Making Distance Learning Work

distance learningHi, everyone, Lindsay here. As a parent of school-aged kids, the upcoming school year is front and center in my mind. Like you, I’m trying to figure out how to make distance learning work for my family. Before starting today’s post, I want to acknowledge that everyone’s situation is different. Family structures, finances, support systems, living arrangements, access to technology, and employment all affect how we’ll approach this upcoming school year. Not to mention, our kids have unique needs, strengths, and challenges.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. A lot of parents are facing tough dilemmas. Their school districts’ solutions simply aren’t workable for them for various reasons, sometimes reflecting larger societal issues. While I’m going to offer some simple, concrete steps and encouragement, I also don’t want to minimize the challenges that some people are facing. I’d love for other parents/caregivers to join the discussion in the comments and let us know how you’re juggling everything.

The new school year is almost upon us, and I’m sure I’m not the only parent who feels like my head has been spinning for five months. After being thrown into distance learning in March, school districts are still scrambling to figure out what’s happening this fall. Teachers and parents are rightfully worried about how to balance seemingly un-balanceable interests: educating our kids, supporting working parents, making sure all kids have equal learning opportunities (always an issue), maintaining kids’ socioemotional wellbeing, and allowing schools to stay funded, all while protecting the health and safety of students, their families, teachers, and staff.

What a mess. It turns out that living through a global pandemic is hard and exhausting.

In the U.S. at least, many of our kids aren’t going back to school, not physically. Certainly, none of our kids is going back to anything like the school they knew before. Some of us are lucky enough to have options—distance or hybrid learning, co-ops, charters, or homeschooling. Others are going to have to go with whatever their district decides. This post is aimed primarily at parents/caregivers whose kids are distance or hybrid learning, but it also applies if you’re choosing a different route instead.

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Start By Taking Stock

Get a notebook and pencil, call a family meeting, and:

1. Decide What You Want to Accomplish This Year

This isn’t about making a concrete plan so much as a general mission statement for your family. What will allow you to feel like this year was a success? What do you need to do to protect the mental health and happiness of the people in your household?

Since we’re all being thrust into something new anyway, it’s the perfect time to pause and consider what’s most important when it comes to your kids’ education. What, and how, would you really like your kids to learn? Given their druthers, what topics would they choose to pursue? Some families are choosing to homeschool this year, seizing the opportunity to try something completely different. On the other hand, if you have a high schooler on track to apply for academic scholarships, perhaps staying on that path is your top priority.

For some families, managing their kids’ social and emotional wellbeing is going to come before academics this year. Maybe you’ll do your best to go with the flow of whatever your district is offering, but let go of all expectations about grades, schedules, and getting dressed every day.

There are no right or wrong answers here, but it’s important that everyone is on the same page.

2. Identify Your Village

Even with social distancing, there are ways we can support one another. Make a list of all the people who can be there for you this year, and vice versa. Then, start to rally the troops.

Do you have grandparents or aunts and uncles who can take an hour or two per week to read or do homework over Skype? What skills and talents do your friends and family members have that they could sharethings like organizing cooking, music, art, or science lessons? Do your friends have high school or college-age kids who can tutor or babysit (safely, of course)?

Some families are creating “learning pods” with a few other families. The kids band together and do schoolwork, while the parents share the load. Perhaps this is feasible for you. Otherwise, maybe you organize standing Minecraft playdates or a movie or book club so your kids can socialize, and you can get your own work done.

Don’t forget about yourself. Who will you talk to when you feel overwhelmed? How will you get breaks when you need them?

3. Budget Your Finances AND Your Time

Lay it all out there. Realistically, how much time can you spend monitoring your kids’ schoolwork? If you have a partner or co-parent, decide how you’ll partition your time. Figure out what you’ll need from your village. Be honest about how much both you and your kids will be able to accomplish.

If your kid is expected to be on the computer from 9 to 3, and that’s simply not going to happen, contact their teacher and ask for accommodations. Better yet, propose an alternative that is realistic for your family. If you’re working from home, explore whether you have flexibility with your hours. There might be a way to start earlier and take two-hour lunch breaks, for example. Make sure to ask if your employer is offering childcare subsidies, which can often go to a family member who helps watch your kids.

Figure out how much money you have available to spend on school this year. For us, rec sports are canceled, so those registration fees bought a not-too-expensive laptop for schoolwork. (By the way, laptops and Chromebooks are in high demand already. Get yours now.)

If you have more time than money, maybe you are the person who can coordinate the learning pod or organize used book swaps if the library is closed. If you have more money than time, you might sign your kids up for online classes and extracurricular activities, or hire a tutor to help with challenging subjects. Sites like Outschool and Coursera offer all sorts of classes your kids might enjoy.

Connect to Homeschoolers

Homeschoolers have the most experience making home learning work. Although homeschooling is different from distance learning, I bet you’ll feel much more confident after reading a few blogs or talking to your friends who homeschool.

Here are some things I’ve learned from homeschooling friends:

  • Daily schedules work great for some families, but they aren’t mandatory for success. Likewise, if you have room to set up a designated classroom area in your home, great. The couch works too. Whatever system works for your family is fine, and you should do it without guilt. Who cares if your kids sleep till 10 and are doing classwork at 7:30 p.m. under the kitchen table if that’s your rhythm (and they aren’t sleeping through all their Zooms)?
  • There are tons of free online resources available to help kids learn. We aren’t stuck with whatever the schools give us if our kids need more.
  • Even seasoned homeschoolers will tell you that it’s hard. The struggle is real, and it doesn’t mean you are failing.
  • Pretty much everything our kids do during the day—reading, watching videos, playing Lego, coloring, digging in the garden—counts as learning. Going for walks is PE. Don’t feel extra pressure to fill every minute of their school day with activities that look like “work.” All of us Primal parents probably know this, but it’s easy to forget when we’re so focused on schoolwork.
  • You can prioritize. Most homeschoolers, and even elementary school teachers, don’t teach every subject every day. They do math and language arts most days, though. Practice and repetition are important in these subjects. “Lessons” can include math games, doing mental math problems in the car, reading to your kids and having them read to you, watching read-along videos on YouTube, and so much more. (Talk to your kids’ teachers if their daily assignments aren’t manageable, too.)
  • Let your kids’ interests guide some of their choices. If they are reading the Percy Jackson novels, check out documentaries or podcasts on world mythologies, or virtually visit museums to see ancient Greek art. For your science lover, grab an inexpensive pocket microscope and encourage them to keep a science notebook documenting their discoveries. Teachers Pay Teachers offers enrichment activities for almost any subject, plus decorations and organizers for your home “classroom.”

If you don’t know any homeschool families, look on Reddit and Facebook. More than likely, you’ll find a local homeschooling group or one that focuses on your kids’ specific needs.

Give Yourself and Your Kids Plenty of Breaks

I mean this literally and figuratively. During the day, allow for plenty of downtimes. Let kids move between tasks and take mental breaks. Even in school, they really aren’t doing focused work for long periods, especially in the lower grades. There will be no getting away from screens this fall, but I’ll be encouraging my kids to walk away regularly.

You need breaks, too. Kids of any age can take 20 to 30 minutes of quiet time in their bedrooms in the afternoon so you can take a breather.

Also, give everyone plenty of grace, yourself included. We’re living through a pandemic. Everyone is coping with grief and pandemic fatigue right now, even if we aren’t labeling it as such. Some days won’t be great. There will be tears. Tasks will not get completed on time. Some nights, dinner will be cheese and (almond flour) crackers with baby carrots if we’re lucky. Laundry will sit in the basket unfolded. It’s ok.

Remember: This is Temporary, and We’re All Doing the Best We Can

I know the advice to do your best sounds so trite to anyone facing decisions that feel impossible. Still, what else can we do?

So many parents are stressing about their kids falling behind. Maybe I’m being naïve, but I’m not too worried about that. It’s not that my kids are exceptionally resilient or anything, but nothing about this year is going to be “normal.” Trying to hold ourselves to previous school years’ standards is unrealistic and unfair. 

Also, kids are resilient. When all this is over, and the dust starts to settle, it’s going to be a whole new educational landscape. Everyone is going to have to catch up in one way or another. We will figure it out.

If your kid is having a hard time with the social isolation, or because they have learning challenges that their schools are not accommodating at home, I’m not blithely telling you not to worry. It stinks that so many families are struggling, and that existing inequities are being magnified by distance learning. I’m saying that none of us needs the added pressure of trying to recreate a typical school year during exceptional times.

Look for Silver Linings

We’re understandably focused mostly on the challenges that come with distance learning, but it can also have its advantages. Many kids are actually thriving at home. For some who were struggling socially or academically, distance learning has been a welcome change. A lot of us parents are reexamining our priorities and finding that we are excited to teach our kids in different ways. There is, for some families, a distinct silver lining.

Gratitude can be an excellent coping tool during stressful times. Can you think of three things that you appreciate about distance learning? Ask your kids to weigh in. My kids would say: working at their own pace, sleeping in, pants are optional. Revisit your list every couple of months and see what you can add. You might find gratitude for new connections in your homeschool pod, or for being there to witness your child’s aha moment when she mastered cross-multiplication.

Hang in there, friends.

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