Tips for a good learning environment at home

Elizabeth Mayhew

THE WASHINGTON POST – In March, Eliza Dyson, like many parents of school-age kids, scrambled to create a suitable setting for her two sons to learn at their Upstate New York home.

“We were not prepared. My boys did not have desks, computers, nothing, so I had to use what we had on hand.” Repurposing folding tables and dining chairs, she created makeshift work stations for her boys – and in some ways, her scrappy solutions were exactly what was needed.

Her older son, Charlie, then 10 and in fourth grade, was relatively easy to accommodate. Already a responsible, organised student, he was fairly self-sufficient. Dyson set him up with a table, chair and computer in the bedroom he shares with his brother, Jack.

Jack, then seven and in second grade, needed more support. “I found that for Jack a bigger surface was better,” Dyson said. She set up a six-foot-long folding table in their guest room.

“The large table allowed him to keep all of his stuff in one place,” she said. “He kept stacks on the table for each subject, but he still had room to work. When it was time for a class, he could just grab the stack of papers he needed.”

On the large table, Dyson also made sure there was a steady supply of white and lined paper on hand as well as two Mason jars filled with pencils and a pencil sharpener nearby. With everything right there, Jack did not have to get up and search, which Dyson found was incredibly helpful, particularly to the teachers.

“I felt so much of the teachers’ time was spent telling kids to pull out their homework and then the kids wouldn’t know where it was, so 10 minutes would be wasted while they were running around looking for it.”

For chairs, Dyson repurposed her upholstered dining chairs. While not made for studying, the chairs have armrests and sides and are quite big, so her son could sit comfortably in one all day. “Even if he was sitting cross-legged in the chair, he was still in an upright position so he couldn’t fall or slide out halfway. The chair sort of kept him tucked in and helped him stay still and in position.”

Marcia Ward-Mitchell, mother of Kimana, a rising seventh-grader at Launch, a middle school in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn that is part of the NYC Outward Bound Schools network, will be following Dyson’s lead come fall. Although Ward-Mitchell had sufficient study spaces already set up in March, she didn’t enforce using them.

“This fall, I am going to have Kimana sitting at a table or desk. There were days this past spring when I would find her lying down during school and not really paying attention.”

Ward-Mitchell also found a desktop computer was better than a tablet or laptop because it removes the option of working in bed or lounging on a sofa. Dyson agrees that desktop computers – when available – are a better option.

“The screens are also bigger, so kids are seemingly more engaged and they can actually see and feel and be a part of what’s going on more than on a small tablet or laptop,” Dyson said.

Plus, she said, they make having good Zoom posture – with the student’s whole face visible on the screen – easier.

Sal Khan, the founder and CEO of Khan Academy, a non-profit educational organisation that offers free lessons in math, sciences and humanities, concurs with what both Dyson and Ward-Mitchell figured out on their own. He said your home needs to have designated spaces that students can associate with focussed work.

“If you are in a position to have a designated desk or table where ‘school happens,’ that is ideal. Ideally it’s in a different place from where kids sleep or play video games or watch TV. And when they use that space, they pretend like they are going to school.

“When they want to play or goof off a little bit, or take a break, they leave that space,” he said. “The more that you create associations with that space and focussed work and learning, the better.”

Aside from having a designated workspace, Associate Professor of Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College Detra Price-Dennis recommends investing in a whiteboard and/or a stick-on calendar to help stay organised no matter the kid’s age. Ward-Mitchell learned she needed these the hard way.

“I spent so much of my time this past spring reminding Kimana what she needed to do. This fall I am going to get a dry erase board so that I can write out the schedule and she can be accountable for her own work and time.”

Khan also stresses the importance of having a prominent and visible weekly calendar. He recommends co-creating the calendar with your kids so that they are invested in the process. And he said, “the calendar should have not only what they need to be doing from a learning and school point of view, but it should also have breaks, and some things that are healthy for them and some things that they really like to do.”

Khan suggests adding old-fashioned chores into their schedule, even for younger kids. “One of the biggest learnings in life is for our kids to take ownership of not just of their learning, but also of their entire life. Some extra chores – loading the dishwasher, doing their laundry, cleaning their room at a minimum – those types of things not only don’t detract from their learning, but will add to it because it will make the child more disciplined, they will feel prouder of their responsibilities, and the habit of forming habits will be stronger.” Also, Price-Dennis said, make sure you schedule time for your kids to connect with friends via Zoom or other videoconference services, as their social well-being is important to their overall well-being.

OTHER TIPS FROM PARENTS AND EXPERTS

Price-Dennis recommends creating quiet signs that either you or your student can hold up to let everyone know when you are on a call or need to focus. Also, she said to invest in sensory break materials such as Play-Doh, putty, strings or yarn to make bracelets, colouring books, coloured pencils, watercolours, and different coloured and sized paper.

Dyson suggests setting out healthy snacks that your kids can grab if they get hungry and making sure they have ample water at their study spaces. She felt all too often the need for more water became an excuse for her boys to leave their workspaces. Dyson also felt that wearing school clothes, whether that be their uniform or clothes other than sweats or pajamas, helped centre her boys and put them in a school frame of mind.

Although neither the experts nor the parents I spoke to mentioned that technology was an issue, Khan recommends visiting Wide Open Schools for free and low-cost Internet and devices.

Ward-Mitchell recommends finding good virtual programmes for downtime. Kimana is doing a programme given by Publicolor for the summer and will be continuing in the fall. And her younger daughter, Aaliya, is doing the Fresh Air Fund virtual camp. Also check out the excellent supplemental resources from NYC Outward Bound. “All are free and they keep kids engaged, and they meet new people,” she said.

For parent help, she recommends signing up for the virtual seminars from the United Federation of Teachers. “It has so much information for parents in different programs, academic and extracurricular.” And lastly, she said to give your child space.

“I noticed when I was not in the room, I would hear more interactions with their friends and teachers. Remember they are not used to having the parents on them all the time while in school.”