As the new school year approaches, many children across Massachusetts will learn in an unprecedented way. Some districts, like Boston, will begin the school year learning remotely, while other districts will adopt a hybrid model — a weekly combination of in-person and remote learning.
“It is a very, very challenging time,” said Dr. Neha Sharma, a child/adolescent psychiatrist at Tufts Medical Center. “And I think it’s very hard for all parents. The usual back-to-school anxiety is a lot, and this is particularly heightened, more than ever.”
Sharma and Dr. Patrick Lattuca, superintendent of the state’s TEC Connections Academy Commonwealth Virtual School (TECCA), an online public school that serves students in grades K-12, offered the following five tips for helping children learn in a hybrid model this year.
1. Stay calm.
“I think parental calmness is paramount,” Sharma said. “The kids know that the world is safe by looking at their parents.”
The best way to address anxiety is with information, Sharma said, because obtaining information leads to feeling more in control.
Learn everything you can about your school district’s hybrid plan, Sharma said. And then discuss the pros and cons of the learning model with your kids in an age-appropriate way so they can feel more in control as well. Talk about what the school day will look like, discussing things like how many kids will be in each class, how far apart the desks are going to be, etc.
It’s best to approach the school year in a “slow and steady” frame of mind, she said. That means not expecting perfection, but rather thinking on a weekly basis, “What did we learn this week? What needs to change?”
2. Review safety guidelines with your kids and practice mask-wearing.
It’s a good idea to review school safety information with your child, but in a calm way, Sharma said.
“Hone in on things we know,” she said. “And what we do know is that washing hands and wearing masks helps and that that kind of deters anybody catching the virus.”
Mask-wearing will be part of the school day for many children this fall, so it’s a good idea to have your child practice wearing it for longer, Sharma said.
“Some kids are naturally just fine with it, and so they don’t necessarily need as much practice,” she said. “But other kids, just to get accustomed, may need longer time to do that. So I think, according to the need of the child and how easy it is for them to adapt to novelty or new things, I would plan ahead and start having them wear it a little bit more.”
3. Structure, structure, structure.
“When it comes to setting a student up for success, in my opinion, students really need structure when they are at home,” Lattuca said.
Parents should set up a special space at home where remote learning will take place, both experts said.
“It shouldn’t be your bed or a couch,” Lattuca said. “It should be a specific space such as a kitchen table or a desk in a bedroom or part of a table in a dining room or kitchen. They should have all their supplies with them when they are at their space. So when they sit down there, they know that that’s where school happens.”
The designated space helps your child’s brain associate that spot with learning and helps to limit distractions, Sharma said. A weekly schedule should also be available for reference so the student knows what is expected, Lattuca said.
“I think the most important thing, especially with this hybrid model, is to have routine,” Sharma said. “Routines are really important.”
This means your child should wake up, eat breakfast, get dressed, and prepare for school at the same time every day, whether it’s an at-home learning day or in-person learning day, Sharma said.
“Otherwise, it’s confusing for the brain,” Sharma said.
4. Have your child take computer breaks.
When remote learning, students should get mental breaks or “movement breaks” during the day, Lattuca said.
“They should not be sitting there in front of a computer for six hours straight,” Lattuca said.
Ideas for movement breaks include getting up and walking around outside or doing some type of physical activity, he said.
“Be cognizant of the fact that this is also difficult for students who have never done this before,” Lattuca said. “There’s a mental impact. There will be varying degrees of anxiety or excitement, depending on the student.”
5. Help your kids connect with their peers.
“Students, in terms of their growth and development, they need to be interacting with peers in multiple ways,” Lattuca said. “In academic ways, but also in other social ways.”
TECCA has always offered non-academic social opportunities and added even more since the coronavirus pandemic, he said.
“There’s a bunch of ways students can interact with one another other outside of being in the same physical space,” Lattuca said.
At TECCA, students can join after-school virtual clubs such as the chess club or Dungeons & Dragons club, or take part in activities such as high school trivia night or middle school movie day, Lattuca said. Lattuca said he’s been discussing social-virtual experiences for kids with local school districts in recent months.
“These activities and these different types of experiences will help engage the student within the school and with their peers,” Lattuca said. “And an engaged student is more likely to be an academically engaged student.”
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