Building Engagement with Distance Learning

DL #8: Time Management During Distance Learning

TIES Center Distance Learning Series

The landscape of education has changed. Schools are different because our world is different. Just a few short months ago students were in school buildings with their teachers and now parents are challenged with the task of becoming coordinators/teachers. Many parents are trying to balance working from home while managing their child’s schooling. In response to this new demand, parents are seeking support to help their child complete schoolwork at home more independently. Although many families are struggling with the new distance learning parameters, parents of children with significant cognitive disabilities are especially in need of some solutions to help their child gain independence during the day.

How can I balance being a parent with my new role?

First of all, you are not your child’s teacher. They still have teachers in their schools and they are the ones who can help with guiding you through this process. Oftentimes teachers are willing to help but do not always know what you need. Just ask! Balancing being a parent, while trying to support children academically, can be hard. Parents must keep in mind that we are all going through this together. Every day make the decision to “pick your battles”, which sometimes means celebrating the few moments of reprieve you got when your child worked independently for at least five minutes. Adding to their working stamina is a great goal, instead of being disappointed they aren’t working for long stretches of time from the beginning. This self-regulated work time is new to your child as much of their school day involved adults and peers dedicated to keeping them on task.

How can I help keep my child on-task while also preserving time for my other responsibilities?

The answer: Have your child learn time management skills to stay on-task!

  • Set up a specific workstation that includes a desktop/laptop and has AAC devices or other communication tools and all materials needed for the subject and task in close proximity.
  • Utilize any and all technology available, whether it be on a computer, phone, or even a microwave timer. It is best to use a timer that your child can set and stop on their own, which improves their independence and in turn frees up your time.
  • Minimize distractions from other family members' noise or movement in the house.
  • Have your child set short-term goals when starting a task to outline what will be done for that subject that day. This can be done by having your child pick items of an activity out of a set of choices and placing them in order on their desk before beginning their work.
  • If helpful and motivating for your child, have them use a timer to track how long they work on each subject or task.
    • For small tasks use a microwave or phone timer.
      • Have your child set a timer for a specified amount of time and then take a break.
    • For longer tasks use a Pomodoro timer method (also known as a “tomato timer”) to have your child track their progress as they work.
      • The Pomodoro method involves specific steps with built-in breaks for longer work sessions. Read more about the Pomodoro method . Have your child set a goal of what needs to be done, work for a specified amount of time, record progress and take a short break, then get back to work, and then take a long break.

What should my child do when they complete work?

As we all do in some way for our own work, it is important to reward yourself for a job well done, or completion of a task. To say, “students should work without reward” would be the equivalent of saying “adults should work without a paycheck.” When preferred activities follow non-preferred activities, this can help students with significant cognitive disabilities make the connection that the more preferred activity is coming if they can power through the current task in front of them.

Choice Boards

Have your child pick from a choice board with a list of leisure activities that they enjoy after completing a certain number of checks per day or in between tasks. Make sure they are your child’s choice, not yours. Again, once this system is set up, the goal is that they self-direct the delivery of rewards for themselves almost to the point that you don’t need to be in the same room. Some students can work for rewards at the end of the day and/or end of the week as shown in example 2 of the TIES Distance Learning article: Self-Determined Schedule Making. However, if necessary, have your child use a small reward choice board for leisure activities to do between tasks and then a larger reward choice board of activities to do after completing several tasks. 

Low-tech and high-tech options: Choice boards can be done through low-tech options, such as creating a word document or by drawing out a table on a sheet of paper with different choices in each box. See example 3 for a version made as a word document that uses icons. Online choice boards can be made if you and your child prefer a high-tech option. You can create a choice board using a website or application. You could also take pictures on a smartphone and create a collage with different choices presented on the same screen. This may be done within an AAC device. This is also something that your child’s teacher might have a model readily available that is used at school, which can be edited to include home activities.

A choice board with 9 choices: play toys, play outside, tablet time, build a fort, special snack, listen to music, painting, watch tv, drawing

Example 1: “My Choice Board”

To help your child experience a variety of leisure activities, consider removing a choice once your child has chosen it for the day. It is also important to keep variety in choices if your child becomes bored with the options, but still allow the “go-to” favorites you know your child will enjoy. Another consideration is to make sure to have rewards ready and planned ahead so they can be utilized immediately, without the child having to wait for you to set up the reward. This may mean that you pre-set up activities or it might mean that you expect your child to get things that they can get completely on their own so you are not stopping your workday to facilitate in between each activity. This is two-fold, having access to the reward immediately will solidify the connection that your child earned the reward for the work that was just completed. Secondly, it promotes independence in the child choosing and rewarding himself/herself without relying on an adult to go get or set up the reward.

Using high-tech and low-tech tools for staying on task and delivering self-reinforcement can help students with significant cognitive disabilities manage their day without having to constantly recruit adult help, thus relieving parents of some school work responsibilities. Empowering students with significant cognitive disabilities to take control of their own learning is a win-win situation!

Disclaimer: The information in this Brief is not an endorsement of any identified products. Products identified in this Brief are shared solely as examples to help communicate information about ways to reach the desired goals for students.

Distance Learning Series: DL #8, May, 2020

All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

  • Reyes, E. (2020). Time management during distance learning (DL #8). TIES Center.

TIES Center is supported through a cooperative agreement between the University of Minnesota and the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education (# H326Y170004). The Center is affiliated with the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) which is affiliated with the Institute on Community Integration (ICI) at the College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota. The contents of this report were developed under the Cooperative Agreement from the U.S. Department of Education, but do not necessarily represent the policy or opinions of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Readers should not assume endorsement by the federal government. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) leads the TIES Center partnership.  Collaborating partners are: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North-Carolina–Charlotte, and the University of North Carolina–Greensboro.

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