During the coronavirus crisis, many college students are back at home with their parents, trying to figure out how to handle their coursework, social lives, and family relationships all at once. What exactly this looks like will vary based on students’ and families’ unique needs and circumstances. But if you’re a parent supporting a college student at home, there are a few guidelines and principles that can make life easier for both you and your child.

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How do college students learn?

Through our mid-20s, our brains and executive functioning skills are still developing. Young adults, especially college students, may need continued support with developing these skills and becoming more independent.

Adolescents do not transition into independent college students overnight. Many are still learning to adjust to all of this unstructured free time, so things like arranging schedules, planning ahead for long-term assignments, and balancing study and down time are often very new concepts.

One of the best ways for college students to master these executive functioning skills is learning by example. Rather than managing these tasks for your child, model how you handle planning and organization in your own life. Invite them to see, ask questions about, and participate in the ways that you approach projects, plan day-to-day tasks, and transition between work and leisure activities. Through practice and observation, your child will be able to develop these skills for themselves even while living at home.

Related: Strategies for Supporting Learning at Home for Every Age Group

How can parents best support college students at home?

It’s often challenging to strike a balance between giving students independence and guiding them to make healthy decisions. And especially with everyone facing a lot of stress and uncertainty, it might take some trial and error to figure out what kinds of support work best for you and your family. Consider some of the following tips as you build new routines together:

  • Start with compassion. College students who are dragging their heels with planning, motivation and procrastination are likely struggling to adjust to the transition of living and learning at home. They may also be dealing with underlying weaknesses in executive functioning or mental health challenges that are exacerbated by these changes. Remember that what looks like laziness could be fear, anxiety or lack of confidence under the surface. A little empathy and understanding from you can go a long way.
  • Prioritize basics. Right now, meeting deadlines and settling into schedules may be more important than completing work perfectly. If your child is having a hard time getting started, encourage them to focus on handing homework in without worrying about how well it has been completed. There will be time to focus on the details once your student has settled into this new environment.
  • Offer praise. Your young adult’s self-esteem is extremely important right now. If they are working hard, praise the effort, regardless of the outcome. For instance, you might compliment them for finishing one part of a project, rather than emphasizing the parts they still need to do.
  • Encourage collaboration. When they’re living away from home, college students often rely on their peers to work through ideas and make progress on projects. Now that they’re at home, you might suggest setting up check-ins with friends or peers to help them stay on track and feel connected to other learners. If they’re open to it, you can also be a source of guidance. For example, if your child mentions that they’re planning to outline a paper, you can let them know that they’re welcome to bounce ideas off you while they work.
  • Involve others when you can. Seek help if you need it. Tutors, teachers, guidance counselors and coaches may help you and your student communicate better, and your child may be more comfortable accepting help from someone they’re used to working with in college. Keeping other adults in the loop gives you space to focus on just being their parent and not a taskmaster.

What’s the best schedule or virtual learning strategy for college students at home?

There is no right answer here — it’s important to be realistic about what you and your family can manage. That said, this age group can benefit from a structure that roughly replicates how their daily college routines might have looked.

It’s helpful for students to follow a routine as much as possible. Setting specific times to do homework, socialize and relax can help reduce anxiety and keep students organized. If they have to attend online courses at specific times, they can build a schedule around those times. Or if their coursework is mostly self-directed, they can choose specific times to watch lectures, chat with classmates and check in with professors. College students will likely stick to these routines more easily if they design their schedules themselves, but you can also let them know that you’re there to troubleshoot or provide reminders if they need support. Here are a few more ways that you can help your child build positive learning habits at home:

  • Keep sleep schedules consistent. Getting enough sleep is often a challenge for adolescents, but it’s also a crucial part of their mental health. Encourage your child to go to bed and get up at roughly the same time every day, including weekends if they can. You can also try to maintain consistent schedules for yourself and any other members of the family to keep household rhythms steady and predictable.
  • Take advantage of technology.To head off any confusion, check in with them to make sure they understand how their courses work now that everything is online. Do they know how to check deadlines and submit assignments? What about ways to participate in class and ask the professor questions? How does your student plan out their work for courses with flexible schedules? Even though learning looks a lot different now, you can still help your child get the most out of the educational tools available to them. You can also encourage your student to use tech tools (like phone reminders or online calendars) to stay organized and maintain a regular schedule.
  • Set up an effective study space. Doing schoolwork in the same place every day can be an important part of your child’s routine. Or if your child prefers variety, you might encourage them to match different workspaces to different tasks — writing papers at the kitchen table and reading in the living room, for example. Whatever their preference, make sure your child has what they to build an organized workspace. This might include:
    • Printed schedules, outlines, and/or lists of due dates
    • Files for organizing syllabi, papers, etc.
    • Strong internet connection
    • Headphones for listening to lectures and blocking out distractions
    • Space to store textbooks
    • White noise machine (or a white noise app), if your child is studying in a space that might be noisy
  • Align your schedules. If you’re working from home, try aligning your work hours with your student’s. If everyone in the house is quiet and busy at the same time, it might make it easier for your college students (and their siblings!) to stay on task. If you or someone else in the family isn’t working (or if younger siblings don’t spend as much time on schoolwork), you can still encourage the whole family to keep noise to a minimum during the hours that your college student is working.
  • Take time to socialize. Connections with peers are one of the most important aspects of a college student’s life. If your child wants to spend lots of time texting or talking with friends, give them space to do so — feeling close to peers will help them with everything from managing anxiety to staying motivated with school. You can also encourage your child to collaborate with classmates through shared documents, discussion boards for specific courses, or online events sponsored by their school.
  • Think beyond traditional schoolwork. Even though it’s challenging, having your child home with you can be an opportunity to help them build skills and independence that go beyond academics. Helping out with cooking, cleaning or caring for younger children can give your college student a sense of purpose and a chance to practice taking on new responsibilities. Exercise and hobbies are also important during this time — if your child has always wanted to learn yoga or play the guitar, now’s the time to support them in those goals.

What are some common challenges for college students learning at home?

Given all the stressors and losses that many college students are dealing with right now, it’s natural that things won’t always go smoothly. Here are a few of the struggles that your college student might run into, plus tips for helping them cope.

  • Difficulty focusing. If your student has a hard time staying on task, encourage them to break projects into manageable pieces and tackle them one at a time. They might benefit from the Pomodoro Method, in which they set a timer for a 25-minute (or shorter) period of focus and follow that with a 5- or 10-minute break. If distractions are the problem, consider having your child move their phone to another room for a set period of time while they’re working. They can also try turning off the internet on their computer when they’re not using it for work.
  • Procrastination. To help your child feel motivated, encourage them to alternate between tasks they enjoy and tasks they want to put off. That way, something enjoyable is never too far away. Rewards also work! Your child might plan to get a snack, take a walk or play a game as soon as a particular task is complete. Using alarms and phone reminders to signal the starts and ends of times for work can also be helpful for students who need extra structure.
  • Trouble planning projects. Visual cues are often helpful for students who have a hard time seeing the big picture. You might get your child a large whiteboard to list out tasks or an oversize calendar they can use to plan out project timelines. Work with your child to translate large assignments into a series of manageable tasks and help them figure out how long each step will take. Encourage them to budget more time than they think they need for each step, since unexpected challenges could always come up.
  • Frustration. Remind your child that it’s normal to get frustrated when tackling difficult projects, especially when the whole family is in a challenging situation. Encourage them to take frequent breaks or get a change of scenery by taking a walk or switching to a new workspace. Mindfulness practices can also help your child keep their cool when things get challenging. It’s also important for college students to set reasonable goals; if they’re aiming to accomplish too many things in a day, they’re bound to feel frustrated when they don’t meet that goal.
  • Feeling isolated. Being away from their friends and missing major school events like sports and graduation can be devastating for college students. Give them plenty of leeway and privacy to communicate with their peers, and let them know that you appreciate how hard what they’re going through is. You can also prioritize family time to help your child feel connected—even just talking with siblings at dinner, playing a game in the evening or FaceTiming with extended family can remind your college student that they’re not alone. If they’re open to it, you might also encourage your child to find ways to help others from home. Volunteering — like making calls to check on older neighbors, starting an online fundraiser, or canvassing for a political campaign — is often a great way to decrease isolation and give college students a sense of purpose.

Click here to see all resources related to the coronavirus crisis.