When pediatrician Patricia Kapunan met with her seventh-grade patient, she asked her if she had discovered anything about herself last year, when she was learning remotely, that might help her learn or cope better this year.
Kapunan, an adolescent medicine specialist at Children’s National Hospital, has been doing this kind of processing with kids “because it helps them realize they have agency, and it helps families recognize the resilience they showed in solving problems last year.”
Children are going to need that kind of empowerment this year. They not only are dealing with the anticipatory anxiety of starting a new grade, but they are also carrying over baggage and frustrations from last year’s struggles with the pandemic and online learning, including “adverse effects on their developing brains and bodies,” said Lori Desautels, an assistant professor at Butler University’s College of Education and author of the book “Connections Over Compliance: Rewiring our Perceptions of Discipline.” “What we see are the behaviors, but it’s the residue of emotional fatigue, isolation and chronic unpredictability.”
Whether children lack confidence because their grades took a hit during the pandemic, they’re worried about reestablishing friendships or they’re coping with stressors at home, they could struggle with academic engagement this year. Here are six ways caregivers can tamp down the pressure, boost kids’ motivation and help them take a more active, joyful role in their own learning.
Create a manageable routine with their buy-in
As children adjust to the demands of in-person school, they’ll need more energy, so Kapunan recommends helping them “move back to a more typical sleep schedule and practice eating at scheduled times — including breakfast — rather than snacking whenever they want.”
Whatever schedule you create, do it with your child’s input. “Ask questions that help them figure out what they need,” such as: “What time do you want to do your homework? Are you a morning person or a night owl?” suggests Jeannine Jannot, author of “The Disintegrating Student: Struggling But Smart, Falling Apart, and How to Turn it Around.”
Kids may have less stamina, so allow time for relaxation and movement. “The ability to focus and maintain attention is a resource that gets drawn down, and it’s refreshed by physical activity, [which allows kids] to apply themselves to learning, focusing and inhibiting their impulses,” said Annie Murphy Paul, a science writer and the author of “The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain.”
Practice time management and cognitive offloading
Children may not study because they don’t know how, or they might be disorganized because they overestimate their ability to hold information in their head. “They all say, ‘I’ll remember,’ but that takes a little bit of your brain’s ability to focus on the next thing, and writing it down gives you more learning capacity,” Jannot said.
To decrease stress, Jannot recommends that kids put their responsibilities, appointments, homework, extracurricular activities and social commitments in a monthly calendar, and that they maintain a separate system for daily reminders. On the left side of a piece of paper, she said, kids can write down the stuff they need to do that day. On the right side, they can add new tasks as they come up throughout the day.
This kind of cognitive offloading can help kids learn, Murphy Paul added. Whether they use a calendar, index cards or a whiteboard, “it gets the contents of their brain out of their head and into space, where they can manipulate ideas as if they’re physical objects, navigating through them like a three-dimensional landscape.”
Dampen the stress response, and avoid making assumptions
If children need repeated reassurance to get their homework done, “that’s a sign that we need to be intentional about checking in,” Desautels said. You might say, “Let’s agree to get two sentences written, and I’ll check in every 10 minutes. What do you think about that?”
Help them identify and manage any unspoken fears. Kids may want to write and share a poem with their class, for example, but avoid doing the assignment, because they’re concerned they’ll get teased.
If their avoidance or frustration triggers you, press the pause button. If you’re critical or punitive, you’ll “unintentionally activate the stress response symptoms in the body” and prolong the conflict, Desautels said. “We’ve got to share our calm.”
Keep in mind that what looks like laziness is often paralysis that stems from fear of failure, burnout, perfectionism or low confidence, Jannot said. “If you care about the things you’re doing, then you’re not lazy — and students do care.” They want to get good grades, earn the respect of their teachers and peers, and make their parents proud.
Jannot tells parents to be equally wary of the word “best.” “If you tell a perfectionist kid to do their best, you’ve given them an impossible task,” she said. “They never feel like they’re enough, and their motivation tanks.” Instead, help them set realistic expectations.
Turn grind into play
If a child says homework is boring, turn it into play, said Martin Reeves, the co-author of “The Imagination Machine: How to Spark New Ideas and Create Your Company’s Future” and chairman of the BCG Henderson Institute. “People are more self-driven when they play, and it’s more self-sustaining. You won’t hear anyone say, ‘I just played with my Lego and it was a real grind.’ ”
If a question is rote, prompt your child to ask and answer it faster and faster until everyone laughs, Reeves suggested. Or turn it into a guessing game. If a child is instructed to add the numbers 17 and 13, for instance, you might ask: “What do you think I think you’re going to say?” Then follow up with: “What else could you say?” “Even if your child knows the answer, you get to discuss why it’s the answer,” Reeves said.
Whenever possible, celebrate a child’s questions. “It’s genuinely wonderful when a 5-year-old says, ‘I’ve been wondering: Where is the edge of the universe, and what’s beyond the edge?’ ” he said. “I’ll say: ‘How can we think about that problem?’ It’s a wonderful exercise in playfulness.”
In Reeves’s own home, “if someone asks a question and Dad doesn’t know the answer, that’s really cool,” he said. “But if they ask a question that mankind doesn’t know the answer to, we literally go out for a celebratory meal.”
Think beyond the brain
Murphy Paul tells her children that the brain is overrated, and that they also can think with their body, spaces and relationships. “The culture tells kids that the only option is to sit there and work your brain harder until it’s done, which causes them a lot of distress,” she said, “but there are other ways to hook into new knowledge and reel it in when you need it.”
For example, children can make movements that are congruent with a concept they’re studying, whether they move their body along a number line on the floor or act out the movements of the planets, Murphy Paul said.
Spaces also can be used “to evoke kids’ enthusiasm, affirm their identity as a learner and give them a sense of control,” she said. For instance, students can decorate their assigned desk or locker and make it their own, or place objects in their personal workspace, such as a school mug or a photograph with classmates, that help them remember that they’re “part of a learning community, not laboring in isolation.”
That need for relationships and belonging can help children learn, Murphy Paul said. Kids who tutor their peers can be motivated to understand the information, because they want to teach it well. When children debate one another in class, they learn how to develop an argument while also engaging the social part of themselves.
Focus on their strengths, and take the long view
All kids need to feel hopeful and believe that they can make valuable contributions. To set that tone, Joseph Bostic Jr., a middle school math teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Germantown, Md., begins every class by saying: “Hello, everyone. I want you to repeat after me: Today is going to be an amazing day.”
He then has his students, many of whom are dealing with trauma, do a breathing exercise with affirmations that parents can try at home. On the first breath, he says: “Repeat after me: I believe in me.” On the second breath, he says: “Repeat after me: I can do the impossible.” And on the third breath, he says: “Repeat after me: I release any tension and anxiety, because I know that I can do anything I put my mind to.”
“Kids need to know that it’s a safe, positive learning environment; they can do their best; and I believe in them,” Bostic said. That will be key for parents this year, too. “If you fixate on the outcome — the A or the B — and not the relationship or your kid’s growth, they’ll tense up.”
When it comes to academic engagement, that may be the most important takeaway. It may seem counterintuitive, but when parents focus more on children’s strengths than their grades, they raise kids who not only learn more, but also do so with a lot more joy.
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