Remote learning has been an option for quite some time — whether it was in the form of correspondence classes or through colleges that exist entirely online.
But never before have so many students across all age groups been required to set up desks inside their own homes.
Almost overnight, schools and universities across the country had been pressed into distance learning, with 74% of the country's 100 biggest districts choosing to start education from afar in the 2020 school year, according to a report from Education Week.
Whether it's as serious as an extended public health crisis or the need for greater flexibility for learners, some amount of distanced education is here to stay. But managing this new normal requires more than just setting boundaries. Parents and guardians have to balance their already busy daily weekday responsibilities with this additional, crucial role.
How to handle it all? Three experts — a public school counselor, the general manager of a tutoring company, and a behavioral psychologist — share recommendations and six creative solutions that will help you better balance the often chaotic reality of learning in a non-classroom environment.
Just as your home has different spaces for relaxing, eating and sleeping, consider additional areas for studying and work. If possible, make these separate rooms. But, if working with limited square footage, an inexpensive and easy hack is to simply change the vibe.
"If you're in an apartment and it's very small, it's okay if you don't have a dedicated workspace," says Dr. Rebecca Kennedy, a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice in New York City and a mother of three.
"You can still have an [area] that's different from your regular home space. It might even be at the kitchen table, but maybe you put up a sign with your child's name and his second-grade class, and you take it down when you're using the table for not-school," she shares.
In addition to carving out distinct space, Kennedy suggests other creative solutions such as designating special tools — like a pencil holder, notebook and craft supplies — that are only used for school. Assign each kid a bin (much like kids may have in a cubby or classroom) so they'll have their supplies ready when they log on for school. This might even cut down on the number of "Mom, where's my notebook-math folder-eraser-markers-insert-misplaced-item here?" questions you field in a day. One can hope.
Kennedy is a big fan of positive mantras (messages to stay positive or inspiring quotes for the day) conspicuously placed where students can see them. "Our kids definitely need visual cues to signify the difference between school and home," she explains. "And while it's great to have a dedicated space, you can create those same cues even in a common, public area; you just have to work a little harder."
While individual teachers may have suggestions for academic apps, counselors like Green are more focused on tools that help regulate emotions and meet social needs. She recommends mindfulness and meditation apps like Headspace or MyLife which can provide a moment of calm during the day.
Because both students and employees may be losing out on IT professionals by switching to their home networks, cybersecurity must be top-of-mind. Parental controls are your friend. It's also worth making the switch to password management software that can help protect your family's accounts from being compromised.
"Kids should be learning etiquette and security," Green says. "Ask your tech teacher for tips on being safe and think about the footprint you're leaving."
For single parents — or those who have demanding jobs that don't allow much flexibility — it may be time to call in reinforcements.
Thankfully, there are usually some options that won't break the bank. If your daughter needs a little extra help on algebra or your nephew is struggling with chemistry, many schools offer free programs to help — or can pair your child with a student teacher who needs to log hours.
Keep in mind, too, that age-old saying about it taking a village to raise a child: Don't count out family members or friends who might be willing to pitch in by sharing their expertise with your kids.
Another possibility: your employer. As workers leave behind perks like in-office espresso machines, companies are beginning to think more holistically about employee benefits. Many have even begun teaming with tutoring services to take some of the burden off parents, according to Sandi White, vice president and general manager of Institutional Programs at Tutor.com, which offers 24/7 help across 250 subject matters. Consult your employer, as you may find that these types of services are available to you at reduced cost.
But if your company isn't providing these sort of perks and your school doesn't offer help outside of class? "Check your public library," White advises, noting that although they're often overlooked, libraries are great places to find extracurricular programming like reading groups or educational games. "We work with thousands of them across the country, and all you need is a library card."
Taking breaks is essential — for both the kiddos and for you. "I always tell kids that when we're feeling frustrated, sad or worried, we can recenter ourselves and calm our bodies through breathing exercises," Green says. For children, she recommends "cookie breathing": Think of your favorite cookie, warm from the oven. Pretend you're smelling it, then blow on it to cool it off.
No matter the size of your home, it's important to find ways to move your body. Green says that free apps like 7 Minute Workout or Go Noodle can provide some inspiration. Or, consider creative extracurriculars like an art class online or a virtual guitar lesson at lunch.
Or, if you want a break from screens indoors, Green says you can just roll dice: Maybe getting a five means crawling across the floor like a crab or three represents wall push-ups — have fun with it.
And, when you can get outside — do. Even a short walk around the block offers a healthy reset and a change of scenery.
Some days, things just won't go according to plan — and that's OK. Give yourself (and the kids) some grace. "I really do believe our kids are going to remember most how their family homes felt," says Kennedy.
"They're not going to remember the specific academic skill they did or didn't learn. They're going to remember whether they felt supported and connected. Whether there were moments of laughter. Whether they had a dance party during their virtual school days. Whether they had a parent who said: 'I know this is really hard. I know there's been a lot of yelling in this house. You're doing the best you can, I am too. We're going to keep getting through this. I love you,'" she says.
In the end, the best remote learning hacks are free: Show love, practice patience, and remind your kids visually and verbally that you're thinking of them because you're in this together.
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