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Parents' Guide to Virtual Learning: Know Your Child's Learning Style


The best way to prepare your child for virtual learning really depends on your child’s personality. While strategies like learning routines, creating a workspace without distractions, and getting sufficient exercise, sleep, and nutrition remain important, these strategies alone do not work for everyone. Depending on your child’s abilities you may need to modify the typical learning recommendations. Different types of learners require different supports. Read on for tips to help many student types, including:

The Typical Learner

To start, do not undervalue the importance of routines. Children often behave better at school than they do at home, because teachers, out of necessity, maintain structure in the classroom. Routines can also be used at home to ensure that your child stays on task during virtual learning. A typical routine might include a wake-up time, getting dressed, eating breakfast, brushing teeth, making a lunch for later, and then sitting down at a designated work space. The routine can continue throughout the day to include scheduled physical and social breaks, parent time, free time, chore time, and bed time. If you are working from home, include times in the schedule when you will be available to help your child. Children behave best when they know what to expect, because they are more likely to mentally prepare themselves for change, making the transition from one subject or activity to the next go more smoothly.

Kids Need Breaks

Remember that mental breaks are just as important as the time spent learning. Research suggests that many children need 10 to 15-minute breaks every hour and that is why most schools provide kids with two recesses and a lunch break. While at school, kids usually spend that time socializing or exercising. These activities are relaxing for most kids because they let the learning parts of the brain rest. Build these types of activities into your child’s virtual learning schedule.

Your same house rules about electronics should continue during the virtual learning school year. For most families, that means no game play or social media until the work is done. While virtual learning, your child will be on their electronics all day, so avoid letting students use more screen-time during their scheduled breaks. These e-activities will lead to further mental fatigue, in addition to physical atrophy.

Older children should be encouraged to participate in the development of their daily routine. Allowing children to participate in planning helps to build their executive functioning skills. As a bonus, the more they participate in the creation of the plan, the more likely they will “buy-in” to the system.

Creating an Organized Workspace

Another useful strategy for virtual learning success is to eliminate distraction by setting up a clean and organized work space. Make sure your student has the supplies she needs and that she is situated far from the television, toys, and any noisy little brother.

Keeping Social

Learning pods are small groups of children that can study together. Some parents have set up learning pods with a few close friends and a tutor that can supervise their work. The key is to connect with families that demonstrate the same standards of health safety. If learning pods are not an option for your family, try to set up virtual play dates to keep your child being social.

All great minds do NOT think alike.

For many children, these “typical” strategies need to be modified or are simply not enough to keep your child engaged with virtual school content. Some children need excitement and stimulation to stay involved, while others require total silence. Some students need incentives for motivation, while others feel too much pressure when a reward is on the line. So, the key is to know your child. The following tips can be applied depending on your child’s learning style.

The Distracted Learner

At school, teachers support distracted learners by sitting them toward the front of the room and away from potentially distracting peers. They avoid visual distractions by simplifying the workspace and prevent noise by using headphones to block sound. At home, you can use these concepts to build a distraction-free environment for your child.

The use of a dedicated workspace is especially important for the distracted child. Create a simple and plain background and provide paper, pencils, a water bottle and whatever basic supplies she will need, because any time she leaves her seat will be an opportunity to get sidetracked. Keep unnecessary devices, toys and other possible distractions out of reach, and, if the room is loud, provide noise cancelling headphones.

Setting goals is another way to keep the distracted child on task. The teacher or a parent can preview a lesson with your child before a class and discuss one or two things that they might learn — challenging the child to listen for those messages.

Distracted learners focus best with routines, and you will find that variations from the routine become opportunities for your child to become unfocused. Just like it is difficult for a teacher to get kids to settle after a fire drill, it will be equally difficult to transition back to work if, for instance, one day you let your child watch a show during lunch. Parents can create visual schedules, and post those lists where they are clearly obvious to your child. If your child continues to be inattentive while doing their classes, moving them into your workspace may allow you to keep your eye on them to notice when they need a little verbal prompt or reminder to stay on task.

The Day-Dreamer

Interventions for the day-dreamer are almost the opposite of those for the distracted child. If these children do not get stimuli to keep them engaged, their brain goes on “snooze.” Consider using a variety of strategies to keep them aroused.

At home, you may want your day-dreamer to avoid the quiet, calm, isolated workspace that is so important for most children. Instead, you may need to stray from routines. Consider rotating worksites: math in their bedroom, reading in a cardboard box or pillow fort, and writing at the kitchen table. You may note that your child has run out of gas and give them an unscheduled break so that they can perform better after their energy level increases. At school, teachers often assign partners to these low-energy kids and use secret signals to politely and frequently check-in with them.

Just like the variation in settings may increase arousal, fidget items can also be used to keep their brains engaged. Have you ever wondered why some kids (and adults) shake their legs when they read? For many, it is to keep their minds alert. If you make them sit still, their mental energy level fades and they cannot focus. A fidget is a physical object that activates the body, such as chewing gum or sitting on an exercise ball or wobble cushion. Teachers may not let your child chew gum at school, but you can use this trick at home. Listening to instrumental music can also increase arousal, but remind your child that when they talk to the class they should either mute their music or, if using headphones, remember not to shout. Finally, like the distracted child, sometimes it is valuable to sit your student in your workspace so that you can signal reminders to help your child focus.

The Overactive Student

Virtual learning can actually have some advantages for the student that cannot sit still, because a bit of dancing, bouncing, and wiggling will be less distracting to their classmates. So, embrace your child’s wiggles. As with the “day dreamer,” wiggly kids like fidgets, but avoid those, like fidget spinners, that tend to be distracting. One of my favorite suggestions is to stretch an elastic band across the feet of their chair that they can push and stretch with their feet. If you have space, get a mini-trampoline and allow your child to bounce while listening.

Before your wiggly child starts school in the morning, take her skipping or jogging or have her jump on one foot. Make sure you have physical activity breaks scheduled throughout the day. Time your child running up and down your block, have them do pull-ups, or let them do ten sets of climbing the stairs. In some instances, wiggly children are settled by wearing weighted vests. This extra pressure can be calming for an active child.

The Disruptive Child

I am a firm believer that every child wants to learn, but those that struggle have not yet learned how. When children struggle, they often try to distract from the fact that they are struggling by acting out. They would rather get in trouble then feel “stupid.”

So, if your child is being disruptive, instead of getting mad, try to figure out why she struggles. Consider whether your child is getting enough attention. If not, you may want to record lectures and, after your work day, view them with your child. Virtual learning affords this sort of flexibility. If your child is not understanding the class content, ask your school or teacher for some one-on-one support. Alternatively, many tutors can support kids virtually. If the struggles continue, ask your school for an educational assessment to rule out a learning disability or work with a developmental and behavioral pediatrician to rule out attention issues. Your school may have a long wait for testing, so an alternative would be to get private testing from an educational psychologist.

Encourage your student to learn the basic rules of virtual learning etiquette:

· Be on time.

· Be dressed.

· Turn on your camera (although if your child is very disruptive, he may be required to keep it off).

· Mute the microphone when not speaking.

· Raise your hand (or virtual hand) before speaking.

· Be respectful: holding up objects, toys, pets or signs that are not related to the subject is unacceptable.

· Only chat with the teacher, unless instructed otherwise.

Set up a reward system that encourages your child to follow these rules. Be realistic and specific about the expectations. Remember a child must be successful about 80% of the time for a reward system to work, so either adjust the expectation or the interval to help your child feel success. If he cannot behave for a full day, perhaps begin with rewarding 20 minute intervals of success. Your teacher or pediatrician may be able to help you to develop an appropriate reward plan.

The Unmotivated Student

Similar to the “disruptive child,” it is important to understand why a student may be bored or unmotivated. Is it because your child is struggling, or is it because mental effort just takes too much effort?

Some kids, who may or may not have an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), can only focus on things that interest them. The natural solution for this is to make the school content more interesting and relevant. Help your child to relate what she is learning to what she knows. Ask your child’s teachers if your student can do special assignments that relate to her interests. One of my patients loved music and his teacher let him write songs and reports about guitars in lieu of writing essays.

Another strategy for your unmotivated student is to work with them to create “false incentives.” False incentives are small rewards that a student uses to make work completion more interesting, such as eating two M&M’s each time they read a page or getting to watch a show if they finish their work by 7:00 pm. While they may not be motivated by the work, sometimes the reward is the motivation that they need to find success.

I also encourage parents to send the message that the “need tos” must happen before the “want tos.” In other words, before your student can use electronics, they must finish their work, do their chores, and manage their hygiene. Clearly sending this message when students are young will make it much easier to enforce when your child becomes a teen.

The Anxious Child

Many children who tend to be anxious have found virtual learning to be less stressful, because they feel less social pressure. However, your child may still be anxious about the workload. You can support your anxious child by making the unexpected more expected. Be around to help, but let your older child inspect the class calendar or course outline and then create her work plan. Anxious children tend to thrive with routines, so an established plan will help give her a feeling of control and that will build her confidence.

Another way to help reduce workload anxiety is by breaking down large tasks into smaller parts. When your child feels overwhelmed by an assignment, help her to plan it out. Show her that she can complete the work in manageable steps instead of being intimidated by the entire project. You can create check-off lists so that your child can track her progress.

Lastly, some kids feel awkward seeing themselves on video. If so, talk to the teacher about allowing her to turn off her camera. This might make it easier for her to take breaks and relax when it is needed. Sometimes anxious children may not participate in class discussions, so consider scheduling regular one-on-one student-teacher meetings in order for the instructor to better gauge your child’s comprehension of the material.

The Perfectionist Child

Perfectionism is a form of anxiety. Some students feel paralyzed out of fear that their efforts will be imperfect, which can be a big problem in any learning environment where kids are naturally expected to struggle a bit with the material at first. Parents can lessen the anxiety by emphasizing effort and improvement over outcomes. Stop talking about grades and celebrate progress.

One way for a student with perfectionistic tendencies to reduce stress is to use a checklist, because it allows them to see their progress throughout the semester or as work is completed for a project. A child who would otherwise struggle to stop working on an imperfect incomplete assignment, might feel content taking a break after completing the first five items on the checklist.

The Child with a Disability

Sometimes, modifications are not enough to support a special learner. Remember, schools are federally mandated to support children with learning and other disabilities. If your child already has an Individualized Education Plan or a 504 Plan, work with your school to adapt it as best possible to the home setting. Whether or not your child has one of these support plans, your child is entitled to a “free and appropriate” education and your child needs to be able to access her education. If, for example, your child cannot see the computer, she may need an “electronic reader” to read for her, or if she has autism and cannot sit and listen to a class for more than five minutes, the school may need to modify her curriculum. So, talk to your child’s teacher and work out strategies that will support your child. If you need help understanding the laws protect your child’s educational rights visit these websites, www.php.com or www.wrightslaw.com, to learn more about how to support and advocate for your child.

In Conclusion

Virtual learning is clearly a change from traditional classroom education. But, until students, faculty and staff can be safely back at school, online classrooms are the new pandemic reality. Every child has different needs. Some children will adapt with very little support, and others manifest a combination of the characteristics described above and require more serious intervention. Watch your child and learn her tendencies, so that you can give her the best opportunity to thrive during these unprecedented times.

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