Last spring’s taste of online education didn’t go well for many students and parents, which means this fall brought more than its usual level of anxiety. Parents might be forgiven for fretting about a year lost to dropped Internet connections, extended fidget sessions, and massive meltdowns.
While remote learning is a stopgap, there are reasons to be optimistic. Last spring, “districts were piecing together a lot of options for emergency remote learning and figuring out which ones are not the worst,” says Barbara Treacy, adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Now they’ve had a summer to plan online options more carefully. Not everything can be replicated at home, but opportunities exist to build skills and foster the learning that would be happening inside school. Here’s what to do and keep in mind as it unfolds.
1. Customize their school space
It’s good to have a dedicated education space at home, with a work surface, a comfortable seat that supports proper posture, and required materials handy. But there’s no one-size-fits-all setup, says Laura Dudley, an associate clinical professor of applied psychology at Northeastern University.
The best desk won’t matter if other aspects of the environment are off. You want to consider factors such as temperature, light, and noise level, and minimize impediments and distractions that affect your child. Some kids might like the background noise of home life, and others might be intimidated to speak during Zoom calls because other people at home could hear them.
You can’t control everything, but you can move a distracting television, or hang up a sheet for privacy. “The biggest thing is to help your child figure out the conditions under which they work best,” she says.
2. Create opportunities to move around
Kids only have so much patience and attention, and they need to have some ability to move. In school, they go to different spots in their classroom and in the school building, and have recess or gym class. Try to provide your kids with similar opportunities to move around at home. You may find that different spaces work better for different subjects. The kitchen counter may be the perfect spot for drawing, a chair in a corner the right place for reading. You can even try having a class outside. “It relieves the monotony,” Dudley says. “It’s like hitting the reset button. It’s signaling it’s time for something new.”
In the first few weeks, look for what works and what doesn’t. Don’t move too quickly to rearrange things, but look for ways to build mindfulness in your child. Dudley suggests asking, “How do you think you work best?” It’s OK to be more direct, too, if you see your child working well on something in a specific area. Ultimately, Dudley says, this will help kids connect their environment and their feelings, a good skill to develop for the future.
3. Head off technology trouble
One issue with home Internet setups, especially cable, is that networks are designed to download data more rapidly than they upload it. But with Zoom calls, students are using lots of data in both directions. Multiple simultaneous calls can lead to poor sound, grainy visuals, and dropped calls, says Steve Hall, senior director of network and communication services at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
The simplest solution is to upgrade your Internet speed. But this most likely will cost more, and not all of us live in places where the network supports faster speeds. Troubleshoot by going into the settings for your conferencing application and picking a resolution below high definition. The image quality will drop, Hall says, but the connection may be more consistent. In the worst case, try an audio-only connection, says Anthony Mutti, chief information officer at Springfield College.
Also look at where your Wi-Fi router is placed. Distance and building materials such as concrete and metal can affect the signal. If the router can’t be moved, look into purchasing an extender (good ones start at about $50) or a mesh network ($200 to $500), which will boost the Wi-Fi signal throughout a home. Most people can set these up on their own.
4. Let kids problem-solve for themselves
The first few weeks of K-12 classes are focused on building the environment — learning names, establishing rules, and developing routines, says Kimberly Nesbitt, assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of New Hampshire. When learning remotely, kids need time to develop the same sense of structure. Know that their daily progress or attention span will grow over time. If you happen to see your kid’s head down on the desk or hear a “This is so boring!” resist the urge to jump in and play fixer. “It can lead to learned helplessness,” Dudley says. “You’re teaching them that they don’t have the skills to solve problems.”
Listen to them, maybe suggest a possible solution, but try to let your kid solve issues without you. It will help them learn to advocate for themselves. Whatever the issue, they’ll most likely discover the benefits of speaking up, she says. “These are life skills the kids need.”
5. Be a partner, not a substitute teacher
Parents should not be expected to explain closed consonants or trigonometry. Let teachers be the experts. Manage homework similarly to the way you would in a regular environment. In a remote learning environment, “Your job is to be on-the-ground support [for teachers],” Nesbitt says.
Parents can help fill the isolation gap, as kids will miss interacting with teachers and peers. “You can be the sounding board they’d have in the classroom,” Nesbitt says. She recommends keeping questions simple, such as, “Can you show me how you got there?” That lets children be the experts, and when they explain something, it deepens their connection to the material. For younger children, use questions such as, “What was the first thing you did today?” or “Can you tell me about the book your teacher read to you?” This makes kids reflect and recall, which helps them retain what is being taught while giving parents insight into the teacher’s work.
For parents of kindergarteners, this is the age where your child starts tremendous growth in executive functioning skills, such as the ability to think flexibly, switch focus, and understand roles.
But the same regulatory learning can happen at home, and Nesbitt says it probably already is. One parent might help with science, another with spelling; in single-parent families, a relative might take on a role, or a friend in the neighborhood. The kitchen table becomes a desk during the day, a bedroom corner becomes an office. These represent some of the many transitions, roles, and rules that kids are picking up. “That’s how things operate. That’s executive functioning,” Nesbitt says.
Above all, remember that school has never happened in this kind of environment. Some things will work. Some won’t. “Recognize that everyone is doing their best in very challenging circumstances,” Dudley says. “A little patience, understanding, and even humor can go a long way. This might be the most important lesson the kids learn.”
Steve Calechman is a freelance writer on the North Shore. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.