Answering Your Questions On Distance Learning At Home

KCBS Radio went to the experts to answer your most pressing questions about distance learning, teaching children at home, and how to plan for your student's academic future.

Anchor Stan Bunger posed listeners' questions to Julie Lythcott Haims, former Stanford University Dean of Freshman and author of “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success”

Q: What’s the best way to schedule the day? How many hours should I be teaching my child?

Go easy on yourself, you’ve not done this before and there’s no perfect way to do it. So just take a deep breath and accept that. You’re going to be doing your best and that’s what counts. I’ve never been a K-12 educator, but I’ve read a lot about it in the past four weeks. Rule of thumb: twenty minutes of work, starting with kindergarteners, increasing by 20 minutes for every grade there after. That means 1st graders get 40 minutes, 2nd graders 60 minutes, 5th graders would get 2 hours, 11th graders would get 4 hours, and seniors would get 4 hours and 20 minutes of school work during the day. Not all of that should be crammed down their throat all at once - they need breaks and we need breaks. I would say go with a schedule that fits what’s happening in your family. We all need structure during this time, so knowing what’s going to happen will help tame the anxiety that’s really roiling in our minds right now. Let that schedule be a healthy one with breaks, that’s age appropriate depending on the age of your children.

Q: I’m afraid my daughter is just going to get hooked on videos and TV and isn’t learning anything.

Nowadays, TV and videos are not the greatest threat. So while we have rightly been concerned about how much our kids use technology and what it’s doing to their brains, really this isn’t the pressing concern. Right now we’re all struggling, we’re looking for comfort, we’re looking for connection, and if your kid is enjoying watching videos and hanging on on apps with friends, that’s probably the best thing for her to be doing for much of the time. So don’t worry about that too much, we can relax those rules and focus more on how people are doing. Check in with them, how are they feeling today, find out what’s going on. I just woke up this morning and snuggled up with my 18 year old daughter who’s really struggling. I just went in to her bedroom and kind of snuggled next to her and said “I love you so much, I can’t possibly know what this is like for you at 18, but I want you to know that I’m and I’m always here for you.” I did that for her, but I also did that for myself.

Q: How should parents or families deal with the loss of things like graduation, prom, and the other milestones that would have been happening if school were still in session?

We’ve raised a generation of kids to feel like all that matters is college. We have trained these kids to feel like they are losers if they are not ‘on track.’ So we oughtn’t be surprised when they are devastated at the loss of these milestones that we have set up as the be all and end all reason for existence. We need to bring empathy and compassion to our young people. Some people might be thinking “what’s wrong with those?” or “why are they complaining?” but no. Think of a memory of your own self at that age.eager to leave your folks home and get out in the world whether it was the workplace, or the military, or college. Summon a memory of yourself at that age, hungry for freedom and independence, and see if it can’t fuel your compassion for the 18 year old or the 22 year old in your home who’s really struggling. That’s part one.

Part two, see what you can do to create some sense of ritual for them as these moments that should be happening more publicly have to happen in private in the home or online. See if you can find some balloons that you can blow up and tape the walls, see if you can find some extra pretty lights that you might have used for the holidays. Take your christmas tree box or your hannukah box and pull out some stuff that you can use to jazz up the house for dinner that night. On the day when something special was supposed to happen, see if you can’t recreate some semblance of ritual so your kid knows that your trying to honor the milestone that is happening for them.

Q: What should graduates be doing to prepare for college in the fall?

Our mental health, frankly, is our greatest asset in many ways and is under assault right now. I would say this is the time to take a lot of deep breaths and connect with people you love. Do some writing, write down in a journal what’s going on for you. Read old favorite books, turn to those authors who wrote those childhood books that are on your shelf that you loved when you were 5 or 8 or 15. Summon the wisdom from the stories that brought you joy when you were younger. These are little things that we can do to be kind to ourselves. I know that doesn’t sound like preparing for college, but what I’m talking about is just care taking the self. 

If you’re trying to prepare for college, have confidence that you are prepared for college. You’re still you, you took the classes in high school, yeah the final semester has been a little crazy but you haven’t lost your mind and you haven’t lost your skills. If you want to get on Khan Academy, or Wide Open School, or Study.com, to try to brush up on this and that and you have internet access than more power to you, do those things. Let’s not turn this into a race to be ready for college, have confidence that bringing a metnally well and stable self to college is probably the greatest tool you want to have in your toolkit.

Q:Some families are feeling behind the curve with internet access, how do they adapt?

Hasn’t this ciris completely illuminated the digital divide? If folks didn’t previously appreciate what that meant, if they had the privilege of not having to worry about that, I think now they’re getting it. Frankly speaking, the internet today is the equivalent of roads, and electricity, and telephones of yesteryear. Once upon a time, the federal government decided rural areas needed those things and were going to spend money. Well it’s high time that the government provides broadband and wifi to all americans. Some communities, like down here in San Jose,  I know the mayor has put up wifi devices on street poles to make sure that folks can have access to the internet. In some communities, schools are putting routers in school busses and parking them on streets in neighborhoods where it’s likely people don’t have internet access. These are local solutions, which are great, but we need a national solution. 

In the meantime, there’s an amazing Bay Area organization called CAVEAT. I’m on their board, so I’m biased, take this with a grain of salt. It’s Common Sense Media, and they are really playing a leading role in this. They have a brand new website called WideOpenSchool,org, they’re partnering with tons of the best content providers. They’ve created a beautiful user interface where you can go on as a teacher or a family and access content for your kid or your students, depending on their age and stage. They are helping lead this charge for internet access for all, and they’re partnering with Comcast to make this content free to people. I don’t have all the details, but go to WideOpenSchool.org, it’s a fabulous resource that was pulled together almost literally overnight by the Bay Area leaders we’ve come to know and love.

Together we need to ensure that everybody has access. If you know somebody that doesn’t have a device and you’ve got five in your house, drop it at their doorstep and let’s share some devices. People don’t have access to participate in education and in our society if they lack the devices.

Q: I’m a teacher and I honestly don’t know if what I’m doing is working, this distance learning stuff is all new to me, what do I do?

It’s not that easy. If you’re a teacher of English in high school or English literature in college, it’s pretty easy to assign a book and then have an online discussion about the book and students can write papers and you can critique those papers. If you’re a teacher of English, that translates well to online learning. If you’re teaching mechanical engineering, or chemistry, or dance, or orchestra - these things don’t translate well to online learning. The disciplines are not all equal when it comes to their accessibility online. Frankly, this is new for everybody. Everybody is winging it, there are some people that have been doing this for some time, but very very few. Don’t expect to be an expert at this, you’re not, and that’s ok. We parents need to be giving the teachers a break. Teachers need to be giving the kids a break. The best thing we can do is show up with our humanity and or compassion knowing that everyone is trying to do their best in a situation that is frightening and confusing. It is what it is, let it be what it is. Don’t be too hard on yourself and let’s virtual hug and keep going.

Q: I get a lesson plan from the school, I assume they’re the experts, should I follow it strictly?

I think teachers oughta be improvising as they feel is best, given their expertise and their methodologies. For parents, if the school is providing a lesson plan, that’s a great structure and tool that they offer you - but you still get to decide if that works for your family. If you can’t, as a parent, march through that today because something else is going on and it’s derailed you, that’s alright. Your kid’s not going to fail at life or be behind because you didn’t get that lesson plan done today. Be kind to yourself, what our kids need more than anything is parents with their you-know-what together. Our kids need parents who can smile, and can breath, and take an interest in how our child is. It’s hard because we’re losing our minds occasionally as well. So working on just calming ourselves down and providing food, and nourishment, and kindness - that should be part of the lesson plan each day. We have to put on our own oxygen mask first as parents if we’re going to be capable of being who our kids deserve.

One of the reasons I went into my 18 year old this morning was because we had a bit of a tiff last night and I was a bit frustrated with her. I woke up this morning realizing that ‘Julie she’s 18, you’re 52. Get over it. She’s struggling. She doesn’t have the resilience and the capacity to cope with things like this that you should have at 52. So Julie, you have to be the bigger person, you get in there and tell your child that you adore her and you want to be there for exactly what she needs.’

I had to do that work on myself so I could show up and be what my kid needs.

Q; I know life is a great teacher, but how do I make sure the things we’re doing around the house, whether cooking, or working on the budget, or fixing the car have some educational value?

I think the answer is embedded in the question, all of those things inherently have educational value. In ‘How to Raise an Adult” I talk about how we’re supposed to be teaching our kids skills so they leave our homes empowered to go out and do things for themselves. Whether that’s the workplace, or college, or the military, they are supposed to learn skills at home instead of us handling everything for them and fostering a complete dependency on us. 

I’m going to shoutout my friend Stacey Ashland, here in Palo Alto, who taught me this four-step method for teaching any kid any skill. It goes like this - first you do it for them, then you do it with them, then you watch them do it, and finally they can do it completely on their own. Let’s take an example - learning to cook. First you do it for them - you’re making all their meals and they’re just sitting there waiting to be served, and you’re done. Second, you do with them - this is where you say ‘hey kid, I want to have you watch me make this grilled cheese sandwich. I want you to see the steps, and I want you to understand how it’s done.’ And they are there next to you and they’re eager and you’re narrating out loud and teaching and you might do that a couple times. Then step three, you watch them do it, you flip the roles. Now you’re kids at the stove, you’re still there to make sure they don’t set the house on fire or cut their fingers off with a knife, but you’re not micromanaging - you’re there just in case and you watch them. They do that a couple times, then finally they can make a grilled cheese sandwich when you’re not there.

Depending on the age, these steps could be accomplished in the span of a weekend or a year, depending on the skill we’re talking about. It applies to things that you might do to fix up the car, making meals, cleaning the house, learning to drive, it applies to everything. In short, life is a great teacher and there are constant lessons as we all shelter in place on how to do stuff. This generation could end up being fueled with so much strength and skills because of what they learned the hard way by having to shelter in place. I’m super excited for them actually. For as scary as bewildering as this is, I just think we might emerge from this even stronger.