WMU education instructors offer advice for parents navigating virtual learning with young kids

Contact: Erin Flynn

A frustrated mom tries to work on her computer while her kids demand her attention.KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Keeping a kindergartner engaged with his or her teacher over a tablet while a client waits for you to deliver a presentation over Zoom might have ranked up there with the proverbial naked-in-class nightmare. Same with navigating a global pandemic. But both are realities in 2020. Going back to school has ushered in new anxieties for K-12 parents burning the candle at both ends, finding it hard to tell where work ends and home begins with their laptop and spreadsheets sprawled across the kitchen table.

Quick tips for success

  • Create structure: Develop a routine and stick to it.
  • Prepare: Help kids get acquainted with the technology and processes.
  • Set boundaries: Create defined learning areas, if possible, and set times when the school day begins and ends.
  • Give grace: Don't expect everything to be perfect!

"A lot of this can burn parents out really fast. We saw that in the spring. People just got exhausted. It was really hard to keep up with all the things that were coming at us," says Mindy Holohan, a faculty specialist in Western Michigan University's Department of Family and Consumer Sciences in the College of Education and Human Development. "People need to be really generous with themselves and recognize we're still in a pandemic, and we're not going to be able to operate under an old paradigm."

The good news is schools have had much more time to prepare for new methods of learning than they did during the abrupt shutdown in March. But that doesn't mean there won't be bumps along the way as parents, teachers and students adjust. Expert faculty in WMU's College of Education and Human Development have some advice for parents to help make the transition a little less daunting.


Just as you prepare kids for a normal in-person school year, talking about what the classroom will look like, the supplies they'll need and what to do at lunch time, children also need to learn about expectations and procedures for their virtual classroom.

Sisters sit on opposite couches working on their laptops.

Even if it's their own dedicated couch, kids benefit from a consistent learning space.

"Kids need structure and kids need consistency. That's one of the reasons why if you walk into a good early childhood classroom, there's a daily schedule printed," says Dr. Andrea Smith, professor of early childhood education at WMU. "There's room for independent work and cooperative work and exploration, but there is also an overall structure and it's consistent. And I think that is probably a huge part of families feeling like they can do this successfully."

Establishing a consistent bedtime and morning routine as well as providing nutritious meals help ensure your child is well-rested and able to focus during the day. The school environment is also important. It may be difficult in families with multiple children, but having a designated space for learning can improve engagement as well.

"Even if one child always has this corner of the living room and the other always has this end of the couch, it's their space and they've got that consistency and that feeling that that's where they go to do their school," Smith says. In the same vein, establishing set times for when learning begins every day and when it ends will help children focus and separate school from home life.

"Try to find time to interact with each other in ways that do not involve a screen. Maintain that parent-child connection through activities such as going on a walk or bike ride, cooking a simple meal or treat, working on a project, whatever it is that you and your child enjoy doing, make sure that is maintained," says Dr. Kimberly Doudna, assistant professor of family science. "You are already likely spending a large quantity of time together, so focusing on quality time, as defined by your family, is essential."


While some parents worry about the lack of physical interaction in a virtual class as opposed to an in-person experience, there are some benefits to learning from home.

A family plays soccer.

Maintaining the parent-child connection is essential, especially when you're both working from home.

"Asynchronous virtual learning offers a lot of flexibility for families, whereas synchronous has less flexibility but more interaction with the teacher," says Doudna. "Children who are easily distracted or overwhelmed by in-person instruction may thrive with virtual learning."

It's crucial, however, to give children the tools they need to succeed. Familiarizing them with the technology they will be using, teaching them how to navigate computers and devices, and even explaining to them how a camera works and proper video conferencing etiquette are steps that are easily overlooked.

"When we teach a child to read, we don’t just plop a dictionary in front of them and say, 'Go to town.' We break it down. We start with the alphabet, we start with sounds, we start to identify and make connections and put those sounds together to make words," Holohan says. "We break it down into these steps and build on that over time. A lot of times when it comes to technology, we don't do that."

Virtual learning will undoubtedly increase screen time for kids. Screens in and of themselves are not bad, says Holohan, but she encourages parents and caregivers to think about screen time and use in terms of benefits and vulnerabilities.

"What's appropriate are screen-based interactions that are prosocial, that are in real time, that are active versus passive," she says. "You want the child to be the active one and the technology to be passive as a tool—the means, not the end."

A child writes on a piece of paper while watching a tablet.

"Some hard copy pen and paper types of activities are important too; it doesn't all have to be on the screens," says Dr. Andrea Smith.

"I would really caution families not to just depend on screens. Some hard copy pen and paper types of activities are important too; it doesn't all have to be on the screens," adds Smith.

Younger children may have more difficulty engaging through a screen for longer periods of time. To help focus, Doudna suggests introducing sensory toys such as fidget spinners, squishy stress balls or even pipe cleaners to help them focus—just make sure to let the teacher know you’re employing that strategy. Concentrating work in short blocks can also be helpful.

"I really like having kids know that there's a designated period of time in which they're going to work really hard and be really focused, and then after that there's a change of scene or a change of activity," Smith says. She calls those periods "power surges" and recommends finding an age-appropriate length for engagement. Younger children may only be able to focus intently for 15 minutes at a time, while older children could spend an hour working. After that "surge," shift to an alternative activity like a fitness video or drawing time to give them a bit of a break.


A common challenge and anxiety of parents who are working full-time from home while also thinking about facilitating virtual school is being able to give children the attention they need. Don't put too much pressure on yourself, says Smith.

"Kids in a school setting don't have immediate, unlimited attention from their teacher. They're probably sharing that teacher's time and attention with 20 to 30 other students. So, it's okay for kids to learn that there are certain times that they can and should have a family member's attention, and other times when they can and should work independently or wait because that caregiver is doing something really important as well."

Giving kids a signal, such as wearing a certain accessory when you're on an important phone call or video conference, can help them establish boundaries for when to seek help. Parents can also go over their schedule every day with children so that they know times when you're going to be busy and when you have time to work or take a break.

A mom bows her head in frustration while her children dance on her table.

Even if you do everything right, there are going to be days when nothing seems to work. That's to be expected. As long as lines of communication are kept open between parents, kids and teachers, there will be room to adjust and overcome challenges that arise along the way.

"Kids are kids. They're not little robots," Smith says. "So, it's knowing what makes your kid tick and what makes your kid not tick, trusting your instincts as much as you can and giving yourself some grace, because nobody ever expected to be doing these kinds of things."

Having a support system of family members, friends or even other parents online to swap stories or commiserate can be both productive and therapeutic.

"What's been really helpful for me is to see the posts on social media not from people whose house looks like a classroom and is operating with military precision, but the posts from the dad who's saying, 'I can't get my 5-year-old to stop standing on her head on her chair today,'" adds Smith. "Just remember, there's millions of other people out there, not just in our country but all around the world, that are juggling these same things. You're not alone."

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