How parents can add purpose and structure to their kids’ online learning

You’ve got this.
You’ve got this.
Image: REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs
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It’s been more than 20 weeks since our schools here in the Bay Area went online, and this summer I added one more noun to my list of roles: CEO, mom, wife, and now, full-time educator. These past few months have taught me a lot about myself, my daughters, my bond with them, and the value of social structures that I took for granted. American society has a pact with working parents: The machinery of school and after-school programs keeps our kids occupied and learning. Our job as parents is to take care of their health, spiritual and moral upbringing. Together, we make it run.

This summer, parents had to take on the role of managing their kids’ learning in addition to everything else, all in the midst of a pandemic. This is causing considerable stress and turmoil, and is complicated by the inequities in our society, which are painfully apparent now. I don’t have all the answers, but part of the solution no doubt is alleviating pressure for parents while finding at-home learning methods that are actually effective for kids.

I lead an education nonprofit that has worked for the last 15 years to build curricula for the skills young people will need to thrive in the future. We can’t predict this future, but it will almost certainly be dominated by automation and AI. The jobs in 2030 and beyond will require complex problem-solving and systems-thinking skills that schools and most online learning programs aren’t emphasizing.

I understand why parents are turning to short-term measures and educational wins like Khan Academy or Outschool. The prospect of “fun” options to occupy kids is appealing. For their part, kids don’t mind jumping from Disney Decimals to learning how to make mochi ice cream to cutting up triangles. But these bricks laid on top of one another will lead nowhere. Eventually, kids will lose interest and motivation. And this piecemeal approach to learning won’t help to build the skills they need, which will ultimately lead to a deep-seated feeling of discontent.

The reality is that many parents will need to continue their roles as emergency educators this fall, and that calls for a longer-term plan. The following tenets aren’t a cure-all, but they can help to add some purpose and structure to online learning for the coming months.

Be a positive co-planner, not a concierge

Involve your children in setting goals about the skills they want to develop—not just for school, but for life. If we don’t think about these questions now, when will we? Working with your child to set and work toward meaningful goals allows you to operate as a co-planner instead of a concierge. It also saves time and energy.

Decision-making is extremely draining, and parents have to make many more decisions now that they are filling in for school, summer camps, after-school programs and sports—in addition to working, cleaning, preparing meals, and so on. According to some back-of-the-envelope math, a parent will make 2,100 decisions between August and December, assuming 14 decisions per day (one per waking hour). Saving two minutes per decision adds up to 70 hours over the course of five months, and170 hours over the course of a year.

Goal-setting also reduces the friction of figuring out what to learn on a daily or hourly basis. For example, a five-session class on veterinary medicine won’t help if my daughter is interested in starting a bakery, but a course on food photography could. Both are equally fun, but the latter helps build toward a more profound sense of fulfillment. Completing fun, bite-sized activities may make kids happy for an hour or so, but neither they nor their parents benefit from the satisfaction that comes from thoughtful skill-building toward a purposeful end-goal.

Choose concrete problems to solve

When setting goals, I encourage parents and kids to focus on actual problems they see in their communities. In much research and in our own experience working in 100-plus countries with hundreds of thousands of children and parents, we’ve found that the key to harnessing a child’s interest and keeping them motivated is to help them work backward from a problem they’ve identified and find meaningful—whether it’s cleaning up dog poop in Los Angeles or aiding orphans in India.

I don’t mean that kids should tackle our toughest systemic problems in their kitchen, but seeing their impact on a real-world issue tends to result in a wonderful well of empathy, in addition to creating a net benefit for society.

Our work has shown that kids can self-direct their learning effectively when they’re given a framework for problem-solving and a little bit of guidance on the technical end. If a parent doesn’t have the time or expertise, a grandparent, other family member, or even a virtual mentor can step in. Part of what the pandemic is proving is that it takes a community to raise and educate a child. We need to seriously reconsider the roles and responsibilities of everyone involved.

Unpack “I’m bored”

At the start of the “learn from home” period, my younger daughter started an online newspaper with a few friends. It was interesting to see which kids dropped out, when and why. I found that their parents approached the problem with the same mindset they had pre-Covid: If their kids said they were bored, they allowed them to flit to something else.

Faced with a challenge, kids will often confuse frustration with boredom. Open-ended projects—such as developing new content for a newspaper—can be difficult to start, and kids opt out. Compared with the pressure of carving out your own path, it’s easier to just do what you’re told.

These opt-out moments are opportunities to talk about motivation. My daughters and I have been having rich discussions about persistence, positive reinforcement, and feedback. We reflect on when our motivation ebbs and flows, including the factors (both in our external environment and our internal thinking) that influence feelings of motivation.

Discuss—don’t police—screen-time

Screen-time has been a topic of vibrant and often emotional conversation in my household. The discussions don’t always go perfectly, but they’re more fulfilling than policing my kids or using screen-time as a reward to be bestowed or taken away.

Research shows that screens aren’t inherently bad for kids. It’s what they do with devices that can be harmful, and that’s a much harder and more important problem to tackle. So, instead of fighting over the number of minutes they’re allowed on which gaming site, my daughters and I have been having conversations about how to keep safe online. We also talk about what they should accomplish by the end of the day. When the day is over, we reflect on what they wrote, learned and created and how they felt it went. If their time meets the criteria we set together, we’re good.

Find joy by helping others

The strategies above all involve focusing on the self. Sometimes, that can be too much, especially when so many people are suffering. Earlier this year, when things were feeling especially bleak, I read The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and archbishop Desmond Tutu. The message is simple: when you think about others, you stop thinking about yourself—and immediately, you better. What better message could we give our children? The world needs more people who are working toward solving others’ problems, reducing others’ suffering, and bringing more joy.

The past five months have tested parents in countless ways. As the school systems around us change, we also have the unexpected opportunity to think differently. I urge us to imagine new possibilities for what and how we teach our kids, and more importantly, why.

Tara Chklovski is founder and CEO of Technovation, a global tech education nonprofit founded in 2006 that empowers girls and families to become leaders, creators, and problem-solvers.