Is your family ready for distance learning?

Parent to parent advice on surviving going back to school online

In mid-July, my kids’ school district announced that it would conduct classes online until at least Thanksgiving. When school closed down in the spring, it was a struggle for us -- and I didn’t want to return to that chaos and stress. Many calls, texts, and a few sleepless nights followed as we tried to find a way to make the new “back to school” work for the whole family. 

After exploring many possibilities (including forming groups with friends, paying for extra childcare, or trying to get our kids a spot at a district-sponsored learning hub), we decided to focus on how to make distance learning work at home. We have three kids -- one in fourth grade, one in second grade, and one in kindergarten -- as well as two full-time jobs. We’re fortunate in that my spouse and I are both able to work remotely, but it does mean we now have five full people doing five totally different “jobs” at home, every day.

People all over are facing uncertainty and fluidly-changing guidance. The only thing that is certain is that all parents of school-aged kids will need to have a backup plan on how to handle distance learning. With that in mind, here’s how we prepared for the school year and the adjustments we’ve made in the three weeks since our kids have been “back to school”. 

Prepare your learning space

The first thing a child needs when they “go” to school is to have a place that’s designed for them to learn. If you have the luxury of space, setting up an ergonomic work table with adequate lighting and room for school supplies might be pretty easy. 

If, like me, your house doesn’t naturally have the space to support a family of five working and going to school together at home (every. single. day), you can still carve out workspaces in your home. I spotted some reclaimable space in the hallway of our house, and after rearranging, donating, and re-homing a truckload of stuff, we found space for two small desks for our second and fourth graders. To keep clutter to a minimum and give them the ability to move their base of activity pretty easily, I got them carts to hold school supplies and books. 

Even if you don’t have room for an additional work surface, you can create a place for learning by getting a portable desk and minimizing other distractions in the room, like television.  

Noise cancelling headphones are also relatively affordable and help kids focus on their work. Wirecutter blog recommends a durable set with volume controls to protect ears and block out background noise. 

Time management 

Once classes got off to a start, it was clear to me that the transitions were the hardest part. For example, my seven-year-old child is expected to get on and offline four to six times a day, with three different daily schedules that change depending on the day. Of course their busiest times overlap with prime working hours, so from the beginning we’ve been working to make the kids self-sufficient. 

Progress was slow at first, but picked up as everyone got to know the routine. Still, if you don’t want to spend the day chasing kids on and offline, you need a clock. I found my kids constantly looking up and around when I asked them what time it was because they’re conditioned to look for the classroom clock to time their transitions. Given the choice, they picked a clock with three hands and special guides that help younger kids zero in quicker. I also got a countdown timer for quiet work sessions. After a bit of reinforcement, it keeps my kids from asking me how much longer they should spend on an activity. This one has worked well for us because it gives kids an easy visual guide to how much time is left. 

I also found that, on good days, my kids just need to be prompted to get onto their class meetings. I entered all of my child’s transitions into the calendar of his school-issued Chromebook, using the native calendar app. The kids are learning to respond to the reminders to transition from activity to activity. Another friend did the same with an old phone.  There are also stand alone digital family calendars that give you an easy glance at everyone’s schedules, all in one place.

Set limits, but don’t fight about it 

Kids’ screen time has exploded during the pandemic. While we have been conditioned to try to limit screen time, it’s important that this not become a constant struggle with kids. A recent report from Common Sense Media confirms that “conflict over screens is common in families and, in many cases, this conflict is likely to be more harmful to adolescents’ mental health than screen time itself.” 

Parental controls can help set limits without the fights and also help separate school activities from social and entertainment activities. You can pause the internet for specific devices and create safe content zones on the internet so that your child can browse and play without fear of inappropriate content or apps. You can also start and stop entire categories of content (such as social media) during the school day and turn them back on when they are allowed. 

It’s vitally important that we all, adults and kids alike, take time offline to connect, reflect, and process what’s going on in the world. We don’t know how long the need for social distance will persist and in what patterns. The disruption to education, relationships, and socializing will have lasting repercussions on children and adults that we can’t completely predict. 

But what we can do, right now, is utilize the best tools we as parents have: Our eyes and our ears. By being sensitive to our children's needs, we’ll all get through this together.

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