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How Parents Can Help Improve Online Learning Outcomes

August 27, 2020

August 27, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit every household hard. Parents with school-age children are experiencing difficulties they never anticipated and those parents fortunate enough to work from home, are receiving a double dose of stress along with expectations and responsibilities most never prepared for.

Now that there are so many students that are engaged in learning at home via some form of online communications or videoconference platform (Microsoft Teams, Zoom, WebEx, along with others), there are a few steps you can take to lay the groundwork for more successful student outcomes and make the learning experience less stressful on you.

To help create a positive environment for learning and to mitigate or lessen the stress associated with being parent, teacher, counselor, disciplinarian, principal, and head-master all rolled into one, we have some suggestions that were tested through trial-and-error during our time of co-teaching “Zoom School” for friends and relatives in Nashville from March through May of 2020.

In addition to the authors’ three-month experience of co-teaching online classes, we spoke with a middle a school principal, teachers, and several Black parents of middle school students. We then surveyed them asking these questions below:

  • “What could we have asked you to do to make Zoom School work better for your child?”
  • “What might have encouraged you to become or stay more involved?”
  • “Is there anything we as teachers could have done better?”
  • “Is there anything else you can tell us that might help us help other parents?”

“When we first started, Eddie really didn’t like the schedule at all. By the third week he was asking: ‘Granny, so what’s on my schedule today?’ He came to rely on it and looked forward to the predictability and structure the schedule provided.”

The most frequent response to that last question and the finding that stands out as the single most critical element of student success in online learning was: “Tell parents they should create a structured schedule for their child’s day similar to the structure in place during conventional, in person school.”

When students attended conventional school in-person, they did so within a structured environment. There was an established time to wake up, brush teeth, dress, exit the house for school, etc. Upon returning from school, there may have been some scheduled free-time, TV time, device screen time, time for homework, dinner, and perhaps household chores, followed by a prescribed bedtime.

Parents and teachers we spoke with believe that creating and staying with a familiar, structured schedule for the online experience was the most crucial element in their student’s success with online learning.

One grandmother told us:

“When we first started, Eddie really didn’t like the schedule at all. By the third week he was asking: ‘Granny, so what’s on my schedule today?’ He came to rely on it and looked forward to the predictability and structure the schedule provided.”

Parents also pointed out that it is important that a schedule include some free play, or screen time for devices, and if possible, outdoor fun time, as well as not-so-fun items.

A lot of what we advocate is contained in the old adage:

“A failure to plan — is a plan to fail!”

The following recommendations are not intended to transform parents into multitasking, millennial or newer generation, home schoolers. Rather than encourage you to become a “Sage on the Stage”, it is our hope parents will become “Guides on the Side”, more or less looking over their child’s shoulder to offer help “setting up” and limited guidance to oversee successful engagement with online lear

Parents Can Teach The 3 Ups 

Establish a regular, basic learning environment and structure with “quiet time”, have pencil & paper readily available, and reinforce what we call the “3 Ups”:

  1. Square Up. Head and shoulders in the video frame of your own picture to convey an image of attentiveness
  2. Look Up. Look into camera to better approximate eye contact
  3. Speak Up. Test check audio setting to avoid perception of mumbling

Designate A Place For School

Create a space for “school” in your home. This can be any designated area with a desk, table, or flat surface and good lighting. Encourage your child to help set it up. Your student should work in this area and leave the area during breaks. The schedule you create with your child and behavior expectations like the “3 Ups” should be posted in this area. Having your child help make and decorate the area with the schedule and expectations will increase their sense of ownership in the experience.

Position student to avoid “washed out” appearance and glare from windows or lights focused behind the student toward the camera. Ideally, the light source should come from behind the camera, not behind the student. Eliminate distractions and interruptions from small children or pets.

Help With Computer Set-up

Assist with initial login procedures, teach your child how to mute and unmute themselves, and raise their hand to ask a question or to comment. To provide these set-up tips, it may be necessary to sit nearby and give your child your full attention during the first half hour of beginning sessions until your student is fully capable of navigating the online platform independently.

Insist On Fresh Air

Consider making a period of outside play mandatory if at all possible. Sunshine, fresh air, and exercise are important ingredients for healthy, growing children.

Not Permit Procrastination

Do not permit procrastination in completing assignments. Eliminate multitasking with social media, e-mail, or other activities while working online.

Establish Expectations

Set expectations and specific times to complete any offline work. Online classes often include assignments to be pursued offline. In our experience, procrastination is the number one enemy of online education. Putting assignments off until later is a surefire way for your child to fall behind and offer a lot of “… was gonna …” excuses!

Assist students to locate and navigate teacher recommended supplemental resources (Google searches, Khan Academy, Schoology, and others).

Give Appropriate Help

Learn and walk students through how to use multiple program screens at once i.e., Zoom, Kahoot, etc. Learn how to navigate between different screens and programs and teach your child how to do that as well. If your child’s teacher recommends a supplemental resource such as Khan Academy, help your child locate and utilize that resource. Do not do their work for them but do help them keep a list of websites, usernames, and passwords for all the sites they will use during their online classes.

Limit Screen Time

Whenever possible, we advise limiting screen time to approximately 50-minute segments before taking a break, and never more than 90-minutes of continuous online learning without a break away from the screen at any one time.

Project Confidence

Convey a positive attitude to your child. Let him/her know that you are confident that he/she can master and be successful with this learning mode.

Please remember that in this unfamiliar “stay home” environment, make some time to take good care of YOU. Taking care of yourself means that the people in your life will receive the best of you rather than the rest of you!


Elijah Gann

Certified MNPS Special Education Teacher

Elijah Gann is a parent and a certified MNPS Special Education teacher with considerable experience utilizing a variety of technological resources including Khan Academy, Zoom and other platforms, in addition to conventional classroom teaching at the middle school level.

Charles A. Hill

Retired Administrator

Charles A. Hill is a retired administrator and instructor from the University of California, Berkeley who began teaching and developing online courses many years ago.

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