Online Learning Works Best When Building on Structure and Certainty

When Alyssa Cotter’s daughter began distance learning for kindergarten last August, it was a slow transition for her to adjust to school on a screen.

“She didn’t know what she was missing out on,” said Cotter, a Rancho Cucamonga resident. “At the same time, it was really hard for her to focus and pay attention. We just tried to make the best we could out of the situation.”

Cotter’s daughter is online with her classmates a couple of hours each weekday. At the halfway mark of the school year, and after plenty of meltdowns, she has slowly built up the stamina to focus on her teacher for more than 20 minutes at a time.

“Even now, after six months of school … we’re reinforcing those classroom behaviors that she doesn’t know exist because she hasn’t been in the classroom,” Cotter said.

The effort doesn’t stop after the students log off. Digital assignments, sight word flash cards and writing practice means Cotter is often helping her daughter during her own work hours. As director of development for the nonprofit Hope through Housing Foundation (hthf.org), she splits her time between her home and office, while her husband is at his service-based position full time out in the field. They juggle schedules by having their kindergartner part time at the YMCA in Upland and their younger daughter part time at a home-based preschool. Weekends and evenings are spent catching up.

“Keeping on schedule, staying organized and having her routine is when she’s doing her best, and we’re all doing our best,” Cotter said.

As many school districts in Southern California remain fully or partially closed due to COVID-19, Cotter’s story of navigating her children’s education in the midst of a pandemic is all too common.

My own experiences are similar to Cotter’s, yet different. With two high school athletes at home — a freshman and a senior — helping our daughters manage the stress and disappointment around unmet expectations and missed opportunities, while simultaneously maintaining safety, has become part of our daily routine.

A survey conducted by social online learning tool Brainly (brainly.com) of 1,000 U.S. students ages 14-18 in December 2020 found that roughly 80% of respondents experienced moderate to high levels of stress during the 2020 school year, up from 59% in 2019.

“There’s stress when it comes to managing the workload … and around the social element of it too,” said Patrick Quinn, parenting expert at Brainly, former educator and father of three school-aged children. “And that is all piled on top of the normal stressors of school.”

Stay-at-home orders, masks, virtual learning and concern for the safety of loved ones are what most Southern California kids have known for nearly a year. And while adults operate in a “time is fleeting” mindset, it is the opposite for children.

“In their minds, time is this thing that goes in perpetuity,” said Dr. Sina Safahieh, child and adolescent psychiatrist and program director of ASPIRE at Hoag Hospital (hoag.org). “They feel like this might be the new normal, and life will never go back to the way it was before.”

Instilling hope in kids by reminding them that things are likely to take a turn for the better in 2021, along with some intentional time away from screens, can go a long way toward lowering their anxiety. This additional time at home is also an opportunity for families to nurture stronger relationships.

“The kids who are connected with their families have a much lower rate of depression right now than the kids who are not connected,” said Dr. Courtney Harkins, marriage and family therapist and clinical supervisor at JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano. “It’s finding creative ways right now to connect and for kids to feel like they are a part of their family. It’s such a protective factor.”

Both Safahieh and Harkins recommend outdoor activities such as hikes, bike rides and learning new skills that not only get kids up and moving and off social media, but also expose them to immune system-booster vitamin D and help keep routines in check.

“Routines are crucial, whether it’s exercise or whether it’s sleep,” Safahieh said. “Kids thrive on structure and certainty.”

Maintaining routines can also combat lack of focus during the school day, a significant challenge for kids as they are trying to learn from home.

“The distractions can be huge because it’s not only a new environment, it’s your home environment, and it’s easy to click away from the learning that you’re doing,” Quinn said.

A school day routine at home that incorporates flexibility and the knowledge that all kids learn differently can help guide families to find what works best for them.

“Being flexible is crucial for parents and students,” said Lisa Collum, author and CEO of Top Score Writing (lisacollum.com). “This academic experience is something we have never experienced before. Parents should be open to creative ways to facilitate their children’s learning.”

For Cotter, connecting with a parent group at her place of employment allows her to bounce ideas off others who are also trying to manage their children’s education during this unprecedented time.

“It’s been helpful to hear how other parents are making it through, how they’ve been successful and how they’ve struggled,” Cotter said.

For parents who are experiencing their own hardships — mentally, emotionally or financially — Safahieh reminds us to put the “oxygen mask” on ourselves first.

“Parents need to recognize that they need to get their own support and help if they want to be fully present, prepped and equipped to help their own children,” Safahieh said.

Ultimately, we as parents set the tone in the house, and our kids feed off that. There may not be a playbook for how to parent through a pandemic, but the experience itself will likely teach our kids even more than they will learn in the classroom.

“When hard things happen, how are you going to respond? That’s such an important life skill for our kids to learn right now,” Harkins said. “If we send the message to our kids that it will be OK and we’re going to make this work, the kids bounce back so much better.”

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