• Carrie S. Cutler

The Juggle is Real: 8 Tips for Family Success in Online Learning

As every parent knows, juggling the demands of work and family can be overwhelming. This feat is especially challenging amidst the pandemic with many parents and children sharing technology and at-home work space while managing the demands of online learning and work obligations.


If you read my blog regularly, you know I am a professor of education at an urban university. I’m also the mother of a large family—eight kids ages 5 to 23. All six of the kids still living in my house are boys! It’s a loud, smelly, busy place filled with love but also crammed with multiple pressures. There seems to be an unrelenting need for help with homework, Zoom meetings, projects, reports, as well as typical family life stuff like running a household and spending time doing fun things together.


This post does not contain all the right answers.

In fact, the pandemic has reinforced my belief that

***THERE ARE MANY RIGHTS.***


There are many right ways of doing things. Many right ways to be there for our kids, many right ways to manage online learning, many right ways to handle stress.

And if something isn’t working out, change it up!


These tips come from my experiences as an educator and parent. Right now, they are working well for our crew. I may adapt them in five minutes, however, if something new must be added to the mix—like a big work project for my husband or a new expectation from the kids’ schools.


I’m not married to these routines. They’re not even laminated (a joke teachers will get)!

So they’re easy to change. Flexibility is the name of the game.

Check out these tips for successful online learning then adapt them to work for you.


1. Do School Work When Kids are Fresh

For parents with young kids, I suggest taking time for your children first. They are freshest in the morning, so use this time to take care of their school work. Then give them time to relax and do some fun things on their own while you work. Spend time together again in the afternoon by heading outside to soak up some Vitamin D and get some exercise. My sons and I look forward to taking a bike ride or a walk after a long day of online work. In the evenings, I often complete online grading and lesson planning while my sons play board games. They’re engaged, and I can be beside them as I work.



Older kids and teens may find rising a bit later fits their internal clock better, necessitating starting school work mid-morning. That's fine if schedules for synchronous learning from teachers align. Make a time chart and post it where everyone can see the flow of the day (including time for physical exercise). Being organized will minimize last-minute rushing to log on for an important meeting.


2. Make Space for Learning

In our family, our younger children do school work in a spot where it is easy for me to be nearby and provide help. To see how we have set up virtual learning stations for our boys, read this blog post. For paper and pencil homework, they usually sit at a corner of the kitchen table while I wash never-ending dishes or prepare meals. As our children have gotten older, I’ve placed a desk in their bedrooms to encourage independence. I try to make sure I peek in periodically to help them stay focused and to offer encouragement.

3. Set Up Technology Tools

You don’t have to spend big money on the coolest computer with the fastest internet connection, a printer that prints 1000 pages per minute and never needs the ink replaced, or a headset worthy of an all-the-rage YouTuber. But to avoid constant frustration, you do need reliable technology that enables your children to word process, download and upload as needed. You can read 7 specific technology tips in this blog post: Tips for Spaces and Tech that Make Online Learning a Snap.


4. Communicate with Teachers

Be patient with yourself, your children, and your children’s teachers. Virtual learning has its own set of challenges like slow internet, jammed printers, and dozens of website passwords. Whatever frustration you’re feeling, know that teachers share many of the same exasperations.


When communicating with teachers, consider the teachers’ workload. Depending on the grade level, s/he may teach multiple classes and upwards of 150 children. An email works best for asking questions or sharing concerns. Allow 24 hours for a response and use the sandwich method of writing—start positive, share concern, end positive.


Here’s how I might word an email to my son’s teacher:

Hi, Mr./Ms. Martinez,

This is Carrie Cutler. My son, Duncan, is in your 4th period algebra class. He is learning so much this year, and we are so grateful for all the effort you are putting into making his online learning successful. You are absolutely a wonder! I just wanted to give you a heads up that Duncan is struggling with negative numbers. We’re working on it at home but wondered if you had any tips or websites we could use for extra explanations or practice. Please let me know what resources we can look to. Again, thank you for your work on Duncan’s behalf. We know this is a tricky time. You are appreciated!

Sincerely,

Carrie Cutler (Duncan’s grateful mom)


5. Make Math Less Frustrating for Your Child (and YOU!)

I can’t write a blog post without mentioning math. :) School work, especially math, may look and feel different from how you learned it. The math itself hasn’t changed, but the way we teach it has. Remember it’s okay to learn alongside your child. You model genuine interest in mathematics when you’re curious, not skeptical, about new ways of learning math. And that contributes to the math-positive home you’re striving to create. (For more tips on creating a math-positive home, check out my book Math-Positive Mindsets: Growing a Child's Mind without Losing Yours.)


First, realize that there are many right ways to solve math problems. We should encourage children to be flexible in their approaches and honor the wonderful diversity of their thinking. Try asking your child to explain a concept to you first. This gives you a little refresher before you have to support their learning.


Second, keep math hands-on and engaging. Math today is less about memorizing and more about applying math to real-world problems. Whether it’s sorting the cans in the kitchen cupboard or using mental math to estimate the distance you can drive on a tank of gas, doing math is the best way to overcome math anxiety. My YouTube channel and the 20-Minute Math Activities I have on my website aim to help even the most math-panicked teachers and parents see how simple, hands-on activities build math-positive mindsets along with mathematical understanding.


Finally, make math fun. Built a boat out of tinfoil and see how many pennies it can hold before sinking. Play Pico, Fermi, Bagels or Double Digit. Read math-themed picture books (I have a few YouTube videos about this) and talk about math in the real-world.


Making math fun isn’t cheating kids out of learning. It’s showing them that math is more than memorizing. Plus, it’s a lot more fun for the whole family when everyone gets involved!


6. Handle Anxiety and Frustration

My own children have been known to shed a few tears of frustration occasionally during school work. But if your kids are crying regularly, you must address the situation.


Consider children’s overall emotional and physical health. Are they getting adequate sleep? Could the current crisis be causing anxiety, depression or some other serious mental health concern?


Are you putting undue pressure on your kiddos? Children get many of their cues about behaviors and attitudes from their parents and caregivers. Adults’ talk must be positive, encouraging, and connected to effort and understanding rather than natural talent or how quickly kids get an answer.


Here are a few math-positive phrases to try.

· You didn’t let mistakes fluster you.

· When the problems got harder, you worked harder.

· I bet that makes you feel proud that your hard work paid off.


Simple relaxation techniques can ease children’s (and parents’) anxiety during learning at home. Try these:


· Helicopter Breathing: Inhale deeply. Expel breath with a ch-ch-ch helicopter sound as you swirl both index fingers in a circular motion and your raise your arms above your head. When arms are fully extended, blow out the rest of the breath with a straight sh sound and lower your arms. Repeat until calm.

· Body Part Relaxation: Focus on relaxing individual muscles one by one. In a calm, slow voice the parent says, “Focus on your eyebrows. Raise them several times then relax them. Focus on your jaw muscles. Bite down hard then relax. Move next to the shoulders. Raise them and squeeze your shoulders together in the back. Roll them slowly and relax them.” Continue down the body until even the toes are relaxed.


7. Encourage Kids’ Self-Regulation

We may come away from the pandemic with gaps in student understanding. I think that may be difficult to avoid. We must accept that lack of hands-on, discussion-based concept building may result in a more fragile understanding of some learning objectives. But we may also have some pretty amazing positive outcomes.


Wouldn’t it be inspiring if this generation of pandemic-sidelined learners developed into a resilient, determined cohort—kids who don’t run from a challenge but face it head-on with grit, fortitude and the knowledge that they can do hard things?


You can think of online learning as an opportunity to help your kids develop self-regulation. Self-regulated learners are active agents in their own learning. This requires coordination of cognitive, metacognitive (thinking about our own thinking), motivational, emotional, and behavioral competencies to face complex challenges.


Self-regulation is developed, experienced, and used under social and environmental influences. But with the switch to online learning and socially distanced classrooms, those social and environmental influences have changed. So, parents must support children in building resilience, focus, motivation, and self-regulation.


*Have realistic expectations for time spent in front of a screen doing school work versus physical activity. Think 3 minutes per child’s age up to about 45 minutes at a stretch. That’s 15 minutes for a 5-year-old and 45 minutes for a high-schooler. Work then play for a bit. Short bursts of physical activity improves learning by releasing endorphins and pumping more oxygen to the brain.


*Balance adult-directed “encouragement” with child-directed efforts. Self-regulation and intrinsic motivation can’t be developed without a safe space to do so. That means rewarding small steps toward independence and encouraging effort rather than focusing solely on products or results.


*Don’t hover unnecessarily. Try giving children a little space and see if they complete the school work on their own. If you want to stay close by, use this time to do a little of your own math (my favorite subject). Balance your checkbook or do a Sudoku or KenKen puzzle while children are working. This simultaneously reinforces the idea that math is an important real-world skill while keeping you from getting bored, impatient, or restless.


When we reward our kids' approximations at independent, self-regulated learning,

we equip them with lifelong skills to manage difficult challenges.


8. Keep Pushing Forward

These are not easy times. Sometimes I feel like a one-armed juggler with flaming bowling pins spinning above my head. But like my grandmother used to say, "This too shall pass." And when it does, I hope all of us—kids, parents, and teachers—can say we worked together to make it through with math-positive attitudes and joy in the journey!


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Carrie Cutler

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