As many families learned last spring, remote learning can be tough — on everyone.
Kids miss their friends, teachers, and all the routines and rhythms of school life. And their parents do, too. Balancing a job on top of home school often feels like an impossibly tall order, says Stephanie Cohen, a Westchester County, New York-based mom of four and an eighth grade teacher. “I know a lot of parents who’ve had to quit their jobs to facilitate remote learning,” she says. “But not everyone has that ability, and if you don’t have a support network, it can be really hard.”
If you’re a parent guiding children through a second period of remote learning this fall, give yourself grace. “A lot of parents feel they have to be the perfect teacher, the perfect parent, the perfect lunch lady,” says Maysa Akbar, PhD, a child psychologist at the Yale Child Study Center. “But we can't be the best at all things at the same time.” Remind yourself that you’re doing your kiddo a solid just by helping them learn, she says.
We asked child psychologists and educators for their tips to help set you up for a successful school year. Here’s what they had to say.
First, talk about what’s going on
Many children are wondering why they can’t go to school in person. Explaining why — that it’s helping prevent them and others from getting sick — is critical, Akbar says. “As parents, we’re anxious right now, and we’re lying to ourselves if we think our kids don’t pick up on those feelings.” Help them understand by breaking down the issues in an age-appropriate way. For younger children, Pittsburgh-based family medicine physician Deborah Gilboa, MD, recommends explaining how staying home can protect the people they love, such as grandparents or sick relatives. Parents of older children have a bit more leeway to discuss what’s happening worldwide, case numbers, and what we know about how the virus gets passed from one person to another.
Next, let them vent
COVID-19’s impact on children’s mental health is still coming into focus. One early study of more than 2,200 students in China found that after a monthlong lockdown, 22% of students reported feeling symptoms of depression, while roughly 19% experienced anxiety.
Allow your children to feel their feelings. Encourage them to talk, and offer empathy and understanding. If they’re struggling to express themselves, be patient. It can be difficult for children — especially those with special needs — to adequately explain their emotions. Gilboa recommends using an emotional vocabulary chart (like this one from Harvard) to help your child find the words to express herself.
Develop a routine that works
“What we can’t give our kids this year is a normal routine,” says Gilboa. “But we can offer structure. You might make it a point to give your child a kiss before they go off to school every morning. You should still do that, even if they’re just moving to their desk in the living room. You can still pack a lunch, and they can still eat it at a certain time in the backyard.”
Work with your child’s circadian rhythms — the internal clock that regulates their sleep-wake cycles, among other functions — if you can. Starting in adolescence, teens’ circadian rhythms shift in a way that makes it hard for them to fall asleep before 11 pm. Your teen may have handled a 6 am wakeup to catch the bus in the Before Times, but if he’s learning at home this year, consider letting him start his day later. Rather than rousing her teenager too early, Akbar lets hers sleep, and uses the morning to get her own work done. Later in the day, she helps her daughter with schoolwork.
For children with special needs or learning disabilities, structure is crucial, says Trisha Scott, the special education resource teacher at Patrick Fogarty Catholic Secondary School in Ontario, Canada. Scott recommends creating a visual schedule with pictures to help your special needs student understand when each lesson is supposed to take place, when breaks are, and when school is done for the day.
Tweak what you can according to your child’s needs and your work hours. Your routine can take shape in lots of different ways. What’s important is sticking to it.
Create a classroom
Carving out a dedicated spot in your home for schoolwork can put a buffer between learning time and leisure time, Cohen says, and helps kids feel like they’re “going to school.” Ideally, she says, children should have a single spot in the house where books, computers, and other school supplies live. Adding a WiFi booster to your home network can help keep your Zoom meeting running while your children are in their Google Classrooms, and outfitting everyone (including yourself!) with noise-canceling headphones can help limit distractions.
By the way, you don’t need fancy equipment or a lot of space to do this stuff. A box can turn a regular desk into a standing desk, and cushions on the floor can make for a cozy reading nook. "The best set-ups for kids are ones that are dynamic,” says biomechanist Katy Bowman, author of the book Move Your DNA, which means they allow for movement. Short bursts of activity may make your child sharper. A small 2009 study found that youngsters who walked for 20 minutes at 60% of their maximum heart rate scored better on tests after the exercise. Other, more recent research in children with ADHD has had similar positive outcomes. Whatever you do, make sure kids get breaks throughout the day to get the wiggles out.
Technology such as laptops, tablets, and reliable Internet are essential for virtual learning. Unfortunately, lower-income children are less likely to have access to such tools, as a report from McKinsey & Company noted in June. As a result, COVID-19-related school closures could lead to greater learning losses for low-income, Black, and Hispanic students, and worsen already existing achievement gaps between students in those groups and higher-income and white students.
Thankfully, resources for low-income families are making remote learning more doable. Some public schools are lending technology: Denver public schools, for example, as well as schools in New Jersey, delivered laptops to families in need last spring. This fall, many local United Way chapters across the country have been connecting children with technology. Certain Internet providers are offering deals, too. Verizon is now offering distance learning service discounts in 38 states for more than 36 million students. Cohen suggests asking your school if there are laptops or tablets available to borrow.
If you have a special needs student at home, ask your child’s special education teacher for guidance. Your state’s department of education may offer unique resources. The Colorado Department of Education, for example, offers free transcription for deaf students, online speech therapy, and information for parents of children with autism. New York’s Department of Education has put together resources and how-tos on everything from dealing with problem behavior and creating visual schedules to accessing assistive technologies such as voice recognition software. For children with literacy-related learning disabilities such as dyslexia, there’s also this, from the nonprofit Reading Rockets, a list of free and low-cost apps that help kids with writing, spelling, and reading.
Stick to traditions
From shopping for a new back-to-school outfit to going out for pizza on the first day of school, back to school traditions shouldn’t disappear just because the bus isn’t coming to pick up your kids. “These traditions might seem minor to you, but they can help anchor your child and make them feel some normalcy,” Gilboa says. You don’t have to do every single thing you’d normally do. Instead, Gilboa says, ask kids which traditions matter most and go with those. “For my kids, we get up ridiculously early on the first morning back to school and go out to breakfast,” she says. “This year, we got takeout from our favorite place, ate it at the park, and came back and started school.”
Don’t forget gym class
Last spring, a perspective piece in the journal Obesity noted that school closures could limit kids’ access to opportunities to exercise and eat healthy meals. As a result, the authors noted, closures could worsen the nation’s childhood obesity epidemic. “Many parents rely on schools to move their kids. With school at home, parents need to remember that they’re the new PE teacher,” says Bowman. Don’t worry about organizing games. Squeeze in exercise here and there. Send kids outside to play for a half hour, or set aside 15 minutes for living room jumping jacks and pushups. At lunchtime, when your workday allows, try to pack it up and head to the backyard or the park a few times a week. Whenever you can,“just try to find some green space to break up a long, screen-based morning.”
Read, read, and read some more
In Scholastic’s 2019 Kids & Family Reading Report, a nationwide survey of more than 2,000 parents and their children, 74% of kids said that reading fiction and nonfiction helped them understand the world around them. Over half of children surveyed said they leaned on books to help them through a tough time.
By the time she reaches third grade, your child’s reading proficiency is the most significant predictor of her high school graduation and career success. If your child is losing steam on her schoolwork, take a break together and read. Reading with your child can deepen your bond, improve children’s vocabulary, and so much more. Books can also be a gateway to fun, impromptu lessons about history, science, and other cultures, says Cohen, who’s also the founder of the Lions of Literature, a virtual book club for kids and their families. Cohen spent much of the summer reading a book on wild ponies with her 6-year-old daughter. For older children who prefer independent reading, shift to discussions, rather than reading aloud. Cohen loves talking books with her historical-fiction-loving 14-year-old. When in doubt, encourage your kids to crack a book.
Help kids (safely) socialize
Kids learning at home can’t play with buddies at recess or chat with pals in the halls between classes. But their school day can still include lunchtime video chats with friends on similar schedules. Enable your child to stay connected with friends. Give them ground rules, like no meeting up in person or no chatting from 11 am to noon, when they’re supposed to be doing algebra. Encourage them to find creative ways to connect –– through activities or art projects, or by sweating through an online workout class together.
“They could make music with friends, (do) TikTok dances, or play video games online,” Gilboa says. They could also set up a virtual book club or study group.
Manage everyone’s expectations
"Change your bar of what success looks like,” says Gilboa. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. “Maybe now,” Gilboa says, “success looks like everybody eating at least two nutritious meals each day, and your child knowing how to log himself into class. This year is about contributing to the good of the family, making do, and being resilient. It’s not about academic excellence or having a clean house.” Nail down your top three priorities and do your best to meet them. This will all be past us someday. For now, all any of us can do — parents and kids included — is try our best.