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Tips for a Healthy and Successful Virtual Learning Environment

September 24, 2020

It’s September and that means that the new school year is underway. Safe to say that school looks a lot different whether your student is completing in-person education, virtual, or a hybrid program. We have all been faced with new challenges and have been forced to adapt at lightning speed. This could not be truer for parents who are struggling with a new school format, especially with virtual learning. As neuropsychologists, we have been able to consult with teachers over the years about classroom structure, environment, and even seating arrangements to fit the unique learning styles of their students. Yet now, parents must figure this out on their own. Adapting the environment to ensure a positive mindset for learning is incredibly important. For this reason, offering a few suggestions to keep in mind when setting up or making modifications to your virtual learning environment.

1. Where is the learning space? Ideally, you want this to be a separate space from the child’s bedroom. Now this may not be possible for everyone and that’s okay. Keeping learning separate from where the child sleeps can help decrease academic-based anxiety, maintain healthy sleep hygiene, and also minimize distractions. Natural light is suggested. If nature can be viewed from the learning space, research shows that this can promote good mental health.

2. What does the space look like? The space should be clutter-free. Be mindful about what natural distractions are present and what is in the child’s line of sight. If there is a TV or other electronic distraction, you want to do your best to ensure that the child’s learning space is not in competition with these things. Let the child show their creativity and personalize the space. A white-board or corkboard where the child can post a picture or drawing can inspire creativity. Allowing the child to have some control over the environment can help them to feel more comfortable and excited about the space. In many cases, it is ideal to have the child use noise-cancelling headphones (or just headphones generally) to minimize the external noise present.

3. Maintenance of the learning space. Help the child to keep the area tidy and organized. This is an important skill not only for learning but for life in general. Clutter in the learning environment is likely to promote distraction.

5. What is in the child’s reach? There is such a thing as having too many school supplies at the child’s disposal. This can provide the child opportunities for fidgeting. Having neatly organized stations or bins for specific subjects and/or projects can be useful. Color coding is always a good strategy. It is important to have only what is needed at that moment in the child’s reach and view. Therefore, have another designated area such as a cubby or space in a closet for the other materials to be stored when not needed.

6. How is the child seated? Try your best to have the child either sit or stand at their learning center. Lying in bed, on the floor, or on the couch should be avoided. In fact, laying of any kind when learning might send the wrong signals to the brain that it’s time to relax instead of learn. Movement is important. Some children may enjoy sitting on an exercise ball or something that will provide flexibility for movement. When sitting, you want to make sure that there is lumbar support and that the child is able to have both feet on the floor. In some cases, parents may opt for creating a standing desk or opportunity for the child to stand at their station while watching a video or listening to a lesson. It can also be beneficial to allow the child to transition between sitting and standing if this is an option. Read about the 90-90-90 angle rule here.

7. Get that body moving and green time! Providing movement breaks can also help with possible eye strain from looking at the computer over time. Doing some kind of physical activity to get the body moving but also to increase the range of eye movement will be important. Staring at a screen promotes limited eye movements but taking a break to throw a ball back and forth can promote healthy eye-hand coordination and minimize eyestrain. Let’s not forget how important outdoor recess is for children! Create opportunities to get outside and enjoy fresh air.

8. Set a consistent daily and weekly schedule. Setting a consistent schedule so that a child is able to predict what is expected of them is always recommended. However, this is even more important at this time because the environments of home and school are meshed into one which makes it difficult to differentiate what time can be used for what. Maintaining a typical school schedule in terms of when a child wakes up and is done with schoolwork helps to maintain a semblance of “normalcy.” However, the day-to-day schedule might include more breaks and intermittent opportunities for movement, breaking up lessons into parts (when possible), and focusing instruction at the best times of the day for that child.

Remember, these are unprecedented times and we’re all doing the best we can given the circumstances. Finding what works best for your child in the midst of all these changes is what is most important. We hope that you might find some of these ideas useful and easy to incorporate!


About the Authors: Dr. Christina Warholic, PsyD. is a member of the clinical team at BRAINS in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She has special interest in working with the pediatric population and has a passion for neuropsychological and psychological assessment. Read more about Dr. Warholic here.

Dr. Jennifer Maurer, PsyD. is a licensed psychologist at BRAINS in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Dr. Maurer has a love for research and a passion for understanding children with difficulties. Read more about Dr. Maurer here.