Staying motivated and focused in the virtual classroom
Kristen DiCerbo
Chief Learning Officer at Khan Academy

If your child’s school is behind a computer screen, then you know that motivating them to stay focused isn’t always easy. It’s especially hard for little ones who are learning how to read and aren’t used to the virtual classroom. Kristen DiCerbo, Chief Learning Officer at Khan Academy, joins us to explain what education research tells us about motivation and learning and how it can help parents and kids get through this unprecedented time. Kristen explains how parents can work with students of all ages to set learning goals, track their progress, keep education relevant, and set up an at-home learning environment that’s built for success. (Oh, and a little reward now and then doesn’t hurt, either.)


Listen to this episode to learn:

  • Why being successful at a task and finding value in what you’re asked to do are the keys to staying focused and motivated
  • Ideas on how to set age-appropriate goals for online learners, from pre-K to 12th grade
  • The benefits of having collaborative conversations with kids about goal setting
  • How to work with your child’s teacher to align with their learning goals
  • The right way to use rewards as a motivation tactic for at-home learning (pro tip: keep them small, frequent, and unexpected)
  • Advice on setting up a comfortable and distraction-free learning space that’s well-lit and fully-stocked
  • Resources at Khan Academy to support students of all ages and ensure they aren’t falling behind


For more information, visit https://www.khanacademy.org/.


Click here to read the full episode

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Full Transcript

Staying motivated and focused in the virtual classroom

Intro: Welcome to the Equal Parts Podcast, brought to you by Care@Work.

Emily Paisner: Being a working parent is hard, and if you thought working from home was tough, try being a kid who's learning from home. That's what millions of our kids are doing this school year and it's not easy. Who better to talk to than the pioneer of online learning, Khan Academy. For over a decade, Khan Academy has offered free online lessons in math, science, and humanities in 46 languages and is used in more than 190 countries.

Today, we're with Kristen DiCerbo, Khan Academy's Chief Learning Officer. She shares ways to help kids of all ages stay motivated and engaged and has great advice for parents too and helping your kids set goals, tracking their progress, and establishing an at-home learning environment that's built for success. Have a listen.

Emily Paisner: Kristen, welcome to Equal Parts. Thank you so much for being here today.

Kristen DiCerbo: Thank you for having me. I'm looking forward to the conversation.

Emily Paisner: Kristen, millions of kids across the country are in school remotely right now, whether that's full-time or part-time, learning at home in front of a screen all day and it is certainly unprecedented, something that our kids definitely have not been used to before. Some kids, this way of learning is working for them, but for others, it's really, really challenging, and it's new to everyone. I wanted to just kick off our conversation by talking about some of the best ways we can help to keep our kids focused and motivated in this new virtual classroom.

Kristen DiCerbo: First, let me say that as we at Khan Academy are getting questions from parents and teachers, these questions about motivation are the most frequently asked ones. I think everyone is struggling with this right now. I don't know if that makes people feel better, but you're not in this alone if you're struggling with this too. One of the things that I try to do in my role at Khan Academy is to bring in what education research tells us about motivation generally. It turns out that we can summarize a lot of that research in a pretty simple way. We get motivated to do things when first we think we're likely to be successful at them.

Second, when we value the thing we're being asked to do, and that sounds pretty simple, but if you think about that in your everyday life, that's probably true. Who wants to do something that they think they're going to fail at or not be successful? And you want to do things that are important to you. When we think about how do we motivate kids, we want to think about how are ways that we can help them feel like they'll be successful and also to value what they're doing. There's a variety of ways then in the research that people have sought to do that.

A couple of things that seem to be pretty powerful are goal-setting and progress monitoring because if you see yourself making progress, that is a big cue that you'll be able to be successful at the thing you're doing. Second is helping kids understand that even when something is hard, if they keep working at it, they'll get better at it. There has been a lot of talk about things like growth mindset and understanding how your brain actually changes as you're practicing and learning new things. There's also things when we think about valuing an activity, is making it relevant to students.

I know teachers sometimes hate getting the question of, "When am I ever going to use this?" But being able to help your kids see, this is why this is important, this is what this relates to, are there things you're interested in? This is how this relates to other careers that people do, and it relates to things in the real world, can be important. All of those things work for kids really at all age levels and adults, if you're looking to motivate yourself.

When you think about young kids, there's things you're going to want to do that keep it simpler, and older kids, more complex, like when we talk about goal-setting with young kids, you want to think about setting really short-term goals, like what are we going to do this afternoon? Whereas, if you've got a teenager, you might think about some longer-term goals and what that might look like.

Emily Paisner: You mentioned both goal-setting and monitor and tracking in terms of their progress. I'd just love to dive into those two things a little bit more, and more specifically, how we do these things successfully for kids depending on their age. We've heard a lot from parents who have kids who are preschool or unable to read yet and they're really challenged with how to make this online learning work for those younger kids. Then, of course, you have at the other end of the spectrum, older kids who also need help.

Kristen DiCerbo: One of the first big things about goal-setting is that hopefully it's a conversation between parents and kids instead of just the parents setting your goal and telling the kid what it is. Part of the power of all of this is when students are helping to decide what they want to do and where they want to get to, that gives them ownership, some choice in the process. That helps us all feel like we have a little bit more control of this situation that often feels pretty out of control. That's an important piece, is to think about doing this collaboratively. But if we're talking about preschoolers and maybe kindergarteners, of course, they're going to need some help with that and thinking about what that is.

If you've got a kindergartener or a first-grader and you're thinking about, "Okay, this is what we are working on for the next small chunk of time, what is it that we want to be able to do at the end of that time? We're going to get through this whole book in this afternoon" or "we're going to think about practicing all of our big seven colors this afternoon and be able to remember which color name is which." Also, if your child is in school, kindergarten, first grade, definitely work with the child's teacher, "What are their learning goals? What are the skills that they're building up? And how can you align with them?"

For your older students, you might think about it, maybe a goal for the week but also breaking that down into daily steps and that could be anything from reading a certain number of pages, writing a certain number of sentences, learning how photosynthesis works. One of the things you can do with older students is start to find out what are things that they're curious about. Thinking about, "Okay, let's dive into that and that'll be our goal for the week," is to figure out how this works, what does that mean. So, bringing them into the conversation is an important piece of this.

Emily Paisner: What is your thoughts on using rewards as a motivation tactic? Is this a good idea, and if it is, what are some ground rules around what we should be thinking of as rewards?

Kristen DiCerbo: I know a lot of parents are concerned about bribing their kids and you don't want students to start doing things just for rewards. Part of the research on rewards does show that if a student is intrinsically internally interested in doing something and then you start giving them tangible rewards for doing it, they actually can start to lose their intrinsic interest in doing that. If, say, they like to read, and they read a lot of books, but you start giving them a reward for every book they read or et cetera, they can start thinking, "Oh, I'm just doing this for the reward," then kind of lose some of that internal motivation to do it.

That's what we want to avoid happening, but small rewards and rewards unexpectedly sometimes can prevent that from happening, that loss of intrinsic motivation. Many of us as adults also use rewards. Sometimes when I'm writing, I'll be like, "Okay, I can have this little Hershey's Kiss if I just finish this page." It's okay to do those things. They're also especially powerful when the student is not interested in doing this at all, and it can kind of give them the early motivation to try something and then maybe experience some of that success we were talking about and want to keep going and keep doing that.

In terms of what they should look like, not generally big things, both because you want to be rewarding fairly frequently but also because you want to keep this as something that you can give fairly quickly. Not the trip to Disney World [laughs]. Think small. It doesn't have to be tangible. It can be time with you, activities that you like to do together, those kinds of things as well.

Then make sure that students have multiple chances to earn rewards. It's not just that, "You have to do this many math problems by this afternoon, and if you don't, you can never get this reward." That kind of reinforces the idea of a fixed mindset, "You're either good at this or you're not." Instead, we want to think about rewarding improvement, being able to say, "Okay, you didn't get it this time but let's think how we can do something differently next time so you can keep working towards this."

Emily Paisner: That's really helpful. My kids are a little bit older at this point, and when they were younger, we used to do reward charts for various activities. We've gone back to those charts quite a bit in these past few months.

Kristen DiCerbo: Good strategy.

Emily Paisner: I would love to talk to you now about having dedicated space set up for learning. Some of us are in apartments and limited on space, with multiple kids doing remote work, while parents are also working from home. Some of us may have more space but are trying to keep the kids separate so that each of them can focus on the task at hand. How can we set up ideal at-home learning systems for our kids so that they cannot be distracted and they're really set up for success?

Kristen DiCerbo: There are lots of challenges for people in all kinds of different ways in trying to figure out how to make this work. First, don't worry about it being ideal. Find something that works. That said, there's a few things to think about. One is, if you can find some way to cue this is the time to get to work.

If there's a dedicated space, that's great. If it's just a tray that you move onto the table, that signals when it's here on the table, it's time to get to work, whatever that is, but having that kind of dedicated place, that students get that mental cue is important. It's similar to actually when sleep researchers say you shouldn't do lots of things in your bed because you start to lose the cue that it's time to go to sleep and you'll start having insomnia problems.

Emily Paisner: It probably wasn't good that I found both of my kids had migrated from their desks in their rooms to their beds during online learning today?

Kristen DiCerbo: [laughs] Probably not the best. The second piece in why they probably migrated to their beds is make it as comfortable as you can. Lots of us get fatigued sitting in a stiff chair for a while. So, think about if there are ways that you can find good comfortable places where students can-- Not have to be shifting and moving and feeling kind of antsy just to try to get comfortable. Next, good lighting, natural light is good if we can, getting some of that sunshine and rays.

Making sure they have their supplies easily accessible. Teachers in the classroom will tell you it is a fairly common stalling tactic for kids to get up and sharpen their pencils to avoid getting to work; in the same way at home, that can be a kind of a distraction. So, you'll want to think about how can you make sure that they have what they need, and so they don't need to be stopping work to get other things that they need. Those are some things we can think about to try to define a space, make sure that kids are kind of queued in and ready to go.

Emily Paisner: I saw some parents in my local community sharing some photos of their kids, both at the kitchen table, but they had up those cardboard barriers that sometimes you would use at, say, a science fair, and they each had headphones on, and they decorated the inside of it. I thought that that was a really interesting way to create space for learning and give them the privacy that they need while also not having distractions from other siblings around.

Kristen DiCerbo: That sounds great and really easy to do. I saw a news story where there is a teenager who is literally building desks for kids who don't have this space. I was like, "Oh my gosh, that's amazing." But that solution sounds a lot easier than carpentry.

Emily Paisner: I thought it was brilliant. Let's move on to something that I think we're all feeling right now, whether we are adults in the working world or kids and that is Zoom fatigue. It can make you feel exhausted, it can create a lot of anxiety staring at yourself all day long. Can you share some ideas for how we can help our kids to overcome some of this Zoom-related stress and what's been called brain drain?

Kristen DiCerbo: Make sure there are breaks. Give yourself breaks, and during those breaks, don't go over to your social media pages and cruise around social media. Get up from the computer, physically move around, stretch, shake your arms and legs out, run up and down the stairs, whatever that is that gets you just physically away from things and what you're doing.

There's also, vision experts to have a rule that every 20 minutes, you should take a 20-second break and look 20 feet away. They call it the 20-20-20 rule, but just for our eyes to be able to reduce some of that eyestrain that we get. Then the third thing I would say is giving your brain a rest, doing something different with your time. I will give a little bit of a shameless plug, at Khan Academy, we came up with something called refresh activities that are just quick things. We aimed them for teachers to use in their classrooms but anyone can use them.

There's all kinds of things in there, like, "Hey, draw an elephant without looking." Crazy questions like, "If 2020 were something we eat, what would it be?" Just things to give your brain something different to think about.

Emily Paisner: What would be your answer to that question?

Kristen DiCerbo: "That 2020, if it were something to eat," I will say and this is going to tell you more about my preferences, but right now, I think it's Brussels sprouts. Not great. Not a fan of Brussels sprouts. They look kind of weird, they taste kind of weird. Really different from anything else I want to eat.

Emily Paisner: Kristen, before we started, I told you that Khan Academy has been a truly invaluable resource for my kids since this all started in March and your organization is a pioneer in the online learning space, can you share some of the resources that you have available to families right now to help get us all through this challenging time of online learning?

Kristen DiCerbo: I'm so glad that we were able to help in this crisis, that's really what we're aiming to do. I love hearing people say that in fact we were helpful so thank you so much. A couple of things that we have going right now, first is a distance learning survival guide, set-up guide. If you go to keeplearning.khanacademy.org, it has a couple of different sections, one, there's actually a section that answers some of the questions that we were talking about how to set up your space and how to get things ready for good distance learning experience.

There is a section on motivation and how to keep kids motivated and there's a section on self-care which is all about thinking how to maintain our mental well-being and making sure that we're all able to stay sane in these times. Then of course our bread and butter is on the learning side and one of the things that we released this summer are courses that we are calling get ready for grade level courses.

These are courses that are meant to give students exposure to the prerequisite skills they need in math for the grade they're going into. If you take the get ready for sixth grade math course, what you have in there are units that align to each of the sixth-grade math units but contain all of the prerequisite skills. If the sixth grade has a decimals unit, then the units in this are the things you need to be ready to do your sixth grade decimals unit.

There's a couple of ways that we can use those, first, you can just go through that whole course at one time now and make sure your kids are all up and ready. The other way that it can be used is right before they're starting that decimals unit, they can just do the unit in there to make sure they're all brushed up and ready to do that unit that's coming in.

We made these courses because so many people were worried about what didn't get covered last spring, and when everything shut down and we had to do some emergency teaching, we were worried there's gaps that kids didn't get in their previous year. So, this is a way to make sure that the kids have got those gaps filled and they're ready for their year now to come.

Emily Paisner: Kristen, if there's one piece of advice that you could leave our listeners who are primarily working parents, when it comes to online learning, what would it be?

Kristen DiCerbo: Don't be too hard on yourself. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Take a deep breath, it's not going to be perfect, but kids are resilient, and we're all in this together, but it really is just forgive yourself, it's not going to be perfect. If you can just get the basics, if we can keep kids going with some reading and some math and keep them curious about the world around them, those are the important things and the rest will come, it will be okay.

Emily Paisner: I know Khan Academy is a non-profit organization and you've been providing some amazing free resources for families during this time. Can you just tell our listeners how we can continue to support your efforts?

Kristen DiCerbo: Thanks so much for giving the opportunity to say this. Yes, we do rely on donations to keep working, and if you go to khanacademy.org, right at the top of the website is an opportunity to donate. I know lots of families are in economic hard times right now, but if you do happen to have a little bit extra, anything, $5, it helps, it all helps to keep us going and moving forward and then hopefully helping us reach that vision of a free world-class educational resource.

Emily Paisner: Thank you so much, Kristen, for joining us today. We really appreciate your time.

Kristen DiCerbo: Thank you.

Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of Equal Parts, see you next time.

Emily Paisner: Wait, before you go, I just want to tell you a little bit about Care@Work by care.com. They work with some of the world's largest companies to offer family care benefits to their employees. If you're one of the lucky ones who already has care benefits at work, use them. If you don't, ask for them, it's a real lifesaver. To learn more, visit care.com/careatwork. Again, that's care.com/careatwork.