Tips For Successful Virtual Year
It's a very different school year--one like we've never seen before. This school year will take lots of flexibility and grace, as well as some shifts in our thinking and the supplies we may end up buying. That's okay, though--we're mamas--and making motherhood roar in light of challenges is what we do best.

This back-to-school season doesn't look like anything we've ever encountered.
We're not laughing over funny videos where moms dance their way through Target as they buy all the things (oh, but Holderness Family, we still love every other video you're giving us).
Instead, we're wondering what we're going to be doing with our kids.

Will they go to school in person? Is that an option? Will we choose it if it is? What will we do if we decide to do virtual learning? Or our school district decides that's what they're doing?

Who will engage our children while we're working ourselves? How will they socialize? How can it be possible for a pre-kindergartener to learn how to hold a pencil correctly through a Zoom meeting?

What if I send them and they get sick?
What if I don't send them and they fall into depression or miss out on other important things school is crucial for?
There are just so many questions, and no real clear-cut answers.
So to this, mamas, we say, "Breathe." There's a meme running around on the Interwebs--you've probably seen it--and it essentially says that whatever you end up doing this school year is okay--you're a good mom.
Because at the core, that's what it all boils down to. Making the best decisions you can with the information and situations you have, and in the best interest of your kids.
And that's all we really can do.

What Do The Experts Say Are School Supply Must-Haves?

As most experts are aware, this school year will include a lot of virtual and distance learning. Parents will be their children's directors and teacher's teammates, and it's going to take a lot of patience and purposed intention.
Dr. Rebecca Mannis is the founder of Ivy Prep, and a learning specialist with over 35 years of experience teaching children and adults worldwide. Dr. Mannis specializes in neuroscience, and consults with schools and corporations about the neuroscience of learning, learning disabilities, remediation and adaptive technology, among other things. She coordinated educational services for cancer services and children with traumatic brain injury and she was a 2009-2014 appointee of Harvard Graduate School of Education's Alumni Council.
Dr. Mannis shared some tips with us to remember as must-dos when looking at this school year.

Specifically, she suggests that we develop routines from the start. Dr. Mannis says, "Develop routines that give your kids predictability in the areas that are most important for your child and your family. There is no 'right way,' and you know your child best. Does he need a predictable bedtime? If so, then start adjusting bedtime gradually so that it's not a shock to the system as the summer ends. Do checklists work to track responsibilities or lead to control battles? Does she need more time to warm up in a new situation? If so, then plan to finish breakfast a few minutes early so that she is set up to start the online class in a more relaxed way."

She also suggested that we as parents may be overwhelmed about online learning and the constant talking about learning lags and COVID Slide, with little experience or education on what to do or how to battle it. About this, she says, "Right now, it is most important for your kid to develop the building blocks for learning that cross over to other classes, such as reading and paragraph writing, as well as critical thinking skills for math. Schools will need to be creative in selecting the most relevant coursework from textbooks, but we will find a way to fill in those information gaps down the road. For now, we can especially support our kids by helping them develop skills that apply to various courses and encouraging their learning how to work independently (executive functions). There may be a silver lining as schools pivot toward those skills that are such an essential basis for future learning in the higher grades and college."

Dr. Mannis also stresses the importance of taking care of OURSELVES and OUR relationships. She says, "Our kids are hard-wired with 'mirror neurons' that track and respond to our facial expressions and emotions. So when we are overwhelmed and in 'fight or flight' mode, it impacts them too. The 'captain of the ship' needs to be sharp to help chart the ship's course on choppy waters. Find ways to take a walk, step back when overwhelmed, catch up with friends, or do some community service work that makes you feel proud. Reach out for help and support. When you take care of yourself and your adult relationships, you model self-care for your kids that will last a lifetime. It will help you and your kids create lifelong self-care strategies and brain pathways for stress management."

Related: What Pediatric Occupational Therapists Want You to Know

Dr. Noelle Welch is an occupational therapist and owner of Coordinated Movements. She says that parents have been asking her how they'd have a successful school year when so much of it will be online or homeschooled, often for the first time for the children.

Dr. Welch has some tips for making this unique school year successful:
  • Designate a learning space. Declutter the area. Be sure the area is free from as many visual distractions as possible. Visual distractions can include reflections in glass, a window, a TV in the background, etc.
  • Have materials your child will need organized and available, but keep their work zone free of visual distractions. You don't want all the materials sitting out in front of the child when they are trying to concentrate.
  • Consider a visual schedule to assist your child with knowing the plans for their day. The visual schedule will help your child with transitioning from one task to the next. Transitions are often a struggle for children. By providing your child with a plan, they will know what to expect, which will help decrease their anxiety; thereby, improving their regulation and focus.
  • When your child is completing near work, remember and complete the 20-20-20 rule. After 20 minutes of near work, look 20 feet away for 20 seconds. The 20-20-20 rule is essential as our eyes are not set for continual close work. The 20-20-20 rule is an excellent visual hygiene strategy.
  • If your child will be completing online schooling, consider casting the image on your computer to the television. Have your child sit away from the TV, but in direct line with the television. Casting the image will allow your child to shift their vision from near vision at their desktop/writing paper/etc. to distance vision to look at the teacher on the screen across the room.
  • Be sure your child's work area is well lit and free from glare. Include as much natural lighting as possible.
  • Check the layout of your child's work station. Your child should be able to sit in their chair with their ankles, knees, and hips all positioned at 90 degrees. Their elbows should rest comfortably on the table at 90 degrees. This supported sitting posture is important as your child needs to exert their energy on focusing and concentrating on their assignments and not on maintaining themselves in their chair.
  • Movement breaks are needed. Consider incorporating movement breaks throughout your child's day. Allow your child to stand and sit during classwork. Consider dynamic seating options ie: move and sit cushions, yoga ball, a partially deflated beach ball in their chair, camp pillow in their chair, etc. Start the day with yoga or exercise and then move into their school day. Why include movement breaks in your child's day? Research studies have found that sedentary positions have a negative impact on behavior and cognition (Baker, Coenen, Howie, Williamson, & Straker, 2018). Continued sitting causes fatigue and lower energy. Physical activity has been found to have a positive impact on brain function and supports increased focus and productivity. Exercise increases the heart rate, oxygen, respiration, and blood flow, including the blood flow to our brain (Baker, Coenen, Howie, Williamson, & Straker, 2018). Research supports the need for exercise and movement in a child's day. Movement breaks will help your child to focus and to have more energy for their school work.
  • Consider playing music softly in the background to help support your child's learning. Music composed by Mozart is excellent for math, Baroque is excellent for writing, and Vivaldi is excellent for academics. Vital Sounds has compiled musical selections by these composers to support learning, attention, focus, and regulation.
    Is there research supporting playing music in the background? A study by Taylor and Rowe (2012), "The 'Mozart Effect' and the Mathematical Connection," found that students who participated in the study did significantly better on trigonometry tests when Mozart was played in the background.
  • Consider the writing tool your child is using. Does it fit your child's hand? Which writing tool does your child choose? Don't assume your child needs a large diameter pencil because they are in Pre-K or Kindergarten. Research from Oehler, Dekrey, Eadry, and Fogo (2009) found that pencil size did not impact children's writing. Additionally, Sinclair and Szabo (2015) found that although pencil size did not impact the legibility of handwriting in Pre-k and Kindergarten students, the students did have a preference for a particular pencil. Sinclair and Szabo's (2015) study, found Pre-k students preferred the short, thin golf pencils while the Kindergarteners preferred the long skinny pencils. Have pencil and crayon choices available and let your child pick the tool they are most comfortable using.
  • Don't forget about oral supports. Sucking is calming. Chewing is organizing. Sour and spicy are alerting. Warm and sweet are calming. Consider having cold water at your child's work station. Perhaps they can chew gum (sugar-free!) to help them concentrate. Consider crunchy foods in their breakfast, snacks, and lunch to help them organize. If they appear too active, consider having them suck their yogurt or applesauce through a smoothie straw at lunch or as a snack to help them regulate and focus.
  • Teach the palming technique to help your child's eyes relax after a long day of near work.
  • Be sure your child is ready to learn. Have they had a comprehensive vision evaluation? There is more to vision than 20/20.

Dr. Bryce Appelbaum, of Appelbaum Vision is a developmental optometrist who is board certified in Vision Therapy and Rehabilitation by the College of Optometrists in Vision Development. He says that it's hard right now because so many children will be forced to use screens to do school right now, and for the unforeseeable future. He has a few tips on how to additionally mitigate the visual stress overload:

  • If your kids are reading, writing or watching a screen, try to have them do so at a distance that is equal to the length of their arm from elbow to middle knuckle. This is known as Harmon Distance, and will have them strain less.
  • Make sure that they're not tilting their heads when they're watching a screen. This means that you don't want them to use a computer or tablet if they're lying on their back or their stomach, and yes…we know this may be tough to enforce, but it's super important.
  • Make sure your monitor/device screen is bright enough. Don't let them strain any more than they already may be.
  • If you can enlarge the font on your screens, do so. Try to have font no less than 14-point for less straining.
  • Dr. Bryce stresses balanced and adequate lighting in the room and at the desk as pivotal. If there is reduced lighting or glare in the room, there is an effect of decreasing peripheral vision sensitivity.
  • Don't let your children sit closer than 6-8 feet from the television.
  • Make sure that time OUTDOORS equals (or ideally, according to Dr. Bryce, exceeds) time spent on screens. If outdoors is not possible, at least encourage screen-free activities that encourage good habits, motor development and executive functioning skill-building.
  • Make sure your children are sitting on chairs that let their feet sit flat on the floor and their legs at a 90-degree angle. Too often, this means your kitchen table is too high, ergonomically speaking, so use stools/boxes/whatever you can to try to achieve this positioning.

Engaging Enrichment

One of the biggest concerns parents have is how to help their kids engage in meaningful, safe, social activities that ALSO let parents have a bit of time to themselves (for work, or bathroom breaks, you know). All over the country, organizations committed to enriching the lives of children are innovatively creating ways to engage students and help give parents some breathing room too. Flex Academies offers reasonably priced enrichment and tutoring opportunities for kids all over the country--in safe online platforms that kids love. CEO Joshua Chernikoff said that the offerings their Flex ONE programming bring are meant not to just be more screen time for kids, but instead, engaging and exciting opportunities kids look forward to. Think of it as online play-dating, but with highly skilled experts and even one-on-one tutoring wherever you need it to be. And, in a world where online safety is now key? They're on it.

Navigating College? Here's Help!

Do you have or know a high schooler? Are they interested in college? Ask them how hard it's been to schedule their PSAT/SAT/ACT tests. The current culture has elicited the cancellation of test opportunity after test opportunity, and for many kids, these are pivotal for getting into college.

Think about underserved and marginal populations...think about how much harder navigating what you need to for high school to get into college is. Share Pointer with them. It's a free mobile app that helps high school students, particularly underestimated and under-served high school students from lower-income families, navigate their college search and application process. In a time where meeting with your school counselor may be tough, Pointer can act like a personal counselor in your pocket. It works sort of like Bumble--matching students with colleges and going beyond normal questions to really identify future college needs. It identifies college communities where kids can thrive academically, socially, and ultimately feel encouraged to be their best self and then carries a student throughout the entire process with its robust Action Calendar. Best, it's FREE, and especially for underserved and first-generation college applicants? It can make this school year entirely more productive as they navigate toward college. You can download it here in the iTunes App store.

Encourage Curiosity

Mike Alpert is an educational consultant who spent years in the classroom (Crystal Apple Award-winning teacher) and then worked as an administrator before branching out on his own to open Cogent Solutions, an educational consulting firm that trains teachers in best practices in and outside of the classroom (focusing on SEL and executive function). Mike is a father himself, and he knows that curiosity and self-sufficiency are imperative in a virtual learning world. That's why he created The Curiosity Blueprint. It's designed for students between 5th and 10th grade and safely teaches them how to research and find answers to any question all on their own.
The Curiosity Blueprint:

  • Encourages students to stay engaged in their virtual coursework by appealing to their unique curiosities.
  • Is used alongside student's assigned coursework (for instance, if their assignment is to research Benjamin Franklin, they would use The Curiosity Blueprint's framework to complete the research).
  • Takes the burden off parents to become full-time teachers by instead encouraging them to become educational guides. It includes prompts for parents, and a 1 hour tutorial that will end up saving parents 10-15 hours each week!
  • Is based on the concept that curiosity fuels learning, and it encourages students to pursue their individual curiosities and to build skills that can be helpful in completing assigned coursework. We could all use a curiosity boost this year, right?!
  • Empowers students to direct their own studies with a four-step process Seek, Learn, Apply, and Make (or SLAM) that moves them from identifying a curiosity all the way to producing a finished product that exemplifies their learning.
The Curiosity Bluperint launches Labor Day and you can subscribe to the TCB's newsletter prior to September 1st and receive 20% off.

School Supply Must-Haves To Make This Year Great

It's a different kind of year, so what might be must-have this year is a bit different too.

ENOF Essential Nutrients

These essential nutrients from organic foods are the bee's knees and sure to help pack each day of this unique school year with the fuel your children's bodies need to tackle the school day, whatever it looks like. A simple sprinkle (shh, you don't even have to tell them!) and they're set.

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Gaim Balance Ball ChairMust-have school supplies for virtual learning

The sensory input kids will get from being able to wiggle and bounce on a balance ball chair will help them focus and help them regulate. It's a great alternative to a desk chair to help improve concentration and focus, as well as promote healthy posture and an engaged brain/body.

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Prospek Blue-Light Blocking Glasses

These are KEY for kids (and adults) when they're in front of blue-light emitting screens consistently. Blue-light burns your retinas five times more than ultra-violet light and protection is important. Dr. Appelbaum likes Prospek's Anti-reflective glasses for kids.They also have a lifetime warranty, which is awesome for kids. And seriously, mamas, consider for yourselves too.

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Adjustable Lap Stand

The experts agree, it's important to make sure that your virtual learners using computers and devices do so at the right height for their eyes. That's why an adjustable lap stand can be pivotal in reducing visual stress overload. Ensure children are able to see at 90 degrees so they're not straining their neck or their eyes.

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Learning Resources Create A Space Storage

We love this colorful and space-saving storage center that will keep all your kiddos' pencils, pens, markers, scissors and more in one easy-to-access place. A great way to keep school movable and portable for wherever school has to happen without supplies taking your kitchen table over.

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