10 Strategies to Help Parents with Distance Learning

How to Beat the “Back To School Blues”

Guest post by Monica Gupta Mehta @monicagmehta and Co-authored by Ariana Pokatilova, EmotionalMUSE Volunteer

“MOMMYSCHOOL,” by Deb Liu, released a cartoon entitled ‘Back To School Blues.’ The humorous graphic proclaimed fire and brimstone and doom for the 2020–2021 school year. When I saw this cartoon, I was struck by how much I related to every single one of the 10 bulleted items, based on our own family’s first week back to school.

This past week was essentially a series of timers set about 20 minutes apart to keep our three kids on track…three kids in three different schools with three entirely different schedules, despite being in the same district. Snack breaks and lunch breaks did not line up even once, which meant the adults in the house were “short order cooks” all day every day. As I frantically attempted to work with any amount of focus in my 15 minute windows of distraction-free time, I found myself looking up to “shhhh!!” the one child who was on break while the other two were on zoom calls. That’s right — even when they had breaks, there could be no loud boisterous play, out of respect for their siblings still in school. A collective sigh was heaved each day at approximately 3:30pm.

Reading Deb Liu’s ‘Back to School Blues,’ I find comfort in the knowledge that our family is not alone. If the plane is about to go down in flames, at least we are all in this together. But why is that comforting? I suppose it is the hope that comes from knowing that others are experiencing the same obstacles and challenges; somehow, somebody will come up with solutions to these challenges. As founder of the MUSE Framework for Social Emotional Learning, with a mission of developing the emotional intelligence of generations of students, I felt compelled to offer whatever advice I could to the parents who are attempting to thrive…or at least survive!…during this unprecedented school year.

1. “Orientation: Attended orientation with sixteen 8 year-olds, half didn’t know how to mute, one was upside down. Chaos ensued.”

I think we can all agree that it is not the most natural thing to have children set up on all day video conferences that rival the schedule of the busiest tech execs.

One way to help mitigate the unfamiliarity of this situation is to teach children the basics of video conferencing, beyond simply showing them how to join a video call. If your child’s teacher doesn’t already have something similar, share this graphic with them to help create a set of virtual community guidelines. It is also helpful to have a discussion with your children about what steps to take when their call is not working. Teach them to self advocate!

2. “Textbook Pickup: Freshmen book pickup cancelled due to the insufficient staff. Still TBD on the updated calendar. School starts Monday.”

It is eerie how similar our experiences were — our schools had to delay materials pickup multiple times, and many students did not have their textbook pick up until after the school year had started. The schools tried to recruit more parent volunteers, but without adequate childcare, most parents with younger kids are not free to leave their homes. My teen found a partial workaround for this problem — there are many sites out there that offer both free and rental versions of textbooks in digital, PDF format. To make this easier for younger children, print out the pages they actually need so they can take notes and annotate as they would in a print textbook.

3. “Class Assignments: Middle school class assignments were delayed until just before the first day of class due to technical issues.”

I guess this is one of those “it is what it is” things in life. Hopefully it’s true what they say — tough situations build strong people. One thing is for sure…we’ll come out of this pandemic with more grit and resilience than we could have learned through any purely educational methods.

4. “Lunch Roulette: Found all three kids have different lunch times. Will need to be a short order cook to feed them.”

Ugh. I feel your pain, Deb Liu! This was my life the first few days of school. However, I wised up (eventually) and remembered that we used to pack lunch in the morning before school, and my kids had lunch whenever it fell in their school schedule — without me trying to give them company, or serve them hot, fresh food. Save the nice meals for dinnertime and go back to pre-packed foods that are prepared ahead of time! If you find yourself wanting to make fresh lunches, prepare everyone’s lunch at the same time as you prepare the first child’s lunch. The other children are likely to be along within the hour, and most foods can sit out that long without spoiling.

For those feeling especially ambitious, one bonus idea I had is to set up a lunch ‘playdate’ schedule, with virtual calls set up for each child to socialize during their lunch break. For some of my kids, this works great…for others, they just want a break from video calls even more than they want to socialize with their friends at lunch.

5. “School Days: Kids are expected to be on zoom for 5 to 6 hours a day, but each day is staggered so the schedule is different per day of the week, per kid. Send help.”

Yes. This. This is exhausting. Not only does each child’s day look different from their siblings’ day; each child also has a different bell schedule for each day on their own school schedule. This is difficult to manage for all of us, and creates the additional difficulty of children who are on “break” having to be quiet and solitary while the other children are still in school. One way to deal with this is to plan your younger children’s breaks a little bit ahead of time, ideally with their input. Write down various break activities your child could do during downtimes. For my own children, I ask them to use the restroom and drink water at every break as needed, then to either get a snack or do anything on the list of brainstormed activities. These include stretching breaks, puzzles, journaling, coloring, quick chats with friends, shooting some baskets, taking a short walk (for older kids), having a mindful moment, reading a book, etc. I also let my kids play in this virtual “playroom” I created, which they find simultaneously both fun and relaxing. (FYI the virtual playroom only works on computers; it is not yet optimized for mobile use.)

I’d also recommend creating a master schedule of all of your children’s log in times as well as codes. If possible, give your children “view” access and teach them how to check the master schedule. Include all additional schedule items, such as exercise, meal plans, and extracurriculars. As things change (updated zoom links, changes in schedule) you can then simply update this master spreadsheet, and your kids will always find the most updated schedule/links as they check back throughout the day.

I find it useful to include my own general schedule in this spreadsheet — that way my kids know if I am in meetings or appointments, on a walk with our puppy, etc.

6. “Communication Management: After reading through two dozen back-to-school emails from five schools and filling out online forms for two days, I am sure I missed at least three things. Just not sure which three.”

This is not my strong suit; I have come to dread my emails with a passion (can you dread something with a passion?? I think the answer is you can during a worldwide pandemic.). However, one hack I have started using seems to be working pretty well. I’ve created a separate folder for emails coming from school, since there is so much communication home these days. Any school email that comes across my inbox I dump in the folder to read in the evening, and I keep the email there even after I’ve read it. Once I am sure I have processed it, noted vital info, and done all tasks from the email, then I remove it from the folder.

7. “School IT Support: Juggled logins to Schoology, Infinite Campus, UpToUs, Google Classroom, Quickschools, Clever, and Konstella to figure out all of the action items. Probably forgot all of the usernames and passwords already.”

I think the solution to this one is obvious…it’s just frustratingly time consuming. Somehow, somewhere all of that information needs stored where it can be readily retrieved. I threw out my usual hesitation to write down passwords and created a login information tab in my master spreadsheet (the one the kids use to see their schedule each day and all the zoom links). The benefit of this is that the kids can see their own login information, and they now come to me far less for this specific need. If I end up getting hacked because we wrote everything down, I suppose I’ll be eating my words. Fingers crossed it all works out.

“8. Calendaring: Realized one of us will be a full-time executive assistant to manage the calendar for three kids or else everything will fall apart.”

This is just factually true, and it is no fun. I do have hope this will get better as things become more routine; but it does feel like half my day goes to this. There are two strategies that have helped me counteract this. One is, yet again, my master schedule. Having a really organized place to collect all information, and to update it as it changes, is a game changer. Every bit of new info that comes in has a spot either in that spreadsheet or on my Google calendar. Knowing where to record the constantly changing information as it comes in is half the battle.

The other two thirds of the battle (yes, we are all metaphorically putting in way more than 100% effort!!) is to not procrastinate. This is a huge ask when everyone is overwhelmed and working way too many jobs at once (paid and unpaid)…but aim for an empty email inbox each day if possible. The more you let the emails build up, the more reluctant you will become to address them.

9. WiFi: Our WiFi is melting down already with too many concurrent video connections. Next week will be WiFi-Mageddon.”

Oof. I have lost count of the number of things we have tried to do to create enough bandwidth for the kids to all be in school synchronously, for me to get my work done, and for my husband to be on all day long conference calls. We have called our Internet service provider, and that has occasionally helped, as sometimes the issue is on their end. You can also try resetting your router — sometimes if we do that enough, the WiFi magically begins working again.

If this issue persists, internet connection is the area I would say is most worth spending a little extra money if you can afford it. Upgrading to a better router will generally help immensely. We have also purchased something called a MiFi — a personal internet hotspot that can be plugged anywhere, with its own monthly fee. This is amazing to have for our outdoor classroom, which we are doing four days a week (we are allowing some friends to come do school with our kids socially distanced in the backyard). That is, four days a week if the California wildfires are not devastating our air quality and trapping us indoors! (…while simultaneously making us so grateful to have an “indoors” to be trapped in, as our neighbors to the north, east, and south are all being evacuated).

One last suggestion for sparing your WiFi is to encourage yourself and your kids to take breaks from their devices when they are on school breaks. Encourage them to move their bodies and to engage their minds in different ways, such as reading, puzzles, chores and games.

10. “Assessment for School Year 2020: We are doomed.”

Well…here’s hoping my Dad is right. He is always telling us to be “wildly optimistic.” While every word of Liu’s cartoon depicts exactly how I felt last week, this week I am optimistic that the tips and strategies collected here can keep us aloft. It certainly won’t be a smooth flight, but with a confident pilot and the advice of our co-pilots, I believe we will get through this. Together.

Visit Monica’s site EmotionalMUSE.com for Social Emotional Learning curriculum you can use with your children. My first two units include a Piloting Your Plane emotional regulation curriculum for early elementary school children, and a Socializing During A Pandemic social skills unit for secondary school students. It is a rapidly growing site — follow me for updates when new units become available!

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Dealing with Child Anxiety Stemming from Coronavirus Crisis

Guest post by Simon Choi, a mental health advocate and small business founder. He foundedStandout Bands which supports Beyond Blue and allows him to write for his mental health blog, Healthy Minds. Simon is particularly passionate about supporting those experiencing depression. Currently, Simon is supporting those struggling as a result of COVID-19 related mental health issues. He lives in Melbourne, Australia.

*Opinions expressed are those of the guest author.

Times of Uncertainty

 

The Global Coronavirus Pandemic has been ongoing for months now and there is a great deal of uncertainty among government and society. Adults are dealing with loss of work, changes to daily routines and possibly even sick relatives. However, the uncertainty is not only limited to adults.  

The Effects on Children

Children are not immune to the fears that this global pandemic has produced. Their lives have been greatly affected as well. Children are not only out of school, but they are not able to visit their friends and family as well. For example, fear of the health of the elderly means most grandparents are not advised to see grandkids in the present environment. Parents and educators can try to help and reduce some of this anxiety. In the following article, we will discuss seven ways that any educator or parent may be able to help those they care for and teach:

#1 Keep Their Usual Schedule

For a child, it can be difficult to experience many external changes. Since they have no control over being out of school and not seeing their friends and family, it is best to stabilize the things that can be stabilized. In order to give your children stability, do not change their sleep time, their school hours or other regular activities. Even if your child has to practice their sport in their own front yard or get violin lessons over Zoom, try to keep up with their previous schedule and activities as much as possible.  

#2 Don’t Let Kids Watch Too Much News

The news can be informative, but it can also be full of unwanted scenery and troublesome for younger viewers in particular. Since that is the case, you do not want to let your kids watch too much news.

#3 Talk to Kids Openly

Kids need to feel like they can openly express themselves with adults. You want to ask your kids questions about their feelings and give them age appropriate answers. Children are inquisitive by nature, so this process could require some patience, but it will help to dispel some of their fears.

#4 Watch Their Associates

If your children are spending a lot of time talking to virtual friends, make sure that you are aware of the other kids who they are talking to. Other children can have a big influence on your children’s feelings, so you want to monitor or at least be familiar with their friends.

#5 Play with Your Kids

Make sure that your kids are getting exercise. Each day, make it a practice to add an exercise routine to your kids daily work. Just like gym class at school, exercise should be a healthy part of their at home learning journey. Try to play sports with kids as well; this is especially true if your kids are involved in any extracurricular sports. That way, they can keep up with their skills and get out some extra energy as well.

#6 Talk to A Professional

If you think that your child is having an extra hard time dealing with the stress of COVID19 and you notice that the stress is interfering with his or her daily activities, you may have to contact a professional who can give your child a consultation over the phone and provide professional advice.

Make the Best of a Difficult Situation

It can be stressful to deal with an unknown situation, but this stress can also build resilience in a child. Even in a global pandemic, you can help your child to make the best of the opportunities that staying at home can present or as an educator if over teleconference. When a child is taught to deal with difficulties in a healthy manner, he or she will be well prepared for whatever life throws at them. With the right support from you children can build resilience as a result of this time.  

 

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ParentSquare for Teachers

Communication is Key

One of the things that I enjoy the most about the summer is having more time to reflect on the different tools and resources that I am using in my classroom and to explore new ones. Summer is also the perfect time to participate in professional learning, whether by attending conferences, taking classes, or meeting with other educators. This summer, I have been involved in several presentations and conversations that are focused on finding a way to enhance better communication between home and school. It is critical for classrooms today that we find a way to increase family engagement in the learning experiences of their children and make sure that everyone has access to the school information and resources, especially those that are time-sensitive.

Finding the right tools

There is no shortage of tools that we can use to form a connection between home and school, whether we want simply to send messages and class updates to students, or we want to focus more on including parents. Because teachers have so many different responsibilities, finding the time to explore tools can be a little challenging at times. This is why it’s beneficial to share what we are doing in our classrooms to help other teachers get started and to make those connections that we know are so important for student success today.

Several years ago I noticed a disconnect and I resolved that by finding a digital tool (Celly, then Remind) to connect with my students so I could share resources and class updates with them. But I soon realized that I needed to go beyond simply connecting my students with the class, I needed to include parents. That’s when I moved to using an LMS, Edmodo, which enabled students to get the materials that they needed, and also keep parents informed about our class.

The benefits of one platform

Although these tools worked just fine, the concern was that teachers were using multiple tools. This meant that parents had to keep up with multiple apps, some of which may not have been accessible on their devices. When I was using the messaging app and the LMS, I had to keep a good routine of posting on both platforms and keep reminding myself that I needed to do so for each class that I was teaching. After a short period of time, I realized that there were too many being used. Being able to effectively communicate and collaborate is easier when everyone uses the same platform. There is consistency and parents won’t have to worry about which teacher uses which app, or whether or not their device is compatible with the apps being used.

Making the shift

Thinking about the different communication tools available to teachers, moving to something that offers more than two-way communication and the sharing of photos, videos, and files, makes sense. We have many responsibilities that could require multiple apps or forms of communication. However, notifying parents about student attendance, scheduling conferences, asking for volunteer sign-ups, or coordinating class fundraisers, are a few added benefits when teachers use a platform that provides all of these options housed within one.

Enter ParentSquare

As teachers adopt free communication tools, districts are looking at alternatives. One such tool is ParentSquare. What does it have to offer for teachers and how does it compare to Remind and other teacher-adopted tools?

Teachers use ParentSquare for:

  • Communicating with families and students
  • sharing pictures
  • scheduling conferences
  • sharing class calendar
  • asking for class and project supplies/class party items and food
  • requesting chaperones and volunteers
  • collecting payments for field trips
  • Providing/Collecting forms and permission slips

In addition to the teacher uses, there are many other benefits for school- and district-based usage such as attendance and lunch balance notifications, bus delays, sharing grades and assignments, delivering progress reports securely, and emergency notifications. Having these capabilities makes ParentSquare a single hub for all school-home related communication for parents.

I have had the opportunity to explore ParentSquare over the last six months, to get feedback from other educators and to compare the ways that I used other messaging tools and apps in my own classroom. Besides the time factor, sometimes educators get pushback because there is just too much technology. Too many things to worry about, too big of a learning curve, and too much to figure out to get started, so it’s easier to stay with the tools that have been used for years and that are more comfortable.

Easy to join

When using a platform like ParentSquare, teachers have a lot less to worry about when it comes to sending messages and inviting parents to become part of the group. ParentSquare automatically integrates with the SIS, making it easy for parents to join because it’s done automatically for them, without the need for a join code like with Remind. Parents who don’t register will still receive messages because their information is pulled from within the school rostering system.

Comprehensive and consolidated

Parents will feel more connected to the school by having one consolidated platform, which resolves the problem of knowing where to find information or keeping up with multiple apps for different classes and yet more apps and tools used by the school and the PTA. ParentSquare combines all into one. With tools like Remind, the options are limited as to the types of information that can be shared.

Privacy

It is important to first guarantee that any tool or platform used is in compliance with COPPA and FERPA. Compliant with both, ParentSquare takes all precautions when it comes to the safety and security of students and their families. ParentSquare is a signatory of the Student Privacy Pledge and the company signs a contract with the district to ensure student privacy. While Remind is also compliant with COPPA and FERPA, it has not signed contracts with the district or school in most cases.

Delivery of messages

At times I also heard that some parents were not receiving my messages. When I used Remind, I could see that messages were delivered, however, the students or parents were not necessarily reading them, which presented another problem. Perhaps because of the use of multiple tools, which is why it makes more sense to have one comprehensive platform. ParentSquare automatically delivers messages using the right modality – email, text or app notification and the right language as is in the school records. Reports show reach and deliverability of messages, making it easy to identify who has or has not been contacted.

Consistency is important

Personally, I have used anywhere between four and six different apps and websites to complete these tasks. However, with ParentSquare, you can facilitate faster and better communication and collaboration between home and school. ParentSquare enables schools and families to engage more in conversations by providing multiple options for communicating in less time through direct messages, polls, and the option to post comments all in one platform. It offers a consistent and reliable way to communicate within the school and school district, fostering and building the relationships that promote better communication, student success, and family engagement.

In many schools, administrators are potentially asking teachers to use platforms that are a paid platform rather than selecting the tools that they feel most comfortable with or prefer to use based on their role or content area. Making the transition from a tool like Remind to that of ParentSquare does not require any extra time, in fact, it is very user-friendly and easy to navigate. And if there are any questions there are many resources available including online self-paced training modules, extensive knowledge base, 24*7 support for teachers and parents.

Sign up for a demo today

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Key features: Also check out the video here.

Key Features  
Privacy Available, updated 2018
District Level Oversight
Messaging to and between parents
Messaging between teachers and staff
Individual/Group Messaging
Notifications as text, email, app
Send/Schedule reminders
Language Translation 100+ with Real-time translation
Class/School Calendar 2-way Sync with Google and iCal
File and Photo Sharing
Conference & Volunteer Signups
Single Sign-on
Unlimited Message Length
Coordinate Events/RSVP
Permission Slips
Devices: iOs, Android, Web
Attendance Notifications
Grades and Assignments
Report Card Delivery
Attendance Delivery and Excuse Notes
Truancy Letters
Cafeteria Balance
Payments and Invoices Recurring & one time
Polls and Surveys

ParentSquare: Building a Community from School to Home

This post is sponsored by ParentSquare. All opinions are my own

 

In my previous post, I shared the background of ParentSquare, where the inspiration came from and provided a basic overview of what the platform offers. To learn more, I scheduled a demo with Anupama Vaid, Founder and President of ParentSquare, and was able to “experience” the platform from the perspective of a parent, teacher, and administrator. I also had an opportunity to explore the platform on my own, delve more into each of the features, and compare it to the tools that I use in my own classroom as well as those used within my school.

ParentSquare offers unique features that make it stand out when compared with other similar home-to-school communication platforms currently used in schools. While other platforms offer similar benefits, one of the things I appreciate most about ParentSquare is understanding the vision that Anu has for the platform. She has a genuine passion for connecting families in the school community.

The Power of Technology

When I spoke with Anu, we first talked about technology and its benefits. When asked about the purpose of ParentSquare and what makes it different from similar tools, Anu said her goal is to provide teachers with “a system that takes care of everything, one that is automatic.” Because of the way ParentSquare is designed, teachers will find that there is not much of a learning curve at all and that it is very easy to navigate. She added, “The purpose is to simplify the technology enough so that everyone can use it because that’s the power in technology.”

Everything in ParentSquare has a similar look and feel, “if you know how to do one thing, you know how to do everything.” For students, parents, teachers, and administrators, this ease of use and accessibility are key.

When it comes to ParentSquare, Anu has a unique perspective. She can evaluate the benefits by using it as a parent, which gives her a more authentic experience with the platform. And she is in a position to make changes based on the feedback she receives and through her own experience in communicating with her children’s teachers.

What makes ParentSquare stand out?

The first thing that I noticed about ParentSquare is how easy it is to navigate in the platform. When looking at digital tools, especially those that offer as many features as ParentSquare, a common question is if there will there be a big learning curve. A key feature of ParentSquare is in its simplicity. Students, parents, teachers, and administrators, whether tech-savvy or new to technology, will be comfortable using ParentSquare.

With ParentSquare, you can streamline many of the tasks and communications that are a regular part of school, but that typically come in multiple formats. ParentSquare takes everything that schools and teachers are currently using and unifies them in one platform that is easy to use and widely accessible. Schools can establish consistency in communication which will increase family engagement and provide all of the necessary resources in a safe digital environment.

Features that make a difference

  1. Smart Alerts and Notices: Send alerts for school closings, urgent notices, or quick reminders to parents. Alerts can be sent to the entire district, individual schools, parents, or students. Sending a recorded message or using the text-to-speech feature provided by ParentSquare is easy to do. Through the reports, you can verify the number of messages that have been received, even getting a prompt that provides the percentage of contacts being reached and the number needed to reach 100%.
  2. Classroom Communication: Posting a message takes little time and messages can be sent to parents, privately exchanged with teachers, or as part of a group chat. Parents choose their preferred method of contact and you simply create one message that is delivered to parents in the format and language they choose.
  3. School Business and Workflows: ParentSquare offers many resources such as:
  • Parent Conference Signups
  • Class “wish lists”
  • Volunteer requests
  • RSVPs for events
  • Permission forms
  • Calendar of events (can be synced with personal Google calendar)
  • File and photo sharing
  • Quick polls
  • Absence excuses

Exploring the features of ParentSquare

While exploring the demo site, I decided to look at features related to two areas:

  • Clerical tasks: taking attendance, creating permission forms, and contacting parents.
  • Daily classroom procedures: sending class announcements, posting reminders, and sharing class materials.

Personally, I have been using between four and six different apps and websites to complete these tasks. However, with ParentSquare, you can facilitate faster and better communication and collaboration between home and school. And more importantly, it will help to foster the relationships that are the foundation of learning.

Here are just five of the many benefits of using ParentSquare in schools:

  1. Parent-Teacher Communication – With ParentSquare, it is easier to:
  • Provide updates on student progress
  • Be accessible for parent concerns
  • Arrange parent-teacher conferences
  • Verify when messages have been received and who you need to reach

2) Directory – Parental contact information is more accessible, taking less time to find and exchange emails or messages. You can search by student or parent name, email address or phone number.

3) Paper-free – Easier to keep track of permission forms, absence excuses, and volunteer sign-ups. Exchange information faster and access the “paperwork” when you need to without having to print extra copies or keep folders full of documents.

4) Grade reporting – ParentSquare integrates with your grade book and notifications can be sent to keep parents informed about student grades.

5) Attendance Tasks – Keeping attendance records and gathering excuses for absences is much simpler using ParentSquare. Parents receive notices of absences and can respond with an excuse instantly within the app or on the web.

These are the first five areas that I thought of which likely take up a good portion of time for most educators each day. Using ParentSquare to facilitate these five tasks alone would make a big difference. In addition to being beneficial for time management, it would foster the creation of a supportive and engaged community of students, parents, teachers, and administrators.

Sign up for your demo today!

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