How Do I Help My Teen Succeed at Virtual School This Fall?

This time last year, parents and teens were buying new school supplies and getting excited to go back to school.

This year, though, the situation looks drastically different. Some school districts say they won’t open for in-person classes at all. Others are considering a hybrid schedule of virtual learning combined with limited face-to-face lessons. And other schools are still not sure what they’re going to do.

Many parents are anxious – not only about the uncertainty but about the possibility that virtual school might become the primary mode of learning this fall. Because for many parents, virtual learning just didn’t go well.

At all.

My Teen Hated Remote Learning

Some teens may have been strong students during the regular academic year, but when it came to virtual learning, things went downhill. Others may have struggled in the regular classroom setting, and virtual learning just made things worse.

If virtual learning didn’t go smoothly last spring, some parents worry the problems will get worse in the fall.

Lisa Faguet, LCSW, Program Director of Evolve Agoura Hills, says there are a few things to keep in mind before parents start getting nervous about virtual school.

An Adjustment Period is Normal

This is all new. It’s new for parents, for teachers, and for students. In fact, NPR has called this “the biggest distance-learning experiment in history.”

Because education has happened in-person for decades, it’s normal for students to experience difficulty when switching to this new mode of learning. The lack of real physical interaction, combined with the fact that students are home all day, staring into a screen, can be difficult. Not only can it affect scholastic achievements, it can also affect internal motivation to succeed.

Faguet says a measure of difficulty with virtual learning is “…completely normal. if your teen didn’t struggle at all when switching to virtual learning, I’d be surprised. This is hard for everyone.”

Your child has never had to learn in this way, and they’ve also never had to learn with this much general stress and uncertainty.

“It doesn’t mean something is necessarily wrong with your child if they were having difficulties,” Faguet says.

Teachers Were Unprepared

There’s another important point to consider before getting nervous about virtual school: many students may have struggled because their teachers might not have been adequately prepared to transition to a virtual model.

“How many teachers were trained on how to teach math online to a class of thirty 8th graders?” Fauget asks. “For most teachers, this is the first time they’ve had to do this. They’ve had no prior experience, and this can be reflected in the students’ academic results. Though it’s unfortunate, it’s not their fault.”

However, there’s a silver lining for next year. Teachers now have a few months of virtual teaching experience under their belt. They may start the new school year with fresh resources, a better grasp of virtual teaching, and more confidence.  In turn, your child may (hopefully!) grasp the material more easily and smoothly.

Logistical Issues and Solutions

In spite of these assurances, Faguet still says that it’s good for parents to be as proactive and involved as possible in their child’s wellbeing and success. This is why she says parents should prepare their child for the following school year by troubleshooting the problems that came up these past few months.

“As a general rule, I tell parents that if their teens struggled with distance-learning over the spring, then they shouldn’t expect things to drastically change in the fall. Yes, things might improve somewhat, since students may have gotten over the learning curve and teachers have had more time to prepare, but parents can also do their best to see if there are any issues at home that may be causing their teen to decline scholastically.”

Parents should ask themselves the following questions.

Did my teen…

… have a quiet workplace, and a reliable internet connection?

…have a daily schedule, even while home? 

…receive extra tutoring when they struggled to keep up with the curriculum?

Parents and teens should brainstorm whether they can make any logistical improvements this fall. That might mean finding (or creating) a quieter space to work in, getting an extra computer, seeking extra tutoring, or having lunch prepared the night before.

“Teens can’t concentrate on school if they’re hungry, no matter where they are,” Faguet says. “And if parents are out of the house or working from home, remember that their child needs well-balanced and nutritious meals on a daily basis.”

It’s also important for parents to help their teens create some sort of routine so that each day has a consistent framework and structure.

We Must All Adapt

Ultimately, virtual learning won’t ever be the same as face-to-face classes. Despite teacher training and extra tutoring, some students – especially those coming from disadvantaged backgrounds – may fall behind academically. That’s an unfortunate reality. As much as they can wish for it, parents can’t control whether schools will reopen or when they will reopen. And if they do, parents can’t control how they will reopen.

At the end of the day, however, all parents can do is their best, and seek professional help – from teachers, school administrators, or mental health professionals – when necessary.