How to Minimize the Misery:

Five Ways to Help Your Kids Survive Remote Learning

Remote Learning, Spring 2020, My House

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 looms, and many of the country’s students will be returning to school not in person, but online. And let’s be clear: this isn’t “homeschooling;” this is “learning at home during a crisis.” (I homeschool 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 primary teacher and thankfully, no one expects us to do the job as well as a teacher does. I am a parent (my kids are 9 and 12), but I am also a former middle school teacher (twelve years of 7th 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. My oldest child is entering 7th grade at public school this year. When he was little, I mused about what his 7th grade English teacher might be like. Little did I realize it might be me. 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 has been noted already during this crisis, we may be in the same storm, but we’re in different boats.

To be clear, I am not happy to be returning to remote learning. It is not what works best for most children, but this is where we are, unfortunately. As a former middle school teacher, a current parent, and an advocate for healthy screen use, however, I have a few tips on how to minimize the misery of remote learning:

  1. Whenever and wherever possible, emphasize building executive function skills. Executive function skills are ones we work on our entire childhood and beyond, and they include planning, prioritizing, organization, emotion regulation, and cognitive flexibility. As a former middle school teacher, I found that the single most important thing I could teach my students was 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 on X 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 means developing 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 multi-tasking is a myth. Do not be fooled by your child arguing he can “totally listen to his teacher while watching a movie.” He can’t. We can’t. And we shouldn’t try.)
  2. Establish a dedicated space in the home to “do” school. Ideally on a flat surface, away from distractions. Not in or on a bed. If possible, standing is great. 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 Zoom calls might be more likely to stay engaged. Hydraulic lift-and-lower desks might be useful, but a a box or stack of books on a counter or table work too. Secondly, kids can move more when standing than if they are relegated to a chair. And honestly, a lot of kids struggle to sit in a chair for extended periods of time anyway. (My daughter is one such child.) Set up the space for success in whatever way works best for your child(ren), but most importantly, attempt to minimize distractions. You don’t need expensive noise-cancelling headphones. A fan and ear plugs can do the job too.
  3. As much as possible, encourage your child to use paper and pen or pencil. 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 it is better to read on paper versus on a screen, too). 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. Also, a word about doodling: some teachers (and parents) don’t like it. Turns out, research shows that doodling, a form of fidgeting, can help increase focus. Add a jar of crayons or colored pencils to your child’s schooling space. 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 any opportunity to provide activities for restless hands during remote learning, the better. (And a shout-out to teachers: it’s hard enough to monitor all the fidgeting, under-desk-texting, and distractions that happen in a real-life classroom on a normal day; imagine trying to mange those same things remotely, across 27 video-conferencing screens, while also trying to teach.)
  4. With all this excessive screen use, sitting, and lack of organized sports practices or after school activities, children will be overstimulated and under active. We must also make room for movement every day. Despite the fact that so much of schooling these days involves sitting in desks, effective teachers know that movement is key to successful instruction and learning. Ideally, every day, for at least 30 minutes — the CDC says 60 minutes — our kids should be involved in some form of physical activity. With 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. So 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 balls instead of a chair. A wobble stool. A small block to do calf raises on while participating in a virtual class. Anything that encourages movement will improve focus and decrease the risk of obesity that sedentary screen consumption can increase. Thank your teacher in advance for supporting you in helping keep your child, if wiggly, at least focused.
  5. Above all else, remember that it is the relationships forged between student and teacher that facilitate meaningful learning. (I wrote about it here.) 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 live 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 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); we can forgive ourselves for not being able to do it all — or much of it — as well as we used to.

This is difficult. It requires courage, compassion, and a willingness to let go of a lot of things. I hope 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 too.

At the very least, may we be rocks in the river.

Good luck out there.

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Emily is a speaker, writer, consultant, and parent of two. A former middle school teacher, she is now the founder and owner of The Screentime Consultant.

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Emily Cherkin

Emily Cherkin

Emily is a speaker, writer, consultant, and parent of two. A former middle school teacher, she is now the founder and owner of The Screentime Consultant.

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