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How to Structure the Distance Learning School Day

Updated on June 2, 2022Students
Distance Learning: Students with Adult

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the US in spring 2020, the abrupt shift from in-person to distance learning was hardly something educators and families could have anticipated. Many schools weren’t prepared to roll out a virtual learning plan or easily provide technology access to all students; teachers weren’t trained to alter the way they delivered instruction completely; students weren’t equipped to learn remotely; and parents, regardless of their work status, were hard-pressed to add the role of pseudo-educators to their responsibilities. Also, considering the impact of sheltering-in-place and uncertainty on mental health, 2020 has been an exceptionally challenging year for families.

As a new school year of full or partial distance learning begins, educators and parents are reflecting on the spring and considering improvements for the fall and beyond. 

One common area of concern for families is how to structure the remote school day better. We spoke with educators and parents across K-12 to collect their most valuable learnings and tips. Having a toolkit of time management strategies to choose from can help students maximize their productivity and aid parents in a more balanced approach to at-home learning. 

Set a schedule 

A daily schedule introduces students as young as kindergarteners to the concept of time management. It can include time slots for various subjects, independent reading time, physical activity, short breaks, lunch, chores, and leisure time. It may be useful to find an online template, and lower-grade teachers sometimes provide their own. 

While the utility of a schedule might seem elementary, the hard part is knowing how much time to allot to specific learning activities. Grace Crummett, a third-grade public school teacher, emphasized having reasonable expectations for the child’s age. She advised starting small and building up gradually. For example, at the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, “I had kids write independently for seven minutes, and we built our way up to 30 minutes.” For younger students, as few as five or seven minutes is age-appropriate. 

For subject-specific blocks, Crummett recommended building in flexibility so that kids could have an element of choice. For example: “In a 30-minute writing block, here are three writing activities you can do.” Beyond a teacher’s suggestions, families found supplemental online resources to have more options. 

Older students, with some adult support, can develop timetables themselves. Jacqueline Munz, a special needs teacher at a private middle school, helped her students create structure: “They’d have 25 minutes dedicated to working, then have a 10-minute break, and so on.” 

Amy Norman, a private tutor for teenage students, explicitly taught time management skills: “We discussed the number of hours in a day and then subtracted how many sleep hours, roughly how much time you eat, when virtual classes were happening, what is reasonable for TV or game time, and also took into account when parents would be serving dinner. We looked at the available time left and figured out the available window for completing homework.” 

Both Munz and Norman advised students to set timers on their phones to establish time blocks.  Munz pointed out that setting timers helped her students internalize a sense of time. During shelter-in-place, it felt like “everything is the same, and no time is passing. Setting a timer helped them gauge awareness of what 20 minutes of reading should look like and how much they could get done.”

Prioritize the workload

Many students need guidance in prioritizing assignments. Aside from due dates, a student’s subject preferences can create a ranking order. Norman exclusively approached prioritization this way: “The majority of students wanted to get the work they didn’t enjoy out of the way first and do that with my support. They were rock stars working on their own on the subjects they enjoyed.” 

Other students chose to do their favorite subjects first and saved their least for last, while others wanted Norman to design a to-do list for them and followed it. It comes down to understanding if your student is motivated by having autonomy or needs more direction. Trial and error are also ok; if you give a student a chance to try one style and it doesn’t work after a week, shift to another, more supported model.

Sometimes students are motivated by doing group work. Deborah Brownstein, a parent of an elementary schooler, a middle schooler, and a high schooler, noted that her older children sometimes teamed up with peers to work on their lessons. Although this incurred a risk of students collaborating on homework rather than completing it individually, the socialization aspect was beneficial. 

Parents also need to prioritize their involvement in their students’ learning. Brownstein commented that as a parent of three, “I had to partition myself mentally. I’d push my elementary-school student to get his project done earlier in the day so that I could proofread my high-schooler’s 10-page paper at night.” After a time, Brownstein learned to prioritize on a deeper level. Teachers assured parents that there was no pressure to do all the work. “So I’d ask myself, how much time do I have as a parent today, how much benefit is there in this work? Things that felt valuable and would help my kids grow is what I would invest time in.”

>> READ MORE: 5 Essays Every Student Needs to Know How to Write

Help children stay focused

Staying focused can be challenging, even for adults. One way to make focus physically explicit, if your home can accommodate it, is to dedicate a space to students’ learning time and homework, whether it’s a desk in their bedroom or a particular seat at the dining room table. Aim to remove distractions, such as gaming devices and toys, from this space to reinforce its purpose.

Still, cautions Brownstein, children often “need a parent to co-regulate and make sure they don’t get distracted and start playing with the dog, get onto a video game [while using a device for learning time], or get frustratedit’s about cutting them off and making sure they’re on track.” 

It can be difficult for parents to stay focused on their children’s ability to focus, especially if they’re working in the home. It’s a slippery slope to micromanaging one’s kids, which winds up being counter-productive. Norman, who tutored her students online, noted that it was challenging to keep kids’ attention. To combat this, she typically set a firm work block, and then would reward her student with a 10-minute break during which they could get a drink of water, do some light movement, or doodle before getting back into work mode. 

Build in breaks

Continuous, sedentary work leads to lapses in focus and eventually to burnout. Children have even less stamina than adults and benefit from variety. Enter short “brain breaks,” which can span physical activities, creative pursuits, or fun brain teasers that feel more like games than learning exercises. 

Crummett regularly utilized brain breaks during in-person instruction and offered families a menu of options for distance learning. She explained, “There are so many different types. Having kids find what works for them and when it works for them is very individual and important. Some are better for in the middle of work time, and others are better for afterward. Some are physical; others are more creative. I liked to incorporate breathing and mindfulness, which helped restore focus and calm.” GoNoodle was one of Crummett’s recommended resources for elementary students; many more can be found online. 

Munz advised her students to reclaim newfound free time for physical activity: “I’d tell them they’d have to do a minimum of 20 minutes of physical activity three times a day. Once in the morning, again in the middle of the day, and toward the end of the day before dinner.” Munz emphasized the value of having these breaks off devices, as there was an increase in students’ screen time during distance learning, both for school and leisure activities.

Make a plan for screen time

Virtual schooling, what with Zoom class meetings and online learning platforms, increased families’ reliance on screens. In homes with multiple children sharing devices, parents had to decide which child could access the laptop or iPad and when. For Brownstein’s family, “the nature of the kids’ assignments dictated who used which device. For some, the iPad was too difficult [to use for a particular task], it had to be completed on a laptop.” Brownstein aimed to prioritize access to devices based on assignment deadlines, even if it didn’t always work out perfectly.

Munz offered a different perspective, one that acknowledges screen time’s social aspect: “We know it’s a lot of technology use, but technology is the only way students can communicate with their friends. I talked to parents about allowing some time built in for that, as it would be beneficial [to students’ mental health].” Each family determines the appropriate balance for their household. 

Check in with teachers

In the spring, the frequency of family-teacher communication was impacted by demands on people’s time, which could lead to students slipping through the cracks. For example, Brownstein had the impression that her middle schooler was on track in math but eventually discovered that her child was missing assignments and tests. She learned that pre-pandemic learning habits could break down, and having more regular contact with teachers was key to staying in the loop.

Munz and Crummett made themselves more available to families, Munz via one-on-one texting and Crummett via dedicated virtual office hours that families could sign up for. 

Munz bemoaned how challenging it was to retain contact with all families due to their circumstances: “I needed to rely on parents to help. But I also recognized that some families were not as available, whether due to single-parent homes, English being their second language, or a parent’s occupation as an essential worker. In those cases, I texted those students directly.” If teachers make themselves available, maintaining contact helps you understand where your child is tracking and whether they need more support or could benefit from enrichment activities. 

Don’t forsake sleep

During shelter-in-place, kids’ circadian rhythms gradually went off the rails. Brownstein noticed that “it was hard for the kids to switch gears when everything was happening in the same place. They had the attitude of, why should the schedule matter as long as they were getting things done? Why get up early for this when it can get done later in the day?” 

Moving into the fall, parents can get their children’s sleep schedules more on track by setting firm bedtimes and waking them up at a consistent time in the morning. Spending several days or even a week to build up to this routine is worth the effort.

Make room for mental health

The magnitude of the pandemic has naturally generated feelings of stress. Additionally, parents have had to help their children navigate remote schooling and the loss of familiar life, especially socializing. 

Crummett commented that “on top of gauging a student’s own remote learning capacity, a big learning curve for me was realizing how different every family’s capacity was to support students. The people who seemed the least stressed were realistic about what they could accomplish.”

Brownstein spoke to the severity of the mental health toll her family experienced, noting that “the significant job of the parent has been dealing with [children’s] trauma and fear.” She appreciated that her children’s teachers were “very sympathetic and forgiving and said, if it’s stressing you out and it doesn’t make sense for your family’s energy budget, let it go. Nobody will be penalized.” Given the extraordinary circumstances we’re living in, it’s perfectly acceptable to reevaluate your family’s priorities and put your children’s health, safety, and happiness first. 

Teachers leaned into journaling as a valuable outlet for students’ mental health. Crummett shares, “I provided some writing prompts to help them process what they were going through and have creative writing opportunities.” Munz used the format similarly: “We did a lot of free writes. The journaling was a really good outlet to help my students express their feelings. It was especially beneficial for only children who were devoid of in-person peer interaction.”

>> READ MORE: How Writing Can Help Support Your Mental Health

While it’s difficult to be optimistic through all the uncertainty we’re facing, modeling calm and stability helps children stay the course. Norman’s goal for the fall is to “be a positive example that life will be ok, that we’re doing the right thing to stay healthy and happy. I want them to know that it’s ok to find security in this new norm and that if they need to have an issue with it, that’s fine, but we’re going to hang steady.” 

Furthermore, remaining empathetic is invaluable to get through these difficult times. As Crummett says, “Show compassion to yourself, your kids, and others.” While being easy on oneself is important, so is keeping others’ experiences in mind. Crummett underscores that “even though we’re separated and we can’t be together, there are ways to lean into community, to supporting our Black and Brown families who are being disproportionately affected by [the pandemic and distance learning]. These are really valuable learning opportunities.”

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