What’s in Your (Virtual) Back-to-School Toolbox?

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I was in Target the other day for the first time since February. As I rounded the corner at the back of the store, the bright yellow back-to-school section took me by surprise. There were the standard vats of glue sticks and highlighters and an entire aisle of backpacks. But it felt out of place. From another time. I mumbled behind my mask, “Read the room, Target. Normal back-to-school ain’t happening.”

As schools announce virtual or “hybrid” learning for the fall, we all have to adapt and get our act in gear for virtual learning for our kids. Spring was triage, barely a practice run. Fall is for real. As an organizer and productivity specialist, I spend my time thinking of ways to create environments to maximize work. So here’s my list of tools to consider for the long battle of virtual learning that lies ahead. Strap in!

Girl in Empty School
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

Network Extender
During the spring, kids had occasional Zoom meetings with teachers while parents scrambled to work from home. But fall will involve much more online active learning, and you need to juice up your network now. If you haven’t already, consider amplifying your WiFi with a Mesh Network. This is a communication tool that helps wipe out WiFi dead spots in your home and can extend your network when more people are online at the same time. If one or two parents are on a teleconference the same time as your child’s live class, this device will help everyone stay connected.

Headphones
Everyone will need a good pair of headphones with a microphone to block out extra noise and also allow them to hear instruction and participate without bothering everyone else.

White Noise Machine
If there is one device that has kept me married through the pandemic, it’s our white noise machine. My husband is on calls 8-10 hours/day, and now I can only hear the low hum of the machine, not some boring market projections for Q3.

Monitor
Depending on the age and schoolwork demands of your child, you might consider a larger monitor that plugs into a laptop to provide more screen space for schoolwork. Monitors are also elevated on a desk, allowing for better work posture. If you don’t have space for an additional monitor, consider a riser for a laptop and add a keyboard/mouse to improve work ergonomics.

Blue Light Glasses
No one should be staring at a screen all day – especially kids! But for the time being, everyone is spending more time online, and our eyes may be suffering. Consider getting blue light glasses for yourself and your student to help with eye fatigue and possibly help improve sleep after a longer day online.

Little Girl Taking Online Classes
Photo by August de Richelieu

Workspace
Your home is not a classroom, but for now, adapting and using your space well is more important than ever. For younger kids in particular, they need a focused workspace where they can be monitored during class time. It may be time to repurpose your dining room (let’s be honest, who is hosting dinner parties these days?). If you have multiple children, you might consider a tabletop partition to help everyone stay focused. Use a small caddy to collect the tools they need for doing their work (colored pencils, paper, tape, scissors, etc.). Consider seating as well. A dining room chair may not be the most comfortable place to sit for an extended period of time. Find a comfortable seat that works for the size of your student and allows for good posture.

Grade-Specific Space
Consider the age and learning needs of your child, and find an appropriate spot for them in your home.

  • Elementary Kids: I suggest they work in a public space where they can be assisted with online learning as well as independent work.
  • Middle School Kids: By sixth grade, kids may need both a public space for assistance and regular check-ins, as well as some quiet space to read, do homework and work independently.
  • High School Kids: By ninth grade, students need a quiet space where they can interact more online, work independently or in small virtual groups, and have a workspace for writing, homework and projects.
Photo of Child Smiling While Using Tablet Computer
Photo by Julia M Cameron

Lighting
Consider the lighting in your child’s work area, and make sure it’s adequate for sustained time on task. Most overhead lighting is too far away to provide ideal light. It may be helpful to provide some kind of desk/task light in the workspace that can be adjusted based on their needs. A good old-fashioned gooseneck or architect lamp may do the trick.

Keeping Time
As most adults can attest, time has lost all meaning during the pandemic. The other day, I had to pause and remember what season we were in! Since normal bell schedules and classroom routines won’t exist in the same way during virtual learning, consider a clock or Time Timer so your student can keep track of the schedule and build time awareness when working more independently.

A good old-fashioned paper calendar is also a trusted tool for schooling from home. The pandemic has taken away some of our normal time markers related to activities, routines and days of the week. To help your student keep up with assignment due dates, and to assist with planning ahead and breaking down large assignments over time, a paper planner can recreate that sense of marking time over days and weeks rather than every single day feeling like a Tuesday! Take it to the next level by color coding blocks of time based on the class or topic. If using a planner is completely new to your student, this will require some help in the beginning, but it really is a life skill that will benefit your child well into the future.

Girl Writing on Paper
Photo by Julia M Cameron

You and your child’s teacher(s) should guide what is most needed to maximize at-home learning. Not every child will need all of these tools! I also want to acknowledge that many families will not be in a position to provide for their students in this way. So many families are barely treading water at this point, never mind worrying about extra technology tools or the very best desk chairs. As members of society, we all have to ask how we can help others during this time so as not to widen the achievement gap. If your community isn’t having this conversation right now, it’s a great time to start it!

Finally, most parents aren’t teachers. And our teachers are all donning superhero capes to help our children continue learning during this unprecedented time. We’re all doing our best. Communicate about expectations. Be forgiving when they’re not quite met. Praise resiliency and celebrate small successes. This will pass (not soon enough!) but we can all only do so much to keep learning in the process.

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Perri Kersh

Perri Kersh is the neatest, and sometimes freakiest, at Chapel Hill-based Neat Freak Professional Organizing, LLC. She works with individuals, families, small business owners and students to help them get and stay organized. When she’s not organizing for others, she frequently shovels up after her husband and children. In 2019, she was elected president of the North Carolina chapter of the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals. You can read more about Perri on her website, neat-freak.com, or reach her at 919-824-8196.

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