There is no question: As parents, we are heading into fall with tremendous uncertainty, particularly when it comes to our children’s education. Earlier this year, with the arrival of COVID-19, schools and families scrambled to connect remotely to classes and work. It was a duct-tape approach for most; a typical learning experience for few.
But now, fall is upon us, and the majority of the country’s students have returned to school not in person, but online. And let’s be clear: This isn’t “home schooling”; this is “learning at home during a crisis.” (I home-school one of my two children. It does not look like this at all.) No parent started 2020 imagining that in April we would be our child’s on-call teacher, and, thankfully, no one expects us to do the job as well as a teacher does. Along with being a parent (my kids are 9 and 12), I am also a former middle school teacher (12 years of seventh-grade English), and I am here to tell you, as an actual teacher, that teaching your own children is a vastly different experience than teaching other people’s children.
You would think that the experience of remote learning this spring might have us better prepared for fall, but the reality is, our national priorities are misguided (let’s reopen bars before schools). Politics aside, the fact remains: Most of our kids are going to be learning from home all day. Again.
There are a lot of opinions out there about what remote learning should look like. Let me be clear: This is about trying to make the most of a bad situation, and none of this is easy or even fair. In fact, for many families, this is beyond difficult. As it’s been noted already during this crisis, we may be in the same storm, but we’re in different boats.
Remote learning is not what works best for most children, but this is where we are, unfortunately. As a former teacher, a parent and an advocate for healthy screen use, however, I have a few tips on how to minimize the misery of remote learning:
Whenever and wherever possible, emphasize building executive function skills.
Executive function skills are ones we work on for our entire childhood and beyond, and those skills include planning, prioritizing, organization, emotion regulation and cognitive flexibility.
When teaching, I found that the single most important thing I could teach my students was how to use a planner. A paper one. Of course, as education moved to online platforms, the excuses grew: “Why should I write it down when I can just look it up online when I get home?”
But what young people don’t always understand, and what adults (both teachers and parents) can prioritize during remote learning, is that using a planner helps develop executive functioning skills by learning to manage schedules, track assignments and plan ahead. Content and curricula are just vehicles for skills, especially in elementary and middle schools. (Also, remember that multitasking is a myth. Do not be fooled by your child arguing that he can “totally listen to his teacher while watching a movie.” He can’t. We can’t. And we shouldn’t try.)
Establish a dedicated space in the home to “do” school.
Establish a workspace on a flat surface, away from distractions — not in or on a bed. If possible, set up a standing desk as an option. Why? Well, first of all, it’s harder to fall asleep while you’re standing up, so those kids who start to zone out during class calls might be more likely to stay engaged. Hydraulic lift-and-lower desks might be useful, but a box or stack of books on a counter or table also works.
Secondly, kids can move more when standing than if they are sitting in a chair. A lot of kids struggle to sit in a chair for extended periods of time. (My daughter is one such child.)
Set up the space for success in whatever way works best for your child, but most importantly, attempt to minimize distractions. You don’t need expensive noise-canceling headphones. A fan and ear plugs can do the job just as well.
Encourage your child to use paper and pen or pencil as much as possible.
Have a paper calendar on the wall. Print off and display the class schedule. Write it down in a paper agenda. This isn’t simply about good organizational skills (though those are important, too) — it is about the benefits of writing with a physical paper and pen versus typing on a computer. (It is also true that it is better to read on paper versus on a screen.)
With remote learning, our kids will be spending more time than ever in front of a screen. Even if the hours spent in online “classes” is reduced this fall, will homework and assignments still be posted online? In order to work independently, will kids still have to use a screen to access the materials? The more we can minimize excessive (or extra) screen use, the better.
A word about doodling: Some teachers (and parents) don’t like it. However, research shows that doodling, a form of fidgeting, can help increase focus. So, add a jar of crayons or colored pencils to your child’s schooling space.
Two of my colleagues have said that expecting kids not to be distracted during online learning is “akin to holding an AA meeting in a bar.” Children who must stare at a laptop screen for school will be tempted to touch the keys, toggle between windows, search the web, chat in message boxes, play video games, even stream videos — during class. So, take any opportunity to provide productive activities for restless hands during remote learning.
And a shout-out to teachers: It’s hard enough to monitor all the fidgeting, under-the-desk texting and distractions that happen in a real-life classroom on a normal day; imagine trying to manage those same things remotely, across 27 video-conferencing screens, while also attempting to teach!
With all this heavy screen use, sitting and the lack of organized sports practices or after-school activities, children will be overstimulated and underactive. We must also make room for movement every day.
Despite the fact that so much of schooling these days involves sitting at desks, effective teachers know that movement is key to successful instruction and learning. Ideally, every day, for at least 30 minutes — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 60 minutes — our kids should be involved in some form of physical activity. With students’ increased time in front of a screen, the likelihood is that this number will actually be far less than children get or need in a typical school day.
We have to encourage it in other ways: jumping rope, jumping on the couch, jumping on a trampoline. Dancing. Getting one of those stretchy bands that you can tie between chair legs for those kids who have to jiggle. Use one of those big exercise balls instead of a chair, or try a wobble stool or a small block on which to do calf raises while participating in a virtual class.
Anything that encourages movement will improve focus and decrease the risk of obesity, which sedentary screen consumption can increase. Thank your teacher in advance for supporting you in helping to keep your wiggly child focused.
Above all else, remember that it is the relationships forged between student and teacher that facilitate meaningful learning.
Children are not empty vessels to fill with information; they are very real and vulnerable little humans who need extra love and support right now.
These are strange times we are living in. Children have been watching and listening these past few months, struggling to make sense of dramatic changes in our world. When they are stressed, they simply cannot learn. Any family living in poverty, or in a violent home, or with illness knows this firsthand.
Parents, we can help here. We can find ways to support our schools and teachers (a simple “thank you” goes a long way); we can have patience with our children when they act out (big feelings are normal and very real right now); and we can forgive ourselves for not being able to do it all — or much of it — as well as we used to.
This is a difficult, testing time that requires courage, compassion and a willingness to let go of a lot of things. My hope is that we can look back at this experience as one in which we learned to do better by our children, our teachers and our communities. Perhaps even for some, there will be positive memories of slowed-down schedules, more time with loved ones, the freedom to be a child. A wise colleague of mine told me that we can be “rocks in the river” for our children: solid, present, allowing the water to flow past us without taking us down.
At the very least, may we be rocks in the river.
This article first appeared on Medium.