Using Common Sense: 9 ways to motivate kids for online learning

"Focusing on what really needs to get done, doing a really good job at it, finding ways to make learning engaging by using easy and fun ed tech tools and being mindful of students’ social and emotional well-being are going to be what helps us get through this.”

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With COVID-19 numbers still high in Arizona, and in-person learning delayed, distance learning is the new back-to-school reality. As a parent, you probably have a lot of questions about how to make sure kids stay engaged and learning this school year.

Distance learning may be especially complicated for families with parents who need to work outside the home. It will also be more complicated for educators. A primary concern in Arizona is students’ lack of home access to reliable broadband or Wi-Fi and lack of home computers or tablets.

Even for families that have connectivity and computers, there are significant challenges, including student motivation and difficulty understanding instructions for asynchronous lessons (lessons that do not occur at the same time and place for all students). One Cochise County educator says she was overwhelmed by the number of distance learning resources she could use: “It’s like going to a massive food court!”

Arizona school district administrators and educators are trying to figure out how to offer small group instruction and office hours when kids can come to them individually for help. But this can also be difficult for teachers who are working from home trying to help their own children, said Victoria Saylor, Arizona Regional Manager for Common Sense.

One of the keys for a successful distance learning experience is making sure teachers increase family engagement with clear communication, by making sure parents are aware of expectations and where to find the help they or their kids need. District administrators also need to make sure to use alternative ways to communicate with parents who don’t have internet access. Texting programs like Remind, Class Dojo and TalkingPoints — a multilingual texting tool — can help.

Parents should take advantage of any office hours their child’s teacher has, attend virtual parent/teacher conferences, and stay up-to-date with emails or texts. “Staying organized, keeping routines and setting norms/expectations for remote learning is going to be vital,” Saylor said.

Teachers who can be creative and stay current on the best education technology tools will increase student engagement. Consider using breakout rooms for older students so they can collaborate, being mindful of their social and emotional well-being. Saylor highly recommends Flipgrid, a fun recording tool that can keep kids connected as they respond to a question or lesson. Nearpod and Peardeck are examples of student engagement platforms.

“Focusing on what really needs to get done, doing a really good job at it, finding ways to make learning engaging by using easy and fun ed tech tools and being mindful of students’ social and emotional well-being are going to be what helps us get through this,” says Saylor, adding she believes kids of all ages can thrive with effective distance learning instruction, and that good teachers will adapt.

“Teachers are being asked to do something that most have never done before and were not trained to do,” she says. “I think finding a tool that is easy for teachers, students and families to use will make all the difference in how quickly our families will adapt. It will take some practice, but teachers are life-long learners, and they will find what works best for them and their families.”

9 ways to keep kids motivated during online instruction

Caroline Knorr, Common Sense Media’s parenting editor, offers these tips to help kids stay motivated during their online learning time:

  • Provide structure and routine. Sticking to a schedule provides the stability kids need to keep their eyes on the prize. Plus, it minimizes their instincts to go rogue. When expectations are set, it’s more likely they’ll be met.
  • Establish accountability. Maybe you can’t motivate your kids— but their best friends can. Have them schedule daily check-ins with friends over texts or social media. Accountability helps kids realize they’re not alone and gives them a tangible reason to work hard.
  • Incentivize learning. Kids may be motivated by rewards, but you want to make it feel as though they’ve earned their treat (or you’ll end up in a vicious cycle). If they finish one packet, they get a half hour on the tablet; two packets, 45 minutes, etc. (Screen-time rewards may not be your usual motivation go-to, but we are in unusual times!)
  • Experiment. If a kid is struggling with reading a book, turn it into a read-aloud or audiobook. If math is “too boring,” do the problems on a whiteboard or outside using sidewalk chalk. A change of scenery can do wonders for a kid’s motivation.
  • Break up the day. If you have some control over when they do the work, break things up a little. Let them have a slower-paced morning and do their work after lunch, for example. But make an agreement in advance: “If you take the morning off, you still have to get your schoolwork done before you can play online with your friends later today.”
  • Change the timing. There’s nothing magical about the hours of 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. — that’s just when we’re all used to school happening. Of course, if your kids are attending live online classes, you have to accommodate those schedules. But for things like working through a packet of assignments from a teacher, there’s no harm in experimenting with different times of day.
  • Mark the occasion. Give kids something to look forward to. Plan an online family/friend celebration, like a virtual class party or a Zoom dance. Or do a family movie night and let them choose what to watch.
  • Let them see progress. Use a calendar or other visual aid to mark time so they can see how much they’ve accomplished and how much more there is to go.
  • Do a related activity. Build upon and extend what they’re learning with a natural connection. If they’re learning about the solar system, let them stay up late and use an astronomy app to map the night sky.

More distancing learning resources

Common Sense Media’s free education portal — wideopenschool.org — offers a curated collection of distance learning tools for kids and families. The site is intended to keep students learning, engaged, and emotionally strong during the pandemic and beyond. It was launched to complement and supplement the distance learning solutions that districts and schools are implementing.

Common Sense partnered with more than 60 organizations — including the American Federation of Teachers, Amplify, Apple, BrainPop, Boys and Girls Club of America, Child Mind Institute, Crisis Text Line, Facing History, Abriendo Puertas, Google, Head Start, Khan Academy, LEGO Education, National Geographic, Raising a Reader, Sesame Workshop, Playworks, PBS Learning Media, Scholastic, TIME for Kids, Zoom and more. The weekly webinar series “Distance Learning with Common Sense” explores strategies and best practices and connects educators from across the nation during 20-minute Zoom sessions.