Back to School: 9 Ways to Help Your Kids Survive Distance Learning

Online lessons don't have to be a win-or-lose battle

What to Know

  • You can take advantage of technology to combat distractions, eye strain, and sleep problems for your child.
  • Financial help is available from internet service providers who are offering free or low-cost access like

Any parent will tell you that going back to school in the fall is traditionally an exciting time; maybe not so much for kids but definitely for many parents. National complications, however, mean the phrase 'exciting' isn't exactly bouncing off anyone's lips this fall.

With many schools navigating continual closures as the school year begins, parents are scrambling to figure out learning options for their children. Some will be heading back to school online, which is tough on both kids and parents alike. Students will have completely different online learning experiences stemming from internet access.

For the most part, however, technology can be used for good if you're not afraid to think outside the box.

Why Distance Learning is Hard for Kids... and Parents, too

Spring 2020 saw most schools and parents scrambling to implement what experts call crisis schooling: A loose, hastily-organized approach to online learning that requires parents to be part teacher, part coach, part parent, part enforcer.

Distance learning, on the other hand, is a more organized approach that, in some ways, is fairly rigid and requires a lot of screen time for kids.

Too many parents who participated in crisis schooling a few months ago are not exactly confident that they'll be able to manage true distance learning any better than they did crisis schooling. Kids are equally wary and with good reason.

You do need to be the enforcer of one thing in particular: School break and lunchtimes.

It's hard enough for adults to sit still, stare at a computer, and focus on what's being said by a remote face. Multiply that by ten or so and you might come close to understanding how a kid feels.

Add in that asking the teacher a simple question is something that now can only be done in front of all the other kids, social interactions are now limited to trying to read facial expressions on a screen or interpret tone when you can't see a face, and every child has a different background to make fun of and, well, you've got the perfect recipe for a boiling pot of anxiety and frustration scheduled to erupt as soon as class ends.

Toss in a few more ingredients like work-from-home parents who often can't take the time needed to help a child work through their daily classroom anxieties, stressful deadlines, or late-for-a-Zoom-meeting frustrations.

It all comes down to the obvious fact that the intersection of home, school, and work isn't always a calm one. The good news is that there are several ways you can help your child–and yourself–combat distance learning fatigue this year before it sets in.

9 Ways to Ace Distance Learning This Fall

First, take a deep breath. There are many ways to help children manage distance learning; these ideas will help you focus on the technical aspects of it.

  1. Create a school space that reduces distractions as much as possible. While this is tough in most home environments, you can still steal some ideas from home office layouts.

    For instance, arrange the back of the monitor against a wall so the child can stay more focused on class than on what dad's doing in the kitchen. If you have the option, turn off self-view on your child's screen and see if you can close off the group view so the child sees only the teacher.

    Consider what's behind the child, too, and be as thoughtful as you can. The less a child worries about explaining to the other kids why there is laundry all over the couch, the more relaxed they will be. You wouldn't want to explain that to your boss either, would you?

  2. Adjust your child's computer settings to reduce blue light emissions as much as possible. Blue light can cause sleep problems and eye strain, which we all know leads to shorter tempers. You can activate Windows 10 Night Light mode if you have a PC or use a blue light filter on other computers or laptops.

    If you try these things and your child still complains about tiredness or eye strain, you can also look into eye drops or consider buying a pair of blue light glasses for them. Don't forget the basics, either: Squeezing eyes shut for a few seconds at a time, focusing on distances farther away every so often, and taking frequent breaks from the screen.

  3. Purchase a good set of noise-canceling headphones. No matter how focused a child tries to be, background noise can derail even the best intentions. Households aren't necessarily the quietest location for learning and, when you add in the distractions already on the screen for a child, any option you have to reduce noise is a smart one to take.

  4. Get creative. Don't have a good chair for that desk? Using a table for school? You're fine. The bigger issue is whether or not your child has difficulty staying seated. You don't need a fancy computer chair, especially for younger kids, but you do need something to keep them focused on that screen instead of how uncomfortable the set up might be.

    Try an unconventional exercise ball or use a chair band to bounce feet on. Schools use these for kids who have trouble staying focused or in their seats; there's no reason you can't as well. Bonus: When schools open back up for good, you've got a great workout tool at home.

    Chair band used by child
  5. You do need to be the enforcer of one thing in particular: School break and lunch times designed to give young bodies a chance to move around. Physical tiredness is very real for online learners even though they aren't moving during class. Stress the importance of refilling water bottles, jumping up and down, or performing other physical activities during breaks.

    If you or your child can't leave the house, the next best thing is to let them use that computer to encourage movement with a website like Sworkit Kids, where you can set up customized, short, simple workouts to use during breaks.

  6. Let older elementary and higher aged kids be in charge of their time. Use a Pomodoro timer app, for example, to help children see that class is indeed moving along or that break is nearly over and it's time to get back to their desk area.

  7. Talk to teachers about letting your child use voice-to-text software if you don't have time to help them with writing assignments. There are plenty of speech to text software options you can buy but most schools are using Google Drive, which has a free voice typing feature in Google Docs.

    Once kids get the hang of it, they have fun using it. That makes homework and other written assignments a lot easier for parents to manage.

  8. Set up a Trello account to help middle and high school aged kids stay organized. It's a simple, colorful, and free way to help kids take a break from learning and discover how to manage their school assignments without you looking over their shoulder.

  9. It might seem counter-intuitive, but establish an online reward system for successful school days to remind kids that computers aren't always boring and hard work. Let them play Roblox with their friends after school ends, for instance, or take fun online fitness class like GoNoodle. They'll have fun and you'll catch a break. Win-win, isn't it?

Are You (or Someone You Know) Struggling With Internet Access?

Not everyone can afford internet access or get access to it even if finances aren't an issue. During stay-at-home health orders, some internet providers may be offering free or reduced service.

Plus, there are several programs out there that you might be able to take advantage of for free internet access at home even after the virus is gone.

Distance learning might not be what you signed up for as a parent but it's at least making learning accessible for most children. Taking a few steps to prepare for it this year will help both you and your child keep sanity levels high and frustration to a minimum.

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