5 Tips for Supporting Teens With Online Learning

We have all been hearing about the home-schooling struggles of parents of younger school-age kids. The fact that my kids are 17 and 19 is one of the things I feel grateful for during this time of quarantine. I don’t have to figure out how to teach them during “school time” and then entertain them the rest of the time. High school and college age kids are easy in comparison, but there are still challenges and golden opportunities to help older kids survive and thrive during this time.

Self-management skills are one of the most important skills for success in college and beyond. Many people are learning how to work from home for the first time, and it seems likely that one lasting impact of the COVID-19 crisis will be a permanent increase in remote workers, which requires self-management. So, the golden opportunity for parents of teens is to use this time to help them learn strategies for self-management that will enable success over the next few months, in college and in their careers. Below are five tips for helping your teen self-manage.

  1. Ask vs Tell. If you are good at self-management, the temptation will be to simply tell your teen what to do. Resist that urge. Teens don’t want to be “told” anything, and part of what you are trying to teach them is to problem-solve for themselves. Asking questions gives them a chance to show you what they know already, and when the ideas are theirs, follow-through is much more likely. Avoid asking broad questions. Use the remaining tips below to craft specific questions to will lead to shaping these important self-management skills.
  2. Establish a Routine. Part of the reason a significant proportion of teens struggle in their first semester of college is the lack of routine. No longer do they have to be in classes from 8 to 3 with teachers doling out homework in bite-sized chunks. With no one monitoring daily activities and projects that aren’t due for days or weeks, too many teens fall victim to the more immediate and certain consequences associated with sleeping in, socializing, playing video games, etc.  The current remote learning situation has a similar lack of structure. Again, without telling your teen what to do, help them establish a routine that gives structure to their days and helps them separate school time from recreation time. Their structure doesn’t have to be the structure you would like to see. My daughter’s routine is most definitely not what I would prefer, but she owns it and therefore she follows it.
  3. Set Shorter and Longer Term Goals. Some teachers are assigning daily work, while others are assigning projects that aren’t due for days or weeks. This isn’t dramatically different from what happens when teens are physically in school, however there is no longer the daily contact with teachers and other students that remind and prompt students to work on the longer-term projects. Ask your teen about the longer-term projects and encourage them to set sub-goals (ideally daily) to keep the projects moving forward. The ability to chunk big projects into manageable pieces will help teens avoid the “cramming all night” syndrome that is all too prevalent in college.
  4. Celebrate Small Wins. With social distancing, the density of reinforcement teens experience is greatly diminished (outside of those teens who enjoy gaming, of course). Help them build in reinforcement by celebrating completion of small goals. Every night at dinner each member of my family shares what they accomplished during the day and what they are proud of, no matter how small.  You can also encourage your teen to set up virtual study groups with friends that celebrate work completion and provide much-needed social contact.
  5. Encourage Use of Electronics as a Reinforcer, Not a Distration. One of the most powerful sources of reinforcement for teens is their phone. While it is tempting to take the phone away while they are supposed to be doing school work, instead, ask your teen how they might use the phone as a reinforcer for task completion.  Technically known as the Premack Principle, this use of highly desirable tasks to reinforce less desirable tasks is a well-established self-management tool.  Encourage your teen to set completion of concrete tasks as the criteria for phone use rather than time spent working. A time-based schedule does nothing to promote focus or establish task completion as a natural reinforcer. Today’s teens can daydream the time away just as well as we could when we were young.  Make sure to get them thinking about how long they should spend on their phone as a reinforcer and encourage them to set a timer to signal time to get back to work.

When following up on the plans your teen has made remember the 4:1 rule and focus on the positive. They won’t follow the plan perfectly, but they will do a few things well every day. Ask them what parts of their plan are working well and why, and encourage them to troubleshoot what isn’t working and make adjustments. By focusing on the positive you will not only encourage continued building of self-management skills, you will infuse some much needed positivity into this stressful time.

Posted by Judy Agnew, Ph.D.

As senior vice president of safety solutions, Judy spends her time helping clients create sustainable safety cultures. She also helps clients with strategy execution beyond safety, and general management and leadership improvement across cultural and generational differences.