When Schools Close Down, Parents Become Learning Coaches
Disclaimer: This article presumes a lot of privilege. It presumes that students have a home to begin with, then access to technology, and a parent who can be at home with them during the school closures.
Some of the best advice I got in my first year teaching was surprisingly not about the students or classroom, but about parents. The advice was: when meeting with parents, always remind them that you are both on the same team with the same goal. Both parents and teachers want their students to learn and succeed.
It’s an important partnership in any teaching environment, but especially so when the teaching is online, and the students are at home. At my hybrid school (2.5 days in person and 2.5 days online) we require at least one parent or guardian to sign up as the “at-home learning coach.”
At our school, the role of learning coach looks differently in each grade level:
Elementary School Learning Coaches - spend the at-home days acting as a home-school teacher, and follow along with lessons and activities provided by the classroom teacher.
Secondary School Learning Coaches - play the important role of keeping their students on task, focused, and holding them accountable for doing all of their work (with sincere effort).
For a moment, just think about how hard it can be to motivate yourself (a mature adult) to do work at home, especially with all the distractions around (pets, dishes, Face Book…) Then picture yourself at the age of 15 (friends, SnapChat), 11 (Youtube, MineCraft), or 8 (literally anything can be a distraction from what I can tell).
It is critical that there is someone at home encouraging, supporting, and holding students accountable for doing their work.
When new families join our school, they go through orientation, workshops, weekly updates and tips, they have a learning coach mentor, and opportunities to meet with the principal for coffee.
Parents of students home from school because of coronavirus closures will have to make a much starker transition.
Although there is so much more I could say, here are my top tips for becoming a learning coach at home.
Top Tips for Becoming a Learning Coach
1. Create a Dedicated Work Space for Learning
We, as humans, create association with places. The couch is where I relax, school is where I work, the grocery store is where I suffer, etc.
Your student already has associations with home, and it is often not a place for doing too much school work. If possible, dedicate a space at home for “school.”
For some, that might mean a study, office, or desk in the child’s room. For others that might mean a corner of the kitchen table, or a card table set up in the living room.
Wherever it is, take some time to get set up. Let the student personalize their space, like you might with an office desk, and stock it with the material your student might need (pencils, sticky notes, etc).
2. Make Habits and Routines
An at-home school day is still a school day. Depending on your school, you might have some flexibility in the hours, but students should still be engaging in meaningful learning for 6-8 hours.
Create a schedule of what subjects you’ll work on and when. Block out time for lunch, and time to move or play outside.
Making a schedule means you will be more likely to stick to it.
Also, try to stick to regular routines. Get up, eat breakfast, get dressed. My husband, who works from home, sometimes even “commutes” by going on a walk outside to clear his head and get in the right mindset before he comes back home and goes straight to his office to work.
3. Use Timers
If you’ve made your schedule, use timers to help your student stick to it. In a traditional school building, bells will ring to signal it’s time to move onto the next subject.
Here’s one of the beauties of working at home, when the timer goes off at home, the student doesn’t have to move on right away. Rather it’s an indication that they should be wrapping up. I always tell my students to email me if there assignment is taking way longer than an hour, and I’ll usually edit it for them so they don’t eat up too much of their day on one assignment.
Additionally, if a student finishes long before the timer goes off, that’s a good indication that they might not have done their work correctly or completely and they need to revisit the instructions or go a little deeper with the content.
4. Take Brain Breaks and Move!
Timers can also be used to break up screen time, set timers for scheduled breaks throughout the day and make sure your student is moving and giving their eyes a rest throughout the day.
Here are a couple of great resources or ideas for taking breaks:
5. Socialization Is An Important Part of Learning
Some of the most important skills students learn at school comes from their socialization, and they spend a good part of their day engaged in conversations with their peers.
It’s a difficult thing to find balance in, but important to keep in mind that a little bit of goofing off or socializing online is important for kids throughout the day, as long as they are also getting their work done (welcome to being a teacher!)
6. Use Positive Reinforcements
If students were at their brick-and-mortar buildings they would likely be able to earn points, tickets, passes, and prizes for good work and behavior.
Set up a positive reinforcement system. Decide on a reward (ice cream, TV time, chore passes) and then determine what it will take to achieve it. Everytime a student completes an assignment or produces a piece of particularly good work, they might earn a check mark on a chart or a classic gold star.
And don’t forget the power of specific verbal praise:
“I noticed how concentrated you were while you were working on your math.”
“I love the creativity you put into describing your character for that story.”
7. Check (And I Mean Fully Check) That Work is Done
On some learning management systems, like Google Classroom, students can click the “Turn In” button, without any work actually being done.
I can’t stress the importance of checking your student’s work to see if it is done, and done correctly.
Learning coaches don’t have to grade the work or give feedback (the classroom teacher will still be doing that). But for each assignment, read the instructions with your students and ask them if they have completed each step. Then look for yourself to see if the criteria was met.
The classroom teacher will be checking as well, but with up to 200 students to manage, by the time the teacher notices work is missing the student has fallen behind and it becomes harder and harder to catch back up.
8. Reach Out To Teachers
When in doubt, reach out!
Remember, parents and teachers are on the same team with the same goal. We both want your student to learn and succeed.
What If There Is No Parent At Home?
At the top of the article I included a disclaimer about the privilege this article presumes. The reality is many students won’t have a parent available to stay home with them while school is closed (not to mention all the kids who don’t have a home at all).
If you are a parent who has the time and space to become a learning coach at home, consider reaching out to your school’s principal and offer to take in a student who won’t have supervision for the day. You could be a big help to a family in need.
If you are looking for more information on remote teaching and learning during the Coronavirus outbreak, see my articles Online Teaching in the Time of Coronavirus, and Organizing Google Classroom for Online Instruction.