April 13, 2020

SYNAPSE Helps Families Prepare for Remote Learning

Christine Marshall presents SYNAPSE, a toolkit to help students work smarter, not harder, through new challenges.
by Christine Marshall

For many families, the idea of remote learning without the immediate, physical presence of a skilled educator brings a mixed bag of feelings. Curiosity and fear are cropping up among parents who simply wonder how it’s all going to work out…

  • How will my child maintain their attention and motivation?
  • What is my role as a parent?
  • How will I manage my child’s learning while also working myself?

These are valid concerns. And, for the record, we teachers understand. Completely.

Many of us are in the same boat, figuring things out with little ones at home. We’re worried about friends, relatives, and communities who are the most vulnerable. Projections show that our situation will be getting quite a bit worse before we move through the end of this pandemic event.

As a society, we’ll benefit from recognizing two truths:

  • Remote learning will help ground our young people during this turbulent time.
  • Kids feel safe and secure when they are supported with structure, boundaries, and age-appropriate expectations.

So let’s start thinking about how remote learning could work in your home. Just a little bit of preparation will set up all of you for a more positive experience.

Students need to learn and practice ways of managing their attention and stress, especially now with learning environments changing. Taking things one deliberate step at a time will help them gain confidence and momentum.

First, help your child designate a space for work. This spot should be comfortable (but not too comfortable). It does not have to be large or fancy, just functional.

Consider spaces where your kid is most likely to get things done and find them a comfortable chair. Parents, don’t overthink this one. Have you sat in one of your kid’s chairs at school? Most likely, they aren’t ergonomic, and they don’t provide lumbar support or cushion their bottoms. They are simply upright and sturdy.

Also, do not let your child study in their bed.

Seriously, just say no.

Next, help them remove distractions from their study space.

  • Sweep their learning environment, moving other assignments out of sight.
  • Put their phone in another room and switch to Do Not Disturb mode.
  • Close apps on their computer and archive tabs so they’re no longer visible.
  • Turn off all music.

“Why are distractions so…distracting?!”

As long as our immediate environment isn’t dangerous, our attention naturally gravitates toward things that are unusual or new to us. Interest in novelty has helped our species navigate the world successfully, discovering new sources of food or shelter in our environment. When we’re faced with difficult or unclear situations, however, our attention shifts its subconscious preference for things that are most recognizable or easy to navigate. This is an important feature of our behavior to keep in mind when we’re trying to learn.

Our preference for the familiar when facing unclear situations has likely helped us from an evolutionary perspective. For millennia, our ancestors needed to make sense of dangerous situations in order to survive. As a result, when we become confused, our brains have a tendency to shift their focus to what we know.

How does this impact our learning? And what does it have to do with preparing our study spaces?

Through no fault of our own, we naturally require more deliberate attentional control when learning concepts that are difficult to understand. In these moments, students often feel as though they’re swimming upstream, and, in a sense, they are. They’re working to resist an innate inclination to shift their focus to more familiar aspects of their environment such as friends, music, or the buzzing of incoming texts. It takes more attentional resources to actively ignore distractions, cutting into a student’s limited amount of brain power, slowing them down and wearing them out more quickly.

With this knowledge in hand, learners can “hack their brains” and get ahead of their own distractibility.

Introducing SYNAPSE

A neuroscientist turned full-time educator, I work every day to help students manage distractions in their busy lives and build confidence and agency as independent learners. I’ve distilled the fundamentals of learning into a practical toolkit, made memorable through the acronym S-Y-N-A-P-S-E, to help students learn to work smarter, not harder, through new challenges. It can also help parents guide younger learners during periods of academic struggle.

The best part is that SYNAPSE is easy to learn and fun to implement. It can help families reboot their households, forming more collaborative and curious communities of exploration.

Through SYNAPSE, you’ll learn to:

  • Set clear expectations for study settings in your home.
  • Interrupt negative thought cycles.
  • Define your role as a supportive parent.

The last one is delicate, right? You want to be their coach, but you’re not their teacher. You can’t do the work for them, otherwise you’ll short-change their learning and growth. And you certainly don’t want to engage in a power struggle. Remember, your goal is for them to work more independently. And parenting is a work in progress. That being said, a little strategy can go a long way…

Stay tuned for more tips on simplifying and amplifying learning.

Dr. Christine Marshall, a biology instructor at Phillips Academy, began developing SYNAPSE as a Tang Institute Fellow in 2016. She currently teaches a science elective, The Neurobiology of Learning, Memory, and Sleep, for 11th and 12th graders. Learn more about her work by visiting her blog, Laboratory for Learning.

Categories: Fellows, Projects, Featured

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