Parents: How to Help Your Student Focus When Learning Online
Focus is a muscle that can be trained, developed — and exhausted.
Whether you work from home or not, odds are good your college/university-aged child will be doing at least some learning from the living room. Many schools are offering a hybrid semester, with some on-campus and some at-home learning. Some programs are entirely online.
Staying engaged in remote work can be tough even for seasoned pros. We've been thrust into a new work-from-home regime and it's likely to persist a while. How can you support your child so they get the best education possible?
What is Focus and Engagement?
Engagement is a function of the amount and intensity of your student's online learning activities. The deeper the focus, the more engaged your student will be — and the richer the results.
Engagement is a habit and a skill that can be developed with practice and attention. For students to be successful, we all need to pull in the same direction: instructors, faculty, students — and yes, you as a parent!
It's important to remember that focus is like a muscle: it can be trained, and it can be exhausted. Building up reserves of willpower is the work of a lifetime, so don't be too hard on your student (or yourself).
Whether your student is learning synchronously (meeting with an instructor and classmates at appointed times) or asynchronously (working on tasks at the student's own pace), learning this way is probably quite new. In fact, this is new territory for almost everyone, instructors included.
Understanding expectations is an important first step. Go through each course syllabus with your student to get a feel for what the instructor expects in terms of screentime, assignments, and so on. Your student is ultimately responsible for meeting these expectations, but for you, forewarned is forearmed. If your student is struggling, you'll have a better sense of why. Plus, having accountability in terms of oversight will help keep your student on track.
Distractions & the Learning Environment
Deliberately building a learning-friendly environment is an important step when studying at home. Work with your student to develop a space free from noise and visual clutter, and if possible, use this space only for work. Moving into a dedicated working space helps set the mind up for success — and makes drawing down easier at the end of the day.
If you're not fortunate enough to have the space to spare for your student (or yourself), consider habit-breaking browser add-ons that disable access to certain fun and exciting websites during specified hours. For example, YouTube could be restricted from 8-4. This takes a bit of responsibility away from your student, but it could be helpful as new habits of distance learning are built.
Building Strong Neural Circuits
If you or your student are in leisure mode while you're meant to be working — for instance, writing an essay on the same PC used for video games, or tabbing over to Insta during a lecture — not only will your student have to contend with the desire to switch gears from work to fun, but they'll actually be disrupting axon myelination. (Basically, the neural circuits that build up over time to improve performance at discrete tasks have a harder time forming.) This means less learning overall — and the learning that does occur will be of lower quality.
A Quick Note About Social Media
The heart of the problem is distraction. Fun networking tools like Instagram, Reddit, and Snapchat are attractive ways to keep in touch, and offer a little jolt of dopamine during what can otherwise feel like staid work periods. Distraction has long been a problem on campus — now add all the distractions of home, too. It's no wonder focusing is difficult.
Students use these services to connect with friends and stave off boredom. It's important to find outlets for these impulses. The key is to keep it to break times and after school, once the hard work's been done. As a reward for getting through a task, some social media time can be a great way to maintain motivation.
Getting Started with Good Habits
It might be hard at the outset, but sticking to a routine is a great way to enhance focus. Encourage your student to begin schoolwork at 8 or 9 in the morning — regular school hours — and keep at it through the day. Disconnecting around 4 or 5 is just as important. Free time helps refresh the brain.
A regular bedtime that offers the recommended 8 hours of sleep is key to success, too. Your student may protest that they're a night owl, but most people concentrate better in the morning, so grabbing those precious few hours for the most cognitively-demanding tasks is a good idea. Wherever possible, your student should reserve nights for, you know, sleeping!
Productive Habits When "On the Clock"
A good technique to improve focus is to gradually build up lesson durations. You and your student can start with 15 minute chunks of on-task time — go so far as to set a timer! — and as you get comfortable with the process, slowly lengthen the chunks. Try not to go more than 45 minutes to an hour without a break, though.
You may want to experiment with the Pomodoro Technique, a productivity structure that builds in periods of deep focus with regular breaks to refresh. Surrendering to the timer can help free cognitive load for more important tasks.
Developing a checklist of goals is a good way to combat that dreaded "where to begin" feeling. This is doubly true for big projects with many parts. Dividing them up into smaller, more approachable "to-dos" will make the project seem more digestible, and make progress tangible. It's satisfying to strike an item from your list. The checklist can help pace the day and offer opportunities to take a break and refresh you and your student's brain power.
Taking Breaks That Don't Last All Day
Encourage your student to take breaks, too. When both work and leisure are tied to the same machine — with unlimited access to friends, videos, and games — it can be tough to turn off for a while. You can model this behaviour by stepping away from your own computer now and then. Invite your student for a walk or a coffee break. You'll both return refreshed to your work if you can get away from your screens for a while.
When you're considering a break, don't neglect the classics: a refreshing walk, a healthy snack, or a quiet chair- or floor-bound meditation are all good ways to refresh and reorient for another round of work. (Meditation is a great way to build focus in general. We recommend the open-source Medito app for accessible, guided meditation instruction.)
Focus is tough to maintain, and we all screw up now and then. Try to be forgiving and understanding when you or your student feels disengaged or restless. When in doubt, take a pause and a deep breath. We're all adapting to the pandemic together, and a little patience goes a long way!
Good luck with the semester. We're pulling for you.
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