Knowing what to expect — and what your responsibilities are — can help you and your child find success through virtual school.
First, let’s define what virtual school means. Virtual schooling is when a school district is in charge of facilitating a child’s education while the child is home and receiving academic instruction online.
Many families across the United States are participating in virtual schooling due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While virtual schooling is new for some students in primary and secondary education, many colleges and universities have taught classes online for decades. While this has proven a successful method of instruction for older learners, it comes with unique challenges for younger students — and their parents.
The main challenge many parents face is overseeing virtual learning for younger students while also working and managing a household at the same time. This isn’t an easy task.
Teachers are working not only to make the most of virtual learning, but to help parents take on their new role as learning facilitators at home.
Marcia Hamilton has educated students for over 20 years in the Maryland public school system, and is a mother of two. Recognizing the new challenges at hand, she encourages parents by reminding them: “This is a growing area for all of us. No one has ever experienced this.”
She also reminds parents to “keep the lines of communication open [with your child’s teacher] and don’t make assumptions. Ask questions. It is easier to answer questions rather than assumptions.”
Families who are trying to make the transition from traditional schooling to virtual schooling more seamless can practice these tips from educators:
- Prepare uniforms and school clothes in advance. Many school districts across the country prohibit students from wearing pajamas, and some are still requiring students to wear their uniforms.
- Charge digital equipment (laptops, tablets, etc.) the night before. Make sure chargers and cords are stored in a designated area at the end of the school day.
- Set up a clear schedule that your child can follow (for younger children use pictures to illustrate the daily routine). Post the daily schedule in a central spot in your home or on the refrigerator.
- Start the day with good hygiene. Keeping up with good daily habits will help set the tone for the day. Make sure children wash up, get dressed, and brush their teeth before school time.
- Consistently say positive words of affirmation with and to your children. For instance, create a family mantra that’s repeated daily to help set expectations and empower children.
- Try simple healthy breakfast items that can be prepared beforehand like overnight oats, breakfast quiche, or breakfast bars.
- Try to limit distractions. Consider keeping the television off, removing toys from the learning area, and limiting background music.
- Create a designated workspace for the student that’s quiet. It can be a desk area, the family dining table, or any area with enough workspace. To help his children focus during virtual learning hours, James Oliver, Jr., founder of the ParentPreneur Foundation shared that he separated his 7-year-old twins so they were learning from opposite sides of the table.
- Recognize and reward your child for positive behavior. Occasionally, parents notice when a child is misbehaving, but parents should also intentionally praise their child when they notice they’re on track and following protocol.
- Have a special password notebook, board, or centralized area to store passwords for different online tools.
- Follow Zoom etiquette. Some schools require students to have video on, and most prefer you avoid using weird background filters. At the same time, using a standard background can help make students feel more comfortable since home environments aren’t on display for comparison. Make sure your child knows how to keep the microphone muted unless the teacher is engaging with them.
- Help children stay organized by keeping school materials in one designated area. If their work area is also a common space (like the dining room table) designate a box or even a laundry basket to contain their supplies when they need to pack up and move each day.
- Throughout this experience, partner with your child’s teacher. Let them know what’s working well and what isn’t. If your child needs additional resources to help aid their success, ask for them. Respect the school day.
- To help a child focus, make sure that an adult is in the room supervising. When children aren’t watched, they’re more apt to get distracted.
- Check in with your child periodically to see how they’re emotionally coping with the virtual learning experience. Listen to the joys as well as the complaints that your child may express with a sympathetic ear.
While this list provides a good overall guide for virtual learners, teachers also understand that families often have more than one child at home. As a result, a perfect school day may be hard to achieve.
Managing the needs of your child or children also requires different tactics depending on their age.
For younger children who may not have computer, reading, or writing skills, educators will try to keep them engaged by incorporating interactive learning sessions. It’s likely that their school day may be shorter or their preschool or daycare may be closed, leaving parents to pick up the slack.
When they aren’t engaged in schooling, parents can continue to encourage learning through play using puzzles, sensory bins, and busy bags.
Sensory bins promote hands-on learning, movement, imagination, and exploration using a child’s 5 senses.
One common sensory bin that comes to mind is a clear plastic container, about the size of a shoe box, filled with uncooked pasta and simple toys like small toy cars and plastic toy animals. The child can dig into the bin and find items, and then categorize them by color, length, type, etc.
Similarly, busy bags contain regular items that are repurposed for imaginary play. One example would be a mesh pencil pouch filled with cardboard cut-outs of different shapes, numbers, and letters.
Elementary-aged children who are learning remotely can be taught how to become more self-sufficient by setting an alarm in the mornings. Also, give them a checklist to check off tasks completed throughout the day.
One task that can be given in advance is making lunch the night before, which can help students manage their time more efficiently. Of course, even as they learn to be more independent during their daily tasks, they’ll need parental supervision and support to work through the school day.
Especially as the year begins, expect them to need assistance with technical issues, learning to use new programs, and staying on task.
Middle and high school students
Middle and high school students should be given an approved schedule or routines they can follow.
If you have certain expectations about what the child should complete daily, make sure those expectations and goals are understood by the preteen or teenager.
In addition to making time for school, also make sure you include time for your children to interact with their friends. The social connections they’re missing out on right now are important.
Build in time for them to focus on friendships outside of school hours.
Parents need to be flexible within this process. There will be challenges, but parents really will be the ones to set the tone for the school day.
Out of everything shared, it’s most important to remember that children thrive when they know what to expect.
In a 2013 research report published by the Urban Institute, researchers noted, “Children’s early experiences shape who they are and affect lifelong health and learning.”
The keys to success that they outlined for helping kids develop to their full potential?
- safe and stable housing
- adequate and nutritious food
- access to medical care
- secure relationships with adult caregivers
- nurturing and responsive parenting
- high-quality learning opportunities at home, in child care settings, and in school
While they may not be able to be in school in person at the moment, we can still work to provide learning opportunities at home.
It’s the perspective of the parent who’s at home with their children that’s immensely important.
Wesley Brown, a working parent of two shared that, “As a parent of virtual students, my main concern is that they are being challenged and pulled to the next level of their development… kids are resilient and are developing new skills that they will need for their world moving forward.”
Just as Brown observed, trying to maintain a positive perspective despite experiencing challenges is critical.
Children take their cues from the adults around them. So while everything will certainly not always be easy, parents can exemplify how to react during these adverse times.
Remember, this is a unique time for all families and educators alike. The educational system has revamped the fundamental way children are taught, so have patience as the problems are worked out.
Parents and educators will have to work together and trust each other to provide what’s best for students. So take each day one day at a time.
Elle Cole is an author, parenting blogger, and educator from Maryland. She homeschools her twin daughters and is the co-host of a homeschool education podcast. The Cleverly Changing Podcast supports families as they seek practical tips on educating their children at home. You can check out her website CleverlyChanging.com or connect with her on Youtube, Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter.