appropriate and Necessary
Keep in mind that the brain can take in new information for only a set amount of time. Then it needs time to process what has been learned. Students zone out when this limit is exceeded. Recommended break times are:
- Elementary grades: 10 minutes
- Secondary grades: 20 minutes
Keep in mind, these guidelines apply only when students are learning new content. If learners are using what they have learned or practicing a new process or skill, the brain breaks do not need to be as long. In those cases, two to five minutes is enough time to give the brain a rest. Schedule longer breaks for snacks, stepping outside, and sending a text to a friend.
The best situation is when children work without rewards or incentives. However, in some cases we need to get the process underway, and rewards may help. Try to consider activity-focused incentives rather than material objects or sugary rewards such as candy. Offer such things as family bike rides, choosing the weekend’s movie, or having a friend over for gaming. Ask your children what they will work for that is not purchased!
4. Know When to Jump in and When Struggle Is a Good Thing
Students need to trust their teachers and children need to trust their parents. Let them know you are there for them and are willing to intervene if necessary. Let them know when you recognize they are struggling. But beware of jumping in too early! Taking over the work is like giving children a “vote of no confidence” about their abilities. Don’t do the work for them—support their learning. As necessary, talk through and model the process, have your child try it on their own as you observe, and then walk away. As appropriate, use online learning support sources such as Khan Academy.
5. Enrich, Extend, and Enhance Learning
Active learning fosters student engagement. The brain is actively engaged when we are directly involved in new learning. This can be accomplished in many different ways. Parents can simply ask their children why or how questions about whatever children are learning. This type of questioning encourages deep learning because it requires students to think about their learning. If your children like to use imagery, ask them to create a digital story using pictures and graphics to summarize what they learned. For the musical child, add sound effects or background music to a piece of writing. Engage children in real-world experiences, or use virtual field trips to museums, geographic wonders, or national parks.
For gifted and talented learners, more of the same kind of work is not appropriate. Extensions and enhancements will better meet their needs and can be used as a replacement for less challenging tasks. Extensions go deeper or demand greater complexity in thinking and doing. Consider more sophisticated or advanced experiences to go beyond the “regular” curriculum. Enhancements provide real-life connections. How does the topic under study apply to real-world experiences? How is it used or applied in real situations? Use Hoagies Gifted for additional appropriate learning experiences. For self-paced learning, check out website-enhanced WebQuests.
6. Provide Choices
This can be as easy as asking a question: “Is there another way you could do this that might be more interesting to you?” or, “Which do you want to do first?” or, “How do you want to show what you have learned?”
We can encourage elementary students to choose their own books. Use the five-finger rule to decide if a book is right for your child. Have the student choose a book and open it to somewhere near the middle. Have them read at least five to ten sentences or one page aloud. Have them count on their fingers how many words on the page they do not know. The student can make a decision about whether the book is right for them based on how many fingers they have up:
- 0–1 fingers: It’s too easy for me.
- 2–3 fingers: It is just right for me.
- 4 fingers: This will be challenging.
- 5 or more fingers: This is too challenging for me right now.
To find reading sources written at specific reading levels, check out Newsela.
7. Set Aside and Honor Debriefing Time
Commit to quick daily debriefing sessions with your learner. Ask questions such as:
- What is something new you learned today?
- Is there something that you don’t understand or are confused about? Explain.
- Were there some things that you already knew? Explain.
- What is going well?
- What is working for you?
- What new questions do you have?
8. Consider If and How You May Need to Motivate Your Child.
Learning experiences offered to students during the pandemic have ranged from drill-and-kill worksheet packets to authentic opportunities to engage in small-group online discussions, face-to-face meetings with teachers, and a wide variety of thoughtful, rich online resources and experiences. Lack of engagement, pleasure, and accomplishment may result in apathy toward learning. Consider what and how children are learning. Does this way of learning meet their needs?
9. Consider the Type of Instruction
Educators and students have preferred ways of teaching and learning. A match between a teacher’s preferred teaching style and a student’s preferred learning style optimizes learning. For example, visual learners need to see it to learn it, and educators who use maps, photos, diagrams, objects, charts, graphics, and demonstrations to teach are a match for them. Auditory learners need to hear it to learn it; teachers who provide information aloud, who use lectures, oral discussions, small-group exchanges, and storytelling, appeal to them. Finally, some students learn by actively doing something with the information. Teachers who teach using hands-on work, directly involving students in labs, experiments, or role play, appeal to these learners.
Consider the kinds of tasks and the method of teaching your child is engaged in with online learning. Are they reflective of your child’s best way to learn?
10. Create Learning Experiences You Can Share
Plan learning explorations with your child: read or tell stories to each other, do science observations in your neighborhood or park, role-play characters in a book, or dance or make music together. Start a photo journal showing examples of what you have learned. Create interactive media using Scratch from MIT. You can also get ideas from Scholastic Learn at Home. Become playing and learning partners.
Ferlazzo, Larry. “Video: ‘7 Tips for Parents Supporting Remote Learning.’”
Heacox, Diane, and Richard Cash. Differentiation for Gifted Learners. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing, 2020.
Project Northstar. “Modality. From Teacher Support Module 2: Session One.” St. Paul: Minnesota Department of Education, 2016.
Tate, Emily. “What Will Schools Do in the Fall? Here Are 4 Possible Scenarios.” EdSurge, May 27, 2020.
Nickelsen, LeAnn, and Rick Wormeli. “COVID-19: Helping Students Develop the Motivation to Invest in Their Learning While Sheltering at Home.” AMLE.org, April 14, 2020.
Patti Drapeau (pattidrapeau.com) is an internationally active educational consultant, author, and presenter, with more than 25 years of classroom experience. Patti conducts keynote sessions as well as short- and long-term workshops in the United States and abroad. She commonly presents on the following topics: differentiation, creativity, engagement, gifted education, student empowerment, and personalized learning.
Patti is the founder of Patti Drapeau Educational Consulting Services and has received the New England Region Gifted and Talented award for outstanding contributions in gifted education and the Maine Educators of the Gifted and Talented award for exemplary service. Patti coached programs such as Odyssey of the Mind, Future Problem Solving, Explorer Vision, and math teams. She also developed a curriculum model for the regular classroom called “Affective Perspectives: Combining Critical Thinking, Creative Thinking, and Affect,” and authored a variety of articles for the Maine Exchange, Teaching Matters, and Understanding Our Gifted. Her other books include Sparking Student Creativity: Practical Ways to Promote Innovative Thinking and Problem Solving, Differentiating with Graphic Organizers: Tools to Foster Critical and Creative Thinking, Differentiated Instruction: Making It Work, and Great Teaching with Graphic Organizers.
Patti currently works as a consultant and she is a part-time faculty member at the University of Southern Maine. She lives in Freeport, Maine.
Patti is the author of Inspiring Student Empowerment: Moving Beyond Engagement, Refining Differentiation.
Diane Heacox, Ed.D., is a consultant and professional development trainer focusing on strategies to increase learning success for all students. She is professor emerita at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is a national and international consultant and professional development trainer to both public and private schools on a variety of topics related to teaching and learning. Dr. Heacox has taught at both elementary and secondary school levels and has served as a gifted education teacher and administrator, as well as an instructional specialist in public education.
Dr. Heacox was recognized by the Minnesota Educators of Gifted and Talented as a Friend of the Gifted for service to gifted education. She is also in the University of St. Thomas Educators Hall of Fame for her contributions to the field of education.
Free Spirit books by Diane Heacox:
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