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How can we help our kids feel less dependent on us during virtual learning time, especially since they are now home?

Busy in Boston

A photo of Whitney.

Whitney Henderson

Whitney Henderson is EdNavigator's Chief Program Officer. She brings more than a decade of experience as an award-winning teacher, school leader, and instructional expert.

Dear Busy,

We hear this question a lot, and it’s tough. Of course, the answer is going to vary by age, but the key is to foster an at-home learning environment that supports independence, and to be diligent about setting and keeping boundaries.

Kids need to first know what they should be doing. Start by walking your student through their daily/weekly school schedule (the “what”). For most kids, this has already been set by their schools, but in other cases, parents have added sections like independent reading, a screen-free P.E. break, etc. so that there’s time allocated for enrichment. Once you’ve walked them through their day, make sure to share your expectations for completion (the “how”) and any supplies or things they may need to execute them without you (pencils, a ruler, tape, where to find lunch or snacks, etc).

At the same time, share and be clear about what you’ll be doing throughout the day, too, and why it’s important for them to be working independently. Let them know when you can take breaks throughout the day, too. Knowing your schedule helps them build empathy and patience (and helps them know when it’s okay to bother you). Consider having a visual signal for when it’s okay to engage you and when they need to be patient. An example could be an item (like a box of tissues) that gets turned on its side when you need space/privacy, or a piece of colored construction paper on the door in red (“I’m unavailable”), yellow (“I’m working but knock if you need something”), or green (“come on in!”). Whatever you choose, give the kids a visual cue about your availability.

All kids are going to need some type of positive reinforcement—they love to know whether they did what was asked of them. So build in small windows throughout the day to check in and see where you may need to adjust. Using incentives to build towards more independence can help, too. Maybe start with a small incentive at the end of each day when your child completes their work independently and to your standard (a small treat, 10 extra minutes of play time, etc.). When they’ve mastered that for a few days in a row, move to a weekly incentive that’s even more fun (a family movie, a trip to the park, ice cream, etc.) Post these in their work area or on the refrigerator so they know what to expect and can self-regulate toward achieving their own goals.

Finally, you may learn that in spite of a home set-up conducive for independence, your child may actually be struggling because they truly don’t know how to do the work their teacher has assigned. If this is the case, you may need to set up a time to talk with their teacher so they can get the right direction and support they deserve.

“Consider having a visual signal for when it’s okay to engage you and when they need to be patient.”