During the pandemic, as the whole world of education shifted online, one complaint rose up:
“It’s so hard to focus on Zoom!”
With anxieties running high, work-study spaces thrown together, and lesson plans rewritten on the fly, it would have been shocking to hear anything to the contrary.
But now that full-time online learning has become a regular part of the education landscape, let’s examine this perception — analyzing why a child might be zoning out during their online courses and how you can help them regain their concentration.
To start, let’s get rid of a common misconception that there is something inherently distracting about online classes. Online students aren’t at any greater risk of distraction than their in-person counterparts. In fact, arguably you can do more to control the online experience than at a brick-and-mortar school, where other students, the daily schedule, and the hustle-bustle of the environment is an unknown variable.
Of course, online learning presents its own challenges, especially if you don’t have a private room (with a door!) exclusive for schoolwork. You might have loud neighbors, needy pets, or a tv remote control that always finds its way into your child’s hands. Without the physical presence of the teacher and peers, it can be easy to let your imagination run wild and have no one be the wiser.
That said, if your child is ready to learn and you’ve chosen a high-caliber online school, all it takes is a few conscientious tweaks to their mindset, the environment and their daily routine to set them up for an engaging educational experience.
If getting your child to focus on their online classes seems like a Herculean challenge, there are three areas to examine:
Distraction can be caused by infinite factors, including:
There may also be personality traits at play: A shy child might keep bouncing up out of their chair as a way to metabolize the discomfort of being on camera. Similarly, they may have learning preferences that aren’t being met, leading them to feel disconnected from their online school. (See our series on visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners.)
Many of these factors can intersect with, and/or mask, one another, so it can take time to get to the root cause. After you talk to a trusted medical provider to see if there are any psychological or neurological factors contributing to their distraction, you can dig deeper to understand whether there’s something about the subject matter or the teaching that doesn’t resonate with your child: Are they having a hard time staying focused in one specific subject? Does a type of assignment or activity inspire them to turn cartwheels down the hall? Do they do better when they are engaged in synchronous activities versus independent learning?
Honing in on these nuances will help you determine whether you need to check in with their teachers about academic accommodations and/or optimize the home learning environment.
All online classes aren’t created equally. If you’re sitting through a large, open-enrollment lecture, it can be hard to avoid competing temptations, like social media or napping. That’s true whether you’re in-person or online.
Online learning can be a deeply engaging experience, but it needs to meet several criteria: First, it needs to be student-centered, which means that the student’s interests are front and center, not just trotted out for show and tell. It’s much harder to start procrastinating when you’re being invited to explore your true passion than when you’re being asked to memorize a never-ending lecture.
Second, their schoolwork needs to be hands-on (we use the project based learning approach at Prisma), so that students are rolling up their sleeves, not staring off into space.
Third, it needs to be connected to a community — including dedicated, accessible instructors and a stable cohort of peers — so that learners feel accountability and commitment.
If your online learner is experiencing personal issues or if the classes are not well-designed, even the best curated environment won’t get your child to engage. But by the same token, without some attention to external distractions, you’re unlikely to make the most of online education.
Environment is deeply personal: Some people focus well with the background noise of a coffee shop (and there are “coffee shop soundtracks” to prove it!), while others need the hushed environment of a library.
As you design a dedicated study space, you’ll need to give some thought to your child’s needs — and your families: If their study area is in their bedroom or a common area, or if other members of the family are working/learning from home, it’s particularly important to build in rituals to transition between school time and family time, whether it’s tidying their workspace, turning on different lighting, or playing music.
Designing the environment can — and should — be trial and error. Run through a school day and note what kinds of distractions pop up. Then, after the day is over, sit down with them and brainstorm what solutions might make most sense. If they are constantly leaping up to get a glass of water from the kitchen, have them prep their study area with a full bottle the night before. If the 11:00am lawnmower gets them flustered, try noise-cancelling headphones or a relaxing Spotify playlist.
Remember, it’s a process. Their process. The more involved they can be in proposing and enacting the solution, the better.
Be realistic in what you define as “focus.” Nobody of any age should sit still for eight hours, staring at a screen. Make regular, short breaks from study time a part of your child’s day. Even a two-minute break for stretching or jumping jacks can help get the wiggles out. (The Pomodoro method starts with a five-minute break every 30 minutes, but for young and/or neurodivergent children you might need to work up to that goal.)
Is your child a morning person? Do they do their best thinking while in motion? Are they happiest reading when curled up with their pet? One of the benefits of online schooling is that your child can take control of their preferences from an early age, and use them to deepen their learning experience.
Our coaches help families develop strategies based on the motivations and needs of each learner and their families, building up some structure by designing a schedule and a task list that aligns with it. Our high school students take the reigns in this area, as they learn to master the art of time management through a specific life skills class.
Set aside time and collaborate with your child on a daily and weekly schedule that works for them, getting their input and feedback at every step. Their schedule will be a work in progress. It’s not about getting it “right.” Plan to adapt as necessary.
As we mentioned above, rituals can help transition in and out of the school day, telling the brain it’s time to focus on learning — and getting the body on board. At Prisma we encourage the formation of good habits by starting every workshop with a set of rituals: we remind learners to take care of (and move!) their bodies, logging out of distracting apps, turning off notifications, and be present at their workspace.
As you design your family rituals, we recommend including things like a daily check-in, to make sure they’re physically, emotionally and psychologically ready to learn; as well as a tech-check, to see that everything useful is working and everything distracting is not.
When learners feel connected to others and invested in a shared outcome, they’re less likely to be tempted to play just one more game of Tetris or scroll through one more tiktok post. There’s a lot to be said for group accountability: As we watch our cohorts bond over workshops and peer feedback on their projects, all culminating in a community presentation of their work on Expo day, their distractions melt away. (At least that’s what the parents tell us).
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