For many families with children, returning to school has been an additional stressor in these uncertain times. About ⅓ of DoD schools—and many public and private schools—opened with virtual classes this fall. Many students and families had to adapt quickly to virtual learning when the COVID-19 pandemic first closed schools in March 2020. Yet the new school year brought higher expectations by teachers and families for more concrete plans for virtual learning. Fortunately, the same Total Force Fitness principles used in the military can be applied to your family to optimize your performance this school year. Take this opportunity to help build positive behaviors and habits for your children—and your family.
Improve executive function.
Executive function is a set of mental skills that allow you to plan, organize, prioritize, pay attention, remember, and monitor your progress in activities. The way your child performs these skills can vary depending on age, but there are things you can do to help.
- Set SMART Goals with your child. What do they want to achieve this year? What kinds of things can they improve on this school year? Better time management? More routines?
- Use the 4-step WOOP—Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan—strategy, to help your kids generate the energy, motivation, and planning needed to follow through with their goals throughout the year. The WOOP strategy is particularly useful in helping kids improve their GPA, homework completion, time management, and effort.
- Create good habits to help set them up for success.
- Boost self-regulation and attention control, which allow them to focus on the tasks they need to reach their goals. Help your child recognize those moments of short-term distraction—and how to choose what will lead to long-term success.
Though distance learning will likely be an adjustment, it’s also an opportunity for kids and teens to experiment with different ways of learning that might not have been possible in a traditional school setting. For example, your kids might realize they can focus better by going for a walk between lessons and during breaks. They might prefer to work on certain projects in the morning vs. the afternoon. Or maybe they’re better able to pay attention while standing or working outside. Virtual learning will also give students the opportunity to switch between reading and writing with paper, and then going online to type, watch videos, take part in video conferences. This variety is a chance to test new ways of absorbing information. Encourage your kids to notice where they might struggle and explore how they learn best.
Few people know your child better than you—except your child. As you encourage your kids to develop self-awareness, help them understand how to speak up so their needs are met. If you see they’re struggling with certain methods—or finding success with other methods—talk to them about ways to ask for help and advocate for what they need. Virtual learning is new for most students, so it’s a chance for your kids to learn to collaborate—and for you to model how.
Help build resilience.
Virtual learning will probably challenge your child and you in many ways. Starting a new school year, learning new technology, and building new habits all can be stressful. But they’re stressful because something you care about is at stake. The good news is, stress doesn’t have to hurt performance. In fact, some stress can enhance performance. Part of building resilience is knowing how to stay focused on areas you can control and to let go of things outside of your control. And one thing students can control is their mindset when they approach challenges. Help your kids make sure their thoughts are productive and that they challenge unhelpful thoughts. Hunting the good stuff as a family routine can help build your child's resilience to take on the challenges ahead.
An optimistic mindset can help kids stay focused on areas where they have control, rather than the things outside their control. Try these tactics:
- Create a positivity portfolio to help your child boost their mood when they’re feeling down or frustrated.
- Use a PERMA to-do list to help show how the different tasks they have to do can be more fun and meaningful.
- Help them to explore signature strengths to accomplish their academic goals.
Support online social connections.
One of the biggest challenges of virtual learning is the missing relationships with peers. As a result, your kids might need some extra screen time so they can connect with their friends. Talk with you kids about making safe connections online. Discuss how they can keep in touch with their friends and keep up with school work while still maintaining healthy screen use habits. And talk to your child’s teachers about how best to access and incorporate one or more of the many online tools for teaching social skills.
Remember fitness and nutrition.
Children and teens need to exercise and eat right to optimize their learning—even if school is at the kitchen table. Encourage your kids to make healthy choices as consistently as possible. For example, since snacks usually aren’t allowed in class, they shouldn’t be allowed during virtual learning either. Let your kids have a nutritious snack between classes, and make sure breakfast and lunch are a scheduled part of their day. And remember, kids should get at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day. Help them block off some time for recess and outdoor play to keep them active.
Optimize the learning environment.
Much like you need the right setup to work from home, your kids need the right home-based work space for school success. Designate a clean, clear desk area with no TV or video games around that might distract them. If possible, have a quiet area free from other family traffic. At the end of the day, pack up the books and school supplies, and return the area to its normal setup to create some distance between school and homelife. Then, in the morning, everybody goes back to work or school and “comes home” at the end of the day.
There’s no getting around it, someone on the home front will need to help with virtual learning. In many cases, this will be you or another family member—who might also have to balance job or Service obligations in addition to juggling the needs of other family members. Your level of involvement with virtual learning might vary based on the age(s) of your kids. But your kids will have the best chance for success if you’re involved, even if you’re deployed or in another location. Rather than taking control, doing the work for them, or taking a passive approach, focus on finding what motivates them and encouraging them to take responsibility for their learning. Your kids will have a hard time putting in the work they need to succeed if you don’t show them you care about their academic success by putting in the time yourself. Set boundaries, communicate what you expect, and explain how you’ll support them. Make sure you learn how to access the parent portals so you can check on your kid’s work too.
Partner with teachers.
While virtual learning might be new for you and your kids, it’s probably new for teachers as well. Though many teachers want parents to be involved in the learning process, it can be difficult to rely on parents (who probably aren’t trained educators) to help teach their kids. Virtual learning requires a new type of partnership between parents and teachers. In traditional classroom settings, teachers and parents might connect during back-to-school night at the beginning of the year and then only when a problem arises. But virtual learning requires different—and at times more—interaction. Set up regular check-ins with your child’s teachers. Ask teachers when and how they want to be reached (using the learning platform, email, video call, etc.) so you know the best way to contact them. Talk about their goals and yours—and how best you can to be involved going forward. Remember to get in touch with administrators, counselors, and others in the school community too.
As you and your kids work to master virtual learning, communicate with teachers. Share any struggles you might be facing as a military family that could affect learning. And offer your insights into what makes your kids tick. As a parent, you get to see your kids in many different environments, so sharing your ideas for what they need to succeed can make the whole virtual learning process go more smoothly.