The Non-Traditional Classroom: Your Virtual Learning Setup

School is back in session, and it’s something we’ve been anxious about all summer. Thanks to COVID, we’ve seen a ton of different back-to-school plans and after this past month, we’re starting to see which schools are working and which schools are back to the Zoom drawing board.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends in-person schooling for children as it provides social interaction, physical activity, and emotional aptitude. Face-to-face school also offers access to a variety of learning supports otherwise limited with online classrooms.

Despite all the precautions and procedures to ensure student safety, there is no guarantee that kids won’t be exposed to COVID-19; a gamble most parents are not willing to take. We’ve gone back and forth all summer and nothing is an easy decision, so let’s move on from those judgements.

Whether your kid is 100% virtual, or doing a hybrid of online and in-person, let’s discuss virtual learning and how we can improve our kids’ physical, emotional, and mental state in this classroom medium.

Set Up for Success

Just like our home office, your child’s learning hub should maximize their academic productivity. That means appropriate environmental ergonomics, limited distractions, and efficient access to their supplies and materials.

Ergonomics focuses on one’s efficiency within their working environment. Physical comfort is a big factor, especially considering your child will be sitting for long periods of time. Sitting posture can affect your child’s ability to focus, just like for adults. Check out your child’s sitting position in front of the screen and see if you can make a few changes.

Your child’s chair should provide proper back support, with feet flat on the floor, and their head and neck at a neutral position. The goal is to achieve a 90-90-90 position. This means that their elbows, hips, and knees should be bent at a 90° angle with their feet flat on the floor while seated at their desk.

Ideally, an optimal seated posture would be when a straight line can be drawn from the ears, shoulders, and hips. If you don’t have a chair that allows for this support, you can use a stool or a stack of books as a footrest. Pillows also work for back support to prevent slouching.

Also check for:

  • Screen height. The laptop or tablet should be at your child’s eye level. Adjust the tilt of the screen to accommodate.
  • Wrists should be straight when typing on the keyboard or using the mouse to avoid wrist pain or irritation. If it does start hurting, you can get a wrist guard or rest. Your future hacker/coder will thank you.

With bad posture/positioning, stress and tension can build in the neck, shoulders, back and wrists, causing fatigue, excessive movement, and limited attention to tasks.

Sensory Sensibility

Our sensory system has wants/needs in order to achieve homeostasis, allowing us to appropriately participate in activities. This may mean that we limit auditory/visual distractions and increase proprioceptive/vestibular inputs. Bottom line: You have to build the right environment.

For children, this environmental balance is crucial to their success. With virtual learning, try to create a space that limits distractions and disruptions.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Just like our Zoom calls or virtual meetings, set up a location that has minimal distractions. That means reducing the amount of noise and foot traffic that could interrupt learning. Pick a quiet place in your home to set them up, preferably one with no TV. Also try to put away any favorite toys or activities so they are out of sight.
  • If they can’t focus without background stimulus present, consider using a sound machine or instrumental music. Essential oils or scented candles like citrus can also promote attention.
  • Some children need something to bite/chew/suck on/fidget with to concentrate. Have water and snacks (if possible) or appropriate fidget toys available.
  • If your child gets antsy after sitting for a while, perhaps they need some active time out of their chair. Teachers should be allowing short breaks in between lessons. Your kid can take this time to stretch, lie on their belly (tummy time), run in place, or do some quick jumping jacks to burn some energy and keep focus.
  • Don’t forget to blink. People blink less when they are looking at screens, affecting eye dryness and fatigue. This goes double if your kid wears glasses or contacts. It might be a weird reminder, but take blink breaks…
  • Seated dynamic movement can also help with attention to tasks and reduce restlessness. If possible, let your child sit on a stability ball (positioning rules still apply) or a dynamic cushion so they can get their wiggles out while seated. They can also do chair push-ups (pushing their body up from the chair in a seated position with their arms).

The Timing and Structure

Another challenge of remote learning is the lack of academic structure. In-person school provides, to some degree, a set of expectations and routine for a big part their day. The change in schedule and environment can make some kids feel lost, affecting their time management, focus, and sleep cycles. (Just like all of us were at the start of this pandemic…)

The best way to handle this is to help your child create and keep a regimented routine. The schedule can include: their morning routine, where and when to log in to class, when they can have breaks and snacks, when/if they are making their own lunch, chores and homework after school, etc. Once the schedule is made, put it somewhere where they can see it daily. Also, set an expectation of what online learning should look like. If you don’t allow them to attend school in pajamas, don’t let them log on to class wearing PJs.

*On a personal note, adults benefit from a routine as well. It’s definitely how our Patti gets through her day with twin toddlers. “Even though my kids aren’t in school, a daily planner blocked hourly helps keep my work-from-home house on schedule and creates a solid division between work time, family time, and quiet time. Definitely recommend!”

Acknowledge Emotions

Sometimes we forget to acknowledge that our kids are doing everything they can to process and deal with this new lifestyle. This even goes for older kids. They may be resentful if they aren’t able to participate in sports or clubs, or even to just hang out with friends. They may be anxious or uncertain how the pandemic is affecting their loved ones (financial worries, sickness, etc). On top of that, if virtual learning is difficult for them or feel that the content is not relevant or fulfilling, they may avoid it or displace their frustration elsewhere.

Here are some suggestions to help manage all these new feelings:

  • Reduce the news – Too much of it can increase stress and fear, especially if your kids aren’t able to appropriately process what they are seeing/hearing. Watch the news together, discuss it, and address any misinformation that may be out there.
  • A time to worry – If your child has a lot on their mind, set aside time for them to talk about their fears and worries. Help them figure out and name their emotions, and help problem solve the situation, if possible.
  • 3 good things – For a boost of morale, have your child identify at least three good things they achieved for the day.
  • Be present – If your child is worrying about things they can’t control, teach them that they can control the moment by being present in their environment. Go for a walk and talk about the surroundings (what do you see, what do you feel, what do you hear). If you’re stuck inside, they can do yoga or help you bake cookies.
  • Goal setting – If virtual learning is overwhelming, help them set daily/weekly goals to achieve. This can be anywhere from completing their classwork on time to being prepared for school by login time. This helps you kid take things one step at time, and feel accomplished at the end of the week.

This school year is nothing we have ever seen before and everyone, including us parents, are doing our best to make it as smooth as possible. Despite these obstacles, kids are resilient and will adapt, just as they always do. Give yourselves some breathing room and time to work out all the kinks.

Have any awesome tips that work for your kid’s virtual classroom? Please share in the comments!

Frequently Asked Questions about Schools Re-opening“. American Academy of Pediatrics, California Chapter 2. August 9, 2020.
Working and Learning from Home During the COVID-19 Outbreak“, Corinn Cross, MD, FAAP., June 16, 2020.
Young children frustrated and in tears over digital learning as parents try to adapt during coronavirus pandemic“, Kaitlyn Ross and LaPorsche Thomas. 11Alive, August 18, 2020.
5 Reasons Students Aren’t Engaging in Distance Learning“, Amanda Morin.
Sit At A Desk All Day? The “90-90-90” Position That Could Save You From Back, Neck, Arm & Hand Pain“, Alicia Thomas, OrthoCarolina. Work for Your Beer, April 17, 2018.

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