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Public schools are opening this week, but back to school looks different than ever before. Most K-12 students in New Jersey and across the country will be spending at least some of the week learning remotely and some districts are starting off the school year offering classes online only in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Manuel Jimenez, assistant professor of pediatrics and family medicine and community health at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School – who also serves as director of developmental and behavioral pediatrics education at the Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities – offers some advice on setting realistic expectations for the state of the school year.

How can parents prepare for remote learning? 

There is a challenging balance between being as prepared as possible while recognizing that we might need to adapt quickly.  The most important lesson is to keep open communication with your child’s school.  

Do children process information similarly whether it’s interactive online with their teacher or passively watching TV shows and YouTube videos?

Children process media differently if there is more social interaction rather than passively watching TV. Children generally learn better when parents or teachers are involved in media and when it is active and social.

What are your suggestions on how to enhance remote learning for children with developmental disabilities that had the hardest time last spring trying to learn on a device?

There needs to be really close communication between the child’s family and the special education professionals at the child’s school to discuss what the experience is like for their particular child, with regular check ins.

Even though a lot of learning will occur virtually, parents should make sure their children are still getting the support and resources that they need – therapy via telehealth, for example. Parents can make sure their children are still getting all the services they have available in a non-remote setting with the necessary modifications for the current circumstances.

In addition, parents and the special education professionals can work collaboratively to develop a plan to optimally support the child and monitor their progress.

Are there different approaches that would produce better results for students who have learning challenges?

Many kids with disabilities have individualized education program in place already. Parents should make sure they are using the support and resources of the classroom and regularly touch base about how their child is doing. Those supports are still necessary and will be modified with the family in the current environment. Take advantage of what is in place and keep in regular communication with your special educators. 

What are signs that children are spending too much time in front of a screen and what are some strategies for parents to avoid an over saturation in the age of remote learning?

One sign that your child is spending too much time in front of a screen are changes in their behavior. For example, lower thresholds for tantrums especially when transitioning off their screens and spending less time on other preferred activities. 

Children’s behavior is a form of communication to you – be mindful and watchful noticing your child’s signs that they are spending too much time on screens and rethink and assess if you are noticing this behavior.

It’s important to work in breaks and establish routines so that children structure their time. Make sure your child has breaks for exercise, play and snacks.

Be mindful what we’re using screens for. Since there is increased requirement of screens for education, consider cutting back on discretionary screen time so we don’t crowd out physical activity and getting outside.

Jimenez suggests that parents evaluate the content that their children are accessing. Ask:

  • Does the content encourage interaction between parent and child?
  • Does it focus on developing academic skills, and if so, what types of skills?
  • Does it enrich learning (for example, a video of a volcano that can’t be seen in person)?
  • Is it taking away from other activities, such as playing outside, reading, taking part in sports, or doing things as a family?
  • Will the child be exposed to advertising or other marketing messages?

Other Tips for Parents:

  • Consider common-sense limits on the quantity of screen time and focus on the quality of the content your child is consuming.
  • Sit down as a family and make a plan about screen time – create a structure of time spent and make sure there aren’t surprises.
  • Create screen-free zones in the house such as in the bedroom or at the dinner table. If your child uses his or her phone as an alarm, switching it to airplane mode will block all other alerts.
  • Check out the American Academy of Pediatrics for more tips.
  • The website behaviorbosses.com, created by a Rutgers Graduate School of Education professor and her former students, also offers tips for structuring the day.