Why is online learning so difficult and how can we make it easier?

    Two years into the pandemic and we find ourselves online once again. Many of us feel frustrated and carry a pessimistic view of online learning. One of the most difficult aspects of online learning this time around is our negative expectations based on prior experiences. Many of these experiences are rooted in seeing our children struggle through online learning alongside our frustrations. Whilst we may have no control over the regulations, we can control how we respond to them. So, how can we make online learning easier? Before we do that, we first have to understand why online learning can be difficult for some. The use of computers and technology has been integrated into daily school learning for years, so why is online learning now so difficult? To understand why we need to address the differences between virtual and live learning.

    1. Space

    The first obvious difference is location; students have gone from campus-based learning to learning from home.

    For most children, home is where they can relax, play and be themselves. School, on the other hand, is a place to learn, where children do work, challenge themselves and follow rules.

    So, what happens when these two concepts blur? Suddenly children are expected to transfer their school skills to home. This is undoubtedly difficult, particularly for younger children who rarely need to take schoolwork back home. For older children who have established a routine of studying and doing homework at home, making this transition is not so difficult. But could you imagine being told to go on holiday and, instead of relaxing, expected to engage in your daily work? Many of us would struggle. Children are no exception. They are finding the change in space and demands conflicting. This makes attending online lessons as one would in class difficult. It is also important to remember that with this change in space also comes differences in distractions.

    2. Distractions

    Whether at school or home, all children are prone to distractions. Just because your child is getting distracted by Minecraft at home does not mean they were never getting distracted at school. The issue is not just that the use of computers provides distractions, it is also the increase in the number of distractions available paired with the lack of monitoring at home. Opening that cheeky tab to watch YouTube, logging on to Roblox or scrolling through social media would have been interrupted at school. Usually, teachers can spot this distraction following the wandering eye of their students or changes in facial expression. However, at home, teachers are not able to check what’s on screens. Keeping an eye on 25+ kids with one scan and teaching online is nearly impossible, hence, the increase of distraction for prolonged periods. And even worse, distractions aren’t just on computers, many kids have access to their phones, tablets, and game consoles at home. Lots of options mean multiple distractions on the go. Let’s also not forget that many of your children’s go-to distractions are rooted in social interaction. Students are missing their classmates and can become distracted by their desire to socialise online with their peers.

    3. Loss of Social Interactions

    It is obvious that through online learning there is a huge loss of social contact. But we are not just talking about chatting with peers. There is also a loss of teacher-to-student social interaction. This can be particularly difficult for students who have become accustomed to their teachers’ presence. Whether they look to their teacher for reassurance, encouragement or redirection, this contact is lost. For children who are naturally more reserved, the presence of a teacher can encourage the child to take risks and take part in class discussions. This of course boosts self-confidence, a sense of belonging and encourages learning. Without this, some children may disengage and become unmotivated. The change in the social dynamics of online learning means some children may struggle to adapt whilst others thrive. It all comes down to the sudden change in behavioural patterns, social expectations, and routine. One such change is the change in teachers.

    4. Parental Role

    Parents have now suddenly found themselves taking on the roles of a teacher, teaching assistant and school principal all at once. Roles that many parents are not accustomed to taking on. Particularly for those with children in primary years, the parental role in online learning weighs heavily. Parents are often required to monitor their kids, guide them through their work and assist in the teaching. This is an incredibly difficult task and parents are finding themselves burnt out from juggling all these roles. But it is not only the parents who are struggling to adjust to this change, the children struggle too. It is difficult for a child to suddenly find their parents roaming the halls of the school and acting as a teacher. The parent-to-child relationship differs greatly when compared to the teacher-to-child relationship. This difference lays in expectations, communication styles, discipline, and behavioural patterns. Children have set an expectation of their parental relationships. Suddenly having your mum sit next to you, helping you write your report is not easy. Children are more likely to rebel, be noncompliant and test their parent's new role as it is so unfamiliar. On top of this, some children may struggle to keep up with parental expectations and can become shy and self-conscious. This often leads to frustrated parents which can build tension in the relationship. So don’t be surprised when your child suddenly becomes extra defiant or is slower to complete the work you ask of them. Be sure to give your child positive support, space to make mistakes and opportunities.

    5. Skill Demand

    The skills required for online learning are different, though some may overlap with school-based learning, many children have not fully acquired the skills to succeed with online learning. This is particularly true for younger children who struggle with the independence of online learning. The demands require children to be self-sufficient, log onto their email, follow video links and attend virtually. However, it is not just IT skills that children have to use, but also organisational and academic skills. Many of the online classes have been condensed to allow enough time during the day so that children can attend all lessons without extended exposure to screen time. This condensing of classes may mean that by the time some children have fully attended and prepared themselves, the class is already over. Hence, online learning places a huge demand on our executive function skills. This includes aspects such as time management, organisational skills, impulse control, attention, focus and flexibility. Many students develop these skills through real-life experiences in the classroom and trial and error. However, for some children, online learning may feel like being thrown into the deep end of the executive functioning pool.

    Regardless of why your child may be struggling with online learning, it is crucial to figure out how we can best support them through this unusual experience.


    How can we make it easier?

    When acquiring a new skill, we often strive for success. When we are unable to meet our expectations (or the expectations of others), it is easy to be disheartened and give up. It also makes future attempts at acquiring said skill that much harder. If your child struggled with online learning, chances are they will be expected to struggle again and unfortunately, negative expectations will most definitely hinder performance.

    So, what can be done…- ‘Growth Mindset’- a phrase many parents have heard time and time again.

    1. Growth Mindset

    A growth mindset is a mindset we adapt to challenges and difficulties we face. It is a concept introduced in schools starting at a young age. A growth mindset revolves around focusing on the positives, identifying our struggles, and moving forward positively. It roots our success in effort, perseverance, and resilience. The opposite of this is a concept known as ‘Fixed Mindset’. Your child (perhaps, even yourself) has likely adopted a fixed mindset to online learning. One way to notice a fixed mindset in your child is through the language they engage in. When faced with online learning, if you find your child engages in negative self-talk, they’ve likely adopted a fixed mindset. Phrases such as:

    • I will never be good at online learning
    • I will never learn anything online
    • I am not good at online learning
    • I can’t do this…
    • It’s too hard
    • I suck at…
    • It’s easy for everyone else…

    But before you correct this language, don’t forget to check yourself. Have you been engaging in a fixed mindset when it comes to online learning?

    • It’s too hard for…
    • They just can’t get it…
    • They will never be able to do online learning…
    • It’s just too hard…
    • No one can learn this way...

    If you notice any signs of a fixed mindset, focus on adjusting the language used and highlighting the positives. Although online learning was difficult to adjust to, what did your child learn from the last round of online learning? What new skills did they acquire? Sit down with your child and highlight their successes rather than their failures. Don’t be afraid to get your child involved! Asked them what was something they initially found hard with online learning but now have the skills to approach the challenge? Of course, if they did struggle, address it from a solution-focused perspective which is best done through open communication.

    2. Communicate

    A preoccupied mind is never good for studying or working. Be sure to open a line of communication for your child to address their worries and concerns about online learning this time around. Ask them what they felt worked and did not work last time. Honesty is key- so make sure to ask your children if there was anything that could have been set up differently to better support them. This is also a fantastic opportunity for you to share with your child your worries and expectations. Only by sharing your expectations with your child can you gauge if they need to be realigned. Chances are your child has noticed your frustrations if they have struggled with attention, focus and persistence with online learning. When children lack information, they tend to fill in the gaps themselves, often quite dramatically. To avoid any assumptions being made or jumping to conclusions, be sure to share your perspective with your child. The last thing you want to be added to your household during this difficult period is further tension. Researchers found that even before schooling had started, parents’ prediction of their child’s future academics was a strong determinant for the actual academic outcome. This just highlights the influence that parents’ perception and attitude towards a child can have on their future development. Often these perceptions are communicated through language. Missed communication between parent and child at a young age can lead to misattunement in adolescent years.

    Only through communicating will you be able to find the root cause for certain behaviours. Is it a difficulty with sustained attention or is it an adverse reaction to feeling isolated during online learning? Is your child turning their camera off out of pure defiance or is there something about the online setup that pokes at your child’s social anxiety? Whatever the reason, the best step forward is always identifying the root cause of a problem rather than the problem itself. Take this opportunity to build positive bridges across this online learning journey.

    Whilst some of these suggestions may not be new to you, it doesn’t hurt to take them on from a different perspective. These suggestions of course will not be able to change the regulations or tweak your child's natural attentional abilities, but they can improve your child’s sense of self and resiliency.

    Topics: Hong Kong Kids

    Rachel Chan Mazariegos

    Rachel Chan Mazariegos

    Behavioural Therapist and Educational Psychometrician