2020 has been hard on everyone, and when it comes to education, it’s especially evident with parents, teachers, and administrators. With the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing lockdown that closed schools for an indefinite period, parents have found themselves in the position of having to help instruct their children — of many different ages and grade levels — in course material usually left to educators.
Teachers, too, now forced onto a variety of distance-learning platforms, have had to re-envision how they teach their classes, as well as how they need to interact with and support parents who come from a variety of backgrounds, educational levels, and socioeconomic statuses. Where do you start?
Research has long recognized the importance of engaging parents in the learning process, and a strong, supportive partnership between schools and families is the key to making this new mode of learning work. As parents deal with their own challenges of working from home or losing their jobs, as well as taking care of the kids full-time, educators need to use the best practices possible for family engagement to supply emotional and technical support, and effective encouragement to ensure the joint venture’s success.
Here are some specific considerations for parental engagement:
- Family situations vary widely
Distance learning must take into account that family situations are not homogeneous, and both solutions and resources need to be flexible enough to accommodate the variations. As an example, many families have children of different ages and grade levels, which presents a challenge if parents are trying to assist with age- or grade-specific learning. Teachers should consider spacing out their scheduled times for distance-learning sessions according to grade level to allow parents to assist each child as well as possible.
In addition, schools should not anticipate advanced literacy levels — and digital literacy skills — in the home. Even if children are digital-savvy, parents may well be novice technology users and first need to learn the basics of the technology — and then the multiple platforms over which instruction is based. Providing platform tutorials or cheat sheets can go a long way toward helping both parents and students.
There may also be variation in device access and high speed internet connectivity, what’s known as the “digital divide” (see discussion here). And even for homes that contain computers and internet, there may not be multiple devices available for the students to use simultaneously, making spacing out the schedule that much more important. Lastly, teachers can’t expect the same instructional level as with classroom learning, nor can they presume the students have access to any specific materials or even prior knowledge. They must create multiple avenues for learning to meet the families’ diverse circumstances.
- Parents and Children Need Clear and Supportive Communication
Though schools are moving to an online environment, and face-to-face meetings aren’t possible, teachers should still use as many methods of communication to reach families as they can to provide educational and emotional support. These can come from the Learning Management System’s (LMS) message boards, texts to parents and students, or even phone calls to check up on students’ well-being and progress. The important thing is there should be regular, frequent, and two-way communications so families can feel connected and supported.
Parents are now in uncharted waters, just as educators are. More than ever, they need interactions that are positive-oriented, supportive of their efforts, and encouraging of their abilities to step into their new roles. If the tone and content of the messages feel rigid, or the expectations for what they can accomplish seem pressured, both parents and students will tend to drop out, and any learning opportunity will be lost. Praise, though, goes a long way, and it’s okay to praise for even small steps — it makes the parents and the students feel valued. It’s also a good idea to remind families that technology hiccups are bound to occur, just like in an actual classroom.
- The Home Environment Allows for Unique Experiences
Both educators and families should recognize that at-home instruction allows for the kind of organic learning not always possible in a physical classroom. And activities that spark learning don’t have to look and feel like traditional homework to create high-quality learning experiences. Two possibilities include:
- Nontraditional Academic Learning
Critical thinking activities that foster cross-curricular skills abound within the home. As an example, children can set up a grocery store where they’ll “buy” the ingredients needed for dinner while managing the amount of money they spend and the change they receive. Older students learning, say, about government, can research and write a letter to an elected official advocating for or against a given policy. And the whole family can get in on watching a nature show, listening to different types of music, or writing poems to express different feelings.
- Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)
SEL is the process that creates and maintains relationships by managing emotions and making responsible decisions — in other words, family dynamics. Parents should help students learn about things like perseverance, generosity, and independence, while positively praising them when they show evidence of these behaviors. Books, with their stories of conflicts and virtues, villains and heroes, are good vehicles for such ideas, and they can be enjoyed by the whole family. They also expose students to new vocabulary words, which they then can apply in context.
- Positive Tips Aid Families
Some of the tips you could share with parents include:
- Encourage joy in learning, and find new ways to appreciate the acquisition of new knowledge.
- Understand that distance learning can’t perfectly mimic school learning, and allow for needed adjustment.
- Share that students need to take regular breaks, and don’t force them to work through frustration or stress.
- Empower families during a time when many feel powerless by sharing how other families are addressing specific issues.
Is the situation ideal for anyone? Of course not. But by making sure all parties have a role to play and understand what that role entails goes a long way toward salvaging something positive from what would otherwise be considered a lost educational opportunity.
Teachers, principals, parents: What are your thoughts? Please leave us feedback in the comments section below.
Gohl, Erin and Thorson, Kristen. (April 1, 2020). “Engaging Families in Distance Learning: Supporting from Afar.” Retrieved from https://www.gettingsmart.com/2020/04/engaging-families-in-distance-learning-supporting-from-afar/.
Team TpT. (nd). Distance Learning: Tips for Supporting Parents and Families. Retrieved from https://blog.teacherspayteachers.com/distance-learning-tips-for-supporting-parents-and-families/.