This year, the way millions of children go to “school” looks radically different. Many children attend school on the computer, doing virtual learning. Even children who are attending in-person classes have had to contend with distance learning, as schools adopt “hybrid” plans, which limit the number of children attending in-person and some “at home” students attend virtually.
If you are a parent who is finding all of this completely overwhelming, you are not alone. Parents everywhere are feeling stretched thin as they adapt to changing schedules, plans that change by the day, and the stress of having to care for their children who are learning at home. But beyond all the scheduling and childcare SNAFUs, are the real hardships that come with distance learning. Many of our children are experiencing educational challenges and emotional upheaval as a result of distance learning.
What Makes Distance Learning So Challenging?
Distance learning is not the same as in-person learning, and many children are having trouble adapting to the new modality. Children may miss the interpersonal interaction of in-person school, and find it harder to express their thoughts and feelings virtually. They may find the technology of distance learning glitchy and frustrating. Children who have special needs — many of whom require hands-on services and one-on-one interaction — especially may find that virtual learning cannot adequately meet their needs.
In my family’s case, distance learning has gotten off to a very rocky start. My middle schooler adapted well (distance learning is generally easier for older children), but my younger child is feeling stressed by the new way of learning and interacting with his teachers and peers. He has trouble concentrating at times, and trouble completing his work. There have been many tears shed over the past few weeks (his and ours).
He never experienced these sorts of difficulties in in-person classrooms, and often my husband and I find ourselves asking questions like: Is distance learning really working for him? What can we do to make it work better? If distance learning is not the best option for him, what else should we consider?
How to Assess Whether Distance Learning is Working
Perhaps you are asking the same sorts of questions. Let’s take a look at how to best assess whether distance learning is working for your child, and what you can do to improve the situation.
1. Identify your child’s issues
The first thing to do as you assess your child’s experience in distance learning is to take an honest look at what your child is experiencing — really zero in on the issues they are having.
First, you should know that if your child is struggling, they are not alone. I don’t think I know one parent whose child isn’t struggling with it in one way or another. After all, learning on the computer is a huge adjustment for a child to make. Additionally, we also have to remember that our children are dealing with the stress of living through a pandemic on top of it all.
It can be helpful to try to understand what exactly your child is finding challenging. Is it the technology? Is it the new way your child communicates with their teacher and peers? Is it the distractions in their room or your home? Are they having trouble with particular assignments?
For my son, he was most upset by his writing assignments (which he struggled with before virtual learning), but he didn’t know how to express his feelings about this to the teacher on Zoom. It was a combination of general school woes, coupled with communication difficulties on a new medium.
2. Understand your child’s learning goals
Instead of focusing on the day-to-day assignments, activities, and assessments, it can be helpful to understand what your child’s overall grade-level goals are — i.e., what the “bigger picture” goals are with distance learning. After all, that is what your child’s teachers are most focused on: ensuring that your child becomes competent in the basic skills they need to pass their grade.
As The New York Times explains, you can get this info from your school district — and doing so can help you feel a sense of control over the virtual schooling situation. Understanding the skills your child is expected to learn “gives you a checklist by which to measure your child’s success,” explains the Times. “By understanding the learning expectations, parents gain a sense of organization and control over an otherwise uncontrollable situation,” they add.
Putting it all into perspective was important for us. If our son needs to miss a Zoom session because it’s frustrating him, that’s okay. As long as he’s making progress overall, we aren’t going to stress about each little thing that goes wrong.
3. Address your child’s mental health struggles
All of our children have had their world turned upside down over the past few months. Many of them haven’t played with other children; they may not have seen extended family for months either. Their regular activities have either been canceled or changed dramatically. And their parents are stressed — it’s hard for kids not to pick up on the stress that this pandemic is (very understandably) inducing in all of us grownups.
Virtual school in and of itself might be a trigger of anxiety, depression, and even grief for your child. Normal school — their old life and routines — is gone, and it can be hard for them to reconcile that. If your child is experiencing meltdowns when it comes to the challenges of virtual school, it might be helpful to address their emotions with them.
- Ask them gentle, open-ended questions about how they are feeling.
- Younger children can draw their emotions, or act them out through imaginative play.
- Give your child space to grieve the loss of their “normal life” and share even the most difficult feelings with you; let them cry, or even whine or scream. Be their safe place to land.
- Don’t go it alone: if you are finding that your child is really struggling emotionally, it might be time to bring in a professional.
- Your child’s school may have a therapist on hand; if not, ask your pediatrician for a recommendation.
- Virtual or online therapy options are available in most areas; older children and teens might benefit from online message-based therapy and live video sessions at home may be easier for younger children to accommodate.
4. Reach out to teachers and administrators
Probably the most important thing you can do to address any distance learning issues, and make sure it will work for your child, is to address any issues that come up with your child’s teacher. Remember, your child’s teacher wants your child to succeed as much as anyone.
Virtual modes can also make it harder for your child’s teacher to know what is happening with your child’s emotional state. After all, a screen full of faces is different from a room full of live children. Sometimes your child’s issues may be clearer to you as you watch your child experience virtual school. It’s always wise to contact your child’s teacher to discuss what might be causing struggles and illuminate them on any problems they may be missing.
I know that when our family brought up the issue our son was having, our son’s teacher was happy to address the issue. She arranged a few one-on-one sessions with our son to help him do his work and understand what his challenges were. The school psychologist was also brought in to address the emotional reaction our son was having to his assignment. These two actions have made distance learning so much more manageable for our son — he was able to get the individual attention he needed in much the same way he would if he was in a traditional classroom.
Go With Your Instincts
My husband and I decided from the onset that our kids’ mental health was the most important focus this school year. Yes, obviously we want them to complete their work and advance to the next grade. But this school year is like no other, and we decided that it’s stressful enough living through a global pandemic — we wanted to make sure our children’s mental health would remain intact whatever “school” looked like.
As such, if distance learning isn’t a good match for our children, we decided that we’d explore other options. So far, our children seem to be acclimating, but if school had continued the way it started — with our son having meltdowns on a regular basis — we may have made a different choice, and looked into homeschooling options, or other online school programs.
The point is, you know your child best. If you’ve exhausted every possibility, and distance learning doesn’t seem like a good match for your child or your family, you should feel empowered to make a choice that works better for everyone.
Most of all, try to keep it all in perspective. This pandemic is only for now eventually our children will be back in brick and mortar schools. And as stressful as this may feel at times, having an “upside down” school year will not harm our children in the long run.