Suggestions for Parents in Distance Learning

David Streight (November, 2020)

Though some of our schools are working with in-person instruction, a vast majority are still functioning with teachers and students at home. Distance learning has presented challenges to lots of us, in lots of ways. Trying to teach and parent at the same time has torn at the composure of many teachers I know, but let’s look at one slightly bright side: at least these educators have most of the skills necessary to help their children with their online schooling.

I want to write this for those parents who are not teachers, hoping that educator readers of Heart of Character blogs pass it on to parents of their students if they think it might be helpful.

No one is perhaps more challenged than working parents now faced with the added responsibilities—not just of working from home, but also of helping their children learn. This is especially true of parents with children in the early grades who still need a certain amount of both supervision and academic help. After all, even if all adults went to school themselves, most have little experience in how education actually takes place most effectively. I want to offer four suggestions below, intended to help parents play both those roles, in answer to the important question: How can I be most helpful to my child without causing additional stress for either or us?

Give yourself permission not to know everything.

It’s okay not to know everything, especially things that might be taught differently now from when you were in school. Parents can be helpers even if they’re not experts.

When helping with school work, let your children see you as wanting to be a learner, even if it’s hard. Let them see that some academic concepts can be a challenge for you, too. When children understand that even their parents can struggle with learning—that their parents might need a rest, a break from the material, but that they’re not giving up—this can be one of the most valuable lessons for success a parent can teach.

Explain why what they are learning is important.

We want our children to learn, but even more, we want them to be self-motivated learners. Our ultimate goal is that our children learn because they want to, not because a teacher or a parent makes them. Explanations can play a powerful role here. If your child thinks something is “dumb,” or “stupid,” explain why what they are doing is important, or might be important, or might relate to something they are already interested in. For example, math is important for baseball or basketball statistics; it is also important for veterinary doctors. Skill in putting words together is as important for song writers as it is for journalists.

Understanding why something might be useful makes it easier for a child to “buy into” learning it; buying into something makes learning it both faster and more interesting. It fosters autonomy in learning, which helps foster a sense of autonomy about life!

Don’t help too much. 

Adults usually catch on much more quickly than their kids, especially if their kids are young. But when helping children with school work, the art of being successful (and the art of fostering academic competence) is to help as little as is needed for the child to catch on by him- or herself. If the adult gives answers too quickly, the child’s interest in grappling with the material diminishes.

We feel successful as learners only when we feel like we “caught” the material on our own. Hinting is fine, but your child needs to feel as if the hint pointed in the right direction, not that it uncovered the treasure!

Most important of all: Keep the goal in mind; step back if needed.

We want two things of our children: we want them to be successful learners and we want them to be good community members when they leave the classroom and go out into the world. For that to happen they need both academic guidance and lots and lots of love and support. Of the two, love and support are more important than academic excellence, especially for parent-child interactions, and especially in times like the present. If your academic support becomes a trouble point in family life, step back, give yourself and your child some time to relax and recover, maybe ask the teacher for ideas on how to support. Discuss the issue with your child only when you both are ready.

We never want somebody to have to be the “bad guy,” but if a difficult assignment or learning a new concept causes frustration or anger, let the teacher be the “bad guy” for now. Your job as parent is to be that place of safety, support, and refuge.