My son spent most of the first day of virtual kindergarten hiding under the table in his “Learning Room” (previously our guest room, sorry out-of-town grandparents). He is a remarkable 5-year-old, but sitting for more than five minutes, let alone five hours, is not his superpower.
Due to some struggles around attention and anxiety last year, he received an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that set goals for him around problem solving, social interactions, sustained attention, and transitions. But the problem is obvious: How is he going to work on these things in kindergarten if he is sitting on the other side of a computer, or rather, hiding under a table?
Parents and caregivers with children in virtual school are in an unprecedented position. For those of us who also spend our days at home, we now have direct access to our children’s school experiences. School is no longer a black box where the only daily report is what they had for snack. Now, we get an insider’s view on what our children are learning, how they behave (or misbehave) and who their teachers and classmates are.
This new window into our children’s educational lives comes with an added responsibility, on top of IT support, task tracking, joy finding, and snack slinging (all while working from home), to be the bridge between home and school. Once a child is muted or goes off camera, teachers do not know what is happening nor how to help. It is now our responsibility to let them know and to provide them with feedback on what is happening on the other side of their screen. While the prospect of another responsibility can feel daunting at this time, there are a few simple things that have helped us make progress in this additional, but crucial, role.
First, start an open and honest dialogue with your child’s teachers or school leader about what is working and what is not. If they do not know what your child’s experience is, they cannot help to make it better. I started communicating with my son’s teachers and principal the very first week of school and we have worked together to come up with solutions that strive to meet all of our needs. Use teachers’ honest desire to support your kids’ learning as an opportunity to begin these kinds of conversations. Teachers and administrators are unable to know whether changes need to be made to virtual learning unless parents and students tell them what is not working. If we can establish these communication channels and forge strong relationships between families and educators now, we will all be better suited to continue them once in-person learning resumes.
Second, I also asked my son’s teacher to come to our house for an outdoor, physically distant home visit. This may be the single most important step towards normalizing virtual learning for little kids. Learning is inherently social and occurs through relationships. Children need to see, with their own eyes, that their teachers are real people who care about them. My son’s teacher came to our front yard for a quick, 20-minute visit. She was more than willing to do so because she is also eager to make connections off screen as well.
After more than 20 years of teaching kindergarten, she is also learning how to recreate what previously was inherent in her job. My son sat on the porch while his teacher stood in the front yard, but it wasn’t long before he delighted in bringing her his completed schoolwork and showing how fast he can climb a tree. Although it was brief, it has brought him a remarkable amount of ease in the online space. He is no longer hesitant to ask questions, he makes jokes, and is comfortable speaking to her directly. For virtual learning to be successful, an intentional focus on establishing rapport between teachers and students who are physically separate is essential.
Third, we recognized early on that our son needed additional breaks beyond what was programmed into his schedule. If he were learning in-person, his teacher would also recognize this, but it is much more difficult to pick up on this on Zoom. Families can and should step in to provide this support, if possible. We try to notice when he’s getting antsy, distracted, or bored, and offer a short snack break or quick sprint outside — he almost always takes it and usually comes back more focused.
Fourth, when needed, we offer alternatives to live Zoom instruction. When I shared our struggles and his early refusals to do Zoom, his principal offered to bring physical packets of work to our house that aligned to his class content. Now, instead of running away or hiding, we ask if he would prefer to do packet work instead of being on Zoom. We also make sure that there are plenty of books nearby or some educational activities that we know he likes. Families should not feel like they have to force their child to do something that is not working for them — the student will not learn, and worse, their opinions of school could turn negative, a feeling that is difficult to reverse.
Lastly, I have also put some time into advocating at both the school and district levels for changes like abbreviated schedules, increased use of breakout rooms, and allowing students to complete individual work offline and then share it with their teachers for feedback. Virtual schooling is new, and it is not possible to transfer everything that was done in person to online learning, but every educator that I have spoken to wants to help kids be successful and is willing to make accommodations to ensure that.
These steps have improved virtual learning for our family. We have adjusted our expectations and are markedly more patient with one another. But this is still not ideal, of course. Our son requires near constant adult supervision during the school day. We are privileged that we have the resources and flexibility to provide him with that. We also have fast, reliable Wi-Fi, a separate room to dedicate to schooling, and care for our other two children. This is the best-case scenario and it’s still a struggle. But sadly, the majority of public school families do not have these advantages and face notable challenges at these basic levels.
We are now starting the second quarter of virtual school, and it has gotten better — my son is no longer hiding under the table. He is paying attention, participating, and we are seeing progress towards some of his IEP goals. The other day, I even heard him say something that he has never said before – that he “LIKED school.”
Ashley Simpson Baird, Ph.D. is the founder and principal of Merit Research, Policy, and Evaluation which designs equity-focused solutions for schools and educational nonprofits. She lives in Alexandria with her husband and three children.