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I’m in Chicago in the 10th week of pandemic confinement. Even in states that are opening up, the schools are still closed, and some may remain closed in the fall. One suspects that there may be future extended school closings as well as this insidious virus works its way through our communities.

There is no research literature on education and pandemics.

But there is an all too extensive body of study focused on the effects of natural disasters (e.g., floods, fires, hurricanes, tsunamis). Such events differ from what we are going through… those causing greater direct loss and trauma. Children who lose a parent or home, or who are injured or separated, not only miss school, but may suffer from acute stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and any number of learning-disruptive fears.

Nevertheless, even disaster research tends to find that missed school is the main learning problem. For instance, after Hurricane Katrina, the children showed small, but statistically significant losses in reading and math achievement — and these correlated closely with the amounts of time children were out of school. They also found that quality instruction was later able to catch those kids back up!

In the current situation, most kids are safe, most school districts are trying to provide some kind of distance learning opportunities, and most parents and other caregivers aren’t being prevented from supporting their kids. Minimizing loss is both possible and worthwhile.

I’ve been getting lots of requests for a blog on what we might do at home to support our kids’ learning and here is my advice. Here it is:

Keep it literate. Whether there is a school assignment or not, your kids should read and write and talk about what they read. Pretty much every day. On one day they may be able to read the social studies chapter the teacher assigned on Zoom. On another, there may be no assignment, so get your kid to choose another book or magazine. If you have a good home library that may be the place to turn; if not, perhaps your local library is available, and my website has several sources for free electronic books (check out Free Reading Materials for Children and Teens in the Resources section (opens in a new window)), or you can purchase books for home delivery or subscribe to a magazine.

Usually you may not worry about that (but you usually don’t worry about toilet paper either). It would be a good idea to keep on hand an adequate supply of children’s books. You simply can’t know when or for how long you might be quarantined. I’m sure many schools now wish we would have sent more print home with the kids. It would be a good idea to be prepared for that if there is a next time.

Keep it varied. It is a bad idea to expect your child to spend large amounts of time doing anything or any type of thing. If one school assignment requires reading, then follow that with something very different — math problems, discussion, some activity involving movement. They can come back to read again later.

Type of activity is one kind of variation; personal preferences is another. Some kids will seize on the activities that they enjoy most, procrastinating on the others. It can be a better idea to take on the harder or unappealing tasks early on, using the preferred ones as a kind of break or reward. Or interleave the activities that your child enjoys with those that he or she finds to be less attractive.

Keep it purposeful. Even in school it can be hard to keep kids focused on why they are doing particular assignments. But purposeful action leads to learning. Ask your child what the purpose of the assignment is; get them to explain it. If they can’t, then see if you can figure out the point for them. If you can’t, then don’t be afraid to contact the teacher and get her to explain it. The why is as important as the what!

Keep it reflective. Kids often hurry through their work, just trying to get it done. But that reduces the chances of learning. When they think they are done, get them to take a moment to think about it — what they learned or what they are able to do now as a result. If they have just read a chapter and slammed the book shut thinking its sandwich time, get them to summarize what they have read before noshing. 

Keep it enjoyable. Recently, my grandson was given a writing assignment at a distance. He struggled to complete it for four hours because he couldn’t think of what to write about! He and his father both wanted to jump out the window by the end. But hard work doesn’t have to be that unpleasant. Some assignments can be done in parts; do 4 items and then do something else. Or, in this case, getting my grandson to talk about his ideas before writing did the trick — even if the talk is about the 10 reasons that he hates writing so much. Working hard is fine. Working futilely is pointless. If it seems unpleasant, something is probably wrong. Talk to the teacher (or your child) to try to find a solution.

Keep it connected. This is a hard one during confinement. In a classroom, the teacher might have a group of students working together. That’s ideal as kids can learn a lot from each other, and the social connection itself may be motivating. At home, it’s harder to muster, and parent participation may be at a premium (since mom and dad are working at home, too). Nevertheless, you might consider instigating some one-on-one Zoom-time for your child with neighbors or classmates to talk about some of the schoolwork or what they are reading. (I have a 4-year-old granddaughter who has been doing some of that and it has really kept her spirits up as well as her interest in her preschool work).

Despite the difficulties, find some time each day (perhaps over a meal) to talk to your children about what they are reading or what they have been working on. Make your questions specific — What happens in that story? What did you find out about whales? So what is 5 times 3 — rather than how was your online school today?

Keep it organized. One of the hardest things for adults to do when they have a long layoff from work is to keep a regular schedule and the sense of control that goes with that. Develop a “learn at home schedule” for your children during the confinement. Keep regular hours for meals and bed, too. But don’t get crazy. If there are three hours of schoolwork to be done, that doesn’t have to be from 9:00-12:00. Three separate one-hour study periods may be better. And, just like during the school year, days off matter, too. 

Be safe.


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About the Author

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
May 26, 2020

Related Topics

Motivation, Parent Engagement