With much uncertainty surrounding the start of the school year, many parents are anxiously preparing for a number of scenarios—including the possibility of children spending time at home engaging in distance learning. To help parents set up their children for success while receiving at-home instruction, we asked Laura Bridges-Pereira, middle school teacher at Tampa Preparatory School in Tampa, Florida; Kristin Seymour, head of middle school at Sayre School in Lexington, Kentucky; and Orli Bander and Natalie Minichino, both school counselors at Ranney School in Tinton Falls, New Jersey, for advice on best practices for at-home learning and how parents and children can make the most of the experience. Read on for some helpful tools to add to your teaching/parenting toolkit for fall semester.

Create a dedicated space for learning. Just like children have set desks or spots at a table at school, they need an area at home that’s solely for learning. Bridges-Pereira recommends setting up a space with your child’s own supplies and a clear print out of their schedule. Adding a comfy place to read is an added bonus, Seymour suggests. Offering students a working area helps get them into the mindset for learning, and allows them to leave it behind when they are done with the school portion of the day—advice parents can apply to their work-at-home situations, too.

Know that one size does not fit all.  When setting up your child’s workspace, do your best to minimize distractions from noise and technology, while keeping in mind that all children are different. “Some might benefit from working near a window or outdoor space, while for others this could be distracting,” Bander and Minichino share. The same holds true for quiet background music, which could be distracting for some and soothing for others. Additionally, some children have a greater need to move around, so while structure is important, it is best to be flexible to allow for what works best for each child’s learning.

Remember that students need clear structure. Creating routines that students can expect every day is key, Bridges-Pereira shares, whether that’s outlined by the school or something parents impose. She recommends using a white board or bulletin board to clearly display each day’s schedule, including school time, move-your-body time, screen-free time, mealtime, and free times. Bander and Minichino add that getting a proper amount of sleep and being dressed to learn, instead of spending the day in pajamas, is a big part of creating structure, while Seymour elaborates that creating a routine doesn’t need to be complicated—and, as a matter of fact, it shouldn’t be. “Simply getting up at the same time each day, getting out of bed, getting dressed, and eating breakfast is all that is needed to create that routine,” she says.

Help your kids get organized. Many students developed excellent new organizational skills during the first part of quarantine, Seymour observed, while some parents learned that their child may need help in this area—and that’s okay. Kids who need assistance with organization could benefit from a late afternoon or evening check-in with a parent that involves looking ahead at the next day’s schedule, taking some notes or creating a digital or paper list, and planning for the next day. This will help them develop lifelong organizational habits and get in the right headspace for the next school day.

Build in breaks. Studies show one of the key ways to maintain attention is to take regular brain breaks. “Mitigating distractions is about realistic expectations,” Seymour explains. Create an old-fashioned timed to-do list and build in those breaks. For most activities, 15 to 25 or 30 minutes of focused work followed by a 5 to 7-minute break works well. Set aside time for lunch and for a longer stretch break, and then it’s back to work!

Master and control your WiFi. Because distance learning is dependent on use of the internet, screen time can quickly spiral out of control. If power struggles have emerged over the issue, Bridges-Pereira recommends getting familiar with your WiFi router app that will enable you to shut down the internet when necessary. “Once my sons realized that the Internet was really going off at specific times, things went smoother,” she notes.

Facilitate social connection. All educators agree that it’s important to recognize that learning from home requires more self-starting, organization, and discipline. However, Seymour found the biggest adjustment for students has been not being together with their peers. Bridges-Pereira shares that one of her big takeaways from the spring was that learning is a social construct. Therefore, it’s important for teachers to take advantage of time together as a group, whether that is on Zoom or in person and socially distanced a few times a week. Seymour suggests building in activities such as “virtual field trips,” cooking classes, and book clubs to help to keep things fun.

Help your kids stay connected to their friends. While they may not be able to enjoy class time, play dates, or sleepovers, kids can still maintain connections that are vital to their social growth. Aside from parents facilitating virtual gatherings on Google Meet or Zoom, Bander and Minichino have additional creative suggestions for keeping kids in touch:

  • Online games. Many kids are already connecting with friends via video games like Roblox, Minecraft, Pokemon Go, and Mario Kart Tour. For children with access to iOS devices, GamePigeon offers a variety of fun games to play via iMessage.
  • Modified board and virtual games. In addition to (or instead of) video games, kids can play more traditional games with a bit of patience and creativity. Charades, Candy Land, and drawing games like a modified version of Pictionary can be played on Zoom or Google Meet. When playing Pictionary, use a free whiteboard application in conjunction with the meet so that the kids will have a place to draw on screen.
  • Online art shows. Host an online art show for kids and their families via Zoom or Google Meet. A few days before the event, invite the participants to go to the Art for Kids Hub channel on YouTube, select a drawing tutorial, and then view and complete their artwork. Host Rob Jensen creates whimsical and easy-to-follow drawings and is usually accompanied by one of his own children in each video. On the day of the art show, have kids showcase their drawings and talk a bit about them.
  • Netflix movie nights. Make some popcorn, download the free Netflix Party extension for Chrome, and invite your friends (with their own Netflix accounts) to the party. The movie or show will play in sync across the screens, and there is a chat feature for the viewers.
  • Pen pals. Remember the simple joy of receiving a postcard or drawing in the mail? Let your child pick or create some postcards, get some postcard stamps, and send some happy mail to friends and family. Have your child ask recipients to write back to start a pen pal connection.

Maintain high expectations for academic work. “The research is clear that high expectations benefit everyone and encourage equity,” Seymour says. This can be reinforced through messaging from teachers, but also through parents’ expectations. It’s important to address that this time is not a break from school, it’s just different, and the expectations for effort are the same.

Keep your child’s developmental age top of mind. It’s easy to see the inevitable power struggles you have with your child over school as obstinance, but there are many factors at play, Seymour explains. She recommends reading and listening to podcasts about their developmental age and keeping in mind that most children push parents away as a safe way to develop their independence. During these moments, she suggests establishing clear boundaries within the context of unconditional love. “Older kids often won’t ask for the hugs and love that they asked for as little guys, but they still crave it,” she says. And remember, bedtime can still be a magical time to say, “I love you,” even if you’ve argued about homework, the phone, or chores all day long.

Don’t hesitate to ask for help. Students have different learning needs and may require additional, or even external, support, Bander and Minichino say. In those instances, they recommend enlisting the help of honors high school students in your neighborhood, a retired teacher, or a professional tutor or homework coach found on an online educational or caretaking website. A call to a trusted teacher will also give you so much insight into whether what you are seeing is pretty typical, or if it’s time for some additional help. If you’re really struggling with your child’s behavior during this time, Seymour recommends checking in with the parents of their peers. And if things have consistently become overwhelming, don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional counselor. Remember that learning to solve conflicts and manage emotions is a skill that will transfer to the rest of your child’s life.

Grant yourself—and your children’s educators—grace. We are all moving in unchartered territory and there’s inevitably a lot of emotions, from frustration to a great sense of loss, during this journey. “We have to be forgiving of ourselves as educators and be humble to scrap what didn’t work, question ourselves, and redesign in order to optimize the student experience,” Bridges-Pereira shares. Parents need to take it easy on themselves as well. When things just get too hard and combative, allow everyone to take a break, do something fun, and come back more clear-headed later—or even the next day.

Tampa Preparatory School is featured in The Scout Guide Tampa & St. Petersburg, Sayre School is featured in The Scout Guide Lexington, and Ranney School is featured in The Scout Guide Two Rivers & The Shore.