Distance learning isn't working—and many families already feel defeated by unrealistic demands. Here's what you can do to empower your kids during this difficult time.

By Gia Miller
September 18, 2020
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Justin Paget/Getty Images
| Credit: Justin Paget/Getty Images

This past spring, distance learning was more like crisis learning. No one expected it to happen, there was no plan in place, and for many, it was just awful. As districts and teachers took the time to prepare over the summer, many parents hoped their children would have a better experience this fall. Sadly, that doesn't seem to be the case.

Parents have already taken to social media to complain about the unrealistic expectations placed on their children, as well as the demands placed on them. They're sharing pictures of their children slumped over chairs in defeat, crying on the bathroom floor, or throwing books around the room out of frustration. It's been so awful that some parents pulled their children out of school within the first week or two of classes.

Unrealistic Expectations For Kids—and Parents

Parents, who preferred not to give their names for privacy concerns, shared stories of kids getting grades marked down for tardiness or absence, even if kids have had technical difficulties or simply forgotten to press a button to 'turn in' their assignments. And some school rules prohibit kids from eating, wearing hats, or having siblings appear on the screen.

Other parents said their grade and middle school-aged kids are required to sit in front of a screen for six hours a day, visible and on camera, with only one 30-minute break for lunch.

And the requirements for parents are also steep. According to one family, their school district sent an email to the parents saying that they expect elementary students to have access to a parent or other adult to act as a learning coach from home each school day. And even went as far as to say families should create multiple learning spaces in our home–one for creativity, another to read and write, a technology station, and that there should also be an outdoor and physical activity area. But obviously, for most parents, that's near impossible.

Stressed parents might immediately think the fault lies with their child's individual teacher or school, but in many places, their hands are tied by local or state government officials who demand certain requirements be met in order for the school to receive funding.

"School districts need to be mindful of the difficulties families are experiencing right now," says Paul Barger, Esq., an education attorney and founder/principal at Barger & Gaines. "They shouldn't expect that students will always be available for every single Zoom, be attentive, and won't be distracted in any way during that time period. Classrooms contain multiple students who won't all be capable of the same things. Teachers need to be allowed the flexibility and creativity to adapt."

How Parents Can Stand Up For Their Family's Needs

Educational and therapeutic consultant Jodi Liston has seen the toll distance learning is taking on both parents and children. Despite what schools may say, it's clear that young children cannot manage this alone. It's up to the parents to help with missing or broken links, confusing directions, and navigating multiple platforms, which drains precious time from their workday. And when their child is simply depleted and collapses into a puddle on the floor, parents must switch gears and comfort them. It's exhausting.

If that's how you're feeling, here's what to do.

1. Work With Other Parents and Teachers

Instead of struggling alone, Liston, who is the president/managing director of HarrisKramer & Liston and founder and president of College & Prep, recommends that parents form an alliance with other parents in their child's class to combat these issues together. Most teachers want to help students, especially during this unusual situation, so the group should aim to partner with the teacher, not attack.

"As a group, elect a representative or agree to take turns serving as the spokesperson," she suggests. "When the teacher sends out a broken link or several children are feeling overwhelmed, the representative will contact the teacher on behalf of the class.

2. Create Reasonable Expectations

"Parents should consider drafting their own bill of rights to address these issues and request that children not be penalized when there's a broken link or missing information—parents can't always drop everything to help," Liston explains.

3. Keep in Touch With Teachers

Odds are that if your child is melting down due to an entire day of virtual learning, so are their classmates. This is a great opportunity for the group's spokesperson to reach out to the teacher about adjusting expectations. But if your child's needs are specific or it appears they're falling behind, approach their teacher individually.

"Schedule a time to talk with your child's teacher and tell them what you're observing at home," Barger recommends. "Explain your concerns and the difficulties your child is experiencing, then ask the teacher what can be done to address it. While the teacher isn't legally required to make accommodations without a special education plan in place, the reality is that many teachers do it anyway. It's best practice."

4. Ask for What Your Child Needs

Think logically and creatively about would work best for your child. Perhaps the teacher can reduce the number of assignments or decrease the number of questions your child must answer if they're overwhelmed by the work. If the issue is too much screen time, maybe they can attend every other session or take more frequent breaks, eventually building up to a full day.

5. Keep Records

Along the way, both Barger and Liston recommend that you document everything—from what your child is and isn't able to accomplish to any conversations you have via phone, in case you need to demonstrate your child's regression and the lack of support at a later date.

6. Think About the Mental Health Effects

Seeing everyone sit still in a virtual classroom isn't the same as in-person school, and it's affecting kids' mental health.

"One thing that cannot be overlooked is the importance of social interaction," says Barger who has witnessed the same problem, especially with children who struggled with social skills before — they're now completely disconnected and have lost the social gains they'd made.

Children need opportunities to connect with their friends and peers, especially now when distance learning can feel very isolating. If your child has the same teacher all day, ask to build in some social time between subjects as well as small group projects.

7. Be Ready to Escalate Your Requests

When a teacher is unwilling or unable to help your child, approach the principal, vice-principal, or a guidance counselor, depending on the school's structure. They may be able to provide building-level supports or accommodations.

8. Be Patient With Yourself

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures. Forming a coalition with other parents, and putting aside any differences to do so, can make all of the difference when advocating for your children during this distance learning nightmare. But if all else fails, consult with a professional who knows your district before you pull the trigger. They'll help you understand your rights and options so you can make the best decision for you and your child.

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