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  • Meg Debski

Making Distant Learning Work


Yesterday marked the first official start of distant learning for Victorian students with most of the other states commencing the process next week. There have been mixed reviews so far although many have adjusted well (these appear to come from those schools that started the process in the last few weeks of Term 1), many parents are finding it frustrating and some children are feeling completely overwhelmed.


For parents it’s really important to recognise that teaching is a job that people study and train for years to master and you are not expected to step into that role and replicate a classroom experience. Your job is to try and support your children with the workload assigned to them and encourage them to engage. That’s why it is imperative to remember that this is distant learning, not home schooling. Your role is as a support person and not as a teacher. If you are finding that you are doing more teaching that supporting, give that feedback back to the school but allow some time for finetuning.


For those with secondary school children it is important to remember that very clear curriculums are established, and teachers are doing the best they can to teach to those curriculums. It is really early days, and some are getting it right and some will have hurdles. Because the collective aim is the student’s best interest, teachers will be learning from each other about what is effective and what isn’t and pooling their resources over the coming weeks. Allow time for this to occur.


For those with children in Year 7 or the final years of secondary school, anxiety levels can by high anyway. When this is combined with a sense that they will have an inferior learning experience, it may become overwhelming and inhibit engagement. We all benefit from normalisation; it is a wonderful antidote to catastrophizing. While we are not in normal circumstances, distant learning is the new norm (at least for this term) and all of their peers are going through it, emphasise that to them.


Year 7’s who feel inhibited from embracing all of the rites of passage of their first year in high school, can benefit from being reminded that this hasn’t been lost on their teaching staff and that the independent learning they have been thrown into will put them in good stead for their future terms and years. At that time, all of those rites of passage can be embraced, but with the air of confidence that comes from having figured out how to adapt the expectations of multiple subjects and teachers.


Year 11 and Year 12 students can benefit from being reminded that the government is taking their studies seriously and showing a commitment to this by making allowances for study components and assessment tasks and by extending the exam dates and revisiting the processes for ATAR scores. Universities are also considering how to establish a response to the 2020 learning conditions of next year’s applicants.  


All secondary school students can benefit from communicating regularly with their teachers about any of their needs or concerns or by accessing the welfare staff if they are starting to feel overwhelmed. Again, by normalising being overwhelmed to the adjustment, rather than pathologizing it or catastrophising the process, students can recognise that all they need is some guidance and scaffolding to help support them during the adjustment phase.


Teaching kids to count is fine, but teaching them what counts is best.” —Bob Talbert


Parents of primary school students can benefit by being curious about the process. Teachers are doing their best to adjust, and, for the majority, the online platform is entirely new to them. The first few weeks will be a time of trial and error and the feedback that you give will allow them to know what is working and know what isn’t.


Be curious about our own processes as well. While it might work for some to have a desk set up and begin the school day at 9am, for others it might be easier to go for a run or play in the backyard in the morning and then settle into schoolwork at the kitchen table after lunch. Remember there are only about three hours a day of structured learning expected in primary school, don’t try and overload them, the school day is usually punctuated with group activities and play based learning that breaks up the formalised components of the curriculum and supports kids focusing on these when required.  


If you have the luxury of one parent assigned to oversee remote learning, you could always adjust the prescribed materials to your child’s specific needs. If they are fast learners, expand them by allowing them to go forward after they have completed the set work. Look at online programs, printable worksheets and YouTube lessons to stretch the areas of their interest in their allotted study time.


If your child needs extra support use this time as an opportunity to consolidate their skill sets by incorporating the themes of their learning into your day-to-day life and accessing resources that reinforce them. For example, if your child is struggling with fractions you may make it a theme of homelife and refer to it in cooking, packing up toys and time spent exercising. You could even get them to search for songs and stories on the internet that they can engage in at their own leisure. Rather than it being a time of increased anxiety because they are not in the classroom with teachers support, you might celebrate that it is a time when they can learn at their own pace and with resources that best support them and their individual needs.


If you don’t have the luxury of time, try and work smarter and not harder. If you have a few children to cater for, try and get them working on the same subjects at the same time, it will make it easier for you to focus on and in-between their needs. If one or both you are working from home, try and get creative with the times that you all work. If one parents can get up and start work at 6am, it might be easy to grab three hours between 9 and 12, to oversee distant learning.


If you are a single parent or are a couple where both are working fulltime from home and trying to oversee children, it is really important that you consider the amplified stressors on the family. This impossible load (consisting of at least three full time jobs) can’t be carried out effectively by two people, let alone someone on their own. Teach those around you what you are dealing with and advocate for flexibility.


Remember, at this point in time, you are working from home because you are in the middle of a pandemic, not because you have advocated for it as a lifestyle choice that you have to justify by over contributing. The children are home, because you are in the middle of a pandemic, not because you signed up to home school them. Talk to your employers and the school’s teachers and let them know of your load, find out how they may be able to support you.


If you have one parent working from home and the other trying to oversee the children, again, remember that your partner’s employers are aware of the pandemic, they are aware everyone is at home, you don’t have to hide it.  Do the best you can to support the working parent but don’t put undue pressure on yourself. I have spoken to many people who are almost making themselves sick trying to keep their children quiet so that their working partner won’t be disturbed. If the focus can be on quiet times for scheduled Zoom meetings, that becomes more manageable and can coincide with walks, or tv time. If quiet time is meant to be consistent, however it is only going to fail (children aren’t meant to be quiet for 8 hours a day). Get creative. It may be better for that parent to work in the garage (after setting it up comfortably) if the study is next to the playroom. If there is not a lot of room, perhaps purchasing noise cancelling headphones which should qualify as a tax deduction under these circumstances.


At this point, in Victoria, we know distant learning will be in place for Term 2. That’s eleven weeks. At the end of that eleven weeks everyone will either be back to their classrooms or they would have adjusted to the routine of distant learning. Don’t see this as forever, it’s just something we all have to get through for the moment. Remember this is a process your child is not going through alone. All of his or her peers are in the same boat and they are all collecting a tale; a tale that they will one day tell their own children about how their learning had to be adjusted during the Covid-19 pandemic and how, whether it was above or below their expectations for those few months…it was OK.


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