As workplaces and schools around the country shut down in record number in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of parents and caregivers find themselves trying to meet their work-from-home obligations while helping homeschool their children. With the news bringing more things to worry about seemingly every day, at the top of many parents’ minds is: “what am I going to do with my children all day?” and “is being out of school harmful to my child’s learning and development?”
The good news is that while there is significant evidence that time out of school can hurt learning, there are many free or inexpensive evidence-based strategies parents can use to keep children of all ages occupied, engaged, and learning from home.
Why Is It Important To Foster Learning at Home?
There is ample evidence that time away from school can hurt student learning. Schools with fewer learning days before testing have lower test scores, countries with more instructional days have higher test scores, and districts post lower student test scores in years with more snow days. Students who are absent more often also have lower test scores, are less likely to be promoted to the next grade on time, and are less likely to graduate from high school.
Long absences from school – longer than a few days or a week – are especially detrimental because students not only lose instructional time but also begin to forget information they’ve previously learned or let key skills they’ve developed fall out of practice. Research has found that students can lose a month or more of learning over the summer and that disadvantaged students and older students are the most susceptible to such learning loss.
Which Skills Do Students Need To Practice Most, and How Do I Support That?
Evidence shows that students are more likely to lose math skills over the summer than reading skills. Higher measured math loss compared to reading loss makes sense, as reading permeates more of everyday life than math and often parents find it easier to read with their children than to develop a math curriculum. Reading itself can be a great first step for parents to maintain and improve children’s math skills. Bedtime Math – which has a free smartphone app – has been shown to improve math skills even through short parent-child interaction, and it is especially geared toward parents who have anxiety about teaching math. The more times parents and children used the app, the higher the children’s math scores were.
Just as parents are accustomed to highlighting reading and writing with their children, it is also important to highlight how we use math and the associated quantitative and spatial reasoning in everyday life.
Just as parents are accustomed to highlighting reading and writing with their children, it is also important to highlight how we use math and the associated quantitative and spatial reasoning in everyday life. This normalization of math helps children build their skills and become more comfortable with it. Practicing math concepts while cooking, playing games that include math components like Monopoly, Yahtzee, and Sushi Go, or games with pattern recognition and spatial logic like tangrams, SET, Qwirkle, or Sequence are great ways to sneak math into a child’s day.
Older children may be concerned about the numbers they hear about coronavirus on the news. Infection rates, probabilities, and “flattening the curve” are all mathematical concepts. Introducing probability and statistics through games and hands-on activities can help children better understand the numbers in the world around them and feel less nervous about what they hear.
What About Reading?
Reading with a child is the first step parents can take to maintain and improve those skills, and there is empirical evidence that independent reading isn’t enough for a child to improve skills on their own. Being stuck at home during the next few weeks and months can be an ideal time to challenge children with new books just above their reading level, with parents ready to help when needed, and don’t forget about the classics.
Younger elementary school students, generally those third grade and below, may have weak “decoding skills,” which means that they have more trouble figuring out the meanings of unfamiliar words and patterns of unfamiliar letter combinations and thus require more active participation by parents in their reading. Reading challenging books with children can help with those decoding skills.
Practicing reading at home can be more than just increasing text recognition, and can help foster in children the development of an intrinsic, life-long desire to read. Not all types of books promote good reading skills in the same way, however. Some eBooks with add-ons like animation, sound, and hyperlinks don’t encourage the most productive kind of parent-child reading time. Traditional books or eBooks with the (sometimes literal) bells and whistles turned off often are a better choice for developing lasting reading skills in children.
How Do I Engage Older Students, Those In Middle and High School?
For middle and high school students (or even older elementary students), this extended time away from traditional school is an opportunity to encourage them to explore a topic they are interested in through a project.
Project-based learning fosters inquiry skills and guides students in creating research projects that can be put on public display, activities that require the development of new and important skills. Edutopia and the Buck Institute both have substantial resources on project-based learning generally geared toward teachers but adaptable to parents. These resources include step-by-step guides on the process of project-based learning.
Project-based learning fosters inquiry skills and guides students in creating research projects that can be put on public display, activities that require the development of new and important skills.
Creating a project with your child involves a lot of self-directed learning time, with teacher or parent check-ins, advice, and guidance offered along the way. In this way, project-based learning functions a lot like the adult work world. Parents and children can check in throughout the day and keep each other updated on their progress. Parents working on projects from home can share progress updates with their children in a similar fashion, too.
Finding a project that your child is genuinely interested in is key. This exploratory period can involve watching documentaries on Netflix or other streaming platforms, taking virtual tours of museums, exploring science and other educational videos on PBS, or other fun activities. The goal is to find something challenging that your child wants to learn more about.
Once the topic has been chosen, the next step is for the student to start doing research for the project. With most libraries closed and social-distancing standards in place, there are fewer options for research. Online research, using books that are in the home or available as eBooks (check out your local library’s eBook lending), scientific investigation using materials in the home or those readily available at open stores, or interviews with knowledgeable people over email or the phone all can prove to be valuable sources of information. For internet and book research, learning the difference between trustworthy and untrustworthy sources, understanding how to judge the relative reliability of research that comes to different conclusions, and learning best practices for citations and attribution all are teachable opportunities for children. For history-based projects, this research phase of project-based learning can be a good time to learn the difference between primary sources, those who observe events as they happen, and secondary sources, such as books that are written later by historians about those events.
Projects requiring scientific experimentation or interviews with experts may involve a little more planning. Students learning about engineering, simple machines, or laws of physics could investigate those concepts through experimentation and building. Students interested in biology could observe the behavior of backyard animals and keep logs of when they are active or investigate the life cycle of plants as spring flowers begin to bloom and trees begin to bud. Students with an interest in chemistry can help cook and investigate recipes that rely on chemical reactions (including this chocolate cake that rises because of the vinegar and baking soda reaction). For interviews, students can call grandparents, aunts, uncles, and family friends who have interesting knowledge areas or who have lived through important historic periods. They can check with their teachers by email, too, for other suggestions of experts who may be willing to talk with them.
The last part of project-based learning is to create a final project to present publicly. Parents can work with their children on the best way to display and explain what they have learned. This could mean designing a website about the topic that highlights their discoveries, filming and editing an informative YouTube video, displaying a piece of art or a creation on the front lawn, or even writing a short play or speech to perform for the rest of the family.
There are many shorter-term projects that parents and children can do together, too. Events like egg drops, catapult contests, bridge building contests, paper airplane contests, inventing and building simple musical instruments, and even tackling home improvement projects together can be fun, fill time, and introduce valuable skills.
Is This a Good Time To Prepare For Standardized Testing?
For high school students, the break from traditional school schedules can be a good time to begin preparing for college entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT. Coaching for the SAT has been shown to increase scores, and there are extensive free SAT and ACT prep resources available online that families can use. Half of students take the SAT more than once and scores generally improve the second time; students can get a leg up on this retake effect by preparing for the material on the test and practice taking the test itself. Taking practice tests under test-like conditions – timed, no distractions, and only test materials available – can be the most beneficial. After their child completes the test and takes a long break, parents can go back through the test with them, grade it, and work though the incorrect problems.
Now also can be a good time for high school students to look into college programs, trade schools, scholarship and financial-aid opportunities, and careers that they find interesting.
For students who are planning to take the AP tests this May, time away from school is a good time to review course material from earlier in the year and prepare for the tests. The College Board has provided online resources and information on administration of the tests during the current coronavirus crisis. Now also can be a good time for high school students to look into college programs, trade schools, scholarship and financial-aid opportunities, and careers that they find interesting.
Combining the need to work from home with a house full of children that are not allowed to go to school certainly presents significant demands on a parent’s, guardian’s, and caregiver’s time and a student’s educational plan. But this unique time together at home also presents a number of creative opportunities for children, with the adults in their lives, to learn new things and develop new skills.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Leigh Wedenoja is a senior policy analyst at the Rockefeller Institute of Government