Helping Kids Stay Motivated During Distance Learning

I’ve been a school counselor for about fifteen years, and in that time I’ve had lots of different experiences. Every one of them has enriched my understanding of the needs of kids and families. Every year I feel better prepared to do this work. 

Nothing prepared me for this. Distance learning is brand new territory for all of us.  

I continue to hear from parents and see on social media that helping kids stay focused and motivated is an ongoing struggle. We are in such strange times that the internet even let me down a little. Google wasn’t able to give me hundreds of great ideas.

It makes sense that we have questions. This is something new. Students and teachers and families and schools were plunked down in distance learning with very little notice. As I write this, we are in week four of an experiment in improvisation and reflection. We’ll make mistakes and fix them and make new mistakes.  

Here are a few ideas that make sense to me. They are a hybrid of my school counselor and parenting experience, informed by my graduate school training and professional reading.

First and most importantly, start with connection.

In education, the most important “R” isn’t reading or writing, but relationships. Kids need to feel connected to family and friends not just to meet their emotional needs, but to help them learn. Your child’s continued sense of belonging to her class and her teacher will help her want to learn. Virtual class meetings and zoom read-alouds are crucial to fostering this feeling. Make sure your child is part of as many of them as possible.

Offer choices when you can.

Your “school” and school schedule don’t need to look just like your neighbor’s. If you have more than one child, it’s okay to have more than one schedule. Allowing your kids to design their own work spaces and to make some choices about how and when they learn creates a sense of ownership and motivation. I think this may be especially important with teenagers.

Make learning a priority.

It’s hard for anyone to remain motivated when others minimize the importance of their work. Show your kids that you value their learning by giving it time and attention. Ask about what they are learning and listen to their responses. Treat learning time and activities with the same respect.

Honor your child’s competence.

Your child spent the first three quarters of the school year learning how to be an independent student in 2nd grade or 6th grade or 12th grade. She still has all the same skills, even though she’s doing her learning at home these days. Give your kids space to manage their work on their own. Let her know you are available to help but don’t jump into action every time she hesitates or makes a mistake. Learning involves figuring things out. This is true for kids who receive extra help at school, too. When you do things for your kid that she can do for herself, you’re sending the message that she isn’t competent and she may lose interest in the work.  

There is no need for you to join every zoom call or check every math problem. You didn’t do that during regular school and you don’t need to do it now. Note from a friend: If you were doing that kind of micro-managing during regular school, you might want to ask yourself what message that gives your kids.

Trust your school and teacher.

Most metro school districts have provided robust resources for students and families. Take advantage of what is offered. There is no need to build your own curriculum or invent new programs. If you have questions, ask for help. Your kid’s teacher knows what she can do and will have great ideas to help her stay engaged and motivated.  

If you are interested in supplementing what the school provided, be sure you are adding age- and ability-appropriate topics. Your kiddo’s most recent report card can help you figure this out. Think about enriching rather than accelerating learning, about going deeper rather than faster or farther.

Share your love of learning.

You know your kids are watching what you do and listening to what you say. Make sure they hear you and see you being a learner. Talk about new ideas you discovered or new skills you are practicing. Something as small as trying a new recipe can lead to a conversation about growing and learning.  

Read.

I’m sure your kid is supposed to be reading. You read, too. Talk to your kids about what you’re reading. Ask about what they’re reading. Kid lit authors and illustrators have stepped up to make reading at home more fun. Your kid will almost certainly be more engaged in reading when it’s a family affair.

Focus on strengths.

It’s easy to get caught in the improvement trap, but no one likes spending the majority of their time doing stuff they aren’t good at. Grown-ups don’t and kids don’t, either. Be sure to give your kids plenty of chances to do the things they like every day.

Know when to quit.

The goal in Distance Learning is not to replicate the school day. No one is expecting students to sit in a chair at their kitchen table for seven hours straight. Your kids probably weren’t sitting in chairs all that much during regular school. If your kiddo seems discouraged, take a break. After a brain break, she’ll come back to learning more motivated and energized. Check out GoNoodle for hundreds of brain-science based videos and games to help your kid recharge.

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Beth is mom to a high school sophomore and a first year college student. After fourteen years as a professional writer and editor, she earned graduate degrees in counseling and play therapy. Now she exercises her creativity as a school counselor. Beth loves reading, especially mysteries.