Back to virtual school: 10 healthy tips for online learning
At least for now, back to school looks a whole lot different this year for most families. From preschoolers to high school seniors, kids are navigating online learning, parents are juggling multiple schedules and homework help, and everyone is trying to peacefully coexist under the same roof.
In other words, things are weird.
As children and parents settle into to a new virtual normal, it’s important to find ways to strike a school/work/family balance to help everyone be productive, positive and on the same page.
Here are 10 healthy – and sanity-saving – tips to ease the strain of online learning.
1. Make space.
A comfortable space with few distractions is just as important for students as it is for working parents.
- Pick a space other than where kids watch tv or play video games.
- For younger kids who require more monitoring and parental interaction, carve out a spot at the kitchen or dining room table, or create a co-working space in your home office.
- Older children and teens need more privacy and space, especially if they’re on frequent video calls. Partition off an area of the living room or dining room with a privacy screen, bookcase or plants, and let them add their own touches to make the space their own.
- For students not easily distracted, their bedroom is a workable option. Just make sure they have a place (other than the bed) for schoolwork.
Extra credit: Having a dedicated space doesn’t mean kids need to be confined to it. It’s ok to curl up on the couch for reading time or take the science experiment outdoors when weather permits.
2. Ease into ergonomics.
You don’t need to invest in pricey office furniture, but there are some simple ways to make your child’s learning space safe and comfortable.
- If the chair they use is too deep, place a cushion or lumbar-support pillow behind their back to help with posture.
- Children should sit with elbows, hips and knees all bent at a 90-degree angle. If little feet are dangling, a box, laundry basket, footrest or other sturdy object will provide leg support.
- Ensure screens or reading material are directly in front of them, about an arm's length away, and at eye level to avoid strained neck muscles.
Extra credit: If your students use headphones, over-the-ear headphones (vs. earbuds) are preferable—especially for developing ears. Teach kids how to check volume levels and aim for 60% volume or lower.
3. Fit exercise in the curriculum.
With school recess, PE and passing between classes on hold, it’s important to make time for exercise to boost students’ energy and focus.
- Indoors, turn on music and have a dance party to get the wiggles out. Or create some safe inside games like nerf basketball or badminton using paper plates and balloons. For more tips, check out the American Heart Association’s 25 Ways to Get Moving at Home.
- Declare “instant recess” for all. Ring a bell (or send a text) to signal everyone to get up and do jumping jacks, squats or march in place.
- When weather permits, take a PE break outside. If you have a backyard, let siblings kick a soccer ball, play tag or dodgeball, or set up practice drills for kids missing out on school sports.
If you don’t have an outdoor space, join your child for a nature walk to a nearby park or stroll the neighborhood. (Your dog will also appreciate the break.)
Extra credit: Just because in-person education is on hiatus doesn’t mean kids should skip important routine medical care to ensure they’re healthy and at their full learning potential. Indigo Urgent Care offers school and sports physicals year-round. And when schools reopen, they’ll be ready to take the field, court or pitch.
4. Set a routine.
Kids typically thrive on routine and consistency, especially younger scholars. Online learning environments vary from school to school, but there are some ways to keep the day on course.
- Set a time to for family members to get up, get dressed and have breakfast. Stick with consistent bedtimes to ensure everyone’s getting enough sleep.
- For younger kids, designate a certain time for learning and allow time for exercise, breaks, snacks and lunch.
- Middle and high school students should have more flexibility and autonomy in their schedules. Work with them to create a daily routine, and check in at the end of each day to see how it’s going. It may take some time to get it right.
Extra credit: Schedule dinnertime “show and tell” each week, and encourage younger children to share something about a favorite toy or piece of artwork. For tweens and teens, designate a specific time for conversation games Like Teen Table Topics or Letz Talk. (You can easily create a DIY version.)
5. Give them a break.
Too much time in a chair or in front of a screen isn’t good for anyone, whether you’re a busy student or working mom or dad.
- For younger children, 20 minutes of class assignments should be followed by 10 minutes of physical activity.
- Older children and teens may be able to focus on assignments for longer stretches, taking a breather between subjects.
- When it’s time to take a break, make sure it’s away from where school happens. Kids may think a “break” means switching from math to Minecraft, but it’s important they take a total time-out. That goes for parents, too.
Extra credit: Coordinate breaks with the kids so you can get up, move or stretch, pop outside for some fresh air, or share a healthy snack together.
6. Cut through the cohabitation chaos.
Keeping everyone’s schedule straight takes some organization and coordination.
- Use a whiteboard, corkboard or stick-on calendar that includes each child’s school schedule along with your own appointments, meetings and work hours.
- Set specific times for extracurriculars like household chores (making the bed or picking up toys); social interaction with friends (FaceTime or social media); and enrichment (reading for pleasure, watching an educational tv program, taking a virtual field trips or creating art).
- Avoid clutter creep by having each child keep (and be responsible for) their school-related materials. Designate a shelf, basket or bin for books, binders and notebooks.
Extra credit: Make a permanent “quiet” sign to hold up to let everyone know you’re on a call or need to focus.
7. Offer healthy choices.
Don’t let these crazy times sideline good nutrition. Healthy food choices and proper hydration are directly connected to focus, concentration and energy levels.
- Prepare lunches ahead of time, and involve kids so they can learn to make healthy (and fun) choices for themselves. (A raisin-faced turkey sandwich can make “school” lunch a highpoint of the day.)
- If your child takes a break when you’re not available, designate a healthy snack drawer or refrigerator shelf and let them help themselves to a (limited) supply of options like grapes, cut veggies, hummus or cheese sticks. Keep highly processed and sugary snacks and drinks someplace that’s not accessible.
- Make sure everyone in the house has a reusable water bottle that’s filled every morning and within easy reach throughout the day.
Extra credit: Check with your school district. Many provide lunches and snacks for pickup.
8. Watch out for digital eye strain.
For most kids, online learning means a spike in screen time. While there’s no scientific evidence the blue light from computer use harms children’s eyes, overexposure can cause blurry vision, dry eyes, fatigue or mild headaches. A few simple steps can help ease the strain:
- Teach children to look away from the screen at least once every 20 minutes, and look in another direction at least 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
- Increase the distance from the computer screen.
- Encourage rapid eye blinking or offer lubricating eye drops to refresh tears.
Extra credit: While not necessary, non-prescription blue light-blocking glasses might provide some added relief. You can find some economical options online.
9. Get support.
Balancing work, family and homework for help multiple learners isn’t easy. If you’re feeling isolated or stressed about online learning, know you’re not alone.
- Reach out to teachers to discuss your child’s progress or any concerns you have about how their virtual learning environment. Be sure to share good news with teachers when you see kids hitting learning targets and important milestones.
- If kids are struggling, ask your school or school district if there are additional resources that could help.
- Connect virtually with other parents to swap tips and tricks, share how it’s going or to just let off some steam.
Extra credit: The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offers some helpful back-to-school guidelines for parents, guardians and caregivers.
10. Give yourselves a pass.
Beyond algebra and essays, it’s important to acknowledge the virtual learning environment is a big adjustment for everyone.
- Kids are missing their friends, activities and routines. Encourage them to talk their feelings, and let them know that it’s ok to feel stressed and anxious.
- During non-school hours, offer kids a menu of options for downtime activities, and be sure to include a healthy dose of silly stuff.
- Be a role model for your kids by practicing the same healthy steps you’re encouraging in them. Take breaks from work and parenting, get plenty of sleep, exercise, eat well and stay socially connected.
Extra credit: Check out resources offered through the National PTA website, from emotional support to health tips to ways to keep kids socially engaged.