How to support children after one year of virtual learning

Strategies to help youth as learning challenges continue during the pandemic.

Child reading a book while wearing a mask

Parents across America and around the world are looking for ways to support their children’s academic progress in the wake of the pandemic. Schools have been closed, teaching has been virtual, and for many, academic progress has been limited. Simply put, children are behind where they should be at this point in the school year. How far behind varies greatly, depending on several factors, according to a recent study by McKinsey and Company. Low-income and minority children are more likely to be learning at home and less likely to have appropriate technology, as well as children with special needs and those who do not speak English as their first language, are the most likely to be lagging behind their more affluent peers.

Data provided in recent polls by the Education Trust shows that nine in 10 parents are worried about their children’s social, emotional and academic success following the pandemic. Is that worrying justified? What this will all mean in the long run remains to be seen. It’s hard to measure how far behind America’s children are, as standard testing in most states has been cancelled or postponed. Testing that has been done tends to have occurred in districts that are face-to-face or have the means to test remotely. Analysis of the testing data shows that in some cases, children are only slightly behind, while others show losses of three-quarters to a full year of learning.

What can parents and concerned community members do to help our nation’s children? Much of what is happening is outside of parents’ and children’s control. However, one of the first and most important things to do is to recognize the trauma the pandemic has caused. Many children have lost loved ones, suffered from food insecurity and experienced high levels of stress and anxiety.

For those things in our control, Michigan State University Extension suggests the following strategies to support children during these times of uncertainty.

Stay involved with your children’s learning. National polls indicate that 20 to 55% of children are not regularly logging into their online classes. Even children who may have previously handled schoolwork well are not maintaining their coursework during these unusual times. Linda Carling, an associate research scientist at the John Hopkins University School of Education Center for Technology in Education, provides tips to help children focus and stay engaged with virtual learning. These include working to understand the expectations for distance learning, encourage children’s movement, reduce distractions, use checklists to help children focus and provide immediate positive feedback.

Teach children about feelings. Children will be experiencing a wide range of feelings in these unusual circumstances. Teaching words that express those feelings is important to allow children to process them. While it may be tempting to gloss over what is happening and assure children that everything is OK, they know these are uncertain times and experience feelings about it. They will look to their parents to determine how to handle those feelings. Use words with your children that describe what you see or think they may be feeling; worried, concerned, scared, lonely, bored, restless, etc. are all words that may reflect children’s feelings right now. In addition to using the words, you can read books with your children that talk about feeling words, point out characters experiencing emotions in movies and TV shows, and talk about your own feelings.

Teach children stress management skills. Children, just like adults, experience stress and anxiety. Teaching strategies to not just identify but also manage those big emotions is an important life skill. Children and adults alike vary in the ways that they prefer to calm down. Some children will benefit from exercise or physical activity, others might prefer a sensory option such as touching a soft blanket or squeezing a stress ball or play dough. Some children might want a hug, while others might want to be alone. Mindfulness practices such as deep breathing or meditations are also helpful.

Support your children’s learning. At this point in the pandemic, many best plans may have gone by the wayside. Take regular time to assess if your home learning situation is working for your child. Do they need to change where they are working? Is work not being accomplished in their room? Maybe a switch to the dining room table is needed. Talk with your children about what is working and what is not about their home learning set up and be willing to make changes to support their success and wellbeing.

Pay attention, but don’t panic. Yes, the statistics about children being behind are concerning. But when we look at the academic data and outcomes of children who have experienced natural disasters, war or other crisis that have disrupted their education, typically within a year of returning to normal, children have reached their previously expected academic levels. Although it’s important to be aware of the potential issues, the majority of children will be able to catch back up.

The long-term effects of the pandemic on children’s learning and education will not be fully understood for years to come, but in the short term, parents can support their children’s social and emotional health and academic skills to help mitigate the learning loss.

To access more MSU Extension resources on school readiness and child development, visit the Early Childhood Development website.

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