how to manage kids attention virtual learning

For many families, the transition to virtual learning during the pandemic comes with some challenges. Students may be struggling to stay focused, resulting in distracted or unproductive behavior.

To help resolve these issues, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt education innovators launched Family Room, a family-friendly online space that makes at-home learning more manageable for parents and students.

Here are a few tips we've been hearing from our team of expert contributors to help kids remain attentive and alert despite their new learning environment:


1. Establish a "school ready" routine.

Home is usually the place for enjoying family time, playing, eating and sleeping. When it becomes "school" too, children need dedicated time to prepare for and focus on learning. Before starting classwork, establishing a routine to get ready for the schooldays is important. This may involve brushing teeth, combing hair and getting dressed. Being "school ready" sets the mindset for the rest of the day.

2. Set up a learning place.

Ideally, children will set up their digital devices on a table or desk located near a power source. If there are several students in a family sharing a table, cardboard dividers may help limit distractions. It's also helpful to keep school supplies such as pens, pencils, markers and paper handy and easily accessible—these can be stored in boxes, bins and even backpacks. And because learning is taking place at home, these spaces can also include personalized items. Younger students may want a favorite stuffed animal close by, and older students may prefer to have a book on hand to read when assignments are finished or when a break is needed.

3. Implement a weekday schedule.

At school, children are used to a daily routine to help structure their learning. With no physical transition from class to class at home, it can be difficult for students to understand how to effectively manage their time and when to shift from one subject to another. A written daily schedule helps organize the learning day—be sure to weave in time for snacks, brain breaks and exercise to keep kids energized.

4. Set expectations.

Clearly stating expectations for at-home learning is an important step towards giving students structure and helping them understand how to behave throughout the day. This can include discussing appropriate, respectful behavior during online class and determining what is off-limits during learning—like cell phones or video games.

5. Provide encouragement + celebrate success.

To maintain motivation, praise your student on specific positive behaviors that you notice throughout the day—like how they participated in a class discussion or worked through a difficult assignment. This positive feedback will keep spirits up!

How to help prevent meltdowns during virtual learning

Another potential hurdle in this process is meltdowns. It's difficult to prevent meltdowns in general, and many parents have already experienced dreaded midday meltdowns during remote learning. However, it's important to recognize these outbursts come from stress and feelings of being overwhelmed.

Here are some techniques to help children cope and express their feelings in other ways:

1. Lean into the familiar.

Invite your child to help create their own space for at-home learning, paying attention to what helps comfort them! Keep soothing objects nearby whether it be a fidget cube, blanket or soccer ball for foot movement, as well as learning aids like a pencil case or calculator. Keep their environment simple and not too visually stimulating but equipped with the tools for success. And of course, select an area that is close enough for you to monitor what's happening at all times.

2. Set up a Calm Corner or use a Calming Jar.

As home has become the new school for many students, take note of what works in the classroom and set up a Calm Corner: a quiet space for children to step away from the potentially stressful learning environment and give themselves a time-out until they feel better. A Calm Corner may include a pillow, blanket, stuffed animal, stress ball or spinner.

Another teacher tip is to create a Calming Jar. This can simply be a water bottle or recycled jar filled with sand or glitter that provides a child with something else to focus on in frustrating or overwhelming situations.

3. Remember that it's going to be okay.

This new learning environment is experimental for everyone, and it's important to remember that what works today, may not work tomorrow! Continue checking in with your child throughout the school year and tinker with their schedule based on feedback from them and your own observations.

4. Prioritize brain breaks.

Just like in school, it's helpful to break learning into blocks and provide multiple small breaks throughout the day for your child to decompress and reset. Brain breaks are an important time to let loose, and it's actually during these moments that learning is sticking.

Some brain break ideas include a 5-minute timeframe to stretch, doodle, or even play a quick game of "freeze!"

5. Practice self-care.

This is a stressful time for parents, too. Taking care of yourself is good for you and your kids, as you serve as a positive role model when taking actions to help yourself feel better.

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