Although schools across the country have been back in session for a few weeks, and some even longer, it can help for parents to take a step back periodically and evaluate how it's going so far. Especially if your child has been participating in virtual learning or a blend of online classes and attending school in-person a few days a week.
"Not every learning environment works for every child and now is a good time to evaluate what works for your child," says Peter Robertson, president of Laurel Springs School, an online school that's been providing distance learning for nearly 30 years.
"Any parent knows that transitions are the hardest things for your family," says Sarah Brown Wessling, an Iowa-based teacher who won the prestigious Teacher of the Year award in 2010. But parents shouldn't forget that they've made it through transitions before, likely dozens of times before the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
"We may have forgotten that we've done it before, but we have done it," says Wessling, who's a mom of three herself. She's currently juggling remote learning for her high school, middle school and elementary-aged kids.
To help, Robertson and Wessling have five strategies and recommendations that can help parents ensure their children are thriving, even if they are not in the classroom every day.
Many parents have already set up a space in their house for their kids to complete their school work. But if you haven't, or if the space is only a temporary solution, consider putting a bit more effort into making it an area where your kids want to spend their time learning.
"While every person's home is different, creating separate, quiet work stations for both parents and their children where possible can help alleviate distractions, stress and conflict," Robertson says.
Putting together a space doesn't have to be expensive or take up a lot of room in your home. Consider buying an extra table or desk secondhand through places like Facebook Marketplace or OfferUp. You can also ask friends and family if they have any unused furniture you may be able to borrow. You can even have your child help decorate and personalize it to make it more of their own.
When the pandemic first shut down schools, many parents tried to turn their homes into schools, complete with daily schedules of activities, Wessling says. "But a lot of the schedules didn't make it for very long," she says. Instead of trying to create rigid schedules for how each school day should work, Wessling recommends creating routines for learning.
What's the difference? It's about finding something that can signal to your kids it's time to learn, Wessling says. Many elementary school classrooms use a song or have the children sit in a circle at the start of the day, for example. Creating routines that can become habits can help to gently guide your family throughout the school day.
"It's helpful for us as parents to remember that seat time doesn't equal learning time," Wessling says. Kids generally work best in 30-minute increments and younger children probably need to shift activities every 15 to 20 minutes to really stay engaged.
"We don't want to replace eight hours of school with eight hours in front of Zoom and expect that there would be eight hours of focused learning," Wessling says. Even adults would struggle with that.
To keep kids motivated and focused, parents should encourage what Wessling calls "brain breaks," she says. These could be simply taking a break to do some deep breathing exercises or having the kids run up and down the stairs a few times. It could also be a longer, mid-day break where you all take a walk or go to a local park.
Regular physical movement is a cornerstone of schooling, so building movement into your day can actually help stimulate learning, Wessling says. She also recommends to always have a "vent" physical activity ready in case your kids are about to throw a tantrum, such as a walk to the mailbox or a quick chore.
It's easy for everyone to feel overwhelmed these days, and kids are no exception, Wessling says. If kids have multiple assignments to do each day, it can be stressful to look at them all together.
Instead, it can help to teach kids to break them into smaller tasks so they're not as daunting, Wessling says. If your child has to read 40 pages for an English assignment, it can help to tell them they only have to read five pages and then they can take a break and come back to it, Wessling suggests.
"These smaller pieces become a little bit more manageable," she says.
Parents can make it easier on their kids if they maintain an open line of communication with their child's teacher, particularly if they're participating in a blended schedule of in-classroom and virtual learning, Robertson says. Working in tandem with teachers allows parents to better monitor progress and identify areas for improvement to keep their learning on track, he says.
Those conversations can be about more than just assignments, Wessling says. If parents are seeing some new behavior patterns at home, they can reach out to let teachers know about it. That extra communication is especially helpful if teachers are not seeing the students every single day.
"Everybody is trying the best that they can," Wessling says, so it can help to have an extra dose of empathy and patience these days.