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March 31, 2020

5 Ways to Support Students' Transition to Distance Learning

Folks, we are in the midst of a global pandemic.

Most schools shut down in response to the coronavirus. Some are now teaching through videoconferencing; some are only offering supplementary work; some are worried about student access to technology. Each educational institution has tackled the situation differently— as they should!— to account for their school-wide approaches to learning and student needs.

As I was reading up on the situation, I found an interesting EdSurge article based on a twitter thread from Justin Reich. He poses a thought-provoking point:

“[...] if your school does go online, the first question should not be ‘what tech should I use?’ The first question needs to be ‘How do we support our most vulnerable students?’”

He’s right. Most students will have difficulties switching to a distance teaching model without additional support, let alone those with behavioral challenges, learning differences, and executive functioning issues.

Initially, I was hoping to offer a general game plan for schools switching to distance learning. But as I researched, I realized that as much as I’d love to write a manual of best-practices for online teaching, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Instead, I’d like to share some general principles to make the temporary transition as smooth as possible. As an educator, you know your students and current teaching situation best— some of these ideas will be more relevant to your groups than others.

1. Change as little as possible.

While the situation is massively destabilizing, one of the most important ways to support your students’ mental health is by keeping your class period as consistent as possible under the circumstances.

Your school may be video-conferencing with students. Start your call with attendance if that’s your usual routine, even if you know you can just check the conference attendees after class. If you’re a low-tech teacher, consider purchasing a cheap whiteboard and some pens to mimic your in-class techniques. If you prefer the digital approach and find yourself without a SMARTBoard, try creating a Screencast-O-Matic or using another screen-sharing application.

Digitize routines you’d typically employ— accept entrance or exit cards at specific times of day through your LMS or email; allow your students to send videos or slides of presentations, keep a running tally of any behavioral chart techniques you’d normally employ and promise to add any points students receive when you’re back at school. If you would lecture for half the period and have students complete worksheets for the other half, consider live-streaming your lesson and remaining available on the stream to respond to students’ questions.

2. Try something different.

Yes, I know the first thing I said was to change as little as possible.

I also know that it may be more logistically sensible for some schools to pause regular teaching methods and go for a different approach. And who knows— maybe I’m talking to a school of rockstar educators who see opportunity for growth in this challenging situation.

Flipped learning requires that students learn at the recall/understanding level of Bloom’s Taxonomy on their own at home, and the classroom is used to apply and analyse concepts they’ve encountered.

For example, instead of teaching a math lesson on division and asking students to complete textbook pages, students will watch an instructional video or screencast on the topic. Then class time is used for higher-level applications: for example, discussing how to spot a division question in a word problem, or creating models of division problems using objects.

A few positives that may come from trying flipped learning at this time:

  1. Some of your students may be dealing with a loved one who is sick, or— goodness forbid— may be ill themselves. Others may not have 24/7 access to the internet. Having your lessons recorded gives students the chance to at least receive some level of instruction when they are able to tune in.
  2. There’s the opportunity to edit/re-shoot your explanations. (I’ve definitely taught lessons and afterwards wished for a time machine.) Now more than ever, it’s helpful to your students to teach with as much clarity as possible.
  3. Children who generally have trouble with explanations may have an easier time with this approach. Being able to pause, rewind, and replay lessons can have a positive effect for students struggling with executive functioning deficits.
  4. Parents have the opportunity to view exactly what has been taught and how, and they’re more equipped to support their child outside of school hours.
  5. FINALLY: you could find out that you really like this teaching set-up, and that would be at least one good thing to come out of such a stressful situation!

3. If there’s ever a time think about multiple intelligences, it’s now.

The fact is, many schools would love to apply video-conferencing or screen-share technology, but at such short notice families may not have the right devices. So if your school’s plan-of-action involves keeping students up-to-date on what they’ve learned so far by posting review activities, I recommend keeping Gardner’s multiple intelligences in mind.


Because intrinsic motivation is key to encouraging productivity under the circumstances, as most of the typical extrinsic motivators to complete classwork are directly tied to one’s presence at school.

Even continuous aspects of distance learning such as absenteeism and grades will seem far-away to a student suddenly out of school for a few weeks. Uploading a variety of assignments and activities increases the chance that an otherwise-distracted student will engage with the course material (which we hope for in normal circumstances too!)

Ensure you post a mix of activity types to students: traditional worksheets, books/articles, short essay prompts, videos and audiobooks, and even options for creativity (make a song about the topic, perform a play, design a poster, etc.) Some of your students may even surprise you if they can engage with the curriculum on their own terms!

4. Keep the lines of communication open.

Taking extra care at this time to connect with your students is important— as much as we adults feel we have no control over this pandemic, we can make a few, limited choices as to how we’ll proceed. Sure, when the question was “are we cancelling all non-essential school activities?” the necessary answer was a “yes”, but it was our call. We decide whether the kids will go to their aunt’s or grandfather’s home, and we enforce the “stay in the house” rule.

As I’m sure you’ve imagined, some students feel powerless, and that can manifest differently from child to child. Keeping your availability as open as you can under the circumstances; staying patient; sending out regular emails; and perhaps even mailing work and encouragement to students without internet access (if you can do so safely) can make a big difference in their isolation— and your teacher-student relationship.

5. Ask students to stick to their class schedule— and hold them accountable.

On a more pragmatic note, this isn’t a vacation for most. Since these weeks are still technically instructional time for a lot of schools, students should be engaging with their course material to some degree.

It can be harder to find out whether your students are on task when you aren’t face-to-face— in fact, in the absence of in-person teaching we’ve noticed our partner schools relying more heavily than usual on the support provided by the Insights platform.

Have students submit a rough agenda of when they will work on each subject or assignment. If you are a Studyo partner, you can simply ask them to enter tasks for their assignments for the day/week and check for completion (here are some tips on doing that effectively).

Since Studyo is now free for individual use during the pandemic, you can ask any students using the platform to send screenshots of their weekly or daily view.

If not, they may need to send their plans as a separate document and update you on progress later. Either way, having a to-do list can give students direction outside of their usual academic environment.

Going back to point 3: gently check in with students who aren’t completing their objectives. Maybe Mary hasn’t handed anything in, but after calling her mom you find she’s the only person who can watch three kids under 10. Maybe Jen just needs more help with her executive functioning skills. Each situation is different, so be prepared to remain flexible but fair.

Trust yourself to help.

As we work to flatten the curve, I have to say: to all the educators who are working tirelessly to make these difficult decisions and ease the transition to temporary distance learning, thank you!

The virus is unprecedented, but so is the response— the teaching community far and wide is working hard to provide emergency education measures at very short notice, and the passion is hard to miss. I know, dear reader, that you, your colleagues, and your students will come out of this stronger on the other end.

_Stay safe and healthy, folks.