Why is it that a teacher can tell your kid what to do and they immediately comply? Whereas, the same request from you brings eye-rolling, foot stamping, and arguing? Well, part of it is that you and your kids have a history and that may include some “button pushing” that happens between you. This is normal. Part of it is the peer pressure in a group. But there is another part to the puzzle that may be helpful to know as you try to help your kids at home.
Since many of you parents have been thrown into the teaching profession in the time of Covid without signing up for it, I’m going to let you in on some things that good teachers do at the start of the year.
Trade Secret #1
Positive behavior starts with the environment. This is why teachers are found in their classrooms several weeks before school starts. We are making sure we have the right supplies, that it’s organized, and that there aren’t a lot of distractions. We are putting posters up with inspiring quotes and making bulletin boards with class rules. We are figuring out seating arrangements.
Considering that you are at home, within easy access of the kitchen, TV, toys, and maybe siblings, you can get better learning behavior simply by the old adage “out of sight, out of mind”. Carve out a space that is for school, with very few distractions. Maybe your dining room converts to a classroom. Maybe a bedroom corner is “school”. During school times the area should be organized and free of excess stuff, especially toys and TV. Keep all your kids’ school supplies and materials in that area. Make places for pencils, paper, laptop when not in use, markers, crayons, workbooks, etc. This will cut down on excuses (“I couldn’t finish because I couldn’t find the _____”) and wasted time searching for stuff. You can even put up some inspirational quotes or posters or have your kids design their own! If possible, have a bulletin board or white board with the daily schedule on it.
Trade Secret #2
Spend lots of time going over expectations and routines and have some fun and personal connection before starting academics. Great teachers know that the first few days of school are the most important days of the entire year. They set the stage for learning and relationships. The first few days of school in a good classroom are filled with class meetings, learning the expectations, practicing social skills, and getting to know one another.
Here are some conversations to have with your family in your first few days. How are we all feeling about doing school at home? What is hard? What will be good about it? (Adults should share their feelings, hopes and worries also.) What are some things that will make it work for all of us? You can brainstorm some ideas about what will make it work, and let these ideas morph into “rules”. This will work better than rules coming from the adults without any input from kids. You will get more compliant behavior if your kids understand your feelings and needs.
Other topics to cover in these first few days are:
What will the daily routine look like? What are the expectations for finishing work? What happens if work isn’t completed? Is your system time-based or work based (i.e. is math for an hour, or just until the lesson is completed, even if that only takes 15 minutes)? What are your expectations for completed work (i.e. should it be neat and tidy or just completed)? How and when is it okay to ask for help – especially pertinent if parents are trying to work at home also. What can your child do if help isn’t available right away? How will your child handle frustration? How will you handle frustration? What does respectful talk look like and sound like? (Teachers usually do some “role-playing” where students act out scenarios and practice the behaviors).
Now, put all of this into writing in the form of a contract or agreement. But also, plan to have a “class meeting” regularly to discuss how the rules and routines are working. Be flexible and make changes if needed. You may need to be stricter or more loose as time goes on. A lot depends on how you and your kids are doing. But if the rules do change, always discuss the reasons why rather than handing down the rule with no explanation.
The more your kids know what to expect from Day 1, and the more they have helped to shape the rules and routines, the less arguing there will be.
Trade Secret #3
Every good teacher uses some rewards and consequences. If your kids absolutely love school and academic learning is one of their favorite activities, then they are rewarded intrinsically (just by the good feeling of getting their work done) Other students would rather be doing something else, and they may need an extrinsic reward (something from the outside that they earn for working hard).
Is a reward the same as a bribe and aren’t bribes bad? Here is my distinction. A bribe is for something you would not normally do, which means that it would have to be high stakes and with a big prize.
A reward is recognition for doing something that is expected (i.e. schoolwork) and with a small recognition for a job well done. These rewards should be in relation to the difficulty of the task for each child. Some kids may not need any rewards at all to keep motivated while others who struggle a lot just to complete a small amount of work may need constant encouragement. Appropriate rewards should be small tokens such as stickers put on good work, praise, high fives, or points that add up to something at the end of a time period (an hour, a day or a week). Points could add up to a small treat, extra attention, a new book, or anything meaningful to your child. In my class, kids enjoyed simply a star on a card. Every ten stars moved them up a level on the “Super Improver” wall. Each level had a small reward and it took the whole year to get to the top. It always amazed me how thrilled they were to get a little star on a card.
You may or may not need a “system” like this for your own kids. Maybe the reward is simply a time at the end of the day for compliments and appreciation. But the more rewards you have, either verbal, affectionate, or small tokens, the less consequences you will need, and the more compliance you’ll get.