While no one knows exactly what to expect for this coming school year, distance learning is likely to be at least some part of it for many families. Luckily, teachers know a lot about how children learn, so we tuned in to “Teachers Talk: Reopening with Remote Teaching,” a webinar hosted by Dr. Katherine Williams, a child and adolescent psychologist. Along with a panel of experienced teachers, they explored several tips for how parents can plan for a successful new school year that’s sure to include more learning from home for so many kids.
Keep favorite traditions alive
Before you think about how to improve their virtual learning experience, it’s important to start the year on the right foot. One easy way to do that is to stick to your usual back-to-school routine as much as possible. Maybe they don’t necessarily need a new backpack this year if they’re not going to school in person, but kids love the thrill of getting a fresh restock of school supplies, and maybe even a few back-to-school clothes. You don’t have to spend a lot, especially since virtual learning generally requires fewer materials. Something as simple as organizing the supplies they’ll need in a new pouch or a shoebox they decorate can do wonders to get them in the back-to-school spirit, and a new shirt or two can help them show off their style and feel confident in Zoom classrooms. Show them how proud you are by taking a fun “first day of school” photo, even if they’re staying home. That enthusiasm will go a long way in the coming weeks.
No meet, yes greet
You can also try giving your child’s relationship with their new teacher a jumpstart. When schools switched to online learning this past school year, children were already familiar with their teachers, and vice versa. In most cases teachers knew the habits and personalities of each of their students, and children had already formed a trusting relationship with their teachers in return. But as we look ahead to another school year when student/teacher relationships haven’t been established yet, that foundation of rapport won’t be built-in, it will have to be built—from afar.
Before school starts, send an email to your child’s teacher telling him or her a little bit about your child. Information about their study habits, personality, likes and dislikes, or anything else you think will help the teacher form a relationship with your child is a good idea. If your child has any special needs they should be aware of or you simply think something more personal is in order, you can request a phone call or Zoom meeting instead. Either way, by the time school starts they’ll have something to reference when they interact with your child, so they can forge a connection more easily. It can also help a teacher who’s new to your child recognize more quickly if they start to disengage from the class or if they’re having other issues.
Space to learn
Creating the right home environment for learning is also key. Teachers say a lot of students logged in to virtual classes from the comfort of their beds or sofas last year, but doing schoolwork in those places only increases the chances that they’ll curl up and take a nap. The optimal environment is one that mimics the classroom as much as possible. A well-lit tabletop and a chair that requires them to sit straight up is pretty much all they need, so even a kitchen table will do. Just try to avoid anything that may prompt them to zone out (like a TV that’s always on) or that has too many distractions.
Teachers say that a lot of students have problems raising their hand virtually, so it may be a good time to talk about the importance of class participation before the new year begins. In on-screen class, it’s all too easy to slump back into the shadows (or just turn off the camera completely) to avoid speaking up. Explain to your child that even though they won’t be in a live class, the teacher wants to see and hear from everyone to make sure they’re following along and understanding the lessons. Depending on their grade and teacher, that may mean speaking up in virtual classes or sending emails (or both).
If you anticipate a lot of Zoom sessions in their future, try setting up meetings with friends, grandparents, and any family members that don’t live with you so your child gets used to using Zoom (or whatever interface your school will be implementing), including seeing themself on screens. Even if they did some of this at the end of last year, getting them reacquainted with what it feels like to join a virtual class is a good idea.
How middle and high school students, in particular, look on the screen can have a huge impact on how they feel, as that’s an age when an emphasis on appearance tends to increase. Getting ahead of it with practice sessions can help kids get over the initial stress of seeing themselves on a screen, which is essentially like looking at yourself in a mirror for an extended period of time. You may even want to show them tricks to make the window where their face appears on the screen smaller, like switching from the “gallery” to “active speaker” view, so they don’t see themselves looming so large all the time.
Several teachers mentioned that logging in to school all day can be exhausting (some call it “Zoom fatigue”). Once you know what their schedule and yours will look like this fall, take a poster or wipe board and together, come up with a schedule that allows for frequent breaks for controlled amounts of time.
Teachers say the key to a successful break is to move your child away from the spot where most of their learning takes place and into a new environment. It’s best to keep breaks to 15-20 minutes to make transitioning back to learning easier. Talk with your child about when snacks are allowed and brainstorm ideas for what to do during breaks, such as shooting hoops in the driveway, playing with dolls, coloring, or simply going outside for backyard fun that mimics recess. The break activities should be quick enough that they fit into the break time, and ideally simple enough that they can transition to a break without help from you—especially if you’ll be trying to work from home or care for other kids during their school day. Getting kids involved in listing all the possible mini breaks makes it more likely that they’ll stick to the schedule and be ready to go back to learning when the time comes.
If you don’t think your child will necessarily have to log in at set times all day, adjust your child’s school schedule to fit your life instead of trying to stick to the standard brick-and-mortar hours. Some older students may perform better if their school hours start in the afternoon, for example, or perhaps evening hours are when you or another caregiver will be more able to oversee a younger child’s learning. So long as the work gets done, that’s all that matters. Just make sure you talk about any changes to their usual schedule ahead of time so your child knows what to expect.
Whatever you do, even if your child is older and capable of distance learning without constant supervision, try to check in on them throughout the day if you can (or ask someone else to), just to make sure they’re staying focused. Children are easily distracted by games, toys, and other activities, so peeking in to make sure they’re not playing video games or Snapchatting with their friends is a good idea.
No one knows exactly what to expect this fall, so it’s important to give yourself, your child, and the teacher a break. There will surely be bumps in the road, but with a little preparation and commitment to the same goal, this next school year can be a great one.