How to prepare a remote learning space for kids at home, beyond the screen

Amy Kuperinsky Sep 2 2020

UCONN

When sisters Lauren and Chloe head off to start another year at Somerset’s Young Academy for Excellence this month, they won’t have to travel far.

From the kitchen to the dining room, that is.

Their virtual learning setup may just be a collection of laptops and assignments, but their mother, Dominique Young, “branded” their remote classroom with an official name. She even had her daughters design a logo for the “academy.”

It’s just one way she’s tried to add a little special something to liven up the premise of going to school online during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While some New Jersey students will return to school this fall for the first time in six months, many others, like Chloe and Lauren, will stay at home to continue remote learning. But the situation presents stresses and challenges for families who have to allocate space, time and attention to something that would largely be the purview of teachers and educators. Complicating matters further is the fact that not everyone has the same resources at home. But Young believes families can use this time to lay out a plan.

“Parents should approach the back-to-school season really intentionally,” she says. “The one thing that is free for any parent is being intentional and creative.”

As part of the Young Academy for Excellence, Young had Lauren, 6, who is heading into first grade, and Chloe, 10, a rising fifth grader, draw pictures to decorate their “school” and post inspirational messages to lift the mood. Both are students at St. Matthias School, a Catholic school in Somerset, where children have the option of attending smaller classes in person or learning virtually. The Youngs opted to continue remote instruction through Google Classroom, which allows them to attend class at the same time as peers who chose in-person learning.

Young and her husband, Michael, opened another classroom in the middle of the pandemic. They own the Montgomery location of national chain The Coder School, which offers after-school coding classes and virtual summer camps for children.

Dominique Young has worked on educational curricula, children’s books and STEM programs for 20 years. Even if you’re not into “branding” your kids’ at-home learning setup, getting kids involved in designing their own space can help “rebrand” that room for learning, she says. Young suggests making signs that say “learning in session, do not disturb” in order to help inject some fun (but also purpose) into a room that might normally be associated with eating, sleeping or recreational time.

“You don’t have to have a really large house,” she says. “You can have a special corner, a certain chair. You can use certain colors.”

Not doing much back-to-school shopping this year? Young recommends getting a caddy instead to house art supplies, scissors and learning aids. If possible, she recommends extending the home learning area to more than just one spot by creating a “reading nook” or “learning lounge” apart from the main space so kids don’t tire of sitting in one chair for hours. The approach has helped Chloe and Lauren build anticipation for the fall.

“They’ve gotten super excited about starting the school year,” Young says.

Still, important factors like Wi-Fi access, computer access and free space vary by home.

“Everyone’s situation is different,” says Jennifer Pankowski, assistant professor of special education at Pace University in New York.

One of the best pieces of advice she’s seen is that home classrooms don’t have to be “Pinterest classrooms.”

“You don’t need to go out and buy a $100 headset for your child for remote instruction,” she says (though headphones can be useful when multiple children are in a close space). “You can go to the dollar store and buy a couple pieces of oaktag and make a little barrier for some privacy. You don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars to be able to create a space that’s inviting for learning.”

For some students, remote instruction may even deliver benefits not seen in the classroom. For others, it can presents barriers to education.

Micki Boas has seen both sides of the picture. Her son Matias, 11, who has dyslexia, virtually attends The Craig School, an independent school in Mountain Lakes that specializes in language-based learning differences. The Jersey City sixth grader learns alongside his class of five via Google Classroom. Boas says the transition was seamless.

“He was able to block out the noise that typically happens in a classroom and focus better, and he was able to spend more time going through his work after,” she says.

Boas, who works as a marketing consultant, is author of “One in Five: How We’re Fighting for Our Dyslexic Kids in a System That’s Failing Them” (Tiller Press, August 2020).

Her younger son Oliver, 8, has an individualized education program at Learning Community Charter School in Jersey City. When he started remote learning, he had so much energy that it took him hours to sit down and focus.

“He didn’t know how to type,” Boas says. While Matias works at a desk in his room, she found that Oliver’s happy place was the basement, because any sound from a Zoom call or the kitchen would distract him upstairs.

However, many families have little choice in using a single space for multiple students.

“The conversation tends to be, ‘How do I split my kids up?’” says Ronald Chaluisán, executive director of the Newark Trust for Education. “But we’re talking about seven or six-and-a-half hours a day. The likelihood of keeping them separate for that amount of time doesn’t make sense … There’s not a simple template given the variety of homes in which our children live.”

As with conversations around homework that existed before COVID-19, he says the one unifying question parents can ask themselves is, “Can I create a dedicated space and routine for my children?” Learning is partly defined by establishment and management of routine, which is vital in a student’s development, he says.

If a computer for every child is not a possibility, make a schedule for who gets a device and when, Chaluisán says.

“If you can’t afford for each child to have a headset, you can have some way of separating them, something that gives them their own separate space so they can learn, with as few distractions as possible,” Pankowski says.

And if the home is not a viable option for virtual learning, parents can try to explore alternatives, Chaluisán says: “Is there a trusted space that can help you and have you had a conversation with those partners to see if there is a way of getting that space?”

Parents can also exercise caution when it comes to designating specific areas for work and play, Pankowski says.

“One of the things that’s incredibly important is that separation between home and education,” she says.

A bedroom might normally be a place for homework as well as sleep, but that could backfire when it comes to hours of virtual learning.

“I would try to avoid having students do their work in their own room, if they have them,” she says. “We need to have that separation between where we relax and sleep and where we work … You want to make sure you’re drawing that distinction for children. Their brains don’t always understand that.”

Christopher Rim is CEO of Command Education, a New York-based company that coaches New Jersey students through the college applications process, starting in eighth grade. He says it’s important to retain a classroom-like structure, even at home.

“A lot of times students feel like they can take classes on the couch in front of their TV,” he says. “I really recommend having a proper desk and a proper chair … If there’s a TV in the room, make sure it’s not on, even if it’s silent. Try not to take your class outside. Don’t be on your hammock.”

The kitchen is an option for remote learning, but it can be a source of distracting noise and smells. Parents may want to keep students away from food during school hours, apart from snack time and lunch, Pankowski says. Getting up a specific time, getting dressed and eating regular meals (instead of continually “grazing”) are key ways to maintain balance. So is getting some outside time (especially if there’s no gym class), which can help prevent a student from disengaging after so much screen time.

Keeping a schedule on a dry-erase board or clipboard is another option. Rim, who grew up in Paramus and attended the Academies at Englewood before studying at Yale University, has seen students use oversized sticky notes to plot out their week on a wall.

Rim cautions parents against letting kids use tablets for school because they may make it harder to take notes. Disabling all notifications on screens during school hours is also a good plan, he says (like selecting the “do not disturb” mode on Apple devices). And phones, if not needed for school, can be turned off or removed from the learning space.

A bag or box, not unlike a backpack, can be useful for storing school materials, Pankowski says. Later, families can keep that container — and school — out of sight during “turn-off time.” Parents may also want to limit TV and video games to certain hours or when everyone is done with school, Pankowski says. While siblings are waiting for their brothers or sisters to finish school, a good alternative for unwinding can be leisure reading or playing outside.

When students are done with instruction, Rim recommends taking a break before homework. Have that after-school time — walk the dog or go see a core group of friends (social distance permitting).

“Otherwise,” he says, “you’re going to get drained.”

Most of all, keep an open line of communication with teachers, Pankowski says — “Have an early and open conversation.”

Let them know if something they’re asking isn’t possible — like if a student can’t meet a deadline or use a computer at a certain time — and figure out whether class is live/synchronous or asynchronous.

“If there is no teacher engagement, you want to be within earshot if they need support,” Pankowski suggests.

And while it won’t give a student extra points, it’s possible to add some personal flair with a virtual background, Young says — maybe an image of a museum, library or classroom, if your school permits and doesn’t already provide a background.

“We are now entering kids’ most private space,” Chaluisán says. “That means that teachers are looking into kids’ homes and that’s a big deal. Kids have a lot of feelings about that. People seeing your home is a big decision and is an intimate decision … Do you set the computer in a way so that you’re against a wall because that gives you a sense of privacy?”

When preparing for the year, it’s crucial to heed one last piece of advice, Pankowski says: Don’t burn out from the stress of remote learning.

“Cut yourself some slack,” she says. “It’s OK for parents to not have all the answers right now.”

This article appeared on NJ.com on Sep 2, 2020