Why Can’t My Kid Get Her Work Done in Remote Learning?

Remote learning was a failure in its first iteration for the majority of US students. Were we to give it a grade, it would probably be a “D” or an “F.” Students from poor families and those with limited assistance from their parents lost as much as 50% of their math progress and estimates suggest that 20-30% of kids essentially dropped out during distance learning. For more fortunate kids, parental involvement or adjunctive online schooling such as Outschool made remote learning into an opportunity for growth. For some kids, the worst aspects of remote schooling were that they missed the four walls of their school, their teacher’s encouragement, and the opportunity to see their friends. For others, it was due to their difficulties accessing remote learning due to the lack of appropriate technologies or a result of the unfamiliarity that they, their parents or teachers had in using online technologies effectively. The reality is that many kids could not get their work done in the remote learning environment. Why was that the case?

Difficulty in getting work done was common during the first round of remote learning. Partly, it was due to the quality of the teaching. Most teachers and school systems were unprepared to teach remotely, and often the methods they used were boring and uninspiring. Hopefully, with many months to prepare for the fall of 2020, remote learning will be vastly improved, with far more live teaching, shorter video presentations, available feedback from teachers, more engaging online materials, and greater expertise with using virtual classroom technologies.  Teachers are also exploring strategies that leverage online technologies into new and innovative ways to learn. However, even if we have all of these improvements, we should expect that many kids can’t get their work done in remote learning environments.

That’s because many of the kids who struggled with remote learning had difficulties with the independent executive functioning skills needed to succeed in remote learning. While parents rued about skills such as organization and time management, the most identifiable skill many kids struggle with is the skill of task initiation. Task initiation is the ability to start a task efficiently without procrastination.  An individual with good task initiation skills can understand directions and what is to be expected of them, ask appropriate questions, and focus one’s attention on the assignment at hand.

Remote learning presents challenges for teachers who might normally be able to help kids with task initiation in the traditional classroom. The presence of a live teacher, who has structured the physical classroom for learning, taps a child on the shoulder, or prompts the classroom when they seem to be inattentive goes a long way in getting schoolwork completed. But remote learning is different. For example, even if the teacher is live online they are unlikely to simultaneously see all the kids in their classroom and cannot observe what kids are actually doing. It is more difficult for teachers to monitor work being done and check on students in real-time. It is harder to model getting started and teachers are less able to ensure child is paying attention while directions are being given.

  • In distance learning, teachers may not be able to modify directions as easily. They may need to do it for the entire class or take time away from others to work with one individual student. The remote classroom reduces the ability of the teacher to see kids who look confused. As a result, they are less able to address or observe frustration when a student is starting a task. 

    Traditional brick and mortar classroom procedures such as using visual cues to help get children started such as a picture taped to a desk, a facial expression, a hand signal from the teacher, or a cue on the blackboard are not as readily achieved in the remote classroom. Teachers are often unable to walk an individual child through the first portion of the task, while at the same time observing the rest of the class to ensure that they are also getting going on an assignment. Teachers who have more than a handful of students in their remote classes will continue to find that kids struggle with task initiation. The solution is to directly work on teaching these task initiation skills. Strategies that focus on helping students to focus on initial directions, ask questions if they don’t know what is expected of them, and to be able to get directly to a task will be helpful in remote learning and beyond. Here are some strategies that parents and teachers can use to improve a child’s task initiation skills. We strongly encourage parents to consult with their children’s teachers so they can coordinate some of these strategies.

    1. Prior to starting the day, provide a written outline of tasks and time frames, preferably with a series of entertaining online pictures indicating the steps needed to get started. 
    2. Break up bigger tasks into smaller tasks.  This can reduce the pressure and overwhelming nature of completing a larger project.  
    3. Provide time limits for designated tasks. Use a countdown timer that will help students pay attention to getting started. There are many other apps that can help with task initiation that can be used on a phone or tablet that might also be helpful.
    4. Pair a student who struggles with task initiation with a peer who will help them to get started. This will allow the child to observe the appropriate cues of when to start a task and model strategies for task initiation.
    5. Make starting a task fun!  By making tasks initiation into a game, students will be more motivated to get going. At home, parents can provide food or other small rewards. At school, this is best done in teams, in a breakout room, so the kids who are skillful can guide those who struggle to get started. 
    6. Teach self-advocacy skills. Help students understand when they need assistance and how to ask.  “Can you help me get started?” “Could you help me get started at this time?”
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