Distance Learning Round Two – We’re in this Together

Advice from Educators for Parents of Gifted Children

Over the spring of 2020, educators of gifted students from child-centered schools and programs across the country gathered in virtual weekly meetings with staff from the Gifted Development Center. Their initial goal was to support each other as they tackled the many challenges facing them during the move to distance learning caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The question of how to support families became a frequent topic of conversation.

The move to distance learning posed huge challenges for families. In some families, the adult(s) still worked away from home and had little time to help their children navigate this new way of doing school. In others, the adult(s) worked at home and struggled with how much to help and how to structure time so everyone in the family could get their work done.

The stress of rapid changes to work and home life, the anxiety and fear of living in a pandemic, and the social isolation from sheltering at home added to the challenges of distance learning for families, as well as for educators.

In preparation for the coming school year and the probability that distance learning will continue to be a part of the school experience, the Gifted Development Center’s virtual education leaders group continues to meet. Members have pooled their collective wisdom to provide support for families in the coming year. The suggestions offered below come from what group members learned from their initial distance education experiences and suggestions they want to share with their families for the year ahead. They are offered in the hope that they will make this year’s distance learning experiences positive, and maybe even joyful, for families.

Distance Learning Advice from Educators for Parents of Gifted Children

Suggestion #1: Stay calm!

Change is difficult and doing school at home is still new to most of us. Breathe. It will be ok. Teachers will walk with you. Distance learning is not homeschooling. Your child has a teacher who chooses curriculum materials, teaches lessons, evaluates your child’s progress, and provides help and support along the way. That allows you to focus your energy on being facilitator, coach, and cheerleader. Do what you can and let go of what is too much. You’ve got this!

Suggestion #2: Your relationship with your child is more important than schoolwork.

If your child has trouble with organization or resists working at home, reach out to the teacher. Remember that the teacher-child relationship is different from the parent-child relationship. That is as it should be. Often your child’s teacher can get your child to do things that might be a battle for you.

The teacher knows what your child was able to do independently at school and can help set expectations for home. Remember that no assignment is so important that it is worth damaging your relationship with your child or causing undo stress to your family.

Suggestion #3: The love of learning is paramount

Gifted kids love to learn. They want to know every fact about dinosaurs. They love finding out how telescopes work or why pandemics happen. Distance learning, like school, should feed their love of learning. That doesn’t mean every assignment must be fun. We all have work that we don’t love, even if we love our jobs. It does mean that, overall, there should be joy in learning. Take breaks. Encourage your child to pursue passion projects such as cataloging how many different insect species are in the backyard or learning to bake bread. Let the teacher know what is and isn’t working so adjustments can happen. Don’t let the love of learning get lost in the “to do” list.

Suggestion #4: These are not normal times. Compassion is a gift you can give as a parent.

Gifted children are often sensitive and able to intellectually understand things they may not be emotionally ready for. That means that even in the best of times, gifted children may feel things more acutely or worry about problems in the world more intensely than their age peers. As we live through this international pandemic, all of us are feeling the stress of changed routines, separation from those we love, economic uncertainty and the big unknown of who will get sick and possibly die.

Whether your child is in preschool or high school, these challenging times have an impact on our ability to cope with stress and change. Show compassion for your child – and for yourself. Compassion isn’t fixing everything. It is providing support and time. It is listening. Reinforce that this is a scary time for everyone and that it is normal to feel exhausted, overwhelmed, grouchy or even full of energy and wacky at times. Know that empathetic people may feel anxious without knowing what they are anxious about because they are picking up on the anxiety they are feeling all around them. We all deal with stress differently and children show their stress through behaviors. Provide space to talk about feelings, to have fun as a family, to take breaks when it gets to be too much. Meet tantrums and frustration with compassion and calm. Breathe.

More Advice from Educators of Gifted Students:

  • Set up a schedule that works for your child and your family. School at home shouldn’t look like school at school. Do parents need to be on virtual meetings early in the morning? The school day could start in the afternoon. Does your child have a hard time sitting still for long periods of time? Set up frequent breaks. Your distance learning schedule needs to work for the whole family.
  • Work together to set school priorities. Gifted kids of all ages often have executive function skills (the ability to plan, organize, break down tasks into manageable pieces) that are behind their intellectual ability. Your child might be able to solve a complex physics problem, but may need help figuring out how to prioritize the day’s assignments. If your child is having difficulty with these tasks, ask your child’s teacher for ideas. They deal with this at school all the time and have resources and tools to help.
  • Help your child to find a space to do school that works for your child and family. In many of our schools, classrooms have spaces set up so that kids can work sitting at a desk, on a chair or exercise ball, lying on the floor with a clipboard, or standing at a table. Your child’s sensory needs, needs for movement, the space available at home, and the needs of the rest of the family should all help determine the best place or places for doing schoolwork.
  • Give your child the opportunity to solve problems and advocate for what they need. Gifted children often struggle with perfectionism and may resist asking for help. This is the perfect time for kids to practice skills of self-advocacy. The amount of help they will need with asking for help or advocate for changes will depend on age and maturity. But we often find our children are likely to be ready to do more for themselves than we expected. Resist the temptation to tell your preschooler what to say when the teacher asks a question in a virtual meeting and your child hesitates to answer. Encourage your fifth grade child to write their own email to the teacher asking for help or for more challenging work. Hang back when your child is struggling with a problem or makes a mistake on an assignment. Learning and self-esteem come from struggling and overcoming something difficult.
  • Incomplete is ok. So are mistakes. One of the hardest things for teachers about doing distance learning is that it deprives them of the chance to watch students work. In class, teachers circulate as kids work to see who catches on quickly and who struggles. They make decisions about what should be taught next, how fast to go, who needs help and whether the lesson was successful as they interact with students. In distance learning, it is much harder for teachers to get that important information. And it is impossible if all they see is completed work that is 100 percent correct. Especially if that completed work happened after you had them redo the assignment five times and they went to bed in tears. If your child doesn’t get it, have them turn in the work incomplete. Let the teacher see the mistakes and struggles. That information will make it possible for the teacher to provide the support needed for success.
  • End the school/work day at a set time. Ask teachers how long projects or assignments should take and then set time limits. If an assignment was meant to take 20 minutes, stop your child after 20 minutes (or a reasonable amount of time for your child) and turn it in finished or not. Your child’s teacher would rather know how much your child could get done in the expected time than have you and your child fight, cry and work all night to get it done. At school, kids stop for recess and go home at 3 p.m. no matter what. Have end times for school at home too so you can make time for play and for family.
  • Model self-care. Breathe. Take breaks. Go outside. Make cookies. Work in the garden. Play. It is important for you as parent and for your child.

If we work together, we’ve got this!

Advice compiled by Sandi Wollum, Head of School, Seabury School, Tacoma, Washington

Edited by Joi Lin, Director of Professional Education, Gifted Development Center and Doctoral Student, University of Denver, Colorado

Thanks to teachers, administrators, staff, and parents from the following programs who shared their wisdom for this article: Academy for Advanced and Creative Learning, Colorado Springs, Colorado; Denver Public Schools, Denver, Colorado; Gifted Development Center, Westminster, Colorado; Helios School, Sunnyvale, California; International Center for the Gifted and Talented, Hong Kong; Jefferson County Public Schools, Golden, Colorado; Knox School, Santa Barbara, California; Logan School, Denver, Colorado; NOVA School, Olympia, Washington; Roeper School, Birmingham, Michigan; and Seabury School, Tacoma, Washington.

The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of NAGC