Online Learning Survival Guide

Whether you are learning or teaching online this Fall, it is bound to be challenging.  However, we also know a lot more now than we did in the Spring. 

Based on the collective input of teachers, educational therapists, and psychologists, this series will walk you through some of the most highly recommended strategies for success in the online learning environment.  

Read on to see the top recommendations for the beginning of the school year, or enter your email for access to the full list.

Why Online Learning is Hard

In a nutshell, when students go online, they lose many of the things that support their executive functioning.  This includes things like:

  • A physical transition to and from school
  • A teacher setting expectations and reviewing the schedule for the day
  • One place to get all the assignments
  • Peer examples of where to put your attention and when
  • A teacher’s physical presence to tap your shoulder when you’re off track or give you a nod when you’re on track
  • The 10-second feel-good hallway check-in with staff, or a laugh with a peer

All of these elements help us shift our brains, keep on top of assignments, pay attention, stay motivated, and regulate frustration. 

While we are always working on executive functioning skills with our children, they are suddenly being forced to develop them at warp speed to keep up with online learning.  This is impossibly hard – but here’s how you can help.

Executive Skill #1: Transitioning

Our brains love environmental “cues.”  For example, you may be familiar with concepts like “sleep cues” or “hunger cues.”

At school, teachers have a ton of tools to help cue the transition to work time.  This is extra challenging at home because nothing changes.  In fact, being at home may even “cue” our brain to relax.  Here’s how you can help:

Establish Rituals for the Beginning and End of the Day

Since there is no physical transition, make sure there is a conceptual one.  At the beginning of the day this may include a special treat, a ritual around checking assignments and making a schedule, and defining “success” for that day.  At the end of the day, this may include noting any leftover tasks, celebrating accomplishments, and having another special treat or activity.

Create a Separate Workspace

To the extent possible, create a separate workspace for school time.  Even if this is in the bedroom, carve out a space that is separate from the bed.

Provide Easy Access to Supplies

Make sure the workspace is well-stocked.  For some students, it may be helpful to buy “special” supplies and organizational items for their home office.  The physical aesthetic of the workspace can be an important “cue.”

Executive Skill #2: Organization

As teachers scramble to use all the available online tools to get information out there, students are struggling to keep track.  Every time we switch from one thing to another, there is a cost to our brains in the form of reduced attention, productivity, and energy.  If you or your child is having to check multiple platforms for assignments or gather information from multiple emails, this will take a surprising and exponentially increasing toll.  Here are some things that can help:

Create a Single Checklist

Write down all assignments for the day on a single checklist, such as on a whiteboard or using sticky notes on the wall.

Use a Hard-Copy Calendar and Print Hard Copies of Assignments

Hard copy planners and worksheets are highly visible, tactile, and make it easier to connect to the true amount of work that needs to be done, and when to fit it in.  

Regular Check-ins with Staff

When available, request a weekly or bi-weekly 1-1 check-in with a counselor or main teacher to help with long-term planning and tracking assignments.

Actively Communicate with Teachers

If you are finding it difficult to coordinate all the different pieces, please communicate this [kindly] to your teacher(s) – they may not be aware of your experience.

Executive Skill #3: Attention 

Zoom attention is harder than classroom attention.  You can only see so much of your teacher, they can’t come stand by you or give you a special signal, and you don’t have your peers as examples of where to put your attention or to cue you in when you’ve missed something.  It is first important to recognize that attention is severely limited in this world, but here are a few things that will help:

Collaboratively Set Expectations for Tech Use

Just as in the classroom, there is a balance of what technology is necessary for online learning and what is not. Blanket rules won’t hold up during this time, so ask your child about their needs and layout your concerns.  Work out a solution together that meets both needs.  For more support, I recommend Tech Generation, by Mike Brooks.

Facilitate Movement

Experiment with different tools that allow your child to move.  This may include sitting on a yoga ball, a wiggle cushion, standing, or using a Bluetooth headset so that your child has free range of movement.

Use Physical Manipulatives

Ask your teacher what physical manipulatives might be helpful to have at home.  Many of these are cheap or easy to make.

Turn Off Video or Audio as Needed

While counter-intuitive, it may be helpful for some to turn off their video and/or mute their audio if they need to move around or make noise.  Please note, many students will need specific training on how and when to do this appropriately. 

Take a Lot of Breaks

Your child may need many more “brain breaks” than others in their class, such as every 15 minutes.  Breaks may be small things they can do while still online, such as 5 push-ups on the wall, or walking to the kitchen for a drink of water. 

Dole Out Tiny Motivators

Walk by your child, smile at them, touch their shoulder, tell them “You got this,” or “I see you really working hard today.”  Remember in the classroom, someone would likely walk by their desk and make eye contact to help them stay in the zone.

Want more ideas? 

Keep an eye out for the next posts in this series, including specific recommendations and tools for:

  • Motivation
  • Task Completion
  • Adaptability
  • Emotional Well-Being

If your child has a 504 or IEP plan, please speak with your team about further accommodations, or contact me for a consult.

I hope this was helpful.  Take care, stay healthy, and hope to see everyone safely back in the classroom soon!

Special thanks to the amazing individuals who generously contributed their ideas and expertise to make this list of recommendations possible: