It’s our second day of remote learning, and my second grader cannot focus. The moment we’re supposed to jump on a Zoom call with his class, it starts to storm. At first, there’s just a gentle rumbling of thunder, but it quickly gives way to lightening, an epic downpour, and booming. And just like that, his ability to pay attention to the teacher’s noun lesson is gone, and there’s no coming back. This wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last, that focusing on the lesson-at-hand was nearly impossible. Something had to change, and fast.
If your kiddo is restless during their daily remote learning activities, you are not alone. Whether your child has ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder, another special need, or simply has difficulty sustaining attention, learning from home is distracting. On any given day during our Zoom meetings, we can hear doorbells, younger siblings’ voices, and barking pets. Sometimes my kids just wake up in a mood, an emotional roller coaster that goes from bad to worse. Luckily, we aren’t all doomed. There are strategies and tools we can use to help our restless children sustain attention during remote learning.
Consider alternative seating.
I absolutely love the new trend of offering flexible seating in classrooms, which unfortunately was put to a halt when the pandemic hit. What we can learn from flexible seating is that your child can learn while in different positions including sitting, standing, lying on their stomachs (use a clipboard), swinging, lounging, wobbling back and forth. Think of alternative seating such as a beanbag chair, a stool, on top of a wiggle cushion, a lawn chair, or even just sitting criss-cross on the floor and utilizing a lap desk. My son’s favorite is to have an exercise band tied around the legs of his chair for resistance when he’s learning.
Study in alternative locations.
Don’t forget alternative locations can also help with more effective learning. Go outside and work on a blanket in the grass or under a tree. Work under the dining table, on the living room rug, on the porch, inside a trampoline (throw a sheet over the top). You can gauge which locations are the least distracting. Sometimes outdoor locations create too much glare on screens and noises from traffic, people, and pets. Of course, the weather doesn’t always allow for you to head outdoors. Experiment with both seating and locations and find a few options for your child.
Find fidget toys that work.
Fidget toys are magical. When searching for fidgets, make sure they aren’t noisy or too big. The best fidget toys can be held in your child’s lap (below camera level) and not make noise that distract others. There are so many possibilities including therapy putty, sensory slap bracelets, a fidget cube, stress balls, and many more. You don’t have to always go out and buy sensory toys. Sometimes what you have around the house works just fine, like a large pompom, cheap party favors, and rubber bands. You will need to set some ground rules regarding fidgets, as well as take some time to find out which ones work best for your child.
Incorporate a lot of recess breaks.
Basically, all the tools and strategies in the whole wide world can’t make up for a lack of recess. Kids need movement, and recess is a form of learning. When going outside isn’t an option or possible due to the weather, utilize free yoga and dance videos on YouTube, exercise bands, a hula hoop, an indoor-safe ball. You can also incorporate gross-motor chores into your recess time, including vacuuming, sorting clean laundry by shooting articles into clothes baskets, and dusting high and low surfaces.
Choose appropriate clothing.
Make sure your child is dressed in comfortable, flexible clothing. Clothing can unfortunately be a huge source of distraction for kids, especially if they are too hot or too cold, the clothing is too tight, or the clothing material (or tags) is irritating. You likely already know what your kiddo needs to wear in order to focus. Set out a chosen outfit the night before to make mornings easier. Consider your own clothing needs and preferences. I live in exercise clothes and a top knot; otherwise, I’m uncomfortable and less focused on my daily to-do list.
Set a timer.
My kids do better when they know the answer to “how much time is left?” Set a timer for the amount of time they are expected to attend a meeting or do a particular learning task. However, be mindful that for some kids, particularly those with anxiety, don’t always do well knowing the timer could go off at any second. Meaning, timers can be counter-productive with some children who find them distracting. Timers works best for kids with executive functioning issues as a tool to help them stay organized and on task.
Meet basic needs first.
Before sitting down to do a school task, have your child use the restroom, make sure they’ve had a movement break beforehand, and that they aren’t hungry or thirsty. (Getting enough quality sleep the night before is very important for focus.) Be proactive in eliminating the distractions that may crop up when learning, either because they weren’t attended to beforehand or because the child will use them as excuses to bow out of school. My child finds chewing gum to be particularly helpful in keeping his focus. It’s a trick worth trying for your child if you find that he or she is easily distracted. However, for some children, gum chewing is more of a distraction, especially if they play with it or try to blow bubbles. If you utilize gum, set some ground rules.
Offer positive praise and reinforcement.
It’s very easy to focus on the negative as we all trudge through distance learning. What I’ve found is that threats, behavior charts, point systems, and the like are often triggering for children. They are, in fact, distractions themselves, and don’t motivate a lot of kids to push through. Even well-intended good behavior charts and reward systems can backfire. Some children are stressed out by the charts or hyperfixate on what “color” or “level” they are on at any given time, sending them into a spiral of anxiety and frustrating. Work to find reasons to praise your children’s efforts, even if they seem very small, and minimize the (even constructive) criticism. This situation is difficult for all of us, and we need to believe in our kids and that they are doing their best.
Prepare them in advance.
Tell your child before each activity what they will be doing, help them gather materials, and let them know what the expectations are. Of course, meet all the basic needs before the task. And when they are done, enthusiastically praise them for a job well done. If they were distracted, then find out what needs to happen next before moving on to the next academic task. A snack and movement break usually a good plan. Administering directions in the midst of a task increases distraction.
Yes, it takes some trial and error, but eventually, you will begin to figure out what works for your child. Then, you can implement these tools and strategies on a daily basis, setting your child up for more academic success in the remote learning setting. A happy kid means a happier parent, so it’s definitely worth investing the time into discovering what our children need to stay focused.