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How to help families navigate the challenges of remote learning :

December 1, 2020

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, parents frequently expressed concerns about the amount of digital media use in their child’s school day. The switch to remote learning has exacerbated those concerns and has highlighted that pediatricians must be ready to support parents as they face the challenges that come with virtual classrooms.

Combined with all the other stresses of the pandemic, parents may have a range of reactions to remote learning, varying from perfectionistic to hopeless. Pediatricians can help parents identify their emotional response to their situation and ensure parents feel safe talking about their anger, hopelessness, fatigue and despair.

Validate how hard this year is and talk about how parents have been asked to shoulder a burden that may feel impossible. It is OK to share the message that no one can do everything that is being asked of parents right now.

Next, help parents identify their best coping strategies. Encourage them to exercise, get enough sleep, spend positive time with their family and get therapy, if needed.

When discussing online learning, it can help to articulate why it feels so hard. Kids’ brains aren’t designed to learn best through screens, and many technology programs (such as Zoom) weren’t designed to teach kids.

Pointing out the challenges of remote learning is not meant to discourage parents but to help them realize that this is an imperfect setup and that they should be kind to themselves and their kids when things aren’t going perfectly.

Here are a few examples that may resonate with parents:

  • Video platforms don’t offer the social environment of circle time. Kids don’t see their own face during circle time like they can on video chat. In person, it’s easier to process all the information from classmates’ faces and the shared space of the classroom, and because of this, it’s easier to know where to focus attention. In person, kids don’t need to be unmuted to offer an idea or laugh along with others.
  • Behavior management can be more emotionally responsive in classrooms. For example, a teacher or aide can help a child go to a calmer spot in the room, use self-regulation strategies to “reset” and return to the group. In contrast, some children are being booted out of online meetings or put in break-out rooms alone when they show disruptive behavior. This can reinforce the behavior and doesn’t teach the child how to engage positively.
  • While online, children have access to an endless amount of entertainment through YouTube, internet searches or video games, which can lead them to multitask during lessons. When they feel challenged or bored, many children can’t resist these more satisfying offerings on their laptops.
  • In school, kids get to move around the classroom, go outdoors and do other activities that engage all of their senses, refocus their eyes and stretch their joints. In contrast, many children are sitting in the same spot with their eyes on a laptop all day, and don’t have access to lessons that teach with a multisensory approach.

Even though remote schooling feels challenging, it provides important educational benefits such as connection with a classroom community; exposure to lessons and curricula; and inspiration from the teachers and therapists who are working to connect over screens creatively.

During well-child exams, pediatric providers can ask kids what the best part of virtual school is and what the most frustrating part is. Children definitely have opinions they want to share, and this may help a frustrated parent understand their child’s perspective.

Some children have adapted well to remote learning or even prefer it, which is great. However, children with learning, attention or social differences may be struggling. The following tips may be helpful for parents whose children find learning online challenging:

  • If the child can’t resist going on YouTube or playing online games during virtual school, ask for paper copies of assignments. Parents also can ask the school district if it has a browser monitoring service to block YouTube or other enticing sites.
  • If a child is missing social interaction, set up playdates with one or two consistent children and communicate with the parents about infection control.
  • For children with learning disabilities or lagging skills, keep track of their progress (e.g., reading scores). If academic skills are falling behind or stagnating, advocate for 1:1 video sessions or in-person sessions if the school district can provide them.
  • If the workload is too much or children are showing defiance, ask for modified amounts that focus on the topics the child really needs to practice.
  • Set up outpatient in-person therapies such as speech-language therapy, tutoring or applied behavior analysis.

At the end of this challenging school year, hopefully parents will understand the benefits and shortcomings of educational technology. Pediatricians also have an important role in identifying vulnerable children who have fallen behind and advocating for increased educational equity at the local and state levels in the years to come.

Dr. Radesky is a member of the AAP Council on Communications and Media.

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