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4 Steps for Dealing with the Social Challenges of Online Learning

Roberta is a Head Coach Parent. She is a single mother of three kids ages 5, 8, and 12 years. Her family has internet at home, and her kids share two tablets and a laptop between them. Yesterday, their school began offering online classes, and Roberta is struggling to adapt to this new model.

Roberta and millions of parents like her are dealing with the social challenges of online learning. She is finding that the social challenges — not the technical ones — are making home learning difficult. These social challenges include:

  1. Three kids at different educational levels,
  2. Each teacher is assigning several hours of curriculum for each child,
  3. Each of her children requires a different amount and frequency of oversight,

Here’s what I told her. Hopefully, it might help some of you.

Step #1: Identify Assistant Coaches NOW

In a few weeks, Roberta will be going back to work, and she will need at least one Assistant Coach — preferably an army — to help support her children’s online learning at home.

Roberta was surprised to hear that this was my first and most urgent recommendation. I explained to her that identifying, recruiting, and training an Assistant Coach can be a slow process. It can take weeks. So she must start finding the RIGHT Assistant Coaches now because, if she waits, she may be forced to choose the WRONG person later… and that could be disastrous for her kids.

For home instruction to work, building your network of Assistant Coaches is the most critical piece of a parent’s home-learning puzzle. 

I encouraged Roberta to identify and recruit at least one Assistant Coach and one back up to take responsibility for her child’s instruction when she goes back to work. Despite the urgency of the moment, this is her priority.

We discussed the qualifications of the Assistant Coach(es). They include 1) a high degree of responsibility, 2) available time when the parent is at work, and 3) a willingness to follow parental instructions carefully and to enforce parental standards.

The good news is that the Assistant Coach does not need to be an expert in computers, teaching, curriculum (math, reading, etc.). Online lessons have this expertise embedded in the system. So the Assistant’s job will be to make sure the children are safe and to make sure that the children do the online assignments.

Roberta has a few Assistant Coach options that she agreed to explore over the coming week.

  1. Her mother who is retired but who may struggle to follow her instructions,
  2. A friend from church who Roberta knows reasonably well,
  3. A neighbor who also has two middle school kids of her own, and
  4. A few other retired neighbors and church members.

Step #2: Essential Learning Objective

“Roberta,” I started, “if you could choose just one thing for your kids to accomplish every day, what would that be?”

After some discussion, Roberta agreed that she wanted all of her kids to work on reading. (Reading is consistently the most critical skill — but usually the weakest — for kids.) “Ok., reading will be your Essential Learning Objective,” I told her. “This means that, as long as your kids make progress in this area, then the school day will be considered a success.”

Roberta, who is a committed Head Coach parent, objected. She asked, “What about the rest of the assignments?!” My response was firm. “Try to accomplish as many as possible, but, in the short-term, do not worry about missing some. Only insist that each child makes daily progress in their Essential Learning Objective.”

What is most important for Roberta — and all parents in this situation — is to focus on building a daily structure and establishing the fundamental habits that will facilitate effective home-learning over the long-term.

Step #3: Daily Structure

Roberta and I tested a few daily structures similar to the one I wrote about in a previous blog. She needed to align the school activities, so all three kids did not require oversight at the same time. She also took my advice and spoke with all three kids about their home schedule. (This was instructive as her two older kids said that they didn’t like reading. Not surprising.)

After the conversation with her kids, Roberta simplified the schedule and narrowed down the goals to her Essential Learning Objectives — a heavy focus on reading. Roberta is still uncomfortable with not completing every school assignment, but she better understands how focusing on reading will be in the long-term best interest of her kids. She knows that the longer her kids resist reading, the further behind they will fall.

Step #4: Habit Formation

Developing habits requires several components:

  1. To make it easy.
  2. To repeat the habit multiple times a day. (The more times the habit is repeated, the more likely it will form.)
  3. To create rewards for success.

Roberta created a schedule that has a focus on her Essential Learning Objective for the first half of each hour. Each repetition of the objective, however, was kept very short, and they will use a kitchen timer to keep track of the times.

Roberta’s youngest child will work on reading with Roberta for five minutes each hour. Her child will sit in her lap during this time — which the child will find as an enjoyable reward — and work on letter sounds and word formation.

The middle child will have ten minutes of reading with Roberta each hour. The two of them will alternate reading a page from a school-assigned book while the youngest child sits with them.

Roberta and her oldest child will have a protected fifteen-minute time block to read together, again reading alternate pages.

The rest of the hour will include additional assignments, free play, chores, and structured games. I should note that, Roberta insisted that there would be no TV, computer games, or Youtube watching during the day. (I wanted to hug her when she said this!)

Habit Tracking chart

Lastly, Roberta is going to post a “Habit Tracking Chart” on their kitchen refrigerator. This chart will monitor the frequency of each child completing their reading blocks, and each child will mark an “X” when they complete their block. Roberta is considering a daily or weekly reward for the family based on the successful completion of their reading.


At no point in our conversation did Roberta voice concern about using technology to access online instruction. All of her concerns were about the social aspects of learning online and at home. Roberta’s example describes the difficult transition that many parents are facing right now. But I am confident that Head Coach parents like Roberta will navigate this season and become better able to support learning at home. The skills and habits that she and her family are learning now will allow her children to continue learning whenever school is out of session… and this will dramatically improve her child’s chances of academic success. I sincerely hope that this aids you in your leadership of your children.

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