What About the Children? Distance Learning That Prioritizes Wellness

Go Back to Journal

Distance learning became the solution many school districts turned to last spring as elected officials and educational leaders began to realize the real threat that the pandemic posed. Weeks of uncertainty turned into months as it became clear that some form of distance learning would be a long-term solution for many districts in areas with surging cases.

The switch to distance learning was a challenge in many ways. Teachers felt ill-equipped to provide instruction using online platforms. There were weeks without clear direction from school leadership in some districts. Some teachers had to set up personal accounts on various platforms in order to continue their classes while others endured hours of professional development to learn a new way of teaching. Teachers worried about students who weren’t logging into online classes and whether they were well. There were general concerns about a lack of technology and Internet access that may be affecting students’ learning experience, food insecurity due to meals no longer being available through the school, and widening achievement gaps due to the switch to distance learning—while at the same time, government officials tried to figure out how to get students back in school. All of this weighed on the teaching profession, causing deep-seated stress and even burnout.

As COVID-19 cases continued to surge over the summer, districts that had lagged behind moved to provide professional development on how to use online platforms, and devices were distributed to students. And then a question reentered our collective space: For those students who had lost three months of learning, how could we get them caught up in an online environment? The answer for many districts was to fit in as much direct instruction into the school day as possible and then assign hours of homework. Once school started in the fall, I listened to the experiences that teachers and students’ parents had with this approach, and I realized that an important voice was missing from this conversation: How many districts had asked the children what they needed in order to learn? What about the children? What experiences have they lived through while learning during this pandemic that could inform our focus and pedagogy moving forward? Their current reality goes deeper than what our graphs and spreadsheets tell us, and what our curriculum maps can address. If we want to help students navigate distance learning, we need to listen to what they have to say so school doesn’t become another source of trauma in their lives.

A Youth Truth Survey (2020) of over 20,000 K–12 students across nine states was conducted after students had experienced three months of distance learning in the spring. While half of the students surveyed asserted that they viewed their relationships with their teachers as positive, their sense of belonging and connectedness with their school community had disappeared. Seventy percent of students reported at least one obstacle to learning, and the top three obstacles listed by students were distractions while learning from home; feeling depressed, stressed, or anxious; and not having adult help available. Black and Latino students reported more obstacles than Asian and White students. For lower income students, there were more reports of limited to no access to technology and the Internet. When questioned about their health and well-being, students reported they were sleeping less and not as physically active. They were spending less time outdoors, not eating regular meals, and not connecting with friends. Female and non-binary gender students reported more mental health and well-being struggles than male students. And despite reporting that they are able to complete assignments, only half of the students surveyed thought those assignments helped them learn.

Listening to Students

Educators will not be able to make distance learning work to students’ benefit until their immediate needs are met. At the district level, following up on families that are not engaged and conducting needs assessments should take place, making resources available that will lessen their worries about shelter and food. This will help relieve some of the stress students in these families are experiencing and allow them to focus more of their mental energy on learning. For example, one Massachusetts school district has their bus drivers do daily lunch drop-offs. During the morning break, students walk to the bus stop to get their midday meal. Also, ensuring continuity in support services such as guidance, social work, 504 accommodations, and special education is crucial.

At the classroom level, we can meet students’ needs for belonging and connection, find relevance in their work, and provide academic support by considering what worked in the past and reimagining how it can work with distance learning. It has long been the position of Center for Responsive Schools and the Responsive Classroom approach that students’ social and emotional learning is as important as their academic learning. What the data tells us is that student wellness (including social-emotional learning) should be our top priority. Without focusing on students’ wellness, there isn’t a clear path to academic gains because students who are sleepy, hungry, anxious, lonely, uninspired, and unsupported won’t do their best learning. Nor does academic planning steeped in a deficit mindset produce the most favorable outcomes. However, leading with empathy does work, and we can leverage students’ experiences to create safe spaces for connection, community support, dialogue, and differentiated academic instruction.

Belonging and Connection

The findings of researchers such as Abraham Maslow, Rudolf Dreikers, and Alfred Adler suggest that belonging, significance, and fun are needs of every human being. The pandemic presents challenges in meeting these needs. For example, there have been many examples of people ignoring stay-at-home orders to meet these needs during a pandemic. Children are no different, and there are those who would prefer to attend school in person, despite the risks. We can help address students’ loneliness and depression by structuring the online school day to include time for Morning Meeting or Responsive Advisory Meeting, closing circle, and interactive learning structures that allow them to talk with one another while they learn. In addition, collaborative projects and virtual extracurricular activities can provide opportunities for students to connect with classmates and friends. For example, student-run clubs can meet virtually and continue to provide community support. Schools can get creative and plan virtual pep rallies and dances, much like the deejays who organize pop-up parties on social media. A school in Memphis, Tennessee, had a Halloween drive-through event. Students were encouraged to ride through the school parking lot in their costumes to get a glimpse of their friends and have their bags filled with candy while maintaining social distancing guidelines.

Curriculum and Pedagogy

Students not seeing the value in their schoolwork is not a new challenge. Responsive Classroom’s work has been devoted to helping teachers bring the following elements into focus when planning lessons and student tasks: active and interactive learning, purposeful and appropriately challenging work, content that leverages students’ strengths and interests (which includes being culturally responsive), and autonomy/control. One way to engage students is to invite discussions and learning that center around topics they care about. For example, an eighth grade art teacher facilitating a
Socratic seminar about a local artists’ mural of George Floyd, or a second grade teacher reading aloud Something Happened in Our Town (police brutality) or Maddi’s Fridge (food insecurity), will help students see that we as educators are aware of the challenges communities are facing and that we want to help them understand these issues while finding healthy ways to unpack their anxiety and fear. Reading, discussion groups, and writing prompts create opportunities for students to get information from reliable sources and express themselves in positive ways while they meet the academic learning targets set by our districts (such as stating the main idea, personal narrative and opinion writing, studying the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights). Providing time for breakout sessions and collaborative work will result in students doing most of the talking and, as a result, most of the learning. Having students work together will address the need for social interaction while helping them grow in key social and emotional competencies such as cooperation, assertiveness, and empathy. Connecting students’ daily lives and interests with relationship-building through interactive work and perspective-taking will encourage students to be more invested in learning and more likely to attend virtual classes.

Academic Support

Because we are now more aware of the barriers to distance learning, we know it’s important to make the most of the time we have with students during the virtual school day. The responsibility of teaching and monitoring student success lies with the teacher—not with the student or the parent. With this in mind, it’s important to consider limiting homework or making it optional and instead provide time for independent and collaborative work during the school day. After a long school day online, this would provide students a chance to enjoy the outdoors, get family errands done, care for siblings—in short, an opportunity to recharge and get ready for the next day of online learning. Another benefit of more active and interactive learning during the school day is the opportunity to reduce teacher talk time in the classroom and allow more time to observe and coach students as they work. Online program features such as breakout rooms and screen-sharing give teachers the opportunity to have individual and small group conferences, which will allow us to conduct formative assessments and gather data for lesson and intervention planning.

A day of online learning can be exhausting, which is why it is important to build in energizers and extended breaks. Looking at the lesson plans and finding places where a transition could include an energizer or an independent task will help divide the day into 1½ to 2 hour blocks and help prevent virtual fatigue.

Even with all of these proactive strategies in place, we may find students still aren’t meeting expected learning targets. It’s important in these instances to employ the same practices we would use when teaching in person and find new ways to support struggling students. In our physical classrooms, we would differentiate instruction for a student by modifying the content, process, product, or learning environment. In a distance learning environment, this might mean abandoning a lecture-style approach and instead using project-based, small-group learning in breakout rooms while we circulate and ask open-ended questions. For students who might need help after class, Zoom office hours or a homework hotline email or chat room can be set up. Classroom blogs can be created to allow students to post questions and share strategies for solving problems, which will also get the whole community involved in supporting one another.

Because students are dealing with so much outside of school, it’s important to convey concern and curiosity about any issues that come up and offer them support. For example, in the event homework is not submitted on time, consider extending the time for completion. While extending a due date is one way to respond, another approach may be to conduct a needs assessment of students before deciding on out-of-class assignments. Giving students plenty of notice before assignments outside of class will also help them plan ahead and prepare. Finally, a biweekly “temperature check” in the form of Morning Meeting or Responsive Advisory Meeting sharing or an online survey can keep educators abreast of how students are really doing and whether school is meeting their needs.

We are living through one of the worst crises in our country’s educational history. The year 2020 has brought loss and disillusionment to many of the families we serve. School traditionally has been a place of refuge for children in difficult times, and it can be now as well if we educate with empathy. By prioritizing students’ wellness, we can show the best of who we are and invite the best of who students can be.


  • Brandt, L. (2014). Maddi’s fridge (V. Vogel, Illus.). Flashlight Press.
  • Celano, M., Collins, M., & Hazzard, A. (2018). Something happened in our town (A child’s story about racial injustice) (J. Zivoin, Illus.). Magination Press.
  • Youth Truth Survey. (2020 August 11). Students weigh in: Learning and well-being during COVID-19. [Online discussion.] https://youthtruthsurvey.org/student-weigh-in/