Pandemic Education: Learning to Let Go
by Charles Thornburgh
Having spent my entire career building education businesses that use technology and data to improve student success, I found myself in a strange spot this spring. Like most of us, I was stuck at home as my two young boys were thrust into remote learning. Their school handled this surprise shockingly well — and I discovered how much I hadn’t thought about when it comes to helping kids realize success via digital education. I could fill pages with the education I received over those last few months of school, but my biggest takeaway was this:
I needed to step away from the process.
My boys are 9 and 7. Having them home with me this spring reminded me of what I already knew — they’re bright, and talented, and hilarious, and insightful. They are also stubborn, and self-conscious, and opinionated, and wild balls of energy. Energy that, it turns out, is powered entirely by snacks. So. Many. Snacks.
Getting these balls of energy to sit in front of a screen for hours each day turned into a battle that rivaled our Super Smash Bros family melees (if you aren’t familiar with that game, congrats) . Multiple times each hour my wife and I found ourselves in a negotiation, or fielding a complaint, or figuring out the appropriate motivational tool to get our sons back on path. I had just stepped out of a role where I was managing hundreds of people, and I was getting beaten down by a total of 16 child-years of experience. So we tried something new. After weeks of unsuccessful micromanagement,my wife and I set up some ground rules and stepped away:
- We created a list each morning of what needed to be accomplished when they weren’t in school-related video meetings — a mix of academic work, chores and healthy habits.
- We set up motivations that resonated. I’ll admit that bribery may have come into play at points, but most importantly, when they finished their work, their time was their own. This was a shockingly good motivational tool.
- We set up universal expectations. The boys had to join school-required synchronous sessions. They needed to move their bodies. There were screen time and snack limits. There were behaviors that would not be tolerated.
And then we let them go. And they thrived.
Did they always accomplish their goals? Absolutely not. Did they still beat on each other on occasion? Of course. But on average, not only did they willingly achieve more; my wife and I got our relationship back — with them and with each other. The spring became survivable, and we were able to approach the fall with optimism. Most importantly, while we learned about flexibility and letting go, our kids learned about the power of agency and the feeling of accomplishment it drove at the end of each day.
This fall, I know there will be battles. But I’m confident that by remembering to take a step back, we’ll help our kids grow in ways that will be invaluable even when the world rights itself again.