6 Things Not to Do While Distance Learning and Expert Tips on What to Do Instead
Virtual learning isn't easy. But experts share tips on how to set easy boundaries and make remote learning a better experience for your kids.
This school year is a brand-new adventure for all families—mine included. There is no one-size-fits-all, but hybrid works best for us. That means my 13-year-old son Jack attends in-person school Monday and Tuesday, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., and is a virtual learner Wednesday to Friday.
On remote days, he is definitely reaping the benefits of Mom's cafeteria (homemade meatballs, anyone?). And most of the time he's up and showered before virtual homeroom, but, of course, there are days that don't go as smoothly—and that's OK.
As for Jack's workstation, he rotates from his bean bag chair, the couch, his desk, and the kitchen table—he is a teenager, so I pick my battles. But here are things experts say you probably shouldn't pick your battles on when it comes to virtual learning.
Don't do it in bed.
You've probably caught your child sitting criss-cross applesauce on their bed while staring at the computer screen, but this position can be a problem.
"When sitting on a bed hunched over a computer screen, the entire spine is curved forward with the weight of the upper body and head constantly pulling downward," says Kaliq Chang, M.D., a pain management specialist with Atlantic Spine Center. This causes the spine to sit in an unnatural position rather than a proper upright position.
What's the best position for sitting? Almost as if you are standing up straight. "The pelvis and hips are rotated forward, not backward; the lower back is curved inward; the chest is pushed out and the shoulders are pulled back and down in a relaxed position," explains Dr. Chang. "The neck should also be in as neutral a position as possible, with the top of the screen lined up with the height of the child's eyes."
When your child sits in bed, unsupported, during a virtual learning session, says Dr. Chang, they can suffer inflammation, pain, and excessive wear and tear on the muscles, ligaments, and discs that connect the spine. This sounds scary, but don't stress out, because it's easy to remedy the issue. A desk, kitchen table, or breakfast bar is all you need to achieve a more comfortable learning environment for your child.
Ideally the chair should have a back with lumbar support (aka lower back support) to prevent the child from curving the low back outward, or slouching. Moving onto legs and feet, Dr. Chang says to make sure they are not dangling. "They should be resting on the floor, or on a footrest."
Don't do it in pajamas.
It's natural that learning from home indicates a more "lax" approach, says Rachel Busman, Psy.D., senior director of the anxiety disorders center and director of the selective mutism service at the Child Mind Institute. But kids should avoid rolling out of bed and immediately starting school in their pajamas.
"Keeping routines that create boundaries between school time and non-school time is really important," says Dr. Busman. "Getting ready for the day, including getting up at the same time every morning and changing out of pajamas, is a signal to your brain and body that it's time to work."
On that note, though, this doesn't mean your child needs to put on anything fancy. "It's completely reasonable to have your child change out of whatever they slept in and put on new clothes, or fresh PJ pants and a hoody. Being comfortable is OK."
Erin Zammett Ruddy, a mom of three kids, ages 13, 10, and 6, enrolled in a mix of in-person and virtual learning, says it's important her kids get ready for school, even if it is taking place at the kitchen table. "I try to make sure at the very least they are out of pajamas with brushed teeth and hair." The author of The Little Book of Life Skills also asks her teenager to make his bed, because he works from a desk in his bedroom (tidy backgrounds count, too!).
Don't do it without a food schedule.
Since virtual learners aren't leaving their home to attend school, there's often no rush to eat breakfast, or adhere to a lunch period. But, it's a good idea to get your virtual learners on a regular meal schedule.
One reason is kids thrive off of routines so creating a schedule that works for your family for breakfast and lunch time is a win. If classes start at 8 a.m., for example, encourage them to have breakfast eaten by 7:45 a.m., and then carve out a lunch period, too.
It also helps them stay focused. "Maintaining focus during remote schooling is hard enough without the distraction of hunger or trying to eat during class," says Amy McCready, parenting expert and founder of Positive Parenting Solutions, an online education platform for parents.
Keep in mind, kids wouldn't be allowed to eat a bowl of cereal during first period of in-person school, so they should avoid doing it during virtual learning, adds McCready. "Setting regular meal and snack breaks helps delineate class time from break time."
Don't do it while on social media.
This may sound like a no-brainer, but it's so easy for tweens and teens to get distracted, especially since they may need to use their smartphone for calculator help or to call a classmate. But, of course, there's a big difference between a video call with your classmate to work on a project and watching TikTok videos on the down-low during a virtual class.
Caregivers don't need to enact a phone ban but should monitor the situation. "Check in to make sure they are not goofing around on their phones during virtual school hours. If they are, talk to them first," suggest Lisa Heffernan and Mary Dell Harrington, co-founders of the parenting website Grown and Flown and co-authors of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults. "Have a conversation with your child about responsible and proper phone usage during the virtual school day."
If your kid can't seem to step away from that phone, it could be helpful to enforce strict boundaries and only allow them to use it while on breaks.
Don't do it when sick.
There can be a disconnect when it comes to home and school, since your child isn't physically entering a school building. This line can get especially blurred if your child isn't feeling 100 percent and wants to take time to rest, because, after all, they are already home. What constitutes a sick day in a virtual learning setting?
"Every parent should prepare for intermittent days of illness during the virtual year," says Natasha Burgert, M.D., a pediatrician at Pediatric Associates in Overland Park, Kansas. "Staring at a screen with nasal congestion, a headache, or nausea is not going to result in effective learning."
In fact, she says those virtual learning minutes will likely have to be repeated when your child is feeling better. "Regardless of in-person or virtual learning, rest is critical for immune system function and required for full symptom recovery. It's often best to allow a child to take a rest day, than to press through without full participation. And teachers are expecting students to have days off when needed through the virtual year."
Of course, it's best to always check in with your kid's pediatrician, especially if they are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.
Don't do it without breaks.
Remember if your child was attending school in-person, they would be engaging in some sort of physical activity. Be sure to get your kids moving during the day and schedule in some time for them to do that.
Allison Mell, DPT, a New York-based physical therapist, says regular intervals of movement can improve cognitive function, expand attention and memory, and increase energy levels. "The more children sit and remain inactive, the less likely they are to stay focused and retain the information they are learning," says Dr. Mell, also the owner of Tots On Target, a virtual community for parents, teachers, and pediatric professionals to help kids reach their milestones.
The remedy: take short intervals every hour, or every half hour for younger children. "Exercise like yoga and jumping jacks are easy ways to incorporate movement breaks in between virtual learning sessions,” says Dr. Mell.
Lindsay Powers, mom of two kids 7 and 4 years old, parenting writer, and author of You Can't F*ck Up Your Kids: A Judgment-Free Guide to Stress-Free Parenting agrees: “Moving during the day is important because kids aren't meant to sit still and stare at a computer all day. They need to move to help them stay focused and less fidgety.” What works for her kids? “Whether it's jogging up and down stairs, or even doing a wiggle break, where you dance hilariously for a couple of minutes—helps with transitions by signaling the end of one subject and the start of another.”