Turn your home into a learning environment

Kelly S. Johnson, Psy.D. Neuroscience, is a licensed children's psychologist and neuropsychologist who specializes in child development, autism, and learning disabilities. We talked about creating a healthy learning environment in the household this week. Her overarching wisdom: When setting your household up to be a learning environment, the most important thing is your household's culture of learning – not the room or the device where learning takes place.

Kids across the country are starting school again, and learning looks different this year for everyone. For many families, learning is happening inside the home for the first time.

Academics aside, home learning requires every family to make different practical, emotional, and physical adjustments. Families face serious psychological challenges – schedules are unrecognizable, and parent-kid relationships are shifting into teacher-student relationships. Physical challenges emerge as kids share devices and as kitchens shapeshift into classrooms.

This circus of changes would be comical if it weren't so taxing and burdensome to manage, especially for parents who work from home. Still, academic expectations seem to have remained the same, even though the context for those expectations and our means of achieving those goals have disappeared. So how should families prop up new learning environments on the fly?

To kickstart this process for new homeschoolers, we want to combine these best practices with evidence-based research, so I reached out to Kelly S. Johnson, Ph.D, a neuropsychologist who specializes in working with children who have autism and learning disabilities. Kelly's also a seasoned homeschooler – she homeschooled her three kids until high school, the youngest of whom is about to graduate college. With her combined experiences, she’s the perfect person to weigh in here.

Kelly was in the car when I called her. She spoke with undeniable warmth; she discusses the brain the way someone else might recount their weekend plans to a close friend. We talked about the question at the center of this piece: "How should families think about turning the home into a learning environment?"

Kelly sighed compassionately. "It's so hard," she said. I sighed back; I had hoped that she'd say something was easy. She explained that while we typically think of learning environments as physical spaces, adults need to shift their focus from the physical to the psychological aspects of effective learning environments.

Designing the emotional learning environment

Kelly explained that the best emotional learning environments inspire joy, not academic achievement. Below are some of Kelly’s tips on constructing a strong culture around learning at home.

Create an environment that celebrates learning, not innate talent.

Celebration can be literal or emotional – you might encourage your kids to write their daily learnings on a whiteboard, or you might ask critical questions about their schoolwork to show that you care.

  • Praise learning, not intelligence. When kids value learning and growth over innate intelligence and academic wins, it’s easier for them to see the value in struggle and maintain morale in the face of challenges. Celebrating the learning process can invite joy into the more mundane parts of learning at home.
  • Help your kids understand why they're learning specific topics. Whether they're starting physics or learning to read chapter books, kids who can articulate the skills they're developing or the value they get from their subjects exhibit stronger buy-in.

Use positive framing to foster resilience and optimism.

Framing things positively helps kids keep positive attachments to their space, even if they’re using that space in new ways. Here are some times for turning the room you use for school into a place to learn and share.

Use positive language all the time, even when kids make mistakes.

  • Positive framing can help kids associate hard work with feeling good. This isn’t just a trick for youngsters – "most kids need to receive instruction, rules, and criticism through positive framing,” said Kelly.

    When an adult says something like, 'You won't get playtime if you don't complete this exercise,' they cast the exercise in a negative light. If they say, 'as soon as you finish this exercise, we'll go outside and play,'" then it’s easier for kids to think of their work in a positive context.

  • Positive framing keeps kids from getting stuck on their mistakes. Positive language can help kids see mistakes as opportunities to learn, rather than instances of defeat. Instead of "You didn't put a comma there," say, "This needs another comma. Can you fix it?"

Reinforce individual learning goals and household goals frequently.

In COVID, it’s easy to let days go unstructured. Kids need to keep learning, but many first-time homeschoolers are missing the careful guidance of a teacher. "More than ever," Kelly reminded me, "it's important for parents to be compassionate with themselves and with their kids."

  • Set learning goals together. When you invite your kids to set their own goals, you open the door to ambition and teamwork. When kids set their own academic goals, they have a chance to take command of their weeks, which can motivate more responsibility over time. Make sure that kids have a clear idea of what it looks like to complete their goals – writing them down in a central place can’t hurt!

  • Keep kids’ goals actionable. Kids may feel unmotivated to pursue academic goals if they feel ill-equipped to tackle them in a new context, so introduce weekly goals along with the steps kids can take to accomplish them. Name the tools and resources at their disposal, and remind them where they should go when they have questions.

  • Goals and curriculum can have separate timelines. Sometimes the most pressing goals aren’t curriculum-driven. It might be a goal to read 50 pages in a week, to keep the learning area tidy during the day, or concentrate for 30 minutes straight. Even if you're mapping your goals to a structured curriculum, remember that the beauty of homeschooling is being able to customize your pacing. It’s more than okay to slow your schedule down to make your kids’ goals more comfortable for the amount of time given.

  • Pick a regular time to check on progress. Getting reminders to finish tasks in passing interactions feels a lot like micromanaging. A regular time to give updates as a family can become part of the daily schedule (mealtimes are great places to start!).

Use a simple reward system to enforce goals and values.

Managing your own goals is a job in itself, so I asked Kelly how she would advise parents to manage goals for a family, especially if they’re working full time. “Use a strong reward system and structured accountability,” she said, without hesitation.

Rewards systems might seem out of place in your home, but they feel natural to kids – especially to those who would normally be attending conventional school. Schools provide strict schedules and systems of rewards or consequences for different kinds of behavior, so similar frameworks can help kids adjust to new learning environments. Kids with ADHD especially benefit from structure, but all kids benefit from knowing what to expect from their day and their choices.

Kelly offered several guidelines for creating and enforcing a rewards system, noting first that there is no one-size-fits-all: “It’s going to be hard, but keeping it rewards-based will make it work. Kids with ADHD will benefit from a structured program, and so will parents who work full-time.”

  • Involve your kids in the decision-making process. A strong rewards system looks different for every family. Kelly explained that good rewards are specific kids and to their family’s culture. One kid might be happy with a snack reward while another prefers time to play outside or draw. It’s fine to give different awards to different kids and to vary the awards occasionally – just make sure that kids understand what to expect.

  • Embed “natural rewards” into your everyday routines. Natural rewards are fun things that you can build into a kid’s routine of study. When kids experience natural rewards, they associate fun habits with habits of hard work. Kelly is passionate about this technique as someone who used this herself, committing to doing history lessons in the backyard and making a tradition out of stopping for a treat on the way to her kids’ orchestra lessons.

  • Follow through every time. Consistency is the most important part. Although rewards systems look different from family to family, Kelly’s universal advice is to pick rewards you know you can feasibly and repeatedly deliver on-time. Rewards systems help kids trust that their parents recognize and value their diligence, so breaking that trust is a big deal. If you have an idea for something fun but are unsure of the execution, plan for it anyway and keep it separate from the rewards system.

  • What’s earned is earned. No household or kid is perfect, and sometimes parents need to take away privileges to keep their kids accountable. Discipline is a critical part of parenting, but discipline can’t affect earned rewards, “or the system breaks once again,” explained Kelly. “Kids can earn the privilege of a fun weekend by working hard throughout the week, but they can’t lose that in one fell swoop.” Revoking earned privileges breaks kids’ trust in their parents and in their agreed-upon rewards system, lowers motivation, and hurts household teamwork.

  • Complexity and compromise are the enemies of a good rewards system. Kelly says that tally-based systems can lead to bartering, which invalidates the system entirely once a kid successfully convinces a parent to compromise on the rules.

Designing the physical learning environment

"Especially now that people are stuck inside, it's really about seeking to understand your kids' profile. What kinds of attention are they capable of? What's their capacity to take in new information? Note their strengths and weaknesses, like whether they can read for lengthy periods of time, and their spatial orientation."

Kelly explained that kids' emotional and physical learning environments need to optimize for things like attention, concentration, memory, capacity to understand concepts vs. rote facts, and the ability to identify deeper patterns of things.

The goal for a physical learning environment is to meet kids' sensory and kinesthetic needs. Especially if kids have attention disorders or reading disabilities, it's important for space to have elements that help kids release frustration or absorb distractions. Kids who experience difficulty with sensory processing will need reduced noise levels. She suggested noise-canceling headphones and sensory aids, like textured putty, smooth stones, and other household objects.

Other kids will need regular breaks – sometimes as frequently as every 10 minutes, while others will need sustained periods of activity in order to complete their tasks. This is especially true for kids with attention disorders, but all kids do need outlets for extra energy. There is no standard, but families should start by creating a schedule around their kids’ curriculum. If they’re old enough, parents can ask their kids to help architect their own schedules until they reach something that feels comfortable. If you try this and it’s not working, consider reaching out to a specialist.

Not only is every child unique, kids also change over time. Continuous observation and flexibility will help parents put the right supports in place as their kids grow, but until kids exhibit significant changes in attention, it’s important to maintain a consistent routine for as long as possible. It can be helpful for parents to keep notes and schedules on the fridge or in a shared note in a note-taking app.

While the elements of a strong physical learning environment are highly individual, the building blocks of a healthy emotional learning environment are necessary – and attainable – in every household. Kelly explained that the best emotional learning environments drive kids toward joyful learning, not academic achievement.

Learning environments take time to build.

Finding what works takes time and iteration, and no one expects you to get this right the first time. Whatever it looks like in your home, learning what works for each kid and for the whole family will pay off in the long run – it can set a foundation for strong communication, a renewed commitment to each other and each other's individual goals, and a more joyful household.