Remote Learning Must Still Be Reckoned With
Who would have imagined in March 2020, that a year later schools and daycares still wouldn’t be back to “normal?” At the time, no one thought that the pandemic would last more than a few months. And yet here we are. In a December 2020 survey, 31% of districts were fully remote learning. That’s practically a third of the country!
In order to successfully engage what has become a chronic situation, we must find a balanced approach. “Don’t try to replicate everything. That’s just setting yourself up for disappointment,” says Sal Khan, founder of the online education nonprofit Khan Academy. “Focus on the basics first and get your legs under you.”
So now that we have been doing this for a while, we need to take a step back to see what actually works. “Not every learning environment works for every child and now is a good time to evaluate what works for your child,” says Peter Robertson, president of Laurel Springs School, an online school that’s been providing distance learning for nearly 30 years.
“Any parent knows that transitions are the hardest things for your family,” says Sarah Brown Wessling, an Iowa-based teacher who won the prestigious Teacher of the Year award in 2010. Parents need to remember that they have made it through transitions before, perhaps dozens of times, prior to the onset of the pandemic.
“We may have forgotten that we’ve done it before, but we have done it,” says Wessling. Whatever happens over the next few months, most experts believe that remote therapy and learning is here to stay. It behooves parents to seek out ways to help their kids to be successful in this arena.
Essential Remote Learning Tips For Parents
When COVID-19 first forced the school doors shut, the gut reaction of many parents was to transform their homes into schools, chock-full of daily schedules of activities, “But a lot of the schedules didn’t make it for very long,” Wessling says. Instead of trying to create rigid schedules for how each school day should work, Wessling recommends creating routines for learning.
What’s the difference between a schedule and a routine? “It boils down to finding something that can signal to your kids it’s time to learn,” Wessling says. For example, many elementary school classrooms have the children sing a song or sit in a circle at the beginning of the day. Creating similar routines that morph into habits can be helpful in gently guiding your family through the school day.
While focusing has always been crucial to learning and therapy, with distance learning and therapy, focusing has become even more significant. Without it, kids have great difficulty in being productive. To reduce distractions and interruptions, there are two keys: a well-designed workspace and single-tasking.
By designating a “learning playing field,” you help your children train their brains to focus better. However, this is often easier said than done. If your child is too isolated, checking in becomes difficult. And sitting at the kitchen table may be too distracting, especially when everyone is home and the house is busy.
While many parents have designated a place in the house for schoolwork, if you haven’t done so yet, or if that space is only a temporary solution, it’s well worth it to invest more effort into making such a space an area where your kids want to spend their time learning.
This doesn’t need to be an expensive proposition nor occupy an inordinate amount of space in your home. Buying an extra second hand table or desk online may do the trick. Or perhaps a friend or someone in the family has a piece of unused furniture that you could borrow.
Think single-tasking. While once upon a time it may have seemed quite apparent that focusing presupposes concentrating on one thing at a time, this is no longer the case. Although multitasking is extremely inefficient, nonetheless it feels very productive — especially for children who are feeling bored and restless at home. Opening lots of screens and being bombarded by alerts makes them feel stimulated and busy.
But in reality, multitasking is the enemy of focus. The human brain is not designed to focus on more than one thing at a time. It can only jump rapidly back and forth between different tasks. And jumping back and forth drains children’s brains in many ways, makes them tired, wired, or inattentive, and compromises the quality of learning.
Many of us have noticed that every plan we make seems to fall apart one way or another. Since ours is a time of accelerated change and constant unknowns, it is critical for us and our children to retain our flexibility. Who knows? The children may return to the classroom this year and they may not. Either way, they need to be prepared psychologically. And it is our job, as parents, to help them do so.
Consistent sleep is key. Sounds simple, but it’s not. Exhaustion makes us brittle, and ready to break when stress, disappointment, or frustration become too much to bear. When we are very tired, it’s beyond our capacity to remain limber, so problems make us want to just lie down and cry. We lose our capacity to be flexible.
Although many kids don’t have so much going on, they are nonetheless exhausted. Without the structure of school, it is more challenging for parents to impose their schedules and enforce bedtimes.
On top of that, many older children who are accustomed to privacy and social time when they are in school now fill those needs for independence and connection with their friends by staying up half the night playing video games, unmonitored by their parents who are fast asleep.
But the consequences of irregular sleep patterns are far more than being grouchy or groggy. Even slight reductions in sleep quality, such as the reduction of deep sleep due to blue-light-induced devices, decrease melatonin and tend to make kids feel lonelier, even when sleep quantity isn’t reduced. So, if the feeling of being connected to peers is already fragile, sleep disruption could be amplifying the problem.
Although it won’t be without difficulty, parents would be well-advised to enforce consistent bedtimes. It isn’t as necessary that children go to bed early as it is that they receive enough sleep for their age and that they are doing so on a regular schedule.
Model for your children, acceptance of whatever is actually happening. Children are not required to like remote learning, but their resistance will lead to more struggle. It is essential to acknowledge all of the ways that school is far from ideal at the moment, and their feelings about it. While they are entitled to feel frustrated or disappointed, the sooner they accept reality, the better.
Our children’s perception concerning the current reality and their feelings about it are part of what is actually happening! But experience shows that, when children cease their resistance, they position themselves better to move forward. Perhaps the famed psychologist Carl J. Jung characterized this best when he said, “what you resist persists.”
Don’t confuse acceptance with resignation. Accepting the current situation doesn’t mean relinquishing the hope that it will ever get better. We don’t accept that things will remain this way forever; rather, we accept whatever is happening at the moment.
Although always a great idea, it is crucial now to foster happiness and joy. Happiness shouldn’t be confused with pleasure. Happiness is an emotion, not an experience. Positive emotions boost our “cognitive flexibility”— in other words, our capacity to deal with change.
Research has shown that positive emotions, like gratitude, reduce how taxing change will be on the system, and open us up to new things. This might help explain why other research shows that students with greater emotional well-being are generally more than one semester ahead of those whose emotional well-being is less.
Attempting to motivate children with various sticks and carrots usually doesn’t work and leaves parents deeply frustrated. Learning doesn’t go very far without self-motivation. Fortunately, self-motivation can be cultivated in our kids by fostering their competence, their independence, and their connection to others — three core psychological needs that, when filled, lead to self-motivation.
Acknowledge your child’s competence. Point out to children where they’ve done really well in the past through their own effort (without your prodding). Ask them: “Where do you feel most confident?” And then assist them in seeing that it is their own effort that led to that success.
While it’s a challenge for any parent, allow your child to be independent. Children need the freedom to fail on their own—and the freedom to succeed without your involvement. How can our children feel responsible for their schoolwork if we are always extending a safety net?
So the next time you feel like instructing or directing them, instead ask them: “What’s your plan?” When you ask about their plan, you are implying that they are in control and responsible for their actions. This will help them to be more in touch with their own motivations and intentions. Many children, if not asked to articulate their plan, simply won’t bother making one.
It is critical to support your child’s sense of belonging and connectedness at school. While this is clearly much more difficult during a pandemic, it isn’t impossible. Ask your children who they feel connected to at school. If they don’t have much of an answer, ask them who could use some help, and encourage your child to get involved. Helping others is a wonderful way to create a connection.
5. Take Brain Breaks
“It’s helpful for us as parents to remember that seat time doesn’t equal learning time,” Wessling says. Children are generally most productive in 30-minute increments and, for younger children, this needs to be shaved down to 15 to 20 minutes in order to remain engaged.
“We don’t want to replace eight hours of school with eight hours in front of Zoom and expect that there would be eight hours of focused learning,” Wessling says. Even adults would struggle with that.
To help children remain motivated and focused, parents should encourage what Wessling calls “brain breaks.” There is nothing complicated here. It could be as simple as taking a break to do some deep breathing exercises or telling the kids to run up and down the stairs until they become slightly tired. Or it could be something more extensive, such as a longer, mid-day break where you take a walk or go to the park.
“Regular physical movement is one of the fundamentals of schooling, so incorporating movement into your child’s day can help to stimulate learning,” Wessling says. She also recommends always having available a physical activity where the child can “vent” in case your child is about to “throw a tantrum,” such as taking a walk to the mailbox or doing a quick chore.
Family Resources for Remote Learning