Expert Viewpoint

As We Shift to Remote Learning in These Uncertain Times, Let’s Not Forget the Whole Child

Students whose social and emotional needs are not being met do not learn effectively. The Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development states in the conclusion of its final report, "Opportunities create responsibilities. And we are all responsible — all of us who interact with students and all of us who care about students — for an approach to learning that touches and challenges the whole child."

Young people worry when routines are interrupted. They worry when their world stops making sense. They worry when adults around them are worried. According to mental health professionals, young people facing stressful situations should maintain regular routines; talk, listen and express themselves; connect with others; and regularly eat, sleep and take breaks.

When children are in school, this structure is largely in place. When schools close, the child’s world can crumble.

In this new reality, assignments should be designed to decrease students’ stress levels, not increase them. Educators should help students and their families establish new routines to maximize learning. They should encourage, not create barriers to, conversations between siblings as well as between children and parents and other family members. Distance learning and e-learning platforms should not only be used to get content and assignments to students but to connect students with each other in meaningful ways.

Distance learning is defined as a method of study where teachers and students use the Internet, e-mail, and mail to have classes. The Association for Talent Development tells us that e-learning is "asynchronous, structured, self-paced learning that is delivered electronically." Effective use of these methods requires students to have easy access to computers and stable internet connections. Students learn better when the experience is personalized and interactive, with sufficient technical support.

Over the last few years, school districts have made much progress integrating e- and distance learning strategies into their array of teaching methods. However, some schools, especially elementary and middle schools, do not yet have the infrastructure in place to offer these methods widely. Even more challenging are districts where a good, if not substantial, number of families do not have computers or consistent broadband access in their homes.

Long term, school districts will need to think creatively about how they incorporate e- and distance learning into their overall plans. They will need to ensure multiple methods for families to access content as well as various mechanisms for communication. Short term, they will need to find pragmatic ways to quickly broaden access to computers and provide support services for students to use them, with the support of their families.

School districts must also consider the impact that interruptions to students' lives have on their social and emotional well-being.

I ask district leaders and educators not to create assignments as if they were going to be taught in the classroom. I encourage them to imagine the home as a parallel and equally important learning environment to the school. I propose that they create assignments that leverage the most valuable resources available in homes: the student's family, their history and their practices and beliefs. I urge them to define the unit of focus, not as the individual student, but as the members of the student's family as defined by the student. I ask that they not expect the student to sit independently at a desk, chair or computer for long periods. I challenge them to identify compelling and culturally relevant questions that immerse students in the content and skills on which they will be assessed while allowing families to construct answers by reading, speaking, and exploring together in their homes.

I believe that our educators can meet the challenges laid out above, activating the social and emotional supports necessary for robust learning in uncertain times. I trust that they can imagine and construct assignments that support family interactions rather than interrupt them. I believe that educators can create tasks that promote and support the "culture" of learning that teachers strive to achieve in their classrooms.

Conversely, we should not ask families to replicate the classroom setting in their home. I believe assignments can be designed to meet the needs of the whole child, nurturing a learning culture in the home in which family members observe, question, and search for answers together. A culture in which they are asked to present what they see and think to each other and document it for credit. A culture in which they invite each other to critique each other’s findings and learn together.

About the Author

Ronald Chaluisán Batlle is Executive Director of the Newark Trust for Education.