Remote learning: How parents can keep children focused and engaged this school year

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For families across America, the start of this academic year is looking a lot like the end of the last one, as the ongoing spread of the coronavirus has forced many students to once again swap their desks for laptops and remote learning.

School districts from coast to coast are each handling the new school year differently. New York City welcomed back hundreds of thousands of students this week for a blended model of in-person and remote learning, while districts in other cities and towns have opted to stay online-only through at least the fall.

The changes pose challenges for children who must now navigate a different kind of learning experience – and one they still may not be used to. For parents and guardians, here are tips to help position your child for success with remote learning.

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Get creative while setting up a student’s workspace 

Since homes and apartments will now be the primary learning environments, designate your child a workspace they can customize as their own to help get them excited for the day, Dr. Nerissa Bauer, a behavioral pediatrician and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, tells Fox News.

“A lot of families are just putting them at the kitchen table or maybe using their bed or bedroom,” she says. “But I really advocate for at least carving out some personalization of that space, and I get that some families’ space is limited.”

Bauer says parents have taken to social media to share designs of mobile workspaces made out of tri-fold project display boards that can be moved from room to room.

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“Some families have used that as the backdrop and put a hook to have a child’s headphones hang from, have the child decorate that, include laminated pockets so that they can organize their assignments for the day and that it also works by blocking out distractions,” she says.

The fewer screens, the better 

Any ideal home workspace for a student should be “clear of all distractions, including television and other non-essential screens,” Dr. Laura Phillips, a clinical neuropsychologist at the nonprofit Child Mind Institute, tells Fox News.

“Discourage ‘double’ or ‘triple-screening’ — the tendency to work on a computer while watching something on the iPad and chatting with friends on the cell phone,” Phillips wrote in an email. “The same rules around phone use that apply in the school building should apply at home — encourage your students to leave the cell phone in another room so that they are not tempted to look at it during class time.”

And when participating in classes online, discouraging students from keeping multiple tabs open on their web browser is key to keeping them engaged, Phillips adds.

“We adults know how easy it is to get pulled away by email, Amazon, and other internet temptations while working on the computer,” she says.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio greets students as they arrive for in-person classes Tuesday in the Manhattan borough of New York City. (AP)

Create a visual schedule and add structure to their days 

Even though some parents must juggle working their own jobs while their children are attending classes under the same roof, they should try to designate certain time points throughout the day to check in on their student’s progress, with breakfast as an easy starting point, Bauer says.

“Visual schedules are really helpful for keeping kids oriented to where they are in the day and what’s coming next,” Phillips adds. “For younger students, it might be helpful to jot down your own work meetings on the schedule so that they know when they can come find you when they need assistance.”

Phillips also says when parents need to increase their child’s independence, students should be encouraged to work on their own for stretches of 15-20 minutes, after which you’ll check in on them and celebrate progress they have made.

“This helps to build self-regulation and confidence, as well, and offers parents some time to attend to their own work demands,” she tells Fox News.

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Make time every day for nonelectronic activity as well 

Students doing remote learning are now spending more time sitting in front of a screen than they used to, so it’s important for parents who are “rightly concerned” to set aside time each day for nonelectronic activities, Bauer says.

“Really dedicate that hour every day to going outside, doing something as a family, playing a board game – something just off-screen that everyone can reconnect with each other,” she adds.

Phillips says too much screen time can have negative health consequences for children, including disruptions in sleep and headaches.

But “we also need to acknowledge that for many students, depending on circumstances, such as where they live and what's happening with the virus in their community, screens may provide the only way for them to interact with their friends and it is very important for mental health that our kids maintain their social connections,” she adds.

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As for younger students, encouraging physical activity during the school day can help them release energy – and also help them pay attention during classes, according to Bauer.

"I have some families whose kids are in first and second grade who have at least three or four dedicated Zoom calls with their class,” she said. “And so thinking about right before getting on Zoom, having the child run around, get some energy out, do some jumping jacks, play some music, dance around the house … and then that way they can focus when they have to be on the screen.”

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Seek further help if needed 

Parents shouldn’t be hesitant to seek further help if they find their child struggling with remote learning.

“Anything they see happening during remote learning this year — if it’s concerning to them, to not be afraid to talk to their pediatrician about it,” Bauer says. “Because pediatricians do care about the whole child and not just the physical health of the child.”

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