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Remote Learning: 6 Tips to Engage and Motivate Your Child

Your guide to engage and motivate your child.

In our last post, we answered one of the most common questions about remote learning: Why Your Child Gives You Such a Hard Time. Don't miss the tips in that post on how to increase your child's resilience and readiness to focus on learning, while you decrease any defiance and procrastination.

Today, let's consider 6 Tips To Engage and Motivate Your Child in Remote Learning.

We have two priorities here:

  • Engage your child by giving them more control and autonomy, and helping them feel more related to the other students.
  • Motivate your child by setting up the environment and schedule to support your child in staying focused, so they begin to enjoy a sense of mastery and competence.

Here's your guide.

 alexngm/AdobeStock, used with permission
Source: alexngm/AdobeStock, used with permission

1. Consciously create opportunities for your child to connect with other children.

One of the reasons that children doing remote learning often feel disengaged and demotivated is that they feel isolated. Children like to be part of groups and naturally engage more with school work when other kids are participating, so find ways to counter the isolation so many kids are feeling.

  • Find a learning buddy: Set up a regular time with another student in your child’s class so your kids can meet on Zoom to do assignments together or quiz each other on spelling words or multiplication. You can also have kids explore things that are not assigned by the teacher, but will strengthen connection between the kids and thus facilitate learning. So, for example, you might have your child meet with other kids to discuss the book they’re reading for school, even if the teacher doesn’t assign it. That increases the children’s excitement about the book, and reading in general.
  • Partner with a few neighborhood families just to have the kids sit and do work together (masked and distanced, and maybe even outside). Call it your one-room schoolhouse group, and make sure there's always a fun snack.
  • Zoom play dates also help strengthen kids’ friendships, so that classmate becomes more of a friend and your child becomes more interested in engaging in learning collaboration with them. So even if you don’t want your child playing Minecraft nonstop, some video time with classmates can actually help your child feel connected to school.

2. Create a predictable daily rhythm with a routine.

If you don't have a schedule, then every moment becomes an opportunity for a power struggle over what comes next. Routines replace chaos with the reassurance that life is unfolding as it was meant to. Routines also develop the prefrontal cortex, as the child comes to know what to expect. Finally, routines help children manage themselves through less interesting tasks because they have something positive to look forward to.

  • Create a clear start to learning each day. Have kids get ready as if they're going to school, instead of lolling on their bed in their jammies. Let your children take turns ringing a bell every morning to start the day. If your child resists, set an alarm with a rousing tone, and when it goes off, say "Oh, there's the bell, now it’s time for school!" (Kids are less likely to feel bossed around by an alarm than a parent.)
  • If you want your child to follow the schedule, let them help make it. Kids need a schedule that is easy for them to understand, which means a visually represented schedule with photos and colors.
  • Limit schoolwork to no more than two and a half hours spread over the day.
  • Kids need a break every 10-30 minutes to move around. Limit work to short periods of no more than half an hour, alternating with frequent breaks for refueling activities. Even these half-hour work periods might require several three-minute breaks—to do some jumping jacks with you, get a drink of water, or play one song and dance to it.
  • Refueling periods include hugs, outdoor fun, dance parties, Gonoodle, roughhousing, art, crafts, cooking, fun science experiments, making “inventions,” building, sensory play, free play, reading to the child, and special time with a parent. Be sure to include at least three hours a day of these refueling periods. This is the gas that keeps your child going under stressful conditions.
  • Connection is your secret weapon to keep your child on track, so build it into your routine throughout the day, with special time, snuggling to read together, roughhousing, and playing your child's favorite game.
  • If your children are sharing screens, be sure you cover this on the schedule.

3. Keep your child’s school screen instruction time to a minimum.

Don’t expect your child to do schoolwork from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., or whatever hours your child was in live school. While math games and some other interactive learning programs can be fun and motivating, teaching children via a screen is not developmentally appropriate until kids are teens. Many children cannot manage much live time on Zoom and get stressed and cranky.

When the teacher expects your child to be online, they don’t have to actually log off. Teach them just to turn off the sound and video whenever they need a break.

If you need to, negotiate with the teacher. For instance, you might explain that you spend the afternoons outside, so your child will only be participating in the morning.

Assess what your child can handle, and what the school requires, to find the sweet spot for your child.

4. Use an accountability system that lets your child self-direct as much as possible.

Self direction meets your child's need for autonomy, which is motivating and heads off nagging and power struggles. Some families use a chalkboard or whiteboard for the child to list and check off assignments.

You can also use an index card for each subject. Your child is responsible for completing six cards in a day, and brings them to you each time they finish an assignment, to check them off. In addition to regular assignments, you can add other assignments you want to encourage, such as piano practice or chatting with a grandparent on Zoom. I personally prefer the index card system because I think it is less overwhelming for children to see a stack of index cards than a long checklist. It’s also motivating to see the stack decrease in size, and to know that after they complete three index cards they will be rewarded, for instance with special time with a parent.

Let your child choose what to complete and when. Do they want to tackle their hardest subject first or leave it until last? That's their call.

If your child resists getting started, ask them how many minutes they can work on this first assignment before taking a break, and what they want to look forward to doing during that break. Set a timer with them for that number of minutes—let’s say it’s 10 minutes—and then take a three-minute break where you do something active or sensory (blow bubbles, wrestle, play a quick round of “Take off each others’ socks”).

5. Set up a space that signals learning.

In the same way that beds induce sleepiness, or plates on the table signal that it's time to eat, your child needs a workplace that reminds them that this is study time. Keep all your child’s work and supplies in this spot, or in a box that gets moved to this spot while your child is working. Clear clutter and distractions from your child’s workspace.

Some children are able to work on their own, but most will need to have their workstation set up very close to a parent, or they won’t be able to stay on track. So if you have the kind of job that lets you sit your child next to you for a few hours, you’re likely to reap huge gains in your child’s ability to stay on track with his work.

Pay attention to ergonomics so the discomfort isn’t distracting your child. That means, if you can, move the screen to eye level and use a wireless keyboard and mouse so that elbows are at a 90° angle. Many children love a standing desk, so they can move around as they engage with a screen. For some, though, standing is halfway to other distracting activities, so they do best with their bottom in a chair.

Support your child to develop the habit of storing papers in labeled folders in a box, or some other system that organizes their work so nothing gets lost.

For resistant kids, choose to do the toughest assignments in fun places: the park, a tent in your living room, a bench outside the coffee shop with a hot chocolate, in her closet in a cozy reading corner that you outfit with pillows.

6. Stay present.

It’s pretty hard to stay aware of what your schoolchild is doing during the school day while you're meeting with your boss, poring over a spreadsheet, or supervising a toddler. But it's simply not likely that any child can stay on track with remote online learning without supervision.

Developing autonomy in schoolwork is just like potty training and bedtime—in the beginning you were very involved, but over time your child takes more and more responsibility, and your involvement becomes minimal. The good news is that as you put the energy in to help your child develop good work habits, they realize more and more success, so they're more motivated and self-regulating in their schoolwork.

Of course, that doesn't help you be in two places at once right now. If you can alternate childcare responsibilities with a partner, that’s obviously helpful to give each of you child-free time for other work. Try to schedule your own meetings when you know your child will be onscreen with their class. No partner available and you have an important Zoom call? Set your child up for a date with a relative. They can read to each other, play hangman, draw together while telling stories, or do art. Get your child into audio books (available free online) so they can listen with headphones while you're in meetings.

There's no way to sugar-coat this. Most children can manage themselves through short periods of time with minimal supervision, but to be sure your child stays engaged and feels motivated with remote learning, they'll probably need an adult nearby. If you’re holding down a job at the same time, that's clearly an impossible task. So give yourself some grace, remember your long-term goals—and try to find the humor in doing the impossible. It isn't fair, I know. But it's worth it.


Don't miss the other remote learning tips in this series:

More from Laura Markham Ph.D.
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