During the coronavirus crisis, parents have suddenly been thrust into the role of managing the education of young children. What exactly this looks like will depend on your child’s age as well as their individual learning profile. Still, there are a few guidelines and principles that can be helpful for any parent teaching a K-2 learner at home.

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How do K-2 students learn?

Kids at this age are remarkably adept at learning. Many kids learn very well from verbal instruction that also includes engaging visual stimuli. Generally speaking, building academic skills during these grades involves:

  • Exposure to new material
  • Repeated and consistent practice
  • Explicit direction about how to use new skills
  • Frequent feedback on their work
  • Lots of praise!

Youngsters this age are primed to study facts and learn processes that they can rely on as tools for solving problems. They also tend to feel thrilled by their progress, even when it proceeds slowly and steadily. Children in grades K-2 are especially highly attuned to the social environment and they learn through their peers as well as their teachers.

Of course, all children are different. For instance, children with dyslexia, language disorders and attentional conditions may need a more specialized approach to learning. Some children also struggle to sit still while learning, and they learn better through kinesthetic activity — standing at the table or walking around the room while listening or talking through an idea. As your child experiments with remote learning, see what you notice about their own unique learning preferences and the techniques that help them focus.

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

How can parents best support K-2 students?

For most kids, parents have to be more involved during this time than during later grades. As you decide what works best for you and your family, consider the following tips:

  • Plan ahead. You don’t need to create rigid schedules, but it can be helpful to plan out the day’s activities in advance, even if it’s just making a few notes the night before. Having even a little information about what to expect during the school day will make life easier for both you and your child.
  • Collaborate with teachers. Schools are providing very different levels of service right now, from virtual instruction to the delivery of worksheets. Keep in mind that most teachers have not done this before; they are genuinely trying to figure out how to help kids learn remotely as well. The opportunities for contact with teachers will vary, but when you can, it’s still a good idea to asks teachers for help when necessary, share feedback about the school’s activities, and brainstorm ways to make remote learning work best for your child.
  • Remember how powerful your attention is. With young kids, many parents will need to sit next to or across from their children for some of the school day. Focusing your attention on their learning efforts will help them stay deeply involved, and alternating more appealing with less appealing work will help them overcome frustration. If your child knows that reading time might involve cuddling up and listening to you read, or that they get lots of praise from you when they work hard on math, they will be highly motivated. Your positive attention is so rewarding! 
  • Set realistic expectations. Since so many parents are trying to balance competing roles — jobs, childcare, and now teacher/therapist/coach — it is unrealistic to expect children to be engaged in the equivalent of a full day’s worth of traditional education. Remember that whatever you can manage will be helpful to prevent loss of skill and that a big part of your goal is just to provide structure and some semblance of “normal” for them.
  • Be creative. Keep in mind that there are plenty of opportunities for kids to learn and develop new skills outside of traditional schoolwork. Helping with chores provides great opportunities for the development of executive functions like planning and problem solving. Cooking is another way to explore mathematical concepts and to practice reading, following directions, planning and organization, patience and frustration tolerance. Unstructured time is also important for helping children strengthen their creativity, imagination, and self-regulation skills.
  • Maintain social bonds. Because kids this age learn so much from their peers, setting up online playdates or even drawing pictures to send to friends can be just as important as traditional academic work.

What’s the best schedule for K-2 students?

There’s no right answer here — in many cases, whatever you and your family can realistically manage will be enough to meet your child’s needs. That said, this age group can benefit from a structure that roughly replicates the classroom, where daily attention is paid to reading fundamentals, writing, listening and math skills.

It’s important to have a structure for the day at home, even if it is a list of activities that the child can select from. Ideally, each activity should last about 15-25 minutes. If you learn that your child cannot persist for 15 minutes, recognize that and work for shorter time frames — or allow them to work for longer if they can and want to do so. Try seated academic work, but make a few more physical academic tasks, like doing jumping jacks while answering basic math facts, a scavenger hunt for flashcards with short rhyming words that can be matched, and knocking down bowling pins that have post-its with sight words on them as a reading exercise.

Try seated academic work, but include a few more physical academic tasks too, like jumping jack math facts or having a scavenger hunt for rhyming words.

A simulated school day at home — including a period each for reading decoding, writing, math activities and reading comprehension— might look something like this:

  • Morning meeting (review the day, date and the activities of the day)
  • Seated academic activity
  • Brief transition
  • More academic work, either as a seated activity or a more physical activity
  • Break time and snacks
  • Academic activity
  • Lunch break with a recess period
  • Academic activity
  • End of the day

We have found that the rough time frame of 9:30am -2pm is about as long as many students can manage, but some children may need a shorter day.

Breaks can include activities that may remind kids of structures from school, like watching and singing along to a GoNoodle video, playing with siblings or pets, and helping parents around the house. These should be brief and not too distracting.

Our family resource guide provides a lot of specific sites where you can find both academic and extracurricular material for kids, broken down by age group.

How can parents handle pushback from K-2 students?

If your kids are complaining about doing school work at home, they’re not alone! Right now, complaining or resisting work does not necessarily signal disobedience or defiance. We may need to be more tolerant of our kids saying, “This is boring!” or, “I don’t want to do this now!” They may be right about the work being boring for them — much of what children are learning at this age requires repeated practice. Or it might be too challenging, because it is quite hard to achieve the right level of difficulty for each student.

Remember that in complaining, children may just be giving voice to frustrations all of us have about the challenges of this time. To help them process their feelings and get back on track, you can:

  • Avoid dismissing their feelings. Instead, try to acknowledge them and let your child know you can talk about them more later. By letting your child know that you care about what they’re saying, you can avoid getting into a debate in the moment.
  • Hear them out. Once work time is over, ask your child to explain what they’re upset about, and do your best to listen carefully to their answers. They may have valuable ideas about how to make the school day work better!

Focus on the positive. Even if your child is complaining, you can still focus your attention on what they’re doing well. Pointing out their engaged efforts and how much you appreciate them can help your child refocus on the work at hand.

How can parents help K-2 students build independence?

As important as parents’ involvement is, we also want to support children’s independent acquisition of skills and their ability to be active learners.

To build independence, give your child a chance to practice working without your attention. Estimate how long your child can work independently and say, for example, “I want you to do X, and then I’m going to check back in 10 minutes to see how you did.” When they have been successful, let them know and praise them.

When they have not been successful, check in briefly to say, “You are close to being done! I’ll be back in a minute.” Or try asking specific questions: “Did you have any difficulties you want my help with?” or, “What got in your way of finishing?” It’s best to avoid general questions like, “How’s it going, buddy?” because those invite distracting conversations that probably won’t be directly related to getting work done.

When should you step in and help? If your child is genuinely asking for your support, then sit down and provide guidance. However, if they are asking you to get involved in distractions when you are asking them to work, then you can comfortably withdraw attention. Once they resume their productive involvement, return your attention.

Over time, most students this age will be able to gradually handle longer periods of working independently.

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