Common Sense Media: How to help kids stay focused during distance learning

By Christine Elgersma

Multitasking, distractions, procrastination — these are often a challenge for kids, but never more so than during a global pandemic. With school either being all or partially online, it can be especially tough to stay focused. And though having some adult oversight can help kids stay on task, you’ve got a lot on your plate, too. So, after you set expectations with your kid, check out these apps and plug-ins to help your kid make the best of their schooling situation.

For the kid who says, “I always pay attention during virtual school!”

RescueTime. Before you start shutting things down, get a sense of what’s up. Designed to improve work-life balance, this plug-in tracks how much time you spend on certain sites, generates reports about productivity, and lets you set limits to either totally block sites or allow a set time for certain activities. No one can argue with the hard data.

Screen Time on iOS or Digital Wellbeing on Android. Depending on the type of device your kid has, there are features built right in to help them — and you know how much time they’re really spending overall and using certain apps. Both offer easy ways to get information about device use without downloading anything extra.

For the kid who says, “I feel so overwhelmed!”

Dayboard: New Tab and Site Blocker. Lots of kids are finding it more difficult than ever to manage their schoolwork. Dayboard is a plug-in that can be helpful for anyone who needs a simple, visual reminder of what they need to do. Just enter a total of five tasks and you’ll see them every time you open a tab on your internet browser. That means whenever your kid launches Google Chrome, for example, to search for outfit ideas when they’re supposed to be researching the Vietnam War, they’ll see their list. For teens who are still distracted, there’s also a site blocker to help keep them focused.

Purp To-Do List & Goal Tracker. There are lots of ways for kids to keep track of tasks, but having one go-to app can be helpful, especially if they’re feeling overwhelmed. Busy kids can arrange their tasks and goals into preset, color-coded categories or create their own. They can track their progress over time and earn virtual badges as incentives. It’s also possible to use across devices.

Bear in Mind. For younger kids who need a simpler tool, this app might fit the bill. Kids or parents can create to-do lists and reminders so kids can keep track of their tasks all in one place.

For the kid who says, “I just need a quick break to check Instagram … “

Work Mode. With lots of kids using screens way more than usual, it’s important to take breaks. But checking social media isn’t the most beneficial break, and it can be more of a time-suck than they think. In this case, Work Mode might be a real gift. It blocks all your feeds, so you can’t hop on and off to see what your friends are doing.

Flipd – Keep Focused. With this app you can not only prevent yourself from getting distracted by locking particular apps, but you also can compete with — and support — your friends who are also trying to have more “time well spent.” In addition, there are resources like guided meditations and music to help you focus.

Just Read. Clickbait is never more tempting than when you’re feeling distracted and unmotivated, but this plug-in can get rid of ads and other distractions on webpages so you can just read. For kids who are doing research or other searches online, this tool can help them focus on the task at hand.

For the kid who says, “I use my computer for Zoom and my phone for everything else.”

Freedom. This tool works across devices, so if your kid loves to jump from computer to phone to tablet, it might be the one to try. You can restrict specific apps and sites, block the internet entirely for dedicated homework time, and schedule internet sessions that end at a predetermined time.

Evernote. This oldie but goodie is available across devices and allows you to collect and track notes of all kinds: text, audio, images, links, and more. This is great for the kid who jots things down all over the place and can’t find what they need later.

For the kid who says, “It’s so hard to stay motivated!”

Forest: Stay focused, be present. Unlike other site blockers, Forest offers a virtual reward for staying focused. As you work, a digital tree grows, and at the end of your session, you can add the tree to your collection. If you click out of the app, however, bye-bye, tree. You can see how often you stay on task just by looking at your virtual forest. As an extra incentive, you earn coins you can use to buy different types of virtual trees or donate to an organization that plants real trees.

Habitica: Gamified Task Manager. Habitica turns habit building, habit breaking, and productivity into a gaming experience. The app rewards you when you maintain good habits and break bad ones, and it subtracts points when you slip. If your kids are motivated by racking up points on video games, beating enemies, and checking leaderboards, Habitica may be a good option.

For the family that says, “How can we make this work when we’re all here together/on different schedules/have different needs?”

iGotThisFamily. Originally designed for kids with ADHD, this app can let parents assign the “must-dos” and help kids track them. There’s also an incentive system, so when it’s hard to get kids to complete work — for home or school — you can figure out what can boost motivation. Over time, make sure to encourage self-regulation and foster independence!

Galarm. You’re at work or in a meeting but your kid is supposed to start homework — now what? Using this app, you can share alarms and chat so you can be on the same page from afar — even if that’s just from another room. Kids can also use it to remind parents when to take a break!

Noisli. With a range of customizable background noises, including nature sounds and white noise, this plug-in is helpful for a busy, bustling home. Kids can put headphones on and listen to sounds that will help them focus and not distract them further. Parents can use it, too!

For more tips and resources like these to help your family get set up for distance learning, check out our Back to School Guide at Wide Open School.