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Back to (Virtual) School Tips – for Parents

Education Professor Eliza Bobek Says Establish Routines, Take Breaks – and Be Kind

Clinical Asst. Prof. of Education Eliza Bobek has young children learning online at home Photo by Adrien Bisson
Clinical Asst. Prof. of Education Eliza Bobek has two young children at home and a full teaching schedule, too.

09/10/2020
By Katharine Webster

Eliza Bobek, clinical assistant professor of education, had one child in kindergarten and another in fourth grade when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools last spring. Suddenly, her children were home 24/7 and attending classes online. 

She also had to continue doing her own job – teaching college students at regular class times – online.

This fall, her children will be in school two days a week and learning remotely the other days, so, like many parents, Bobek and her husband will still be juggling their jobs with supervising their children’s online learning. Bobek also has insight into what life is like for teachers, many of them parents themselves, who are trying to make virtual learning available and engaging for all students.

A single father encourages his son who's doing a school project Photo by Moyo Studio via Getty Images
Be kind, take breaks and try to reduce your children's anxiety about falling behind in school, Bobek says.
Here, she shares some tips she’s picked up from other educators, figured out herself or heard from other parents.
 
Q: What’s your No. 1 piece of advice for parents who have been thrust into the role of teachers, like it or not?

A: First, be kind and compassionate with yourself, your children and their teachers. Assume that there will be times you get frustrated – and know that it’s OK to step away and take a break, for both you and your kids. 

Many students, including my kids, don’t want to be supervised by their own parents. So it’s helpful to find ways to avoid conflict. One thing that’s worked for our daughter is setting timers. We’ll say, “We’re going to read this for a certain amount of time or work on this project for a certain amount of time,” and when the time is up, that’s where you leave it. It’s the timer, not the parent, who decides when the time is up and when the child is “done,” even if there’s more to do. There will always be more to do.

I know it’s anxiety-producing for parents and students to think about falling behind and learning loss. But you need to find ways to reduce that anxiety for yourself and for your children, because if that social-emotional health isn’t in place, then the learning isn’t happening.  

Q: How can parents reduce their children’s anxiety about falling behind?

A: Parents should treat their children’s teachers and schools as partners in problem-solving. It has to be a two-way conversation, with schools saying, “Here are the expectations we have,” and parents being honest with schools and teachers about what is going to be possible from home – and what’s not. 

Our son who was in kindergarten would not work on anything with us, but when his teacher did a one-on-one with him for 20 minutes a week via Zoom, he’d work on something with her, and we could even leave the room.

We should also be asking what the school and other community agencies – rec centers or youth services – can provide to support families in whatever they’re missing, whether that’s technology, drop-off child care, or help finding other families who want to form an educational “pod” to share the job of supervising young children. It shouldn’t be up to everyone individually to solve this; these are societal problems.
Many parents are working from home while trying to supervise their children's learning. Photo by Adobe Stock
Many parents, especially women, are "working at the margins" of their children's school day, Bobek says.
  
And we should definitely not penalize students for things that are out of their control, like not having reliable internet service or their own laptop or a parent who’s always around to help them. 

Q: Parents often look forward to the structure of a back-to-school routine after a long summer. What’s yours in this unprecedented year?

A: My husband and I are both working from home, so we sit down every night and block out our schedule for the next day to figure out when each of us is available to help the kids. Then we put it on a whiteboard that our children can see, too. 

I get up at 5:30 a.m. to get coffee and my laptop. My UMass Lowell classes and a few meetings are absolute no-interruptions time, and my husband is off-limits if he’s leading a workshop or in an important meeting, but he has other meetings that can be interrupted if necessary.

Some parents can take turns: One supervises the kids for 4-5 hours while the other one works uninterrupted, and then they switch off. That’s great if you can do it.
Having children wear headphones and pinning the teacher's image to the screen can help children focus when learning online. Photo by Adobe Stock
Using headphones and pinning the teacher's video to the screen can help children focus, Bobek says.
If you’re a single parent without extended family to help, this is a nightmare. If it were me, I’d try to find another family in a similar situation with children around the same ages and a complementary work schedule to form an educational “pod.”
 
Q: What’s your children’s back-to-school routine?

A: Their school is doing hybrid learning right now, and they’re very excited about seeing their friends and teachers in person some of the time. But all of the towns around us are doing online learning only.

Either way, some predictability, routines and structure are healthy for everyone. At the beginning of the pandemic, to have some compassion, we threw some routines out the window, like bedtimes, getting dressed in the morning and limiting junk food. But it’s OK to bring them back because sleep, hygiene and food can really affect mood and focus. And it’s healthy for kids to have some expectations so that it’s not a free-for-all.

I recommend that kids wake up at the same time each day, no matter where they’re learning. Maybe you can’t eat together as a family at other times, but you can eat breakfast together. Some families take a quick walk around the block after breakfast and then they start school.

And when it’s possible, have a school area in the home and/or a school supplies bin (a shoe box is fine) – something you can move from place to place depending on what the kid is doing, like desk work or an art project. 

Q: What are some tips for parents whose children are experiencing screen fatigue or having trouble concentrating?

A: For older children, headphones are a good idea, so that they can focus and not be distracted by other kids in the home (or their parents’ work calls). For younger children, maybe headphones aren’t a great idea since you have to supervise more and hear what the teacher is asking them to do.

Our kindergartner, who’s now starting first grade, got distracted by seeing his own face on the screen during Zoom classes: He was sticking his tongue out and making faces. But there’s a way to hide your own face in the view screen, so we did that. Also, you can “pin” the teacher’s face so that he or she is the only person your child is seeing. We’ve found that really helps.

Still, our son hates Zoom so much that he actually drew a comic book called “Zoom Doom.”