How Do We Keep Going When It Keeps Going?

As case counts of the Delta variant of Covid-19 continue to grow, many school districts are delaying the new school year, or returning to remote formats. While we have learned a great deal about how to best deliver remote learning formats to our students, difficulties persist. We all realize that there is no remote equivalent to being there in person. Chief among the deficiencies of remote learning is the absence of in-person human interaction. Even before Covid, we knew that “friends” and conversations via social media were not the same as face-to-face interactions, even if the former had already largely replaced the latter. Now that face-to-face meetings are removed from the educational equation, the consequences of that deficit must be addressed. Psychiatrists have already observed troubling trends in children brought about by prolonged remote learning during the last academic year.

“Structure that was once created and maintained by school administration and campus buildings has been turned over to children and their families.  Education now relies on self-discipline and self-control, dynamics that are not typically fully developed in school age children

This shift in the learning environment has come with reported increases in anxiety, depression, social isolation, insecurities, loneliness, helplessness, and hopelessness from students of all ages.  While the mental health of school age children has been a growing concern for health care practitioners over the last decade, with the increased burden of remote learning, we are seeing an even greater increase in mental health issues in this group” (Day, 2020). 

One of the fundamental problems with remote learning is that it forces children to learn in an unintuitive way. Children are naturally curious. They are motivated to learn by having the opportunity to explore where their curiosity leads them. They enjoy doing so in groups of peers, not alone or even necessarily with an adult teacher, including a parent. If remote learning is going to one more successful and less detrimental to students, then the remote learning environment needs to be reshaped to allow students to follow their curiosity and to do so in virtual small groups. Children are already comfortable with group video chats, so using that format for students to collaborate and share their curiosity-driven excitement over what they are learning can be helpful.

Children also need playtime with each other. This important point is likely to be lost or forgotten as educators rush to make up for alleged losses in progress from last year. But pushing ahead with educational models that promote anxiety and stress are likely to exacerbate the deficit, not close it. Children should have online group chat time to just play; to have a virtual recess. They can share music, stories, artwork, and games during this time. Giving them a virtual recess will refresh them for more academic work later, and will help ease the psychological burdens and liabilities that were so problematic last year. Parents will still need to supervise these virtual recesses, just as a teacher supervises the playground, but it will be a needed break for parents and students alike. 

When students and parents are engaged in academic work, the work space needs to be designed thoughtfully too. Until remote learning began, the home was a place the children came home to from school. Although they did homework at home, the time spent doing so was much less than the full school day they are now spending in their home. Adults working from home have found that it is challenging to separate work life from personal life, with work hours extending beyond what they were when they were not working from home. The same challenges face children doing school from home. Set up a dedicated workspace in the home that is only for remote learning during the school day. Schedule the hours of remote school so that they are consistent. The child is then only in the “classroom” during “school,” and can leave school to go home, that is into the rest of the home when school hours are over. The school day does not have to be the same as in-person school was, but it should be as consistent as possible from day to day. 

One more point to make is that parents should be careful how they teach or oversee their children’s remote learning. It’s one thing for a teacher in school to evaluate work, point out errors and shortcomings, and require continued work to improve outcomes. It’s another thing for a parent to be frequently pointing out their own child’s shortcomings. Children need their parents’ approval. When the parent is also the teacher, the teacher’s criticism can be confused with a parent’s disappointment, and that can be damaging to a child’s self-image and sense of worth. The key here is not for the parent/teacher to never correct, for that would prevent the child from growing their proficiency. Instead, the parent/teacher must adhere to a “growth mindset.”

“Move beyond the whole concept of “smart,” which implies that kids are either intelligent or they’re not. That’s one of the beliefs that makes kids give up on learning, and it turns out to be false. The truth is that our brains are always growing in response to our experience, so we can always work on getting better at things. So it’s never about being smart, it’s about growing your brain.

When you talk with your child about this, you can use the example of building muscles by working out. You wouldn’t try lifting a huge weight and then give up “because I’m just not strong!” You would work at it until you met your goals. Similarly, your mind grows and gets better at solving problems and learning new things the more you practice. This way of viewing our brains is called a growth mindset, and it’s an essential antidote to self-judgment and fears about achievement” (Markham, L., 2020).

Teachers must collaborate with parents if remote working is going to succeed. Communicating the points I’ve made here will help parents manage the challenges of their child’s remote learning, and solve at least some of the problems encountered last year. Accommodating curiosity, having recess, making virtual small groups, providing a dedicated learning space, and promoting a growth mindset are all key pieces to the remote learning puzzle. 

Day, L. (2020). The Effects of Remote Learning on Children, Meier Clinic, Sun Valley, Idaho, https://www.meierclinics.com/the-effects-of-remote-learning-on-children/, accessed August 17, 2021

Markham, L. (2020). Remote Learning: Why Your Child Gives You Such A Hard Time, Psychology Today, September 3, 2020, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/peaceful-parents-happy-kids/202009/remote-learning-why-your-child-gives-you-such-hard-time, accessed August 17, 2021

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