Remote learning brings about a variety of unique challenges.  As an OT, I am always thinking about the environment when I am observing someone engaging in an important occupation.  The environment of school in a remote learning model looks so different from what we are used to.  Students are now sitting much more often and being expected to attend to a screen for a longer period of time.  Zoom or Google Meets can be overwhelming from a sensory perspective and the technology can be frustrating at times.  Over the past three weeks of remote learning,  I have been working closely with my teams to help problem solve issues related to this new kind of environment.  I put together some of my favorite tips and I hope they are helpful whether you are teaching remotely or have your own children working at home!

Start with the basics.

Not everything about your remote learning setup at home needs to be drastically different from the classroom setup.  Many strategies that work in the classroom will also work at home.  Having a clear, visual schedule that is easily accessible by the child will still be essential during remote learning.  Additionally, highly motivating reinforcers, accessible sensory items and frequent movement breaks should continue to be incorporated into every remote learning environment.  My students and my own kids have a wide variety of these strategies embedded during their day.  One of my students enjoys using the yoga ball to bounce on intermittently throughout the day.  Another student benefits from a variety of fidget items to use during live meetings.  My older son benefits from a written schedule displayed on the wall for each portion of his day.  

Look at posture and positioning.

This might be something that is easy to overlook, but the ergonomics of a remote learning space are incredibly important to reduce discomfort especially when students are now expected to maintain a seated position for an extended period of time.

In order to achieve optimal positioning for learning, follow these tips:

  • Ensure that the child’s feet are flat on the floor.  If your child’s feet are dangling, try putting a stepstool under his feet.
  • Make sure the chair is appropriately sized.  You should look for the child’s knees and hips to be at a 90 degree angle.  If a chair is too big, you could try rolling up a towel or placing a small pillow behind the child’s lower back to give some support.
  • Check the table height.  If the table is too high, you might observe a child’s elbows out to the side instead of bent at more of a 90 degree angle.
  • In order to prevent neck strain, place some books under the laptop to raise it up to eye level.  This way, the child doesn’t have to constantly bend his neck to see the screen.

Consider the technology.

Even within the environment of remote learning, we are still trying to facilitate student independence.  A barrier right now for many of my students is the technology itself.  I have students who have difficulty navigating a mouse, accessing all the features of their device, managing all the passwords/links and logging in on time for sessions.

Here are some things to consider as it relates to technology setup in a remote learning space to continue to facilitate independence:

  • What device is the child using?  Sometimes, students who have difficulty with fine motor strength and coordination can access all the features of a device much more independenty on an iPad vs. a laptop or Chromebook.
  • Are there other tools that can support access?  For example, would a student benefit from an external mouse, adapted mouse or a built up stylus to improve his ability to independently access all the features of the device?
  • Consider using technology to support executive functioning skills.  For students who have difficulty remembering when to log in, setting timers on their devices can help.

Consider sensory aspects of live meetings .

After a long day of Zoom meetings, I am completely and totally spent.  It is overwhelming and exhausting to be on live meetings for extended periods of time.  I think about this fact often as it relates to my students with sensory processing needs.  When I am in the classroom, I am always evaluating the sensory aspects of that environment.  What about the virtual classroom?  It can be loud, with feedback and background noise.  Visually, it it incredibly busy and overwhelming.  Often, the environment of virtual learning limits the natural opportunities for movement within a typical classroom environment.

Try some of these tips to make the virtual classroom a little more sensory friendly:

  • Have the student pin the speaker so only that person screen is showing.
  • Play around with the volume and possibly explore using headphones to accommodate auditory needs.  Additionally, it is ideal when the host can mute students who may have a lot of background noise coming from their space.
  • Allow for frequent breaks. As teachers, having a variety of breaks built into your class will be great to meet all needs.  There are a ton of cute resources for movement breaks online that are super fun and motivating.  However, consider offering frequent screen breaks as well.  The eye strain is real!  My kids have been enjoying frequent screen free break times during their day, which can include a quick scooter ride or walk around the block. 
  • Consider having a system in place that can allow for a student to ask for a break if needed outside of the designated break times .  Maybe the student can send a chat message to the teacher to ask for a break, hold up a ‘I need a break’ picture, or request on her device. 

Use hands on materials as possible.

There are so many amazing digital tools that I love and use daily; but don’t forget to continue to work those hand muscles! If there is an option to print and have the child use a pencil instead of always completing the work electronically, take advantage of that.. Have playdough or Legos as options for down time.  My older son submits his work via SeeSaw which is awesome! A lot of the time he uses the built in digital tools which he can do independently.  At least one time per day, I try to have him print off and complete at least one activity with a pencil. My younger son loves using some of Sasha’s task cards and we are beginning to incorporate Sasha’s leveled daily homework, in addition to his beloved iPad apps!   It’s all about balance.

Finally, I think one of the most important components to every remote learning setup is the attitude of those within the environment.  We cannot control the situation that is going on around us, or decisions that have been made- but we can control our response to it.  Meeting the challenges of this time with patience and positivity can make any learning environment a welcoming and comforting place to be.  Wishing you all the best this school year!

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