Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes: Adapting to Distance Learning During COVID-19, By Dr. Jaime Marrus

This is Part 1 of the Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes Blog series. Click here for the Introduction to the series.

In a matter of mere days, maybe even hours, we learned that schools were closed, jobs became mostly remote, and life as we knew it was coming to a complete halt.  Old challenges remained unsolved or put on the back burner, new challenges arose.  We felt shock. Frustration. Anger. Sadness. Boredom. Helplessness. Pain. And more. That being said, I have witnessed a remarkable ability for people- parents and children alike- to demonstrate one of the most important skillsets and predictors of success in life.  And yet, it is not a skill that you explicitly learn in school.  That is, the ability to adapt.  I have found myself thinking about that concept and skill a lot lately, and through my professional lens as a clinical psychologist, the importance of developing this skill in children and parents.  “Adaptability” is even a subscale on a social-emotional/behavioral assessment measure that we commonly administer to  parents and teachers when we conduct psychological evaluations.  There is also a well-established research base regarding adaptability in the workplace and in business.  Needless to say, we have all done A LOT of adapting lately, probably both consciously and subconsciously.  In this blog, I will focus on adapting to distance learning and various strategies that families can use at home.

As part of a recent workshop that Dr. Jennifer, Dr. Lauren and I provided to parents regarding special education and the IEP process during the times of COVID-19, we gathered information from various local schools to gain a better understanding of how schools were adapting and implementing distance learning.  Overall, we learned that there is a lot of variability where distance learning is concerned, and even in the few weeks since our presentation, it seems that these plans and programs are continually evolving.  Some schools are having regularly occurring “Morning Meetings” via Zoom or another video platform, some have teachers and related service providers assign activities online, and for others, teachers conduct whole lessons via video.  Much of this variability is dependent on students’ age, developmental level, and school setting.  As part of our ongoing work with clients and their families in psychotherapy, we have been helping them to adapt to such approaches for their particular child. 

Adaptations to remote learning are likely to vary by family, child’s developmental level, and schools’ expectations.  On an initial more global scale (and for children who are developmentally able and ready to engage in academic work), adaptations include implementing concrete strategies such as:

  1. Creating a work space that is free from distractions, is comfortable to work at (i.e., with a chair and desk rather than on a bed), and has all the necessary work materials.
  2. Creating a schedule and daily routine to provide structure and set times for academic work and free time.
  3. Supporting organization and time management skills, including creating to-do lists, visual schedules, and calendars to track long-term assignments.
  4. Determining priorities and planning accordingly.  Don’t forget to give yourself and your child a break- you do not “need” to complete ALL tasks, assignments, and activities just because they are available.  Your safety and well-being, including your and your child’s mental health is a priority (more on that in a later post!).   

For other families and their children with special needs, work may be less academically focused, and therefore may be more challenging to adapt for home-based learning.  I have heard from many families that it is often challenging and overwhelming to comb through the lists of activities or assignments provided by schools and related services providers, and then how to adapt them based on their child’s developmental level.  Many families that I work with have children who attend specialized schools in classrooms of students with mixed developmental levels.  It is difficult and quite time-consuming for teachers to provide remote activities and assignments for each individual student or developmental level.  It is equally, if not more distressing, for parents to grapple with how their child could participate in these activities at home. An additional stressor may arise when families are expected to document progress, or “show” a child’s work or completion of activities (often the case for parents seeking reimbursement for non-public  schools).  Here are a few ideas and strategies that have been helpful for some of our families:

  1. First, consult your teachers and providers. You should not and do not have to do this alone. Reach out to your child’s teachers and ask how you might adapt an activity for his/her developmental level. Specify your concerns or what did/did not work in previous attempts. Similarly, engage them in brainstorming regarding what and how to document progress (examples may include a short video of your child completing an activity, a picture of a completed activity, or a quick written note describing what he/she worked on and how).
  2. Get the general idea. That is, your child does not likely have to complete an activity/assignment exactly how it is being presented, but rather, participate at a level that is appropriate for them.  For example, one of my clients was assigned to “go on a scavenger hunt for winter clothes,” which she would not be able to do independently, nor likely understand.  I helped her parents brainstorm the objectives behind such a task, and how we could adapt it so that she is working on similar goals.  We came up with helping her to sort laundry, feeling “cold” versus “warm” by placing her hand in the freezer versus under warm water, and looking at books and videos about “winter.”
  3. For children in NYC, ensure that your child has a Special Education Remote Learning Plan (for children with IEPs), and discuss it with teachers and providers accordingly.  A Remote Learning Plan is a live document akin to and based on a child’s IEP (see letter from NYC DOE’s Chancellor below) and the strategies that are helpful for that child.

I wish you all the best as you continue to adapt to the continued evolution of distance learning.  Feel free to share some of your own tips as well.   Stay tuned next week for our next blog.


Helpful Links for COVID-19 from NYC DOE:  

Letter from Chancellor Carranza to Parents of Students with Disabilities:

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