By Danielle Braff
Here’s how to create a space and habits that keep kids engaged with schoolwork at home.
Designate a School Area
A person or location often gets paired with a specific behavior.
“A child may know to be quiet in the library but be loud on the playground,” said Jessica Leichtweisz, a behavior analyst and certified child development specialist in Hackensack, N.J. “Traditionally, a child views home as a place to relax and play, and school as a place to do work.” In order for a child to listen to their parents teach, the parents must establish home as the new place to do schoolwork. Designate one area for schoolwork, and if possible, the area should not be the same place where the child typically plays.
Create a Schedule
Schools stick with a strict schedule, and teachers regularly tell children what’s expected of them — along with consequences if they don’t stick with the schedule, said Dr. Ron Stolberg, Ph.D, a California-based clinical psychologist, family therapist and co-author of “Teaching Kids to Think.” Schedules are typically displayed in the room and are mentioned multiple times per day. Transitions are planned and discussed often. For example, Dr. Stolberg said, a teacher might say, “OK, kids, in five minutes, we are going to clean up the art supplies so we can start story time. The quicker we clean up, the more time we have for the story.”
But even with a schedule and reminders, it’s likely that at first the teachers still had to show the students that the rules and schedule weren’t just recommendations, he said. If children didn’t follow through, they would face a consequence, such as sitting out of art or being sent to the office. Parents may create their own consequences. The schedule you make can fit around your work responsibilities, Dr. Stolberg said. Schoolwork can be done in the evenings and on the weekends as long as your child knows the schedule. “We get to create the new normal,” he said.
Don’t Give In to Crying
Parents can curb the whining, the crying and the complaining throughout the school day by not giving in when it happens. “If a child complains about completing a task or assignment, and a parent lets them avoid or escape completing that assignment, then that complaining has just been reinforced and is now more likely to occur again when the child is presented with something they don’t want to do,” Dr. Berens said.
Positive attention from parents, access to electronic devices, free time, allowance or preferred items are all things that children may be continually accruing throughout the day. "Unfortunately, most kids have unlimited access to what they want, and lose that access when a behavior occurs,” Dr. Berens said. Behavioral science indicates that this practice should be flipped: Children should be earning privileges throughout the day when they help around the house or do their work without complaining, she said.
Use a Timer
One of the most detrimental things for children is gray time, when it’s unclear if they should be working, staring into space, doodling or something else, Dr. Berens said. Work time needs to be clearly distinguished from break time, and a timer is the most effective way to do this. When your child needs to work on a school assignment, set a timer and watch how long it typically takes for your child to get off task.
“This period may be as short as three minutes for some kids,” Dr. Berens said. “It is important to initially select a timing period that your child can reasonably achieve.” Your child should work continuously throughout that timing period, and if you have to remind them to get back on track, you should reset the timer. Once they complete a work period without a reminder, reward them with enthusiastic praise and access to a preferred free-time activity.
Continue training this way, and as your child successfully completes several intervals in a row, gradually increase the length of the work until they’re working independently for 30 minutes.
Teach … in Your Own Way
Education happens in many places, especially right now, said Karen Gross, an author and educator based in Washington D.C. Cooking is learning, so are art projects, puzzles and games. Parents can adjust their classroom to fit their needs, Gross said.
One of the reasons children behave in school is because they’re surrounded by their peers. If you want your child to act like they’re in school, pretend that you’re in school. “Get out the stuffed animals and pretend they are part of the class,” said Julia Swaigen, a therapist with Attuned Families in Toronto. “When I first took my daughter out of day care, I would pretend that we were at day care and I would say, ‘OK friends, let’s all sit down at the table together for lunch — I’m looking to see all of my friends sitting nicely at the table.’”
She also suggested letting your child have a turn being the teacher, giving them choices about what they want to teach.
Danielle Braff is a full-time freelancer who lives in Chicago with her husband, two daughters, two cats and a dog. She’s obsessed with traveling, reading and ice-cream.