Distance Learning: How Can We Make Things Easier?

As a Counselor, who works primarily with kids, teens and parents, and as a mother, I have seen first hand some of the negative (and positive) effects of the Covid-19 dilema. This has especially been the case in the realm of school and distance learning. I have noticed that while some kids are actually thriving, others are spiraling out of control or feeling stuck. Stress at home has increased and family relationships have become strained. Below are some tactics which have been helpful for others as they have been maneuvering through this challenging time with distance learning. Some of these techniques may be helpful. Some, not so much. To each their own.

Let’s get started.

Create a work space. This can be labeled a “school zone” space for easy reference. This may have a desk, somewhere to sit (rolly chair/big ball would be nice), some paper to doodle on, markers/crayons/pens/pencils, fidgets (little items to hold, squeeze, pull, twist, etc.) along with whatever school materials are required. You may want to add a timer to the space and ensure the space is well lit for Zoom calls and homework. If unable to create a specific space, then set aside a private corner, space on the counter or chair at the table. Add any of the previously mentioned items if possible (you could keep them in a basket). Limit the amount of clutter in and around the space to increase ability to focus.

Create a daily schedule for “school days”. Ensure that the school day is as predictable as possible, yet flexible, so not to create too much discomfort. This may include the following: Wake up at the same time every day. Get dressed and ready as if going to school. Eat. Set aside times for breaks away from the “school zone” and for lunch. Set a time when school is done and stick with that. If you want to build in a “homework” time, feel free. If not needed, then stay away from any school-related work until the next day if possible. Any built in “homework” time should be discussed with your student and you both should agree on the arrangement. Build in time to get outside for at least 10 minutes per day if possible (get the mail, bring the dog out, stand on the front step, shovel the sidewalk, take a short walk, etc.). If they can get more time outside, awesome. Try to encourage some sort of physical activity daily (I’m sure there’s a ton of simple age-appropriate workouts on YouTube if you need to look something up or tabata workouts are short, easy, and super effective (google it)). Eat dinner as a family if that is your current pattern, or try to make it your new pattern if you are all able to. If not, then attempt to eat around the same time every day. Encourage them to create time to engage with peers on social media or in person (gasp!) some time each day. Chores should be scheduled outside of school time, just like a “normal” school day. Plug in some creative or play time to help them unwind and process their day. They are still kids! Create a night time routine and set an approximate bed time to ensure a good night’s sleep.

Validation. I don’t know how many times I hear it. Teens. Adults. Kids. They all can feel invalidated on a daily basis. This is often done by the people closest to them. Sometimes all we need to do as parents is listen and reflect back what our children are telling us. We don’t need to fix things ALL the time or teach some sort of life lesson. Instead, offer empathy. The hard part about this is just sitting with them and their discomfort. The easy part of this is simply affirming, “yes, this does suck”. If it’s going too far down the negativity hole, you can even offer statements of comfort. “We will make it work” or “I’m with you on this”. They will likely come to you in the future and talk about bigger issues if you can help them feel validated and they feel that their concerns are real.

Enlist some help. If you can, reach out to the community or someone you know who could “tutor” your kid(s) at your home, their home, or do it virtually. A colleague suggested that perhaps an elder you know, or from a local supportive living space would be willing to assist. High school students may appreciate the extra cash. College students may be able to volunteer hours for their “field experience”. Ask a neighbor, friend, family member, the lady you met at community ed… if they may want to share some time with your kids (ensuring these are safe options first). Even for a few hours a week, this could alleviate much stress and relationship tension for you and your student and offer a different perspective to their learning experience. These people may have more patience with your kiddo than you do right now and you may be doing THEM a favor by giving them a sense of purpose or meeting a requirement for school or something.

Externalize the issue. Things have become more stressful since the Corona Virus for most people. The lovely thing about this, is we have something to blame. We can’t do much about “The Vid”, but we can blame it all day long. This gives our kids a place to direct their anger and something to move around rather than taking on their schooling problems as being entirely their fault. For younger children, we could ask them, “what would you say to that Covid if it were right here?” or something similar. We can have them draw it and draw ways to “clean it up” or “get it in line”. This may give them a sense of control around this, reducing hopelessness, and help awaken problem-solving energy.

Invite a friend. Invite over a study buddy or have your child go to their friend’s home (if it’s safe to do so, of course). Ensure this person is someone who will actually help your kid focus and not provide distraction before setting this up. I have seen this work really well as this can provide motivation to both in a time when motivation to do school work is sparse. It also offers opportunity to engage socially and breaks up the usual patterns a bit to reduce family stress.

Check in with your kids. Even if you are not at home with them, they want to know you care and that they are important. Send a quick text or message inquiring about how things are going. Ask about the terrible Math test or provide positive feedback for an excellently written English assignment. See if they were able to talk to their teacher or that friend in Choir class whom they haven’t seen in months. Leave a note on their desk for them to find in the morning. Schedule a time to eat lunch with them or take a break together.

Encourage them. This school stuff is hard! Well placed words of encouragement can work wonders. (eg. “Looks like you really know what you are doing in Algebra!”, “Way to keep up in Science, that’s a tough class”. ) This builds self esteem and encourages them to continue on to do more of what they were doing.

Take a team approach. Tackle school concerns as a team. Let them know you are on their side by using language such as “We got this”. “We can try to figure this out together”. Kids are feeling pretty alone these days. Even if you don’t understand what your child is doing in school, at least you can both be confused together and try to figure it out using both of your resources.

Problem-solve. Feeling stuck with difficult issues? Sit with them and coach them on how to problem-solve. Form an action plan and identify resources which can better support them. Ask what they need from you. Offer to help. Provide them with encouragement when a plan is created and remind them you are available if they need further help. If really stuck, encourage them to pause and focus on something else for awhile. Your attention when problems arise helps your children feel supported and not so alone in all this. Also, you are teaching valuable life lessons!

Clear roles. Set clear boundaries when possible around the roles you are playing in your child’s life. Teacher versus caregiver. Attempt to separate the two, or three if you are also working from home, from each other. Your “Teacher” self should not overlap into family time or into the 1:1 time you have planned with your child. Leave it at school. Your work self should also be left “at the office” (which I would also advise setting up space aside from the family’s common day-to-day areas if possible). This will assist with decreasing burn out and keep your family’s relationships on healthier terms.

Don’t be afraid to set limits. If your student is struggling in a certain class, but doing well in the other, attempt to assess which class needs more attention. If their Art class brings them joy and they appear to be learning new things, then help them do just enough to pass in the class they are struggling in so they can get through to the other side. Let them enjoy the Art class and learn away! The goal, promote excitement in learning and build confidence. I might also suggest that you could do the opposite, let that Art class ride at a B while your kiddo focuses on the class they are doing poorly in. Depending on your child’s age and or grade level, you can encourage them to decide. Obviously, if it’s a core class versus an elective, then the decision may be weighted. Hopefully by setting some of these limits, your student will feel a sense of relief and feel they have some control over all this.

Talk with school peeps (Teachers, Paras, Principals, School Social Workers, etc.) regularly. Tell them where your student is doing well and how they are struggling. Ask for advice. Let them know your child’s limits and where you and your child decide to “trim the fat” with homework. If your student gets behind, ask for a list of missing items and what each is worth in points. Go through said list with your student identifying what is most important to tackle and what will result in more points. Your kiddo may have to let some of these items go. Encourage them to keep checking in with the Teacher about the list. Also, make sure to let the school staff know how much you and your child appreciate them.

It’s okay not to be perfect. If anything, this space in time is teaching us that sometimes we just have to do what we can, and that is good enough. Not happy with a D in Government class? then let’s work to get a C. Can’t quite get that note in Band, welp, at least you tried and handed it in. (Maybe providing some insight to your teacher about said note?) As sang in Frozen, “Let it gooo. Let it gooo!”

Dig for motivation. This is a big one! So many students just don’t see the point. This was an issue with many children before this distance learning stuff. “I don’t know why I need to learn this”, “I won’t ever use this in the real world”… Explore with your student where they are at with motivation. Rate it? 0-10 where are they? What might move them up, what may move them down. What’s keeping them there? What can they identify about their school work that is motivating? Why would they want to do it? What happens if they don’t? What might help increase motivation to get that paper done and handed in? Once you find some wiggle room, go with it!

Reflect and reward. Encourage your child to reflect on how it feels to finish something. This tends to help motivate them onto the next project. Offer rewards for finishing things. This could be in the form of “you finish the rest of that worksheet and we will play a game of tic-tac-toe” or a small snack, a planned outing… I’d advise the reward matches the task, there is follow through, the reward is as immediate as possible and you get their buy in. This may increase motivation. Also note, once a reward is earned, it should not be taken away as a consequence.

Remind your kids they are special. Some of us feel overwhelmed with so many expectations to fulfil, added stress on a day-to-day, and with sharing each other’s space for more time than we are used to. Reduced ability to leave the house to recharge isn’t helping. However, are we spending any of our added time together focusing on enjoying each other? If not, hang out with your kiddo and make a date or plan to do something outside the house or just outside the current “normal”. It can be something like: watching TikToks today at 10am, cooking dinner together, going on a nature hike, going to get coffee at Caribou and sitting at the park. Let them know you miss quality time with them. If you can’t plan something any time soon, put it a month out. Write it on the calendar as a visual reminder. Something similar you can do right now is, just tell them how much you enjoy their laugh. Tell them how much you appreciated their help with the dishes last week. Make eye contact, hug them, snuggle. They need this, and you probably do too! Life is not all about school and work.

Make it fun. We do not want them to despise learning or school after all of this. I have heard some people have been creating stations similar to those created in Kindergarten classrooms to liven things up. Reading, Math, Art, etc. If you can add a creative and experiential flare to the learning, do it! For older kids, send them related memes, youtube videos, random “study songs”, create theme days of the week, etc. Consider what YOU would need to make some of this more tolerable for yourself. Things are so heavy right now, let’s lighten it up a bit.

Controlled choices. Our students often feel out of control, stressed and fearful lately. This can lead to unacceptable behaviors and mood shifts. One parenting technique I suggest to parents all. the. time. is “controlled choices”. This looks like: “Would you rather eat your lunch right now or in 5 minutes?”, “You can choose to do your Music at 3:00 or 12:15, which do you prefer?”, “There is this pair of pants, or this one, your choice?” More often than not, children will do the desired task when they feel they have some say in the matter. IF they opt not to choose, then you let them know you will choose for them. When kids feel more in control, they tend to have less outbursts and can get more undesirable tasks done.

Set a daily affirmation. There is so much negativity surrounding us. Fun fact, our brains are wired to lean this way for survival. The more negativity around us, the more we are drawn down that path. Let’s help our children, and ourselves, change our thinking patterns. Help your child choose a positive statement they can practice telling themselves when things get too tough or to set the tone for a period of time. This can be done the night before or in the morning at breakfast. You can use the same one for a week if that’s easier. Show your child how to do this and describe in what circumstances this might be helpful. For example, “Got a super hard Spelling test, take a deep breath, and tell yourself “I will do my best and that is good enough”. “Today will be a great day!” is another good one to give a whirl. Test it out, see what happens!

Create a daily plan. This provides structure and a positive feeling when the plan has been completed. Spend time nightly, or the morning of, discussing what is expected for the day and how to go about things. Reminder: things may not go as planned and that is A-okay. Go with it and be flexible.

Make a list. Identify 3 things you both/all want to accomplish each day. This will help you both feel productive and fulfilled once you complete them. Make these do-able things so the outcome is easier to achieve. The Dollar Store usually has small dry erase boards and markers. These could be used to create the list daily. These are nice because they are easy to alter and erasing the task feels good! Check in on your tasks and your child’s tasks, keeping each other accountable.

Don’t let your stuff be their stuff. Your kids are stressed, you are stressed, teachers are stressed, the guy on the local facebook group is stressed… Most of us are feeling the weight of added stress at home, in the community and even stirring in the air around us. Be cautious about sharing too much “grown-up” stress with your kids. They are not equipped to handle our stress on top of their own. Their brains are not fully developed, therefore school alone can sometimes push them to their stress limit. When you notice your things spilling over, reach out to your partner, a friend, family, a neighbor, a church person, look for or make a social media group or schedule some therapy for yourself. Heck, this is what us Counselors are for! We talk with people, listen, and try to help others better manage their stuff. We all need someone to talk to. Our issues should not be our children’s burden to carry.

Whew! Okay, that was quite a few ideas. I have more! Please know that I understand that all these ideas are not perfect and that they may not work well for everyone. My hope is that at least one will work for you and your family. If you are willing to try something new, a good time to do this is next week, after the holiday break. Talk with your student and get them on board. We now get the jist of what things may look like with schooling, so let’s work towards creating balance by being proactive moving forward.

This time we are in is difficult, yet, we are learning. We are teaching our children resiliency and how to be just that. We can control our perception of how things go for us by actively shifting our thinking to one of endurance, embrace and curiosity instead of rigidity, dread and fear. A quote I saw recently described what I see most of us going through the best (author unknown). “We are not in the same boat, but in the same storm with different boats.” I took this to mean each of our “boats” may be tended to based on its needs and require unique care. The “storm” is the same storm, yet perceived and weathered differently by each boat. Be well!

Jacqueline Faddler MS LPCC is a mother of 3, wife, and life adventurer. She is the owner of Trilogy Counseling Services, providing Counseling to children, teens, adults, couples and families. She also offers supervision for others seeking to enter into the Counseling profession.

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