By Rachel Fuhrman
Thousands of students across the country are gearing up to embark on a first day of school like no first day before this. Distance learning has quickly become the safest response in the face of a global pandemic. On one hand, distance learning allows students to continue receiving instruction and working towards their individual educational goals. On the other hand, many families are feeling overwhelmed by the education-related responsibilities they will now be expected to handle at home. While this situation is obviously not ideal for students or their families, it does provide a unique opportunity for families to support their students with the development of the executive functioning skills they will need to be successful in college and career settings.
The tips I outline below can help families shift their focus from the content of each course to instead working with students to develop accountability, organization, and time management skills during distance learning- ideally, the students’ teachers that have the appropriate training in their specific content will continue to support students in achieving academic mastery.
Tip #1. Create (and stick to) a Daily Schedule
Creating and following a schedule is an incredibly useful skill that many students do not need to develop until they are either in college or out of the classroom all together. However, distance learning provides an opportunity to explicitly teach this skill to your student and help them build accountability over their time. Many schools have already created a schedule for their specific students to follow-especially those that are planning synchronous classes. If you do not receive a specific schedule from your school, it is critical to work with your student to create one. Focus on being realistic with your student about how many assignments they will have each day and how much time they need to dedicate to each one.
Outside of specific assignments, build in time for your student to take breaks, reach out to teachers for help, and engage in independent activities such as reading to round out their day. Even if a schedule has been provided, review it with your student and ensure that your student understands what is expected each day. For younger students, I recommend having a written schedule that a student can follow along with throughout the day. For older students, they may be able to schedule their time using a Google Calendar or still prefer a hard copy. Regardless of how the schedule is created, it is critical that the student not only have it, but be able to follow it consistently. This may mean that the schedule changes often at the beginning of the year as your student begins to find what works best.
Tip #2. Designate a Student Work Space
As families have been forced to quarantine at home, personal space has become incredibly coveted yet scarce. While I recognize that for many, designating a specific student workspace that is private and fully equipped for learning may not be possible, anything that can be done to generate a semblance of such a space will help. The first thing to consider for the workspace is the physical spot in which your student will engage in distance learning each day. Ideally, your student will have all of their school related items - computer, notebooks, pencils, etc. - in this one space. This will allow your student to move “in and out of class” so that they can find a balance between their school work and their home life and responsibilities.
A second thing to consider for a workspace is the noise level. A set of headphones can make a huge difference for students engaged in distance learning, especially if you have multiple students sharing the same workspace. One final consideration would be the designation of a private space for your student to engage in conversations with teachers or other school staff including social workers or counselors. Again, private space is hard to come by, but if your student could have even just half an hour a week in a given private space, it could make a huge difference - especially for students that are used to having such private check-ins with their teachers at school. Helping your student create their own space will not only allow them to feel more prepared for engaging in learning, but will allow them to develop the organizational skills necessary for college and career.
Tip #3. Communicate with the School
Many schools have already begun reaching out to families to both open lines of communication and outline expectations for distance learning. Whether you have already begun communicating with your student’s school or not, it is critical to keep communicating consistently throughout distance learning. I recommend establishing at least one point person at the school - this may be different depending on whether your child has one or many different teachers throughout the day - to check in with during a regularly scheduled time each week. This will allow you to review any changes to class expectations, discuss your student’s progress, and communicate any issues you or your student are having at home. By scheduling this time in advance, your student’s teacher will be able to prepare for the conversation and be ready to provide support if needed and you will be able to prepare any questions or comments you have as well. As a final note on communication, it is crucial that you let teachers know how best to contact you during distance learning-specific times of the day, email versus call or text, etc.
Tip #4. Know and Utilize Your Resources
One part of distance learning that has been particularly overwhelming for many families has been trying to help your student learn content that you yourself have not seen in years, if ever. While your student’s teachers should be the first resource you look to when your student is not understanding material, there are many other resources available online to take advantage of. The first resource that I often share with families is Khan Academy, which provides free lessons, quick videos on concepts, and practice questions for almost all grade levels and subjects. I specifically recommend Khan Academy because it is Common Core aligned which helps many families who are not well versed in the relevant Common Core solving strategies their students are learning.
The next resource I recommend is IXL which many students use in their classrooms for individualized practice with math, science, language arts and social studies. IXL allows students to select a skill to practice and then provides feedback as they complete questions. Even if your student is not struggling with material, there are resources available that can provide enrichment as well as additional practice with the content they are learning in class. One resource that can provide additional practice for writing is Quill which engages students in writing and grammar activities based on their grade level. This is a particularly great resource if you student is completing their assigned work and is in need of more content.
Yet another resource is the geography-centered website Seterra , which is similarly helpful for a student looking to continue learning beyond assigned classwork. The site engages students in quiz style games to learn both national and global geography. One final resource is Yup, which offers on-demand math tutoring for students any hour of the day. Students can simply take a picture of a math problem, send it to a trained tutor who has at least five years of teaching experience, and they are asked a series of questions to help them solve the problem.
Although distance learning may feel overwhelming for both you and your student, these four tips can provide a starting point for finding success this school year. Ultimately, we as a nation are facing unprecedented times and our educational system is attempting to react appropriately. As a teacher, all I can ask is that families be understanding and flexible while we work to best educate all students from a distance and I believe that these tips will allow families to get a head start on doing so.
Rachel is currently a ninth-grade math teacher in New Orleans, LA and serves as content editor and director for Tales from the Classroom. She recently earned her Master of Science in Education Studies from the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. She is passionate about improving educational equity and strives to serve traditionally underserved communities. Additionally, she plans to pursue a Ph.D. in Urban Education in the future in order to further identify avenues through which to support all students in achieving at the highest levels.