Distance Learning (DL) poses unique challenges for students, teachers and parents alike. Staying focused, sitting still, listening attentively and maintaining enthusiasm are common concerns for all age groups.

Adults can support DL and improve students’ experience immediately with these four simple actions: Get them moving, make a fidget box, encourage effectively and help them track their day.

Get Them Moving!

Sitting still to learn is challenging for many children in a traditional school setting, and may seem doubly difficult in the context of Distance Learning. Instead of fighting children’s natural biology that says, “Move, move, move,” provide safe ways for them to get their wiggles out.

You might be able to provide alternative seating like a wobble stool or balance ball, but simply encouraging children to periodically stand in front of their screens can be equally effective and requires no special equipment. Standing up increases blood flow to the brain and major muscle groups to help fight fatigue and increase focus. While standing, allow children to follow their natural instinct to wiggle a bit or provide two structured motions they can choose between, like cross-overs and side stretches (represent these choices visually for best results). Doing a standing Pretzel will help integrate the hemispheres of the brain; learn how with the Active Calming Activities tool from our Free Resources pages!

It may also be helpful to link standing up to a specific activity the class is already doing. For example, whenever it’s time to answer questions, the routine might be for students to stand up and march in place while they listen and wait for their turn.

Many schools have regular screen breaks of 10-30 minutes throughout the day. Whenever possible, direct children to go outside and get moving during these breaks. Natural sunlight is helpful for eye health, setting the body’s internal clock for better sleep, boosting serotonin (a feel-good brain chemical linked to focus and positivity) and producing essential Vitamin D. Movement like walking, stretching or kicking a ball will provide the many health benefits associated with physical activity, including increased heart health, improved mood, clearer thinking, weight management and a more positive self-view. Enhance your outdoor time with sidewalk chalk, a jump rope, a ball or other basic props readily available from dollar stores. A kitchen timer or other time-tracking tool will help make the return from these breaks a success.

Make a Fidget Box

Transform an empty tissue box into an attention-focusing tool by corralling a few fidget items within it. You don’t need to purchase a fidget spinner or other special items, just look around the house for small things that can be used to keep idle hands busy.

Ideally, these items would have varying tactile function and feel (squishy, hard, soft, etc.). Instead of complex toys like Lego sets and multiple dolls that invite elaborate play stories, stick with simple items children can manipulate mindlessly. Stress balls, finger puppets, small figures like those often found in fast food meals, doodle pads and small stuffed animals fit the bill perfectly. Invite children to contribute to their boxes, but limit each to four or six items so the choices don’t become overwhelming.

Load your items into an empty tissue box, recycled gift bag or other container for students to keep on their desks. Encourage them to grab an item to fidget with when their attention begins to wander or at times when you think focus is likely to fade (like after lunch or while waiting for their turn to speak). Change out a few of the items every week or two.

A box for a middle school student might include a Rubik’s cube, a stress ball, a doodle pad, silly putty and a fidget spinner. A box for a first grader might include a small stuffy, a stress ball and a small dry erase board. (DIY a mini dry erase board by laminating an index card with shiny tape. For young children, the erasing is as helpful as the doodling!)

Encourage Effectively

Encourage children every step of the way and celebrate the smallest of victories. Sports fans don’t sit silently in the stands, cheering only when their team scores. They cheer at every possible opportunity— even the ones the players miss! Become a diehard fan of your children and students. Encourage every attempt and cheer them toward success.

Shy away from generic phrases like “good job” and “you’re so smart,” opting instead for authentic praise that directly describes the child’s efforts or success. Use the “Noticing” information starting on page 175 of the Conscious Discipline book to provide meaningful encouragement. Noticing involves describing the child’s action without judgement.

Phrases that encourage and celebrate: The formula for noticing for encouragement is “You ___(what they did)___ so ____(how it was helpful)__.” Adding a nonjudgmental phrase like “You did it!” can also be supportive.

  • “You used the ‘hand up’ signal so the teacher would know you wanted to speak.”
  • “You logged in on time after the break so you caught every minute of instruction.”
  • “You stood up and stretched to help keep your focus. Way to go!”
  • “You went to the bathroom on your own so you could take care of yourself and Mommy could keep working. That was helpful.”
  • “You came to class fully dressed with your hair brushed! Good for you!”
  • “You did it!”
  • “Good for you!”
  • “Way to go!”

Phrases for when they’re struggling to master a skill: Think of how you cheered your children along as they learned how to walk. Now, translate that to your children’s DL! When we see children as capable of success and express this to them (both verbally and nonverbally), they are much more likely to be successful.

  • “You can do this!”
  • “You almost did it! You were so close. Keep trying.”
  • “You haven’t gotten it yet, but you’re learning more every day. You’ll get there. Keep going!”
  • “Oops! We all make mistakes. Let me know if you need help.”
  • “You’re working so hard. This is tough stuff! All your hard work will pay off eventually.”
  • “You haven’t mastered it yet, but you’re so close. Keep at it!”

Additional resources about noticing include Dr. Bailey’s video on noticing vs. judging, the article Creating the Habit of Noticing by Certified Instructor Jenny Spencer, and Dr. Bailey’s 2019 Elevate SEL Conference keynote on noticing, available through our Premium Resources membership. You can also practice noticing using our free Noticing That Encourages cue cards.

Help Them Track Their Day

Most teachers provide a daily schedule for students. Using a visual schedule to track their day allows students to see what they’ve accomplished, what comes next and what they’ve got left before their day ends. Predictability like this helps create a felt sense of safety and frees the brain to better focus attention on learning. Providing a way for students to physically mark off the subjects they’ve completed adds an extra sense of accomplishment and makes it easier for them to see their progress.

Older children can use their school-provided schedule. Simply post it near their workspaces. If you have the ability to print the schedule on heavyweight paper, students can use a paperclip, binder clip or clothespin to indicate what subject they’re working on and track their progress (shown in the photo below). Alternately, you could laminate the schedule and have students cross off items with a dry-erase marker as they complete them.

Four Quick Ways to Improve Distance Learning Today - Older Children Schedule

Younger children will need your help in breaking up the weekly schedule into smaller, more manageable parts and representing each subject visually— especially for emerging readers. First, make a separate schedule for each day of the week. Then, write (or type in) each subject, the breaks and lunch, and draw (or use clipart) for a simple picture to represent each scheduling item. Finally, devise a way for children to track their progress. You could use one of the tracking suggestions in the “older children” paragraph above. You could attach one side of a Velcro dot to each subject and the other side to a check mark so students can move the check mark from subject to subject. You could create a schedule with “doors” students can close as they complete each item (shown in the photo below). The goal is simply to make an easy-to-see way for children to track their progress and know what comes next.

Four Quick Ways to Improve Distance Learning Today - Younger Children Schedule

There are many ways to help children visualize their schedules. Learn more about the importance of daily schedules, plus view templates and examples, with these free resources from Conscious Discipline:

Distance learning is new for many of us, and it isn’t an easy adjustment. Simple strategies like movement, fidget boxes, encouragement, and a daily schedule can smooth the transition for both adults and children.