Aim to become familiar with the your child’s online learning environment without intruding © Leon Neal/Getty

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The writer is deputy head of West Preparatory Public School

In an online kindergarten this week, a boy is bouncing on his bed, with his hair flying everywhere. From the next room, his dad shouts words not normally heard in the kindergarten class. But this is pandemic kindergarten — and we’re all being bounced around. 

As school relocates to the home, parents are sharing space with teenagers who have grown headphones, and toddlers wielding iPads.

Having raised three children, taught for nearly 20 years and just completed my third day as deputy head of a now-virtual elementary school in Toronto, I can safely say that we’ve never asked as much of parents, teachers or kids as we are asking now.

So, what can we do to survive the mayhem and make sure our kids and families emerge into the post-pandemic world unscathed? My experience in the past few months has uncovered some valuable tips.

Parents’ best place to start is the online classroom — exploring the digital space can make the learning less daunting. One parent emailed me to say their child was too weepy and stressed to finish a class project that night. They were amazed when I showed them the online classroom, where the due date on the blackboard was three weeks hence and the calendar showed there were 15 periods to work on it in class.

So, if you can, quietly probe the online space without your kids present. Click around the classroom, watch the videos, read the assignments and find the links for online meetings. Parents who are familiar with the online learning environment experience less stress. The purpose is not to intrude, just to understand the space your child will be working in for the next little while.

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But once you’ve done that, let your children master their world by themselves. They don’t spend the day at their physical school with their parents. Even though it is harder to walk away from a screen at home, do it! A child can’t master anything under a parent’s shadow. A parent’s constant presence signals a potentially harmful lack of faith that the child can manage independently. In truth, maybe they can’t — but that’s OK. Let them try, fail and try again. Online school shouldn’t mean that children miss out on learning to do things for themselves. And bear in mind your child may be better at solving a computer problem than you are.

When it is appropriate to provide parental support, schedule it. Set a regular time when you can offer your child some help and stick to it. Your office IT team can’t always be available on demand, so nor can theirs. If they get stuck, let them know it’s OK to turn off the screen, pick up some Lego and wait for you to troubleshoot. Depending on their age, and readiness, this may need to happen a few times daily or weekly. Believe me, the teacher will understand.

Schedule break time for everyone, too. Most home-schooling plans have kept to a regular timetable, with recess breaks and a lunch break. Make sure they are screen-free for all. We often see kids lingering on Zoom during recess, or when eating lunch unsupervised, to socialise. But while their social needs are important, so is taking a screen break. Take time to play a little, toss a ball for the cat, go outside for a walk. 

In fact, venturing outside for exercise and to see real people — if rules allow — is a benefit to all. Kids, however, need to get out more than anyone and more than ever. I know a little girl whose only really good day each week is the day she visits a local forest. Let them get outside with a friend, if that is safe and possible, to play and explore nature. Or, if going outside isn’t an option, make sure there can be physically active play every day.

It will not be easy, though. So If your child is struggling, communicate with the teachers. Respect their personal time, but send an email and tell them what you see. It is hard for them to monitor every little face on their screens. More importantly, communicate with your children. Hear that they are missing friends, feeling lonely, cramped, or sad. It’s real for everyone. Listen without offering judgment or false reassurance. Offer love and acceptance.

Above all, take the long view. This pandemic will end and our families will go on. We won’t remember the glitchy math video. Instead, we can remember how this was a once in a lifetime chance to hang out together, work together, eat together and drive each other a little bit bonkers. Hug each other, laugh, especially when things go wrong. Use the word “bonkers” more. This is ALL bonkers — accept it, breathe, smile, pass the cookies. Even bounce on the bed.

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