Hawaiʻi’s students have returned to school, but the classroom is looking a lot like home. The Hawaiʻi Department of Education has implemented distance learning, another way to say online learning, for the first four weeks of the school year to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among students.

Distance learning can be challenging for students who are accustomed to a classroom environment filled with friends and fun, but it can be even more difficult for children with special needs who may not be able to understand why their teacher and friends are now on a monitor instead of at their side, or who may not be able to stay focused as well in this new learning system.

We’ve compiled a list of tips to help families and caretakers create a positive learning environment for students who may need extra support.

1. Make a Space

Students associate the classroom as a place of learning and socialization. Creating a dedicated, personalized corner of a room as the “classroom space” can help your child create the same association within the home.

Along with the computer they’ll be using to connect with their teachers and classmates, the space should be equipped with all the same tools as they would have in a normal classroom, such as:

  • Writing and coloring tools
  • A writing surface
  • Paper
  • Textbooks
  • Items to help with fidgeting (fidget spinners, stress balls, etc.)
  • Cold water to keep them hydrated and alert

Be sure that their seating is appropriate. Add a footstool or books under dangling feet and consider giving them the option to stand at their desk sometimes by placing their computer on a crate.

Consider having your child decorate the space to feel more like school. Put up pictures of their teacher and friends, artwork and schoolwork they’ve done, and other learning aids that will help them be ready to learn.

2. Set a Routine

Maintaining structure and routine can be a powerful tool to help children transition into their new learning environment. Have your child follow the same routine they’d follow if they were going to an in-person school, such as:

  • Eating their breakfast
  • Brushing their teeth
  • Getting dressed for school
  • Checking their homework

It may seem easier to have them stay in their pajamas (or at least, in their pajamas from the waist down), but the act of changing can help your child mentally prepare for class.

3. Give Them a Break

Breaks are really important, especially for children with learning and attention challenges. Be sure to build breaks into their day and tackle assignments as smaller projects.

What would your child be doing during a break at school? Playing? Drawing? Eating a snack? Socializing with friends? Give them the time to do similar things at home.

If your child would usually be running and being active during recess, have them burn off that extra energy in a similar way. Some things they can do at home are:

  • Playing in the yard
  • Running laps around the house
  • Jumping on an indoor or outdoor trampoline

In condos and apartments, have your child accompany you on a short walk or to pick up the mail to get them outside in the fresh air. Don’t forget to have them wear a mask!

4. Talk to Your Student

As with any big change, communication is key. As much and as often as you’re able, talk to your student about your expectations and give them the opportunity to share about their day and their needs.

5. Build a Community

As a family member or caretaker, you are also trying your best to navigate this new form of schooling. You may be juggling your children’s schooling alongside your own work and it can feel overwhelming.

Remember that you are not alone. Other families, teachers, and students are also learning as they go. They are wonderful resources for support. Consider creating or joining a group text or Facebook group with parents or caretakers to share ideas and learnings.

Build a relationship with your child’s teacher and be prepared to advocate for your child if you think that the classes are not allowing for a variety of learning styles (visual, kinesthetic, etc.). The teachers are also new to distance learning and would appreciate suggestions on how they can adjust the online classes to better suit your child.

Whether distance learning will only be for the next few weeks or will be a part of life for the foreseeable future is unknown, but the 2020 to 2021 school year is changing the way our children learn and interact with their peers. We hope these tips can help your family adjust to and even enjoy this new, technology-driven learning experience.