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From the Mouths of Kids: What We’ve Learned from Students Schooling at Home. Part 1: Distractions

by David Engle | Jul 14, 2020 | 5 min read

As parents deliberate whether to send their children back to school in the fall, amid skyrocketing COVID-19 cases in many parts of the country, perhaps we should all listen to some people who will give it to you straight, who have experienced learning at home first-hand–kids. They’ve got opinions. Plenty of opinions. And while some adults may want to laugh it off and say, “My kid isn’t going to make my decision for me…he/she doesn’t know what’s best,” it might be a smart idea to hear them out. Because they’ve got some pretty valuable insight to share.

YouthTruth, a national nonprofit organization, conducted an anonymous survey of more than 20,000 students, who provided more than 40,000 open-ended responses to the following three questions related to schooling at home during the spring 2020 school closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • What about learning at home do you like? Are there things you hope will stay the same next school year?
  • What about learning at home do you find challenging? How can your school help?
  • Since your school building closed, briefly describe your day…

From there, YouthTruth analyzed the responses, categorized them accordingly, and created a list of five benefits and five challenges associated with learning at home (remember, learning at home is not the same as homeschooling!). In this blog series, we’re going to look at each of the challenges children faced and some things you as a parent may be able to do to help alleviate your child’s concerns.

Before we start, it’s important to note that there were plenty of benefits to distance learning identified by the surveyed students. They included:

  • Working at their own pace
  • Comfortable working environment at home
  • More free time, sleep, and time for wellness activities
  • More time with family
  • Workload and types of work (more projects rather than tests, the ability to spend more time on work, the opportunity to work alone more)

These are some really interesting and valid insights that neither parents nor educators may have been fully aware of. And they deserve as much consideration as the challenges when deciding the right course of action for the upcoming school year. But right now, we’re going to focus on the challenges since there may be solutions that can be implemented either by you as a parent or by school administrators. The first challenge we’ll discuss is distractions.

This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Kids of all ages, from K through 12, can be easily distracted by all that’s available to them at home–especially if they’re not bound by a restrictive class schedule. Think about what you have in your home: multiple TVs, cell phones, video games, iPads, toys, the backyard, the basketball hoop, family, pets. It’s a long list, and it requires a lot of discipline to stay focused on the task at hand when all of these potential distractions are within arm’s length.

Consider some of these responses from surveyed students:

“I get distracted a lot more at my house and procrastinate a lot. At school, I was better at time management because I had class time to work. Now I am distracted by TV, pets, games, etc.”

  • This is a tough one to fix. Pets are super-excited that the kids are home and want attention. The TV and games and toys and other devices are just staring at these kids, begging to be used and played with. One course of action you could take (especially for younger kids) is to reward them with a brief period for play or “distraction” after they complete a certain amount of schoolwork–and complete it correctly. Say, 30 minutes of play time for every two hours of schoolwork. Now there’s incentive not only to do the work, but to do it right. For older kids and teens, their reward might be bonus phone time. The distractions are going to be there…it’s up to you to turn those distractions into the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

“It’s hard to find a place that is not occupied by any family members.”

  • There are two sides of the coin when it comes to being in close quarters with family for an extended period of time. You saw one side mentioned as a benefit–this is the flip side. This will obviously depend on the size of your family and your home, but this can definitely pose some challenges. In some cases you have multiple kids doing schoolwork as well as one or both parents working. This can become a distraction. The answer? If it’s possible, designate a workspace for each member of the family, and have them try to stay in that general area when they’re working–and encourage those who are taking a break or have finished their work to keep the volume down and let you work in peace. Sometimes it’s just a matter of establishing some ground rules–and sticking to them.

“It’s difficult to speak and focus without any background noise being caused by any of my family members.”

“The situation causes a strain on both the volume in my house and the internet.”

  • This is a similar challenge to the “no privacy” distraction, mainly because family members are probably all clustered together and working simultaneously. But this is a big concern for kids who are truly making the effort to learn and focus, only to be driven to distraction by parents on Zoom calls or siblings making noise. If the space issue can’t resolve this one, invest in a pair of good noise-cancelling headphones. It may sound overly simplistic, but don’t discount the world of good a high-quality set of headphones can do. Many offer a high level of noise cancellation, which can help shut out background noise and provide a quieter environment more suitable for learning.
  • As one student mentioned, it’s not only the level of volume that becomes disruptive to school–it’s also the level of internet and WiFi use the family goes through. The more people using your WiFi network, the weaker the signal is going to be. And that’s a problem for everyone, whether they’re trying to work, have meetings, or study. One solution is to use a wired setup. Because the ethernet cable plugs directly into a computer, it doesn’t require a wireless signal (WiFi)–it’s coming straight from the wall. And the less people using WiFi, the better.

Though these solutions can provide some temporary help and relief, most students felt that there wasn’t a whole lot teachers or school administrators could do to improve their situation. The students called it a “me thing” and noted the specificity of their home situation and how that’s the main contributing factor.

So, while there may be no one-size-fits-all solution to every student’s problem with distractions, even small measures like these can make the situation a bit more tolerable, manageable, pleasant, and conducive to learning.

And when you’re dedicated to homeschooling, you want the most learning-conducive environment possible. Check out our tips for creating a homeschool classroom to create the perfect learning situation.

To avoid the conflicts of work and homeschooling, you might want to consider changing up the schedules. One of the beauties of homeschooling is that you can do it whenever it’s convenient for you! We have some more suggestions on how to balance your job and school.

Minimizing distractions for your children at home definitely takes a little time, a bit of work, some practice, and plenty of patience. But once you achieve that symbiosis, you’ll find that everything runs so smoothly. The easiest way to do this is to find a comfortable workspace for your kids and a schedule that works for everyone.

How do you manage dealing with distractions while homeschooling or helping your child learn from home? Share in the comments below.

David Engle
Hello, and thanks for reading! I’m David Engle--dad, husband, sports fan, and writer/editor. As a father for the last 18 years (father of two for the last 14), I consider myself to be pretty well-versed in all things related to education, childhood, and parenting, and I'm thankful for the opportunity to share some insights and knowledge with fellow parents. I have been a professional writer and editor for a quarter of a century (it pains me to admit that) and have been writing in the educational space for a number of those years. I reside in southern New Jersey with my wife, two kids, two dogs, and three cats. Never a dull moment.
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