As schools across the United States reopen for the 2020-21 school year either completely online or with an online learning option amid continuing concerns about COVID-19, a lot of parents are finding themselves supervising their children's school days.
The thought of being responsible for their children's academic experiences is daunting for parents who are trying to juggle multiple children or working from home — especially after last spring's sudden school shutdown and the crisis learning that followed.
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Knowing that everyone is overwhelmed right now, we asked teachers — including Sarah Brown Wessling, the 2010 National Teacher of the Year — to give their best advice to parents preparing for this unconventional school year.
1. Set the scene
Wessling, an English teacher at Johnson High School in Des Moines, Iowa, told TODAY Parents it's important for parents to create a dedicated spot near them where their children can do their schoolwork. "The younger your kid is, the closer their dedicated work-station should be to yours," said Wessling. "For teenagers, they can be in a different room."
Altamonte Springs, Florida, high school teacher Katie Tomlinson had a tip about workspaces. "If your kid works at a shared space, use a bin to keep school work and the laptop organized. Pack it up and put it away at the end of the school day — it gives them a signal that school has started when the bin is out and that school is over when it’s put away," she said.
2. Communication is key
"Let the teacher know the degree to which you can support your child at home and when you are available for meetings," said Wessling. "Ask your teacher how best they would like you to communicate with them."
3. Routines are your friend
Routines are important for creating an effective learning environment at home. Find ways to build cues that will tell a child's brain it is time to learn, said Wessling, whether it is a song you play before you concentrate on school work or using a timer to help children focus in between brain breaks.
Palm Beach County middle school teacher Marjorie Soffer also believes in routines for her own children, who will be beginning their school year online. "Get up, get out of your bed, and get dressed. Work at a table or a desk or even on the floor leaning against the wall. Put your phone away," she said.
"Writing a morning list of the day’s activities can really empower kids to roll right into the next thing, which gives the parent-teacher space to do their other jobs," Wessling added.
4. Keep them moving
"Kids generally work in 30-minute increments, tops," noted Wessling. "Younger children shift activities every 15 to 20 minutes, and often quicker." Don't expect them to sit in front of a computer screen learning for hours on end.
In fact, regular physical movement is also a "cornerstone of schooling," Wessling said. "If you let kids move around regularly, the time goes faster and better. Maybe a dance or quick rotation in between activities."
If your child seems stressed or on the brink of a tantrum, Wessling has a pro tip: Plan for a "vent" activity — a walk to the mailbox, a quick chore around the house — to give them a break from schoolwork.
5. Don't do the work for your child
Kindergarten teachers urged parents to let their little ones make mistakes. "Guide them with their work, but don't do it for them — that makes it difficult for the teacher to understand the child's strengths and weaknesses," said Altamonte Springs, Florida kindergarten teacher Amy Creasman. "Also, let them be little! They are 5 and 6 years old!"
Los Angeles County teacher Joanne Weiss echoed Creasman's message. "As a kindergarten teacher, I beg you to not give them the answer! It’s OK if they get something wrong! It’s how they learn and grow!" she said.
6. Stay positive
There is no doubt that you will have frustrating school days this fall, but when you do, be gentle with yourself, your child, and their teachers.
"A passing negative statement can define the day or longer for the young learner," said Wessling, who has been working with video communications company Prezi to help teachers, students, and parents adjust to distance learning. "And avoid shaming your child at all costs."
"Ask for help. Over and over. Email your teachers if you have any concerns, and email them with the same kindness and grace you would like for them to have with your children," said Pennsylvania English teacher Colleen Lutz Clemens.
"I said over and over while I taught this summer, 'Be half as patient with me as I am with you, and we will all get through this together.' I also said over and over, 'Is this ideal? No. Is it still valuable? Yes,'" said Clemens. "Creating that positive attitude while also honoring the sadness and frustration went a long way in my household and my classroom."
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7. Don't sweat some screen time.
When it comes to older children, video games are not necessarily the bogeyman.
"While it is best to limit screen time, gaming is actually one of the more useful types of screen time," said Wessling. "It’s this generation’s equivalent to talking on the phone with friends and is both collaborative and strategic.
"Just make sure you play the game and understand the conversations being had and with whom," she added.
8. Remember: "The conversation is the learning"
"We find comfort in what we imagine school to look like, but usually the conversation is the learning," said Wessling. "So focus on the conversation moments with your kids, make time for it, honor it. And when in doubt, the questions your children are asking are one of the best gauges for where their heads are at."
And it's OK if everything isn't perfect. Wessling wants parents to know that teachers realize they are doing the best they can. "If we can just keep students open to learning, that's really what's important," she said.
9. Don't get caught with your pants down (literally)
"We all saw embarrassing footage of Zoom calls gone wrong," said Perkasie, Pennsylvania teacher Jan Russell.
"Discuss with your child the importance of making sure their family is fully clothed and muted" before they turn the webcams on, she said.
"Also, bathrooms are a restricted area!"