Helping your kids manage their schoolwork can be overwhelming, even on a regular day. But helping them manage their schoolwork during the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic brings new meaning to the word.
Experts from NYU Langone’s Child Study Center, Richard Gallagher, PhD, Elana G. Spira, PhD, and Jennifer L. Rosenblatt, PhD, have been part of a group of researchers and clinicians investigating how to help children develop their organizational skills for more than 15 years. Their research focuses on four main areas of organization: tracking assignments (knowing what has been assigned and when it is due); managing materials (keeping track of paper and supplies); time management (making efficient use of time in a given day); and planning (managing longer-term assignments).
“In addition, due to managing the COVID-19 outbreak, we know the challenge of becoming our own kids’ schooltime guides as they set their schedule, manage their passwords, navigate needed websites, and complete assignments on time,” says Dr. Gallagher, who is also an associate professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone. “For this latter challenge, we've been adapting our tested methods to help families meet the demands of distance learning.”
Together with the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s WonderLab, Dr. Gallagher, Dr. Spira, and Dr. Rosenblatt offer tips for parents to help manage based on what they’ve learned through their years of research.
“Even with everything being sent electronically, we suggest that your child create a physical list of the day’s assignments to have beside them and guide them while they work,” says Dr. Gallagher. “It helps provide a visual reminder throughout the day without having to jump back and forth between tabs or juggle multiple sources of information on assignments.”
The aim is to keep it simple, but effective. Dr. Gallagher suggests these goals be met:
- Your child has a physical list of the assignments provided.
- For each assignment, your child makes a list of the items needed for the assignment—that could be physical items such as handouts or a workbook, or, for online materials, the links where items will be found.
- Your child has a list of long-term assignments, such as anything not due that day.
- A single page with an assignment record is created for each day.
- A one-page calendar for the month can be used to list the long-term due dates or any test dates.
Keep the assignment record and calendar in the work area for easy reference, Dr. Gallagher says. “Parents should also prompt and praise your kids for using this tool at the start of each day. Then, guide them to use it as they go through the day.”
“For many kids, assignments are being done fully online, but for younger kids who are still printing some work, a simple two-folder system is sufficient: one for work in progress and one for completed work,” says Dr. Spira, who is also a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. “Work with your child to go through completed work and recycle anything unnecessary at the end of the week.”
Most students are also managing a deluge of electronic files and links, which are just as prone as paper files to becoming scattered and hard to find. “Some schools are using a single online classroom site that essentially does the organizing for you,” Dr. Spira says. If your child’s school is not, Dr. Spira says parents can consider the following:
- Have a place that is easy to find, virtual or real, to place these files, such as a desktop folder for downloaded files or a bookmarks folder on your browser for links.
- Consider having different folders for different subjects to make them easier to find.
- Have a routine for making sure that the files are stored, worked on, and then turned in.
- Make a physical list of websites, links, and associated passwords for files, books, and instructional content to keep in the work area. But, make a backup copy in case the first one is misplaced.
“Consider having a basket or other container for all of the needed items,” Dr. Spira says. “Helping your child to anticipate and have on hand all the things they will need will help minimize the distraction of getting up in the middle of work to hunt for supplies.”
Parents can consider items that should be removed from the work area because they could be distracting. “Make a checklist of the needed items and put it on the container,” Dr. Spira says. “Use the checklist to make sure all of the items get put back in the container at the end of the schoolwork time.”
“Keep in mind that children are creatures of habit,” says Dr. Rosenblatt, who is also a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. “Structures and routines are comforting and help them maximize productivity.”
Parents can try the following routines to help your child structure their days:
- If the school has set up a schedule of remote instruction, print or save the schedule in an easy-to-access location and check in throughout the day to make sure your child is on track.
- If the school has not provided a schedule, set one up for your child, keeping in mind basic principles that work during typical school days. Balance sedentary tasks (like completing written assignments) with movement breaks (e.g., find a fitness video online, throw a ball outside, or take a walk), and restrict access to electronic entertainment until the daily list of assignments is completed.
- Try to stick to a typical schedule for wake-ups, mealtimes, and bedtime.
“Remember to praise your child for following the schedule, even with occasional slipups,” Dr. Rosenblatt says. “Recognize that it is not easy to stay on track when all normal routines have been disrupted.”
“If you are like us, you have probably found yourself genuinely flummoxed at some point in the last few weeks, when you stop to ponder what the date—or even day of the week—is,” Dr. Gallagher says. “Your kids are likely just as disoriented as you—so they may need a little extra help staying on top of deadlines for long-term assignments or tests.”
Dr. Gallagher offers the following suggestions for increasing productivity:
- During your daily review of assignments, make note of long-term assignments and add those deadlines to a monthly calendar.
- Help your child break assignments down into smaller steps, and assign a deadline (also marked on the calendar) for each step. You can then integrate these steps with short-term tasks when you construct the list of assignments that must be completed each day.
- If your teen will be taking tests online, help them think about how to study for these tests. Most likely, online tests will be given as open-book exams; thus, instead of focusing on memorization, your teen should be working on organizing notes and materials for easy access during the test, creating concept maps to identify connections between different ideas, and practicing how to apply facts to answer multistep questions.
“Even the idea of putting these systems in place may seem overwhelming, and if your family can only manage one or two right now, that’s OK,” Dr. Gallagher says. “We are all just doing our best under extraordinary circumstances. Our hope, though, is that by helping your kids to become more organized and self-sufficient in their remote learning, it will lift a bit of the burden off of your shoulders, impart and strengthen skills in your child that they will continue to use when this crisis is far behind us, and help bring a little order and sanity to your home in this chaotic time.”
More Resources for Parents
The Child Study Center hosts educational webinars throughout the year. In a recent webinar, called Distance Learning and the Organized Child, Dr. Gallagher, Dr. Spira, and Dr. Rosenblatt discuss adapting tested methods to help families meet the demands of distance learning. Watch here.