A Psychologist On How To Keep Your Kids Focused During ‘Zoom School’

Home schooling during the COVID-19 quarantine. Coronavirus isolation. Studying from home.

Dr. Laura Phillips, of the Child Mind Institute, has advice for keeping your children on track right now 

Whether you’re a caretaker with a young school-aged child or a parent with a high schooler, you may be facing the stress of juggling homeschooling — along with everything else on your plate — right now. Enter Homeschool Hotline, a new series with our friends at Sleep Number. You’re in luck: Experts from the Child Mind Institute are answering your burning questions about how to make sure your kids aren’t missing out on important learning experiences while maintaining a healthy routine for the whole family. 

Today, *Dr. Laura Philips, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute, gives advice to a stressed out Wake-Up Caller who’s having trouble motivating her child to take virtual learning seriously…

Wake-Up Call: Keeping a young child focused during virtual learning can be very difficult. What can I do to motivate them to pay attention and treat it like “real” school?

This is tough, for a few reasons! First of all, teachers spend a lot of time and energy, even in ‘real school,’ motivating children to pay attention! It’s a big part of the gig. Second, this isn’t ‘real’ school – or at least not a typical school year. Still, the more you can structure the environment and the day to mimic ‘real school,’ the easier it will be for your child to engage. 

Let’s start with where your child is working. To the best of your ability, it is important to designate a place for your child to work that is quiet, well-lit, minimally distracting, and provides an appropriate level of supervision. 

The amount of supervision your child requires will depend on a number of factors, including your child’s age and independence. Younger children need more supervision to get set up and to stay on task. If your child is older, he may still need support to stay engaged. This can be tricky when parents are working from home, but setting your child up so that he is in your line of sight (and you are in his), or checking in on him at intervals can give you both what you need to get work done. 

Make sure your child has a place to work that is comfortable… but not too comfortable. We strongly discourage children (and adults!) from working from bed as it can be easy to relax a little too much when surrounded by pillows and a comforter. Working from bed can also make it difficult to wind down at night when it is actually time to sleep. 

Set your child up with the supplies he needs for the school day, including devices (laptop, iPad, etc.), textbooks, and pencils. Eliminate all extraneous materials that can be sources of distraction. This includes all other screens (I’m looking at you, cell phone!). Yes, you really can take your child’s cell phone away during school hours. 

It is also really helpful to provide your child with visuals to support him throughout the school day. Think about the colorful charts teachers always have throughout the classroom. A monthly calendar helps remind students of upcoming events and develop a sense of time; a daily schedule orients them to the sequence of the day and prepares them for what comes next; and a class expectations chart reminds them of what they can and can’t do. I prefer these charts to be heavier on the “cans” and suggest defining the “positive opposite behavior.” For example, try, “Stay on screen throughout class” rather than, “Don’t turn off the screen.” Take time to notice when your child meets these expectations and provide praise that is specific, immediate, genuine, and enthusiastic. If your child needs more motivation to meet these expectations, they can be easily transferred to a behavior chart that specifies behaviors your child is working on and motivates him with points he can earn toward some prize or reward. 

You can also provide visuals of what your own schedule looks like. Place a red block on the daily schedule to let your child know when you have an important meeting with your boss, while green blocks let him know when he can find you for help. You can also provide a list of things to do if he has a question while you’re busy: “Move on to something else,” “Ask a classmate or teacher through chat,” “Read a book,” etc. For your pre-reader, remember to include visual cues. 

In addition to structuring the environment, it is also critical to structure the day. A successful school routine starts the night before with a good night’s sleep. Sleep plays a vital role in physical and cognitive development, attention and alertness, learning, mood, and resilience! Make sure your child goes to bed early enough to get sufficient sleep (9-11 hours for school-aged; 8-10 hours for teens). 

Deeper Dive:

“Some children may experience challenges in their sleep patterns if their online learning schedule lacks the anchored activities from their normal school schedule and daily routine. To help support and maintain a structured daily schedule, Dr. Judith Owens* of Harvard University and the Sleep Number Scientific Advisory Board, says while schools provide set start and end times for the remote school day, parents can further support their child by helping establish regular mealtimes, and creating a schedule with regular activities. While it can be tempting to sleep in longer or stay up later on the weekend, it is important that parents help their child maintain consistent sleep schedules. Exceeding more than two hours difference in sleep or wake times between the weekday and the weekend can impose negative effects on circadian rhythms, and lead to feeling “social jetlag,” or tired and fatigued, according to Dr. Owens.

It is also important to incorporate movement breaks throughout the day. If these are not already built into the class schedule, ask the teacher if you can allow your child to take a break every 20-30 minutes or so (longer intervals for middle- and high-schoolers). If you notice that your child is becoming distracted, fatigued, or frustrated, you can suggest that he take a break at that time, too. Make sure that your child steps away from the computer during those breaks rather than merely switching to another online activity. Pulling his eyes away from the screen for a few minutes and moving his body will help ward off “Zoom fatigue” and recharge his focus.

Finally, while it is important to try to make the environment and the day feel like normal school, remember that this is not normal school. In fact, very little about our lives right now is normal. Your children will feel frustrated, overwhelmed, and less engaged at times, just like you are feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, and less engaged at times. Acknowledge that this is hard, emphasize that we are doing the best we can, and celebrate the small victories. 

Dr. Owens is one of the world’s leading authorities on connections between sleep and behavior in children and adolescents. Her work in the field of school start times has changed policies in school districts around the country. Dr. Owens and her colleagues designed the first and now most widely used sleep habits questionnaire for children, which has been translated into over a dozen languages and has been used in over 200 research projects worldwide.

Laura Phillips, PsyD, ABPdN is a board certified clinical neuropsychologist in the Learning and Development Center at the Child Mind Institute. She specializes in the neuropsychological evaluation of children, adolescents and young adults with a wide range of conditions that impact learning, behavior and social-emotional functioning, including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disorders and social cognitive weaknesses.