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Balancing Engagement and Education: Get the Most From At-home Learning Resources

Transform ordinary lessons into rich learning opportunities through creativity, adaptability, and understanding

During these interruptions to learning, the Mensa Foundation is proud to provide you with resources that can offer enrichment and educational opportunities for your child. Mensa for Kids, powered by the Mensa Foundation, is full of lesson plans, activities, TED Connections, and other learning opportunities. Check back with us as we continue to update and add to these resources.

Illustration: A woman shares a desk with a young boy studying. He has his head in his hands; she's pointing to a spot in the book they're reading.

As the impact of the coronavirus pandemic roils and rolls across the country causing disruption to school norms, we’re hearing from more and more parents concerned for their kids’ educational needs. Some report receiving little or no direction from schools, leaving them feeling lost about what to do for their learners. Others feel like they have direction, but they’re finding that their at-home students aren’t staying busy or engaged.

Likewise, and across the learning spectrum, parents are expressing concerns about generic content that doesn’t fit learners’ specific needs. We know that when the work isn’t meaningful, it can be hard to motivate kids, as well as new parent-teachers. To help you make the work actually work, I want to offer some simple solutions on three fronts: how to create effective and engaging lessons, understanding your state’s curriculum standards, and altering lessons to suit your child’s needs.

Creating Effective and Engaging Lessons

You may have a collection of resources from your child’s school, or perhaps you’re taking advantage of the excellent resources we’ve curated here on Mensa for Kids — but now what? For easy activities, which are the focus of our curated list, you need only follow directions and make the magic happen. But for more complicated activities, like those we’ve collected on Pinterest, you’ll need to create your own lessons from each activity. Let’s tackle one.

It feels like the holiday season may be upon us before our old version of “normal” returns — though I certainly hope not — so why not try your hand at growing your own Christmas tree. While essentially a Chia Pet (cut your sponge into a particular shape, add grass seed and water, wait for the grass to sprout), this activity provides a cross-curriculum learning opportunity for a variety of age groups.

And if you think outside of the box, your sponge can be cut into any shape — perhaps you could “grow” a rabbit for Easter.

From this simple activity you could, depending on your child’s age, explore multiple subjects.

  • Science: Investigate different plant species and the stages of growth, review the water cycle, or identify the differences among bodies of water.
  • Mathematics: Determine the ratio of sponge to seed, the sponge’s area, and percentage of sponge “soil” to growth.
  • Social studies/geography: Discuss the climates where certain grasses grow and the corresponding flora and fauna found in those areas.
  • Language arts: Explore creative writing prompts such as, “How do you think the grass feels when the wind blows?” or “Tell me what a tree sees/feels/hears.”

While most activities can be tailored into learning moments, I understand the fear many have of not knowing what kids are supposed to be learning. Relax — honestly, you can’t mess this up. If you’re spending time with your child and they’re learning something, you’re doing it right!

Understanding Your State’s Curriculum Standards

No one wants their child to fall behind, especially as a result of unforeseen school closures.

Each state has requirements for what each subject and grade must teach, requirements that state tests are supposed to be based upon. You can find your state’s learning standards on your State Board of Education website, typically under Standards. Your child’s school district or teacher may also be able to provide them. In Texas, where I live, we call it TEKS, or Texas Essentials Knowledge and Skills, but each state has its own standards. These criteria outline what your child is supposed to be learning.

Each school teaches standards in its own way, and you may find that some are not explicitly covered by your school. This can happen for a variety of reasons, including a lack of time to cover every standard. But that doesn’t mean your child is not learning everything required; more likely it means your school is combining standards without isolating each for individual instruction. Some are easily combined and covered in broad a unit, while others require individual attention.

Modifying Lessons for Individual Needs

You now have something to teach, you know how to teach it, and you know what your state requires children to master in each grade. Now, let’s tackle “differentiation,” or modifying lessons to reflect your child’s learning style. We can do this by adjusting a lesson’s level of difficulty, either by adding or removing requirements, or by tweaking the requirements to reflect student interest.

I’ll focus on making the assignment more challenging, an option we often consider for more advanced learners or those who like to “dive deeper” into the material. This approach can be difficult for most subjects and, quite often, teachers don’t get it right when they’ve not been trained to work with GT kids. Remember, adding more work is not the same as adding depth of work, the latter of which engages learners to explore the material for a more complete understanding than that offered in traditional settings.

Learning contracts, in my opinion, are the easiest, most effective way to differentiate lessons for gifted learners. In the simplest terms, the learner enters a contract to complete an assignment within a timeframe, incorporating details of how that learning will occur. Learning contracts come in many flavors, and there’s no “right” way to do one.

A deep-dive contract looks a lot different than “read the material, take the test.” The Massachusetts Association for Gifted Education does a terrific, user-friendly job of explaining contracts in its extensions for younger children and offers a variety of options for both younger and older learners.

Contracts work with learners on the opposite end of the learning spectrum, too. The idea of extending learning provides options that assist lower or reluctant learners in expressing their knowledge of the work in nontraditional ways. For example, if a learner has trouble writing a paper on a topic, you could consider asking them to act the concept out, or draw it, or make a cartoon about it. They’re still showing content mastery, it’s just in a different form. And if a learner is unable to express themselves through clear writing, using toy cars to demonstrate a mathematical equation may be an acceptable alternative.

The learning contract for lower learners works the same way, but you need to provide more direction and set realistic expectations by offering one or two choices to accomplish the task, instead of letting them pick from an overwhelming list. Limit these choices ahead of time and base each within their skillset and ability. For example, if your child struggles with vocabulary, writing a script may be a less successful option than, say, acting out the work or building a model of the work. Additionally, contracts can limit the number of state standards you try to teach, allowing you to pick one or two and work with those for a longer period. Again, this is for learners who need a little more time or attention to complete assignments.

Hopefully, you’re feeling a little more empowered and less overwhelmed after reading this blog post. If you’re still struggling, know you’re not alone. Remember, your child’s teacher is a resource and they want to help you and your child succeed. Reach out, ask questions, let them know your concerns. Also, remember to keep an eye on Mensa for Kids for updates and other ideas.

Jamie Uphold headshotJamie Uphold, American Mensa’s Gifted Youth Programs Manager, has been a state-licensed teacher for more than 15 years. She received her Gifted Education certification in 2016. Jamie was recognized as the 2008 Teacher of the Year at Bowie Middle School in Amarillo, Texas, and was a finalist for the 2011 Texas Speech Communication Association’s Teacher of the Year.