A few weeks ago, you guided children’s homework when they hit a rough spot. Today, you’re attempting to juggle the roles of lead teacher, school counselor and principal. As if your head wasn’t already spinning from all the other life changes, now you feel compelled to help children avoid brain drain on this extended “break” from school!

Fortunately, in this digital age, most schools are utilizing online learning portals, and there are thousands of other resources to help with the academic part. But successful teaching and meaningful learning requires so much more than sitting a student in front of a screen. Here are some ways to set yourself and your kids up for successful home learning:

1. Get on a schedule.

The brain thrives on predictable patterns, but so much in our lives is unpredictable right now! If your daily routine is also unpredictable, your child’s brain will spend its energy scanning the environment looking for patterns (safety) rather than devoting that energy to problem solving, creativity or learning. It’s helpful for children to know that life is going to be different, and that you will find a new normal together. A predictable daily pattern helps do just that.

Some families will find a timed schedule too constricting and will fare better with a simple order of events (first, next, then…). The idea is to give your day a predictable rhythm, not stress yourselves further by imposing inflexible measures. Experiment, be curious and choose what works best for your family.

Families with older children can work together to co-create a new daily schedule (co-creating gives children a way to exert some control over the situation), while parents of younger children will create the schedule for them. Plan it, draw it, label it, post it somewhere obvious and refer to it often so children know what to expect.

Remember to take your needs into account when creating the schedule. Schedule breaks for yourself as well as time to enjoy with your child walking around the block, reading together, and sharing snacks and meals. With some adults telecommuting from home, it’s also helpful to discuss who will be “on” for each part of the schedule, and on which days. Add this information to your schedule so children know who to go to and the other parent can work (somewhat) uninterrupted.

If you’re the sole adult in the home and you are telecommuting, schedule activities and tasks your child can complete independently while you work. These might include simple art projects, schoolwork or free play. Megadoses of screen time aren’t ideal, but some screen time may be necessary for managing today’s unique challenges. Many educational shows, games and websites are available for free or at a reduced cost.

A successful daily schedule for school-age children might be: Wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast, outside time, learning time, lunch, free play, rest time, family time, dinner, bedtime routine, read, bed. It will take a few days to get into the groove, but a consistent pattern will help free children’s brains up to learn more effectively.

2. Create a home learning routine.

Some families will focus on play and experiences, and allow learning to occur naturally throughout the day. Others will build set times for learning into their daily schedules. If you intend to do the latter, it is helpful to create a learning routine. This routine is like a smaller schedule, but with embedded rituals that help increase connection and reduce brain drag.

Decide how long your learning sessions will last. The younger the child, the shorter the timeframe. If your child is older and will be working for more than two hours, break your “school day” into two or more sessions with at least a one-hour break for outdoor play or free time between sessions. It’s helpful to provide a visual timer for children to track their progress through the routine.

If possible, conduct your learning sessions in the same location every day. If the location will change depending on subject or activity, note this in your routine.

Including a Brain Smart Start and Brain Breaks in your routine will help children maintain focus and increase their attention span.

Brain Smart Start

A Brain Smart Start has four research-backed components that turn off the stress response, create a favorable emotional climate, increase focus, ease the transition from play (or other activity) and create an optimal brain state for learning. You can combine multiple components into one activity. The four components and examples are:

At Home Learning Chart

Brain Breaks

A Brain Break is a movement activity that gets the blood flowing. Simply standing up delivers 15% more oxygen to the brain! Ideally, brain breaks also include a bit of connection (eye contact and touch) with another family member. Your home learning routine needs a three-minute brain break every 15-20 minutes in order to help maintain focus and keep your child’s brain running optimally!

Within your learning routine, change up the learning experiences. There are thousands of educational sites online in addition to the materials your school may be providing. Structure time to play online math or word games, visit a virtual museum, explore an undersea research station, take part in a virtual dance or yoga class, watch a live panda cam from a zoo or listen to a favorite author read aloud. Social media and Google searches are good ways to discover new learning opportunities.

You may also wish to include age-appropriate information about COVID-19 in your lessons. Information helps reassure children’s concerns; “You’re fine” and “That’s not something you need to worry about,” will not. Children know life is different, may not understand why, and will make up their own wonky (and often scary) explanations for things you don’t provide basic facts about.

As you did with your daily schedule, you will post your home learning routine with words and pictures that show the expectation.

  • This Learning Routine printable with examples for older and younger children will help you formulate a plan and visuals of your own.

3. Provide opportunities for success.

Mastery triggers the brain to release feel-good chemicals like dopamine, serotonin and endorphins. If children aren’t having success with their learning, scale back and provide more opportunities where they’re likely to succeed. If your kid’s a math whiz, do more math. If he excels in social studies, do more social studies. Academic learning is important, but wellbeing is essential.

The new home learning situation and worldwide climate of uncertainty create huge roadblocks to an optimal learning state. A child who has experienced success has a brain that’s better prepped for learning. Cultivate success first, and then move to more challenging material.

4. Pivot to a new point of view.

For many parents, school wasn’t exactly a source of joy. This can make it even more difficult for us to help our children in their new living room schoolhouse. Even for parents who excelled at academics “back in the day,” new methodologies and processes can make schooling at home a challenge. Breathe. Everyone is in the same boat, and schools know this is a challenging time for families (just as it is for them).

When frustrated over academic content or children’s behavior, one strategy that can help is pivoting. When we pivot, we consciously shift from what we don’t want, to what we do want.

We can pivot internally for ourselves from “I’m going to lose my mind,” to “I’m going to step away and take three deep breaths,” and from, “This second step is impossible,” to, “I’m going to get more information so this makes sense.”

We can verbally pivot with children from, “Stop interrupting me,” to, “Be quiet while I finish explaining,” from, “Stop hiding under the table,” to, “Come sit in your seat,” and from, “Stop SCREAMING!” to, “Use a quiet inside voice like mine.”

With pivoting, the goal is to seek out and focus on a positive action. If we can pivot our minds away from what’s wrong long enough to verbalize what we would like to see, we brighten our outlook, provide usable information and increase the likelihood of compliance. Pivoting is just one strategy that’s built into the Power of Attention and the Skill of Assertiveness from the seven powers and skills of Conscious Discipline.

  • Learn more about the Power of Attention and other helpful powers and skills in this parenting webinar.

5. Hit the pause button.

If possible, avoiding the introduction of new material for at least the first week or two can help smooth the transition from “schooling at school” to “schooling at home.” You may notice many school systems already doing this by suspending new lessons and grading until early April. This provides breathing room for both schools and families to figure out new logistics and establish a new pattern before attempting new teaching/learning. The brain functions optimally when it feels both safe and connected, and children aren’t apt to feel either, especially during the first weeks. Make safety and connection your top priority right now. You can add new and more complex academics as your routines become more normalized.

Children are under stress right now (just like us), so don’t hesitate to hit the pause button at any point if things aren’t going “as planned.” When stressed, the brain shifts to the lower reactionary centers and can’t access higher order thinking skills like problem solving and learning.

If your children are throwing fits, pulling out their hair and regressing due to stress, their brains aren’t able to absorb information. Pull back and focus on the basics: Safety and connection. If children are acting squirrely during a lesson (fidgety, falling out of their chairs, staring into space, etc.), try an extended brain break to get their minds back in the game. If ramping up your brain breaks has little success, pause the lesson for at least 20 minutes of free play that includes physical movement (ideally outdoors). You cannot force a child to learn, and attempting to do so will only result in a power struggle that pushes the brain even further away from an optimal learning state.

Be kind and patient with yourself, your children, your loved ones and the educational community as we all adapt to unprecedented life changes. Remember that all of us, including you, are doing the best we can amidst challenging circumstances. Navigating unfamiliar territory takes time, and it’s okay to “Oops” along the way.

For 20+ years, “We’re all in this together” has been one of the basic tenets of Conscious Discipline. It seems ironic that a virus that requires social distancing to slow its spread has drawn our attention to how intimately connected we truly are as friends, neighbors, communities and nations.

Conscious Discipline offers a wealth of social-emotional information online to help you during this challenging time. Some of the items are purchasable, but in keeping with our belief that we’re all in this together, many of our webinars, podcasts, videos, printables, articles and other items are absolutely free for you to use.

We hope these resources are helpful. We are holding you in our hearts and wishing you well during this challenging time.