Helping Your Teen Succeed at Remote Learning
Using what we know about teens and remote work during the COVID-19 closures.
Posted March 15, 2020 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
All over the United States, millions of teenagers are about to start working from home and parents may be wondering how they can set their teenagers up for success. Last semester, I asked a class of freshmen to track their time over a week. It may not be a surprise to parents of teenagers, but students reported spending many more hours on entertainment than on schoolwork. One student reported spending 33 hours watching Netflix and another spent 22 hours on YouTube and other social media. That is the equivalent of a part-time job, while also being enrolled in 4 – 5 classes. After completing their log, the students were surprised at how inaccurately they had estimated how they would spend time and how much time they wasted. Freed from rules about class attendance and class hours, students were unable to make good choices. Your teenagers, now freed from school, sports, and other extracurricular activities, are likely to have the same difficulties making wise decisions.
Here are a few tips for your teen based on what we know helps college freshman make their transition to the freedom of university life. Skills learned now will help them survive the current crisis and in the future.
Creating Cues for Productive Behavior
Establish a schedule and structure for the school day. Your teen has an established pattern that you want to recreate at home. Research has shown that setting up "implementation intentions" helps people accomplish their goals. Implementation intentions are if-then statements or triggers for action. For example, many of us have created habits for when we walk in the door. Without much effort, our minds know that if we walk in the door, then we'll put our keys on the kitchen counter. In the case of working from home, we can help our teenagers create intentions around when they will do their schoolwork. For example, they can set a schedule that after waking up in the morning, they will have breakfast and check their assignments for the day. Having breakfast becomes a cue for checking online for their assignments for the day.
In addition to setting cues such as "while I eat breakfast, I'll check my schedule," you can help your teen set a schedule based on times of the day. Again, this reproduces their typical school schedule. Setting an alarm on their phone or sending them a calendar invite for 11:00, for example, can be a reminder to teens that it is time to move on to a different project or assignment. If you are at home with them, you can remind them of what the alarm means. If you are not at home, you can follow-up the alarm with a text or call.
Social activities are part of your teen's usual schedule and should be included in the planning. Typically, students see friends at the beginning of the day, between classes, during lunch, and then after school. However, you want to help them keep focused on their at-home work. So, build "passing periods" into their schedule. This can be 15-20 minutes of time for teens to check social media, get a snack, and just generally veg out. Of course, this time should also be structured with start and stop times.
Because your teen is nearly an adult, you cannot impose this schedule on them. Your teen may already be experiencing anxiety and you want to encourage their sense of control over the situation. Plus, people feel a greater commitment to and satisfaction with outcomes when they experience procedural justice—when they feel that they have had a voice in the decision-making. Sit down with your teen and sketch out a schedule for the first few days of the remote learning. Be clear that the schedule can be altered in the future, as you learn more about how your teen's teachers will be handling the transition. Include a wake-up time in the schedule. They don't need to follow the same early morning routine, but they do need some structure around sleep. Sleep disruption has negative effects on emotional control, attention, and control of behavior (Dahl & Lewin, 2002).
Create a space that signals work. How your teen usually does homework may not be appropriate for how your teen tackles remote learning. When doing homework, students are applying something that has already been learned or becoming familiar with topics that will be covered in-depth later. Now, however, the online interface may be their first contact with the information. To help with this shift, set up a space that signals to your teen that they are "in school." Textbooks and school supplies should be at the ready and gathered in this space. If your teen will be connecting with classes remotely, this means battery chargers are available and the space is clear of distracting items. People respond to cues in spaces without explicit rules. For example, people speak more quietly in libraries, even without an actual librarian being present. You want to set up cues in the space that remind your teen of why they are there and what they should be doing while they are there.
The earliest social psychology experiments, Triplett's original social facilitation studies, found that people work harder when they aren't alone. They do not necessarily have to be in competition – just co-acting with someone can increase your performance. Other research has found that the presence of others can set social norms for behaviors. If you are at home with your teen, you can set the norms for your teen and facilitate their on-task behaviors. You might doubt that you have any influence over your teen, yet research shows that parents are very influential. And, research by Tanya Chartrand has shown that we unconsciously mimic and respond to people in our environment.
Social modeling and setting norms mean that you follow a schedule that is similar to your teen's. Just as your teen checks their assignments and creates a to-do list for the day over breakfast, you do the same. Just as they stay off social media during work periods, you do the same. They need to see you do it. Knowing that other people are doing the same thing as you is motivational, but impact theory tells us that the closer the other person is to you, the more powerful their influence. Set up your workspace near to them so they can see you working from home.
The ending of in-person teaching is a life-altering event for teens. As the closures are extended and postponed events become canceled events, teens are likely to be anxious, scared, angry, and sad. And, teens may be unable to process or label these emotions. Accept that your teens are feeling very valid and very intense emotions. Then show them how to not react to those strong emotions, how to control emotions when they feel out of control, and how to reduce the intensity of those emotions.
Again, here is where you can be a role model. A parent's ability to manage their emotions is related to how well teens weather stressful situations (Bariola, Gullone & Hughes, 2011) and how well teens manage their emotions (Silva, Freire, & Faria, 2018). If you model how to label and think about emotions, you are providing your teens with a guide for how they should label and think about their emotions.
The current shift to remote teaching for elementary, middle, high school, and university students is unprecedented. There are teaching professionals, instructional designers, and tech support people scrambling to prepare technology and materials, administrators working through all the downstream consequences. Parents are trying to make their own transitions to working from home or not working at all. Now is the time for self-compassion as well as social distance.
Bariola, E., Gullone, E., & Hughes, E. K. (2011). Child and adolescent emotion regulation: The role of parental emotion regulation and expression. Clinical child and family psychology review, 14(2), 198.
Dahl, R. E., & Lewin, D. S. (2002). Pathways to adolescent health sleep regulation and behavior. Journal of adolescent health, 31(6), 175-184.
Silva, E., Freire, T., & Faria, S. (2018). The emotion regulation strategies of adolescents and their parents: An experience sampling study. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 27(6), 1774-1785.