Tips For Managing Distance Learning Without Losing Your Mind

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Of all the parenting memes making the rounds, some of the most liked—by far—focus on the importance of going easy on yourself when it comes to distance learning. After all, parents aren’t teachers. We didn’t train to be and many of us don’t strive to be, though our affection and appreciation for those who do have certainly skyrocketed in recent months. 

Yet, here we are, staring at a computer screen with a list of to-dos from our kids’ teachers, wondering where to start and how to be of help to your child without driving yourself bonkers—and without devoting your entire day to do it. 

The truth is that many working parents simply can’t afford to spend a lot of time helping kids with their distance learning. Whether you’re in that same situation or you’re just 100 percent sure that you’re not cut out for this teaching stuff, we’ve got good news: There are resources, tips, and tricks that can help!

Recreate the parts of school that are helpful

If your child misses the social aspect of school life, for example, try a Zoom study session, like a study hall. Younger kiddos may need someone to moderate to make sure they stay on task, but if that seems too much, try gathering a group of parents willing to share moderator duties. Having one parent there will ensure kids stay on track whether they’re preschoolers going over their ABC’s or fourth graders tackling long division, and taking turns means all the parents get a break. 

Another way to make distance learning go more smoothly is to ask your kids what they like the most about school, and try to zero in on anything you can recreate at home. For example, one Florida school uses pop music instead of a bell to signal a change in classes, which is something simple that anyone can do at home, too—try it whenever it’s time to change from one subject to another. It’s a great way to signal a change in mindset and since kids can choose the music, they’ll be more likely to respond well to the switch. Teachers recommend transition periods of five to 10 minutes for kids to stretch, take a break, and prep for the next subject.

Make your schedule your own

For many families, trying to recreate the school day entirely is too tall an order for the home environment, especially if you’re a parent who also needs to work from home. “Relax your homeschooling and productivity standards to a level appropriate for a worldwide pandemic,” advises Rebecca Branstetter, Ph.D., a school psychologist. She suggests adopting the mantra, “I am not homeschooling. I am doing my best to help my kids learn at home during a crisis.” There’s a big difference!

Once you adjust your overall expectations, here are a few ways parents have been tailoring their days to their own needs:

  • Consider letting your child sleep in later. Many kids today are sleep-deprived anyway, and older kids in particular are shown to have better academic performance, creativity, and mental health with later school start times. Lots of parents report returning to a “summer-like” schedule recently.
  • Move the “weekend” to a few days during the week if that works better for your family, freeing up a few of your weekdays to be school-free. 
  • Play to their strengths. Take advantage of the fact that you don’t have to consider an entire classroom, and tailor remote learning to your child. If math is their hardest subject, for example, tackle it early in the day when they’re more likely to be bright-eyed and focused. Try saving their favorite subjects for later, to give them something to look forward to and end the day on a positive note. 
  • Break up the day with moments of fun, like taking a walk at lunch or enjoying a reading session outside in the backyard when the weather is nice. These little swaps of space and time can do wonders to get kids to cooperate more easily.

Whatever you decide, be flexible—there’s no reason your school schedule needs to match the traditional one, unless your child happens to thrive with that sort of structure. The important thing, Dr. Branstetter reminds us, is to be consistent. “For adults and kids alike, routine and predictability are calming during times of stress,” she says. That does not mean recreating a regular 8-hour school day, though—nor does every day have to go perfectly to plan. Work with your kids to figure out a schedule you can all live with, and stick to it the best you can.

Take a tip from teachers

When it’s time for nitty-gritty teaching, as in introducing a new concept or lesson entirely, follow this simple maxim that teachers follow: “I do, we do, you do.” 

The idea is that at first you introduce a lesson with a little “show and tell.” Talk about what the lesson is, then immediately show them, whether it’s working out a math problem on a shared sheet of paper or watching a short online video together. Next, it’s time for the student to give it a try, with your help (if needed). When they seem to be getting the hang of it, step away and let them practice on their own, whether it’s via online lessons they have to submit or printed worksheets. 

Letting them work independently not only gives you a break, it’s also critical to their own understanding of the material, says educator and author of  “See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers,” Roxanne Elden

Keep in mind that in a classroom with 20 kids, your child’s teacher would never be expected to analyze every little thing your child does in real-time, and neither should you. It’s perfectly acceptable for even little kids to work on their own for a short time. If they really get stuck and can’t figure something out, have them write down their question or highlight the part that’s confusing and move on to the next thing. When they’re done or a certain time limit has elapsed, check their work to make sure they’re getting it, just like a teacher would.

Keep your cool

Whatever you do, try not to lose your patience. If the situation is becoming stressful for everyone, walk into another room and take a few deep breaths, or call an impromptu break and try again later, when everyone’s had a chance to calm down and shift gears. 

One of the ways children demonstrate their anxiousness is by being uncooperative, so it’s not unheard that kids may be acting out a bit more than usual right now. When meltdowns strike, Dr. Branstetter suggests parents remind themselves, “Behavior is communication, and my child is ‘telling’ me they need support.” Kids (and adults, for that matter) can’t think or reason when flooded with emotions anyway, so it’s better to change your focus to helping them learn to calm themselves down, rather than learning subtraction.

Finally, go easy on yourself. You didn’t sign up for this. You’re not trained for it. And that’s OK. The most important thing is that your child knows they’re loved and safe, no matter what happens with distance learning. If they don’t pick up as many lessons this school year as perhaps they could have had school remained open, they will be OK—and so will you.

Bonus Tip: For parents looking for additional educational resources beyond what their child’s schools are providing, Common Sense Media provides reviews of a variety of websites, games, and apps. There’s also a website called Teachers Pay Teachers filled with lesson materials that educators created for their own classrooms. It’s easy to search for lessons by subject, your child’s grade level, and even the Common Core standard. Speaking of the latter, for a general look at what your child should be learning this year you can also visit the Common Core State Standards website, as most states adhere to it or use some version of it. All of these resources are free!

The former Content Director at Parenting, and several other brands, Ana Connery is a writer and content strategist whose work appears in USA Today, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Cafe Mom/The Stir, Momtastic, and others.