• Cara Parker

How to Organize Distance Learning Work

Updated: Apr 18, 2020

There are some children who are born naturally organized.

They are the ones who wake up every day, make their beds, pick out their clothes, make their breakfast, get themselves ready for school, and bounce out the door without a single fight with their parents.

They are the ones who dutifully follow the teacher's morning directions and then walk around the classroom reminding everyone else do their lunch count, turn in homework, and get started on morning work.

These children never forget or lose a homework assignment.

Their desks are impeccable, with folders and books stacked by size and color, with pencils arranged neatly in a pencil box.

These are the students who receive one highlighter at the start of the school year, and still have it in June.

These are the students who turned in everything for distance learning without a single ounce of help from their parents.

And then, there's everyone else.

For many of us, distance learning has been a battle. There's new login info user names and passwords to remember. There's assignments to manage. There's meetups to keep track of. There's papers to download, print, and upload.

Google Classroom is one big headache and Google Meetups just keeps kicking kids out.

And if you have more than one child doing distance learning? Well, that's just crazy.

For kids with executive function issues, managing tasks and managing time is a struggle. They see "I only need to do five things", but you, as the parent, see it as "Well, you have five assignments, but each assignment has five parts".

Maybe you tried a list. Maybe you made a chart on your whiteboard. Maybe you tried a color-coded schedule. Maybe you are ready to give up.

The thing is, most kids are not naturally organized. Most of them need a lot of support and scaffolding to complete tasks. They need it said, posted, emailed, reminded, reposted, re-spoken, and then, they also need a personal invitation to get it done. And teachers do this all day long, without even thinking about it. We just do.

Here's something that we tried last week with our high schooler. Despite his initial protests, he got everything done, and willingly sat down with me today to organize week two in the same way.

It's not pretty. It's not fancy. It was made with what we have. There's no artistic font. Even the photo of it is just a cellphone snapshot. But I share it because it actually worked:

I gave him a small piece of poster board and had him divide it in three columns. I had him write Assigned / Working On/ Submitted in the Columns. He chose the colors (sort of like a traffic light). I would have preferred it if he had spent a little more time making it look nice. But the key is to give them choice AND have them write the columns themselves. It gives ownership and control.

Then, we went through every single assignment. As he read off each assignment, I wrote down what needed to be done. I looked over at his computer, while having him read the work out loud to me. As he spoke, I wrote on the sticky. Then, we reviewed each sticky with what was posted to make sure that it was correct.

While there is a list for each subject, each subject has its own sticky. For a kid with executive function issues or anxiety, that is less intimidating than one long list.

For PE, he needed to exercise each day, so we just wrote five lines for him to check off.

The key to this system is that as soon as a student starts working on a subject, they get to move the sticky note to the "working on" tab. That immediately creates a sense of relief and progress. It might stay there a few days, but students will be motivated to move it out of the "assigned" tab and will want to move it along to finished.

Once it is submitted or completed, it gets to move to the final tab. We called it submitted (his choice), but you could call it done. Once he moved it over and said he was done, I could actually check for proof to see if it was done.

Why does this work? I have a few ideas.

1. Breaking up the list into a sticky is less visually overwhelming.

2. Moving a sticky is motivating.

3. Having a parent help organize the steps is something that a lot of kids need.

4. Every day, as the list moves to the right, it is a visual reminder of progress.

5. Having the student create the board in his own writing with the preferred sticky note and marker colors just gives a little bit of ownership at a time when kids feel like there is no control. While parents might want to do it themselves to make it look good, having a student involved in this step makes them more interested. Ask about the reasons why they chose the colors. It might be eye-opening!

6. When the student looks at the board, it is clear what needs to be worked on. Sometimes, the mental list in their head is much bigger and more difficult than what actually needs to be done. Having a visual representation helps.

Does this take time? Yes. It took about 15 minutes to do. But, we had almost no fights over distance learning work. It was clear. It was obvious. So it was worth it to spend 15 minutes on Monday morning to avoid ten hours of fighting during the week.

If your child had a hard time staying on top of the work last week, consider using this system to see if the visual planning and thinking helps.

This idea was adapted from a suggestion from Sarah Ward of the Cognitive Connection.

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