Anna Shusterman, associate professor of psychology and co-coordinator of education studies, studies learning and conceptual development in children. In this Q&A, we asked her for advice for families on transitioning children to distance learning during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Q: How should parents talk to kids about what’s happening in the world and why their daily lives look so different?
A: Full disclosure: I am not a clinician. However, as a parent and a research psychologist, I think it’s important for parents to validate their children’s emotions rather than dismissing them or telling them they are being silly. It’s also important that we’re not running around in a state of panic, as this can be too unsettling for kids. Children feel our stress and they need real social connection, so some time should be made for sitting together, talking, and reading books, when parents put their phones away, too. NPR’s Life Kit has good advice on talking to kids about scary current events.
No matter what else is happening, young children need human connection—board games, talking, working together on a project, cooking, anything together, the more child-led the better. Here’s a good commonsense report on the topic.
Q: What is your advice for parents on helping kids transition to distance learning?
A: Try to set up a gentle routine that involves getting up, getting dressed, chores, exercise, creativity, academics, regular meals, and sleep. By age 5 or 6, children can be a part of the conversation to create this schedule.
We know from developmental psychology that children learn when adults express explicit norms and values (e.g., it is important for everybody to help keep the house clean, since we are all contributing to the mess). Stating norms like getting up, going to sleep, doing something interesting each day, relaxing, and spending time each day without screens are some norms we might want to express. We also know from motivational psychology that people are more motivated to do things when they came up with the idea and had some part to play in the creation. With these ideas in mind, I had my kids, who are 13 and 15, work with me to design a daily schedule with longish blocks (e.g., the morning is 1.5 hours and should include getting up, getting dressed, exercising, breakfast, and showering, in any order). They told me what time they want to be up each day and what time they want to be in bed by each day—they were surprisingly reasonable! Doing some goal-setting and planning is also really good practice of their executive function and self-regulation skills, so as far as I’m concerned just the process of planning out a day, rather than having it dictated to you like it is in school, is valuable.
All that said, I don’t want to sugarcoat the situation. My kids are housebound with their other parent, so I check in but don’t have to manage the daily routine until next week. It seems to be fine! But ask me again next week.
Q: How can parents learn to be effective teachers overnight without the benefit of formal training?
A: They can’t, so they shouldn’t try. Think about what activities you know and enjoy that you can teach to your kids, and ask them what they would like to learn now that they have endless time to do it. Bake bread. Play chess. Tell stories. Whittle animals. It’s a great opportunity to follow the child’s lead to design their own questions and investigations. For younger children, these experiences are educational.
For older children, a lot of their academic work is already on screens, like Kahn Academy. If children seem up for it, parents can help children find the content on Kahn Academy that matches their classes. Keep it positive, keep the doses limited, and the intensity low. But children will be fine even if they skip academic work for a week or two. I would think of the current moment as a bridge—if we put some simple routines in place, it will make the transition to distance learning easier.
There are some really big systemic challenges. Many children don’t have access to a computer, families might be worrying about paying rent or food, children have lost access to specialized educational programs run by professionals, emerging readers need specific kind of instruction to master those skills. Our society and educational system will have to figure out how to support all children’s education fairly and equitably. It’s a challenge.
Q: What guidance would you provide around screen time when families are largely stuck at home?
A: This is a personal decision for families and depends on a lot of factors. It depends a lot on children’s ages, and whether they even like screen time—some young kids have very short attention spans. Personally, I just wanted to avoid having my kids on YouTube for nine hours. If I extract a bigger principle from that: What matters is the quality of the content, the length of screen time, and the opportunity to do other screen-free things. What we did was create large blocks of time for (1) unrestricted screen time, with parents of course having some control over content, (2) blocks where screen time can be an option (e.g., if it is for being creative, socializing, FaceTiming, etc.), and (3) blocks that have to be screen-free. I’m less worried about screens per se and more interested in their purpose. Some goals my kids and I discussed were to focus on things in an uninterrupted way (not constantly stopping to text); doing something creative (which might be on a screen); contributing to the household (e.g., with cooking, the recipe might be on a screen); staying social (again, screens); exercising (an exercise video on a screen is fine). If the screen suits the purpose, I think it’s OK.
For younger children, here is a good list of suggestions emphasizing routines, play, and limited screen use.
Q: Do you expect an extended period of school closure to have a significant negative impact on student learning/achievement?
A: Undoubtedly. We are not set up for this. Everybody’s nerves are frayed, which is not a sustainable way to run any system—especially an educational system—for a long time.