Before the COVID-19 pandemic and remote learning, I wasn’t the most creative parent when it came to helping my two kids with their schoolwork. But I would proudly hang their drawings on the refrigerator. The best ones later went into the memory box.
With my older child, I relied heavily on school to teach her how to write her name, count and sing the alphabet.
But this fall when my 4-year-old, Junot, along with many Chicago Public Schools students, started preschool remotely, I was forced to jump into school like never before.
Junot goes to Inter-American Magnet School, a dual-language Chicago public school on the North Side. Spanish is my first language, and I want Junot to be bilingual.
Like all preschoolers in CPS, he is supposed to do at least 60 minutes of live instruction each day. There are two optional classes, including Spanish conversation and physical education.
After we got past our initial struggles with the technology, I thought things would be smoother. But Junot wasn’t that into it. He was easily distracted by his toys, the sound of the garbage truck passing by and by our cats.
CPS officials worry preschoolers, like my son, are missing out on their fundamental education and development of their social and cognitive skills. They also worry about enrollment declines among that age group.
They want kids back in school buildings this quarter, which began on Monday. Many parents and teachers, though, are against that idea while infection rates keep going up.
While school officials figure out a new path forward, I decided to get help in case remote learning doesn’t end any time soon. I asked Saskia Benitez, a preschool teacher at Belmont-Cragin Elementary on the Northwest Side, for some tips for parents like me on how to engage distractible preschoolers.
Remember that all kids are different
Now that I’m sitting next to my son during school, I’m seeing how teachers engage with Junot and the other students. We can also see how our kids are doing compared to others. Benitez says to try not to do that. “Every kid has their own way of learning, their own way of expressing themselves. Nobody is the same.” Benitez said.
I knew that, but didn’t quite put it into practice when I saw that Junot wasn’t as involved as other kids in his class. After chatting with Benitez and Junot’s teachers, I pulled him out of the two optional live sessions so he can better focus in the main class, where he learns the most. I was upset at first because I wanted him to be in the Spanish class, but then I realized he’ll eventually get there on his own pace, and I am here to support him when he needs me.
Make learning a game
Benitez reminded me that Junot is still just four — and that things might go more smoothly if I tried to make learning a game.
She recommends a sticker system with a small reward at the end of the week. “Give them a goal … if you do your work, if you spell your name correctly by yourself, today, I am going to give you a sticker,” Benitez said. My colleague Susie An uses that sticker system with her first grader, Oggie, who attends Von Linne Elementary, also a dual-language school on the North Side.
“We have broken it down by attainable goals,” she said. “Can you get ready by yourself in the morning? Can you pay attention for most of this hour? if you can, you get a sticker.” She got this tip from a teacher last year, and it seems to work for her son.
After reaching out to Benitez, I went to the dollar store, got a dry erase board, markers, lots of stickers and some prizes including hot wheels, slime and a few lollipops. I told Junot about the daily sticker system, and things improved. At first, I gave him a reward at the end of each day. But Junot broke into tears one day when he didn’t collect enough stickers. Benitez said to leave the reward for the end of the week, to help Junot learn how to earn it.
Parents need to be motivated and act overly excited when kids do their work — even if it is a small improvement. The more you hide your frustration and show positive reinforcement, the more effort they’ll put into their work. Instead of telling kids they are doing something wrong, or “this is how you do it,” step back and reflect, Benitez said. “A lot of kids don’t know how to hold a crayon, a lot of kids don’t know how to hold a pencil [so] … show them,’” she said. Benitez helped me realize that my initial enthusiasm was good, but I needed to bring it up a notch even when things got challenging. Now, I often cheer him on when he is drawing, spelling out his name or singing. When he gets tired or doesn’t want to engage, I repeat what the teacher says with enthusiasm until he is ready to listen to her again.
Build a routine and keep trying
Stick to a schedule and a routine that works for your family. Benitez understands parents have to work, but if possible, add the live instruction to your daily schedule. She says children love when their parents or family members do school with them. “It helps when parents are there and are involved,” Benitez said. “When we are doing a song that involves dancing and the parents are moving along, it makes it fun for the child.”
Before chatting with Benitez, we had created a schedule for our family. That was the easy part. The hard part is following it and learning how to support Junot during and after live instruction. By now, we are used to our new routine. I am with him in the mornings, my daughter helps right after and his dad cooks in between. We all help him with his homework and try hard not to miss a deadline. Sometimes, though, we are so busy with our own deadlines, it’s hard to keep up.
With help from Benitez, Junot’s teachers and others, I’ve become a less anxious and more helpful parent this fall. We still have plenty of rough days, which has helped me understand even more the important role teachers play. Still, after two months, Junot is more willing to speak in Spanish, he confidently counts in both languages and sings songs. And, despite the struggles, I feel lucky to be there to witness this magical learning process.