E-Learning for Children: A Plan for Families and Caregivers Part I

E-Learning for Children: A Plan for Families and Caregivers Part I

By Dr. Bahareh Sahebi and Dr. Mudita Rastogi


We live in a brave new world where the boundaries between family life, work and school have blurred due to the pandemic. Over the coming weeks, many families and caregivers will have young children begin distance learning again. Even “back-to-school” and hybrid plans involve some amount of distance learning. It is clear that these changes may be longer than a few weeks. These seismic shifts in how families plan their daily lives have people scrambling to adapt, cope with uncertainty, and live with concerns and challenges. This article will highlight helpful strategies for families to make this transition smoother, and help adults meet the needs of the children in their care. Also, do stay tuned for the upcoming Part II of this series that will address typical caregivers’ concerns with managing remote learning while balancing other demands of daily life.  

During the Spring of 2020, the shift to distance learning happened quickly and without ample time to prepare for this new normal. As we approach the back-to-school season this time around, the experience feels different. With greater lead time, this is an opportunity for families to create a plan and develop strategies to keep kids in their care safe, and physically and mentally healthy while distance learning. One model that can help caregivers prepare for distance learning is Social Emotional Learning (SEL; CASEL.org). Its strengths include attention to children’s growth in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skill building and taking responsibility in decision-making. Families will find that this systemic and wholistic approach will allow their students to thrive interpersonally and academically, while also strengthening the overall family web.

Planning by Families: Practical Tips

Step 1: Setting up a family meeting 

One of the most important aspects of making distance learning work for your family is to have a detailed but flexible plan in place. We recommend that creating this plan start with a family meeting to critically look at what worked in Spring 2020 and what did not. The meeting should include reflecting on and learning from past experiences, and to try to make this time even better. The primary goal of the family meeting is about having a strategy to move forward, and it should actively involve children, no matter how young.

Consider approaching the family planning meeting as a collaborative effort with children being invited in advance to think about their role in the conversation. Their participation will help them develop  skills such as looking ahead, planning, and stating their needs and preferences. These metacognition skills play an important role in advanced learning, and form the basis for monitoring, evaluating, and regulating themselves. Parents can teach brainstorming strategies by modeling them and sharing how they set their own work goals. Allowing children to state and develop some of their goals will give them a greater sense of control and predictability while reducing anxiety and any sense of hopelessness.

While discussing academic goals, it’s also important for parents to acknowledge the losses and disappointments inherent in the remote learning process. For example, some children will not be in sports, or might not see their friends in person regularly. Birthdays and milestones will look different. It’s key to listen to children’s feelings about these changes and validate them so that they feel understood as a whole. At the same time, families can review safety measures related to COVID-19 and answer questions that come up. This effort emphasizes the SEL whole child approach to mental health with a focus on social, emotional and physical care of the child.

Step 2: Implementing strategies

We suggest that specific strategies discussed during the family meeting should be documented in writing. The plan should account for how to ease students into their first day of distance learning so that they can picture their first day and the rest of the weeks. It might be a good idea to share a hard copy of this list on the refrigerator so that it’s visible to even the youngest members in the family.  Other tips to consider:

  • Engage your children in socially distant back-to-school shopping by choosing items online.
  • Involve your kids in creating a workstation that will enable students to focus with ease and comfort. Schedule workstation planning activities with notice, and approach them with enthusiasm. Remember to consider the lighting and ergonomics of the workspace and include children in building or decorating items that they select. Encourage them to take selfies/photos of the newly designed work area which can be shared with friends, grandparents, and teachers.
  • If you already have a “first-day-of-school” tradition, continue to follow it as any other year. If you don’t have a tradition in place, this might be a good time to start a special ritual or way to mark the beginning of the school year. Examples include a special photo of the child, ice cream after school, or a vigorous game of catch.
  • Plan daily snacks and lunches in the same way as if students were attending school in-person; prep meals, to go, ahead of time for the day. When possible, encourage children to plan and make their own lunches.
  • Schedule several short outdoor recess times throughout the day to provide a break from the screen, and time to engage in physical activities. If outdoor activities are not possible, schedule time away from the workstation in another location of the home where children can engage in other activities such as art, dance, exercise, play, etc. Multiple children in the same household can do these activities together. Involve older relatives (e.g., grandparents) living in the home; they can be requested to take on the role of the “music teacher” or supervise homework.
  • Build time into the daily schedule for virtual social connections with friends to check in about homework and/or just have space to talk. The emotional impact of being at home can be quite taxing, and some children might feel socially isolated. Help them join a virtual club or two. Find online games that they can play with their friends. School is not just a place for academic growth, but also social and peer growth that helps to create community, so try to foster that even when distance learning.
  • Consider forming a virtual social hub with other parents who are willing to share the same schedule, so that your children and their friends have a universal lifestyle. On a small scale, this effort is intended to recreate the SEL model for a whole school approach to mental health where everyone who is part of the system is enrolled and experiencing a similar process. With a safe plan for social connections, children will be able to adapt in new and innovative ways to remain social, build relationship skills and resiliency and feel connected as they are naturally more flexible and adaptable than adults.

Implementing a distance learning plan that is clearly informed by SEL concepts while staying attuned to all aspects of children’s needs is not easy. It is especially challenging while navigating distance and hybrid learning. However, as you continue to reevaluate and adapt, caregivers can expect to see an increase in their children’s self-perception, learning agility and emotional stability. At the same time, they will observe a reduction in problematic behaviors such as negative conduct, aggressive behavior, and emotional distress. If you need assistance or are concerned about mood changes or other behaviors in your child, do consult with your school social worker, a licensed marriage and family therapist, or other specialists and educators. They will help your family have the most successful remote learning experience possible.

Remember that setting kids up for success means staying engaged and involved, with enthusiasm, during every step of the planning process and not relying solely on the students’ intrinsic motivation to follow through on their own. Make planning fun, and tasks enjoyable, so that students become invested in their own efforts to succeed, which will in turn create excitement in anticipation of the coming school year.

About the Authors:

Dr. Bahareh Sahebi

  • Core Faculty and Clinical Supervisor in the Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy Program at Northwestern University
  • Adjunct Teaching Instructor for Child and Adolescent Development in SESP Teacher Education Program at Northwestern University
  • Doctor of Psychology and a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist currently practicing at The Family Institute
  • Co-founder and consultant of ParentLENS.com
  • To learn more: https://www.family-institute.org/therapists-locations/staff/bahareh-sahebi

Dr. Mudita Rastogi

  • Clinical Professor and the incoming Program Director for the Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy Program at Northwestern University
  • Dually certified Executive Coach and a Career Development Coach
  • Practicing Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
  • Co-founder and consultant of ParentLENS.com
  • To learn more: https://www.aspire-ct.com/about-me

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