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Supporting Kids in Distance Learning: Practical Advice from Teachers and Experts

September 3, 2020 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller spoke with educational experts. Here's what they had to say.

With millions of children attending school remotely, this is an unprecedented school year like no other. spoke with educational experts about how we can support our children during distance learning. Here’s what they had to say.

It all starts with attitude.

The first step to a productive school year is “remaining positive,” according to Prof. Keisha Rembert, an Assistant Professor of Education at National Lewis University in Chicago. Prof. Rembert, a former middle school teacher and a mom, has seen the power of parental attitudes first hand. “If parents are expressing despair, then kids pick up on that and that negative feeling impacts our kids’ relationships with their teachers.”

Instead, try to foster a positive attitude towards your child’s school experience this year and beyond. Of course there are challenges and difficulties inherent in remote learning. While we can’t change the situation, we can control the way we react. For the sake of our kids – and ourselves – try to find the good in remote lessons and model a positive, can-do attitude.

Try to foster a positive attitude towards your child’s school experience this year.

One strategy is to use humor. That’s the advice of Mrs. Olivia Friedman, a teacher and Educational Technology Coordinator at Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Skokie, Illinois. She’s watched students and their families struggling with the demands of distance learning, and notes that making space for light-hearted moments and giving ourselves permission to laugh can help us deal with the stress.

“Using humor to make things better works," she notes. “Watch funny videos, joke around, find whatever works for your family.”

Organizing Students’ Time and Space

“When it comes to remote instruction, some feedback we’ve been getting is that students who have a set, organized schedule typically do best.” That’s the observation of Elliot John Farr, the Director of Tutor Me LA, a private tutoring company in Los Angeles which helped students cope with the challenges of remote learning when schools closed their doors in March, and is continuing to advise students whose school years are beginning remotely.

He advises setting up a schedule of classroom work, homework and independent study – and sticking to it. When school’s at home, it’s particularly important to delineate time when school begins and ends, notes Prof. Rembert. “The structure is really important – having the beginning and ending time of day, and knowing when school stops and family time begins."

Another big factor in fostering success in remote learning is making sure students have ample physical space to do their work without interruption or distraction, and a clear place to keep their schoolwork and supplies.

“Not everyone has the luxury of having separate work spaces in their homes," Olivia Friedman notes. “In an ideal world, we’d all try to have separate work spaces, or at least have work spaces for kids that are not in high traffic areas.” She encourages parents to try and set up a separate, defined work space for school work – if possible, in lower traffic, quieter areas of the home.

When multiple people are all online having ample bandwidth can be a problem. Try getting creative with spreading out work so that kids can complete online assignments during lower internet usage times of the day. For younger kids especially, Mrs. Friedman suggests getting in touch with teachers and asking if they can watch an assigned video or print out an assignment sheet later in the day during non-peak hours.

Prioritize Self-Care

This is a very difficult time for everyone, notes Julie Skolnick, founder of With Understanding Comes Calm, a Maryland-based educational consulting resource that advises clients with neurodiversity challenges that impact learning. Taking a step back and reminding ourselves that we’re all facing challenges – and that it’s okay not to be okay right now – can help our kids cope better with the many challenges of distance learning.

“Many of my clients are not engaged with online learning and that’s okay." What might be an even more important lesson to impart right now to our kids is that we care about ourselves and others and prioritize our wellbeing over academic milestones.

Mrs. Skolnick suggests we pause to ask ourselves, “Are teachers taking care of themselves? Are parents? Are we focusing on academics to the detriment of our well-being? Or are we trying to fit ourselves into a box right now that doesn’t work for all people?”

That’s a message that’s echoed by Olivia Friedman. “There’s lots of concern about kids being behind this year," she notes. “But behind whom? Everyone understands that this isn’t going to be a typical year.”

A common mantra among teachers these days during remote learning is “Maslow before Bloom”. That refers to the work of two key American Jewish thinkers. Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) was a psychologist who created a famous hierarchy of human needs – with health and safety and security as the most fundamental needs every person has. Right now, Mrs. Friedman notes, teachers are realizing that we have to allow families the time and space to focus on these key human needs – in many cases, academics can wait.

Benjamin Bloom (1913-1999), was an American educator who created “Bloom’s Taxonomy,” a classic method of looking at the way educational accomplishments build on each other. While teachers are normally concerned with making sure students learn and meet educational goals, in the midst of a pandemic with many people worried about their health and livelihood, there are times when these academic milestones might have to be put on pause so teachers can work on providing students with a sense of safety and security instead.

There are times when your agenda will need to go out the window. And that's okay.

Julie Skolnick suggests that parents discuss kids’ fears and concerns with sympathy. Remember, we don’t need to solve their problems: sometimes what kids want is for us to validate their feelings and fears.

“We’re in crisis mode. The entire globe is suffering from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) right now. Adjust your priorities accordingly. You’re going to need to pause several times a day to check – does this matter right now? There are times when your agenda will need to go out the window.”

Build a Relationship with Teachers

“Stay in touch with your child’s teacher – if you’re able, have a clear line of communications with their instructor,” advises Elliot John Farr. He advises parents to ask teachers for their curriculums each semester so students can see exactly what is expected of them and parents can track their progress. “Keep an email exchange going with their teacher too," he advises. Being in the habit of emailing your child’s teachers ensures that you can ask them questions and discuss hiccups in distance learning as they arise.

Prof. Rembert says that one way parents can use the challenges of distance learning in a positive way is to teach kids to be advocates for themselves with teachers. If your child is having difficulty with an assignment or with the experience of distance learning, try brainstorming ways to speak up and ask for more help.

“Children are more tech savvy than we think,” Prof. Rebert notes. She’s found that children as young as first grade can craft emails to their teachers, with a little parent support. She encourages parents to discuss ways kids are most comfortable reaching out to their teachers. “A parent can say, ‘let’s write an email to your teacher if you’re not comfortable asking that in class.’’” Another strategy might be to record a video of your child asking his or her teacher a question, and sending the video to the teacher. Reaching out this way empowers kids and also ensures that the channels of communication remain open. That’s a lesson that will help children navigate learning while schools are remote and beyond.

Approach Lessons from a Different Angle

We’re all still feeling our way in building effective online learning models, educators note. Not every lesson plan is right for each child. If you find your child struggling with teachers’ expectations, contact your child’s teacher or school and brainstorm ways your student can accomplish their educational goals using different resources.

“You can see how kids respond to lessons and maybe modify it for kids,” notes Olivia Friedman. “Work with teachers to see if they can accomplish their goal in a different way.” Perhaps a child can work on worksheets instead of spending hours on Zoom, she notes. Or perhaps your student would do better tackling an assignment using independent study.

Dealing with Zoom Fatigue

“It’s exhausting to spend hours on Zoom,” notes Olivia Friedman. For kids who are struggling with long hours online, she advises contacting teachers and exploring alternative solutions for your child.

Julie Skolnick advises that kids – and adults – employ the “20-20-20” method. Every twenty minutes, look away from your screen for twenty seconds, focusing on something twenty feet away. It’s a way of minimizing the fatigue that comes from hours of screen time.

She also has adopted a creative approach to scheduling her working day and her kids’ school days. Even though they are all working and learning from home, she insists on still getting dressed in work clothes and delineating specific times of day when she’s “at work” and her kids are at school. She and her children even pack lunches just the way they’d do if they were heading out to school and work – and eat them together during lunch time, outside when weather allows. It gives both Mrs. Skolnick and her kids a schedule and the sense that there are separate work, school and personal times in their days.

Don’t Skip Recess

Including recess in kids’ school days is key. “Kids need outlets now more than ever that aren’t screen based,” observes Prof. Rembert. “It’s essential for younger as well as older children – research shows kids need recess, and when school is remote, it’s imperative that parents create that recess.” Prof. Rembert notes that in her own home, she insists that her kids play outside; she and her husband also organize family walks.

Family Dinner

Another one of Prof. Rembert’s key pieces of advice is to make time for family dinners – and to differentiate time spent in “school” at home from family time also spent at home. “Our lives have blurred,” she notes, “and our home time has blurred – my own kids get off Zoom calls, then they have homework to do.” It can be hard to know if you’re spending time at home on schoolwork, or enjoying non-work, personal time.

Sitting down for dinner together is restorative and creates space to have important conversations with our kids about how their school day and what concerns and problems they might have.

Tackling projects as a family can help kids and parents bond. Taking part in something creative together provides a needed respite from hours of online work.

We’re all struggling to create a meaningful new school year for our kids. Share what works for your family in the comment section below.

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