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Having children participate in online distance learning is an enormous challenge for many families.
In the spring, I met one on one via Google Hangouts with most of my students. I often had an opportunity to say hello and chat briefly with their parents. As soon as they saw me onscreen, many began spilling out their worries and pain about the situation we found ourselves in.
Most were trying to manage multiple children participating in different grades. Many had younger children they needed to care for at the same time they were trying to supervise the learning of their school-aged children. Others were trying to complete work for their own part- or full-time jobs at the same time.
My heart went out to these parents. Although my own children’s college experiences were disrupted, I believe that the challenges my husband and I faced in supporting them don’t even come close to the challenges that parents of K-12 students faced.
We’re now on the cusp of this crazy back-to-school season of 2020, and many districts and/or parents are opting to start the school year with online instruction. Teachers are busy improving plans for fall by applying what they learned in the fast pivot to distance learning in the spring. As a parent, you can do the same!
Here are my favorite suggestions for preparing your family to have a positive experience with online distance learning this fall.
Designated Work Space
Set up a special work station for your child. If you’ll need to be nearby to supervise or help, choose a place that is reasonably central so you can keep an eye on things or at least be in earshot.
Think about which would be most effective for your children: keeping siblings in the same general vicinity so you can more easily supervise, or separating them to reduce distractions?
Use a cardboard desk screen to create physically defined space if you situate your children at the same table.
An old baby monitor (preferably with video!) can help you supervise when you are busy in another area of the house.
Work space doesn’t have to be a desk. Last spring we set my daughter up at one end of the dining room table, which we don’t use much anyway. She left her materials out all the time, but a great option would be to have shelf space or a plastic tub to put everything away at the end of the school day. I’ve heard of people setting up space on a card table in a corner of the living room, or even a TV tray in a corner of a kitchen. Whatever area you choose, be sure there is adequate lighting, but not glare on your child’s screen.
The chair you choose needs to be the right height for your child to work on a device, adjusting as necessary with cushions or pillows. This may sound obvious, but when they settle in to work, help them scoot the chair all the way up to the table. This provides better visibility and helps kids maintain focus. I find that if my students sit too far back from their work surface, they are more likely to get up and leave.
However, if a lesson runs a bit long, in my opinion it’s fine for your child to stand up for a few minutes, but make sure this doesn’t turn into a Tik-Tok worthy dance, or leaving the work area.
You may want to allow your child sit on a soft chair, a sofa, or the floor. If you do, please monitor how engaged they seem to be in lessons, how much they move their bodies, and how much they shift their device around. While I know that some children work better in a less structured environment like this, for the most part it has not been effective for my students.
I find that if they are balancing their device on their laps or a lap desk, there is too much movement, which makes it hard for them to focus on the material on the screen. If your child is visible to others, such as in a class meeting, this movement is distracting to other students too.
Keep Supplies Organized and Handy
Store pencils and pens in coffee mugs or other small containers. If you can, use one of those little three drawer organizers for items such as crayons, markers, scissors, glue, etc. Shoe boxes, and small plastic boxes or baskets work well for this too.
Let your child help create labels for each part of their storage space! One of my teaching assistants uses this label maker to label students’ supplies in our classroom and they are delighted by how “grown-up” it looks.
Having all these supplies close by will minimize frustration and maximize learning time.
If you can, invest in a pair of comfortable, well-fitting headphones for your child. This item helps kids stay focused by blocking out distractions. I also find that for some children, headphones help them feel more grown up and serious about learning.
At the very least, provide a set of comfortable earbuds for your child. They’re not as effective as headphones, but they serve the same purposes.
Place a clock near your child’s work space so they can keep track of the day going by. Use a digital clock if your child is still learning to tell time on an analog clock.
Keep a timer in your child’s work space. I prefer an old-fashioned kitchen timer or better yet, this “Time Timer.” Visual timers are a great way to concretely represent a period of time.
You can use the timer to demonstrate how long your child should spend working on a specific task.
If your child is resistant or reluctant to work, use a timer to create short periods of work time. For example, you might set the timer for ten minutes and say, “First spend ten minutes on your math, then you can have a five minute break.” Use the timer to display the length of the break, too.
Reduce or extend the amount of time spent working depending on your child’s needs. Same thing for the breaks – you may find that your child requires longer break times in order to feel refreshed.
For many students, timers are just a tool to add structure to the day, and add to that “serious student” feeling. For others, they are an essential tool to stay focused and engaged.
Organize the Day
Establishing a general routine for the day will go a long way towards helping your child become independent and succeed at distance learning.
Depending on how your child’s teacher structures instruction, you may be able to alternate preferred subjects with non-preferred subjects. This is where the phrase “First ____________, then ____________” is helpful.
Plan to have your child complete more challenging assignments at their most “alert” time of day.
Schedule specific mealtimes and snack times, and include protein and good hydration.
For kids of any age, create a schedule with clip-art or in writing, and post it in your child’s work area. Encourage your child to develop independence by providing enough support to make sure your child is learning, but not so much that they become dependent upon your help.
Work with your child to brainstorm a list of fun activities to enjoy during breaks. This list could include walking or jogging to the end of the block and back, riding their bike for ten minutes, shooting baskets, or doing jumping jacks. If the weather is bad, march or skip around the house, do some easy stretches or yoga positions, or have a short dance party. Use pictures to create this list, too!
Resist any tendency to let bedtime routines slide, or to let your kids stay up late. This is the time to revitalize your bedtime story routine, and make sure that your child gets the recommended hours of sleep for their age.
Create Expectations and Set Them Clearly
Spend some time thinking about how you want your child to approach distance learning this time around. You probably learned a LOT in spring that you can use to improve the situation this fall.
I found that I needed to explicitly teach my students that they needed to consistently LOOK at the screen and LISTEN to me, just as I would expect in the classroom. Using a quiet voice is important if others in the family are working or also attending online classes at the same time.
Some children are inclined to ask for help as soon as they encounter a difficulty. Set an expectation that your child will try a task two or three times on their own before they ask for help.
Ask for Help
If you have questions about the online learning platform your district is using, or how lessons are set up, first take a look to see if your child’s principal or teacher has posted instructions or FAQs. Check for emails that may have slipped by, or announcements in Google Classroom or Seesaw. Teachers are making every effort to communicate clearly to families and I promise it’s going to be better this fall than it may have been in the spring.
Next, check to see if your child’s teacher is holding online “office hours.” This time is set aside specifically to help students and parents with questions about technology or assignments.
If you still can’t find the answer to your question, email your child’s teacher directly. You are likely to get a reply, because I promise, your child’s teacher wants this experience to unfold smoothly just as much as you do.
(Tip – think of something that is going well, and thank them for it! It will make their day.)
If you don’t hear back after 2-3 days, re-send the original email. There were times last spring when our inboxes were avalanched by emails from various district personnel, administration, and parents. Emails definitely got by some of us. Just politely reach out again.
Having your children participate in distance learning is an enormous challenge, no matter what your circumstances are. As a parent you have so much power to set the feeling-tone and emotional climate in your home.
Your children will take their cues from you, and mirror your emotions and perspective. It’s possible to acknowledge that we are in a hard situation AND we are choosing to stay calm and cheerful as we deal with it.
Plan time for play and fun, and also time for family members to decompress quietly on their own.
Take care of yourself, too. Focus on the basics – eat reasonably healthfully, move your body at least a little bit, and get to bed at a decent hour. (Notice how I qualified each of those with “reasonably,” “at least a little bit,” and “decent.” I know how hard it is to prioritize self-care – just do your best!)
Build in mental health breaks that work for you. Plan a Zoom call with a friend or extended family member, soak in hot bath, or set aside 30 minutes to read a book that helps you escape.
Remember, teachers are on your side and we want distance learning to be as effective and manageable as possible for everyone!
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