Back-to-School: Preparing Your Child for Virtual Learning

By Dr. Michael Oberschneider, Ashburn Psychological & Psychiatric Services

To the dismay of many parents, the hybrid option to the academic school year for our children is no longer an option in Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS).

But, what does that mean, and is exclusive virtual learning truly the best option? While parents in our community are split over the decision, I don’t think there really is a best option; we’re in a global pandemic, and as we’ve all learned over the past several months, living with restrictions and compromises is the new normal.

There’s no denying that our children will miss out on a lot this year as students; and along with how we finished up this past school year, it’s also safe to assume that there will be a lag in learning for a lot of children as this drags on. The US Department of Education has already posited that virtual learning could lead to more students repeating a grade — low-income families and minorities without adequate resources to adjust will likely be the group that struggles most. However, at this moment, I think it’s important to keep things in perspective.

Yes, our children will have what appears to be a less than optimal Fall quarter, but what our children miss out on academically can always be made up later. What cannot be made up is the emotional fall-out from the pandemic, which is why it’s so important for parents to do their best to manage their children’s anxiety, sadness, and upset during this time.

As a Child Psychologist, virtual learning is presently the #1 topic in my practice with so many parents scrambling to prepare — themselves and their children — for the start of the school year. While each family situation is different, I offer the following tips to help parents prepare themselves and their children for the coming school year.

Embrace Your Inner Teacher
Okay, so you likely aren’t a credentialed teacher, but as parents, our children learn a lot from what we say and do; and with virtual learning, they will be looking to us more than ever for guidance and instruction.

Join a Learning Pod
Many parents in the area are getting together with other parents to form small group learning experiences to enhance learning. Some parents are paying tutors and/or teachers to be present to further support instruction during their children’s school day. Children can remain in one home or setting or rotate homes as a group. I think learning pods are great in so many ways; they allow for additional attention and structure with in-person academic support, and they provide an opportunity to share resources and to maintain social interaction.

Create a Great Space to Work
To get your child excited about the coming school year, encourage his or her involvement in creating a fun and comfortable working space. Your child is going to be in front of a computer for hours at a time every day, so purchasing a comfy office chair, a good lamp, and/or some new accessories may serve to jump-start a positive frame of mind for learning for him or her.

Take Breaks
While our children had some exposure to virtual learning this past year, they are not used to the more intensive virtual learning and school day that awaits them this Fall. Sure, having a sustained focus on learning is important, but your children will get bored and distracted if they sit in front of a screen for too long.

With virtual learning and with a lot of sports canceled for the year, your child is not going to be as active as usual this school year. Research studies have repeatedly shown that children who exercise consistently do better academically, socially, and emotionally than their peers who do not exercise. So, keeping your child physically active this year is important.

Make a Daily Schedule
Children do best when they know what’s expected of them in advance, and thus daily structure and a schedule can be very helpful when it comes to getting things done. I’m a big fan of breaking the day down into sections where there is a morning routine, a daytime routine, and an evening routine with expectations.

Say “Yes” More Than “No”
Research has already shown increases in mental health conditions for the US population as a result of the pandemic, and our children are bound to experience more emotional upset with virtual learning this Fall. Thus, I think it’s important for parents to be more flexible and patient in their parenting, especially for social matters. So, the next time your child asks to play video games more with their friends online, I recommend giving him or her a little extra time. Or, if you find that your child is using social media more than you’d like, I’d be careful to not react or take control back. Our children will be missing out on so much this coming year due to the pandemic, and giving them more of what they are wanting and needing (as long as it’s reasonable) seems to me to be the loving thing to do to help cushion the manifold negatives.

In summary, exclusive virtual learning in LCPS this Fall is not ideal, but again, I don’t think much anything is during a global pandemic. Homeschoolers and children who attend private schools face similar and different challenges, but we are altogether forced to get through this, and we will.

As the entertainer and businessman Jimmy Dean once said, “I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.” Here’s to adjusting our sails, and our children’s sails, this Fall to help them reach their destination!