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Six Key Tips for Successful Virtual Learning This Fall


Regardless of your school or district’s specific plan for this upcoming year, virtual learning will likely play a role in your family’s day-to-day life. Many of the families I have worked with over the past few months have expressed concern about their student’s difficulty getting motivated, staying focused, and maintaining a healthy sleep schedule. With the upcoming school year quickly approaching, now is the time to begin thinking about setting up productive and healthy learning environments for virtual schooling. Below are a few things that my students and I learned from our experiences with virtual learning last spring, including strategies derived from research-based approaches to at-home learning.

Mimic a typical school schedule as much as possible

Some of my students struggled to manage their time in the virtual format last spring because their days lost the structure that was present when we were in-person. A typical brick-and-mortar school day at our school involves switching from class to class every 47 minutes, giving their brain a brief window to shift to a new topic as they physically move from one space to another. At home, the minutes in the day can blur together and some had difficulty concentrating on tasks and transitioning from one subject to another. A simple strategy that helped with this was to block their day into at-home periods. While synchronous virtual learning (e.g. a student logs into a pre-scheduled, teacher-led Zoom class) can help create this structure, some schools may have more asynchronous learning components (e.g. students complete tasks at their own pace within established due dates). If asynchronous learning is part of your student’s virtual experience, encourage them to set a timer and focus on each subject for a designated length of time. When the timer goes off, treat that timer just like a school bell and take a moment to transition to a new subject, creating virtual class periods.

If space allows, some students have found even greater success when they pair virtual class periods with physically moving to a different workspace. For example, a student may choose to make the dining room table their English classroom, the kitchen counter their math classroom, and a bedroom their science classroom, if various spaces in the home are available throughout the day. Ideally, keep the different work spaces consistent throughout the year so that way the student's brain associates the physical location with a particular subject, as research tells us that our memory is stronger when we keep external settings as consistent as possible. If moving through multiple spaces is not an option, just getting up, stretching, and returning to a different seat at the same table can still do the trick.

And don’t forget to build in breaks

When planning out a work schedule, a common mistake I see people make is setting lofty goals for themselves that are nearly impossible to obtain. When breaks are not built into a schedule, we are more likely to either work until the point that we are burnt out and unable to continue after a break or we take breaks anytime we are feeling distracted or bored, making it difficult to actually finish anything that gets started. If, however, we build breaks into our schedule, these scheduled breaks are more likely to help us keep up with our plan because we know there is a break coming soon. It’s kind of like when we are running and can see the finish line in sight and know that water and a rest awaits us. The average attention span of a school-aged student varies, but typically the sweet spot is somewhere between 10-25 minutes of concentration before a break is needed.

The pomodoro method is a great technique to help students focus on their work while having the necessary breaks to maximize their brain power. This technique involves the use of timers and a set schedule. A timer is set for a specified length of time (e.g. 20 minutes) and the student is expected to focus on a task during that time. Once the buzzer goes off the student is awarded a short break, perhaps 5 minutes, during which they are encouraged to get up, have a snack, go to the bathroom, etc. This procedure is repeated for a few cycles, typically 3 or 4, before a longer and more substantial break is earned. The process is then repeated, beginning again with shorter breaks and working up towards a longer one.

Use reinforcers to increase motivation

While we may wish that our students were intrinsically motivated to get their work done, we know that is not the case for many students. For some students that have an especially hard time maintaining focus, it might be necessary to use extrinsic motivation to help them establish these routines. One of the most common ways to do this is to give students opportunities to earn points for engaging in certain desired behaviors (e.g. being on-task for a specified length of time or completing X number of assignments). After the student reaches a certain point threshold, they are awarded something they want (e.g. a specific privilege, a snack, a gift, etc.). Think of this as similar to the rules we may set for ourselves, where we are only able to order dessert at a restaurant if we worked out at least twice that week.

There are a variety of ways to structure a behavior plan like this, but some of the key features of a successful reinforcement system include (1) the student is clear on what behavior(s) earn them points, (2) the student knows what they are working toward and that reward is something that the student wants, (3) points are awarded to the student immediately after meeting criteria (alternatively, constructive feedback is given if points were not earned), and (4) the system is consistently followed.

Using the pomodoro method described above as an example, a student might earn one point each time they complete a 20 minute work period. After earning 15 points, the student is able to pick out their favorite snack at the supermarket (or maybe these days, Instacart!). Alternatively, once a student obtains 10 points in a given week, that student may be permitted to play video games for up to 2 hours a night for the remainder of the week.

Take advantage of the technology options available for staying on-task

To me, one of the silver linings of the shift to virtual learning has been the increased access to different assistive technologies that are available on most devices. For example, Google Chrome and Chromebooks have a number of excellent app extensions designed to help with staying focused. StayFocusd allows you to block websites that distract you from staying on task, Web Activity Time Tracker helps you track your internet activity and set limits for yourself to stay more productive, Noisli offers background noise to help drown out any distracting noises at home, and Focus To-Do: Pomodoro Timer offers a built-in pomodoro timer to keep track of work and break schedules.

Create to-do lists to stay organized

Last spring, many of my students reported feeling constantly overwhelmed with everything they needed to do. When I explored with them the source of their anxiety, it became clear that what was overwhelming them was not necessarily the amount that had to get done, but rather their lack of organization to keep track of all of the tasks being thrown at them. Whereas during a typical in-person school day, my students were in the routine of taking out their planner and writing down their homework as soon as the teacher assigned it, that routine did not carry over into the virtual environment. By simply encouraging students to write down all of the things they needed to accomplish (and cross-checking that list with the due dates on Google Classroom or in teachers’ emails), students were then able to have a clearer sense of what was ahead of them and take control of their list. I would then encourage students to break down multi-step assignments into core tasks (e.g. writing an essay can actually be broken down into coming up with a thesis statement, researching evidence, creating an outline, writing out the paper, and proofing and editing work). From there, students would estimate how long each item on their to-do list might take and indicate their due dates. Finally, students would determine when they would accomplish each task in order to meet their deadlines. By having an established plan, students felt more in control of their work and better prepared to tackle things in a strategic and intentional way. Plus they were able to experience the pure joy of being able to cross things off of a to-do list!

Establish consistent sleep routines

As difficult as it might be, try to keep your student on a sleep schedule that was similar to life before the pandemic. A lot of my high schoolers found themselves going to bed around 2 or 3am and waking up around noon (ok, that’s generous, some were not waking up until closer to 2pm!). Before sinking back into a similar schedule this school year, try to work on defining clear bed times, establishing a nightly bedtime routine that begins well before it is actually time for bed. This might include avoiding snacks at least 3 hours before bed and reducing screen time 1 hour before. Even the best laid plans don’t always work out, however, and it could take some time until your student is able to settle into an earlier sleep routine. Regardless of what time they actually fall asleep, make sure they get out of bed at the same time each day. The first few days of this will likely be challenging for everyone involved (a tired and grumpy teenager may not make for the best breakfast companion), however over time things will get better.

These are just a few of the lessons my students and I learned from our experience with virtual learning this past spring. If you would like to discuss ways to make virtual learning easier and more effective for your student, please email me at info@rachelhodas.com and we can work together to establish a plan that is unique to your family’s needs.

©2018 by Hodas Psychological Services LLC