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My third-grader gets distracted during online classes. How can I help?

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Q: My third-grader spends much of her class time watching videos or going to other websites rather than paying attention in class. Whenever I walk into the room, she clicks back to her Zoom meeting and looks a little guilty. Do you have any suggestions on how to help her manage this, and how I can react effectively?

I don't want her to feel ashamed of her computer habits, but I would like her to stay present in class and complete assignments. Her schoolwork is suffering because she is not paying attention; I have to sit with her every afternoon and talk her through completing work that should have been done during class time. We've blocked certain websites, but she always manages to find another distraction.

She was easily distracted when school was in person, and I'm worried that online school is exacerbating the issue. When I try to talk to her about this, she gets angry and says she does not get enough screen time. She is, in fact, allowed screen time after she finishes her chores, but she often doesn't finish her chores, because she's finishing the schoolwork that she could have finished if she hadn't been playing games during class time. Her angry tantrums have always been an issue, but they've gotten worse since we've been staying at home.

Every day feels like a losing battle. (I'm unemployed because of the coronavirus pandemic, and we also have a preschooler and a baby, so I'm sure she is not getting as much attention as she needs.) I would love any advice or resources to help me manage my expectations of my 8-year-old's behavior. Thanks!

A: I was hanging with you until you wrote “we also have a preschooler and a baby,” and then my mouth dropped. All of this, my friend, is too much. It’s so hard for the parents who are raising young children during the pandemic. I want to gather everyone in a collective hug until this is over (but only hypothetically, because of social distancing).

So, what are you going to do with your 8-year-old?

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It is not developmentally appropriate for an 8-year-old to sit in front of a computer all day. Period. I don’t care how focused or mature or “smart” your child is; her young body and mind are not meant for that level of sitting and attention.

This is not a slight to teachers and schools. We all know they’re trying to keep children safe and continue their learning in an impossible situation. But we also have to stick to reality. The average attention span for an 8-year-old is approximately 16 to 40 minutes. Therefore, it’s typical that she cannot pay attention for multiple lessons. Add to this the attractiveness of games (the brain would much prefer that dessert over the vegetables of spelling), and you are fighting a losing battle.

First, accept that your daughter cannot sit all day. What do you do next? You have to get down the needs of the situation, and those needs are for you to make it out of this pandemic with as much emotional and physical wellness as possible. Not academic success, and not fighting your 8-year-old on homework. Your child may be falling behind, but here’s the harsh reality: With some small exceptions, most children are falling behind. If this is the case, then you can decide to keep your relationship with her strong.

As a parent coach, I am confident that your daughter will learn to read and write and do arithmetic, but the crying, tantrums and fighting are more worrisome. As you balance the pandemic and two other young children, it is unreasonable to also manage your child’s learning and assignments. It’s just too much. All of her learning won’t mean much if you two hate each other at the end of the pandemic.

I would first communicate with her teachers. Let them know about the struggles and the tantrums; I’m thinking they will be empathic. (Many of them are dealing with this with their own children at home.) Next, focus on two or three subjects a day: reading, writing and math, for example. Complete just those three, and leave the rest behind. This doesn’t mean that your daughter watches unboxing videos for the rest of the day; it means you stop fighting with her about what isn’t developmentally typical.

As you create this schedule, decide what else the day will include. Listening to podcasts or audio books, creating art (check out the Kennedy Center’s Small Works Project with Mo Willems at, walking in nature, cooking and baking — there are endless possibilities. And yes, screen time. Whenever possible, try to go for “slow TV,” or anything that isn’t gaming.

I know this is difficult, and you may be panicking about your daughter’s learning, but I promise that simplifying this time will benefit everyone, especially you. Good luck.

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