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

Two years into the pandemic we find ourselves online once again. Many of us feel frustrated and carry a pessimistic view of online learning. One of the most challenging aspects of online learning this time 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 more accessible? Before doing that, we must understand why online learning can be complex for some. Computers and technology have been integrated into daily school learning for years, so why is online learning now so difficult? To understand why we must address the differences between virtual and live learning.

1. Space

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

Home is where most children can relax, play and be themselves. On the other hand, school is a place to learn, where children 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 never got 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 cannot check what’s on screens. Keeping an eye on 25+ kids with one scan and teaching online is nearly impossible, hence the increased distraction for prolonged periods. And even worse, distractions aren’t just on computers. Many kids can access 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 was evident 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 accustomed to their teachers’ presence. This contact is lost if they look to their teacher for reassurance, encouragement or redirection. 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 sudden behavioural patterns, social expectations, and routine changes. One such change is the change in teachers.

4. Parental Role

Parents have now suddenly found themselves taking on the roles of 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 burnt out from juggling all these roles. But it is not only the parents struggling to adjust to this change; the children struggle too. It is difficult for a child to suddenly find their parents roaming the halls and acting as teachers. The parent-to-child relationship differs significantly when compared to the teacher-to-child relationship. This difference involves expectations, communication styles, discipline, and behavioural patterns.

Children have set an expectation of their parental relationships. Suddenly, having your mum sitting beside you and helping you write your report is complex. Children are more likely to rebel, be noncompliant and test their parent's new role as it is unfamiliar. On top of this, some children may struggle to keep up with parental expectations and 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 must use, but also organisational and academic skills. Many 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 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 struggles with online learning, we must figure out how to 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 cannot 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 adapting to the challenges and difficulties we face. It is a concept introduced in schools starting at a young age. A growth mindset focuses 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 their language. 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 regarding 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 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! I asked them what 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 suitable 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. Ask them what they felt worked and did not work last time. Honesty is key, so ask your children if anything could have been set up differently to support them better. This is also a fantastic opportunity to share your worries and expectations with your child. 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. Share your perspective with your child to avoid making assumptions or jumping to conclusions. The last thing you want to be added to your household during this challenging 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 highlights how parents’ perceptions and attitudes towards a child can influence 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 the adolescent years.

You can only find the root cause for certain behaviours through communicating. Is it difficult with sustained attention or 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 constantly 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 cannot change the regulations or tweak your child's natural attentional abilities, but they can improve your child’s sense of self and resiliency.

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Topics: Hong Kong Kids

Rachel Chan Mazariegos

Rachel Chan Mazariegos

Behavioural Therapy & School Neuropsychology