We have a 3-year-old daughter, a 16-year-old son, and a bunch of 20-somethings who live in our multi-family home. Whether they were brought home in a car seat, or they drove themselves to our door, we consider them all our “kids.” I guess you could say my husband and I don’t believe family is just a biological relationship. For us, family is made up of the people you choose to love.
I’m telling you this because I’m trying to set the scene.
I’m a mother and an educator who really wants to support learning for each of my kids, but I don’t know where to start and, honestly, I’ve been feeling pretty lost lately. Like most people, I’ve never done this before. I’ve never had to help someone learn while living in social isolation.
My go-to strategy for most things learning-related is the Universal Design for Learning framework (UDL) framework. UDL outlines concrete steps educators can take to design environments or curriculum to increase engagement in learning. Within UDL there are some key checkpoints I typically focus on when I want to engage kids. Strategies like removing distractions and minimizing threats (Checkpoint 7.3); creating structures to build collaboration and community (Checkpoint 8.3); and providing students with autonomy and choice (Checkpoint 7.1) have all worked really well for me in the past.
But how do I do that now?
How do I remove the familiar distractions — like Xbox, TV, snacks, pets, the bed, the shower, or siblings — all inherent and comforting aspects of home? How do I minimize the very real threat of COVID-19? How do I give my children a sense of control, in a world that feels incredibly off-balance to me? How do I help them build community when we have to stay in isolation?
Like so many things lately, I found the answers by returning to basics. Universal design comes from the field of architecture. In the 1970s, buildings were often constructed without any consideration for the needs of individuals with disabilities. Instead of trying to create expensive and often unattractive retrofits to create structures that could be accessed by everyone, designers started developing new approaches that allowed everyone access from the start.
For example, today we have ramps leading to main entryways, instead of side entrances that leave people who need them feeling like an afterthought. This movement has stuck, because what researchers and designers have come to realize is that when we create spaces this way, we don’t just help people with disabilities, but we end up creating more accessibility for everyone. Automatic doors at grocery stores, for instance, help people pushing carts, strollers, carrying bags, and people in wheelchairs.
UDL comes from that same architectural movement. UDL was founded on the idea that we should start with variability, and then design from there!
So that’s what I did. I decided the best way I could support my kids was to remember that they are each very different and that I should account for that variability in my thinking as I attempt to engage them in learning.
And, it’s working!
For instance, my 3-year-old keeps asking when she can see her friends at school. I’ve settled on telling her that we can go back to school once all the “germs” are gone. Honestly, I have no idea how much of this she understands. But she has started brushing her teeth more, insisting that she is “killing the germs.” Instead of going to school we play “pretend” school where we practice writing letters, and have Zoom calls with her friends during which everyone takes turns reading books.
My 16-year-old has retreated to Xbox, where he says he can socialize with his friends and get rid of anxiety. At first, I left him alone. I believed him when he told me he was completely finished with all his work and had turned in each assignment. He hadn’t.
In fact, what he had done was basically checked out of online learning. So, I intervened. Now each morning we go over his assignments for the day, outlining what needs to get done and which online meetings he needs to attend. His engagement with school has noticeably increased. I see a direct connection between the number of times he “sees” teachers and the number of assignments he turns in.
For this reason, we have set up regularly occurring meetings with each of his teachers at least once a week. Unfortunately, some of these meetings occur while I am working and on Zoom, so I can’t guarantee he attends them all. But he is turning in more assignments and is at least more engaged.
My 23-year-old son is finishing his final credits at Mount Wachusett Community College. The most noticeable impact COVID-19 has had for him is the total change in his sleeping patterns. I finally addressed this with him directly and he admitted that he is feeling weighed down by the incredible loss of control over his life.
We discussed how staying up until 5 a.m. and then sleeping until noon the next day might be adding to these negative feelings. Together we resolved to get outside more, do more yard work, have family game night/meetings on Sunday evenings, and use melatonin to reestablish a more productive sleep pattern. Fortunately, his professors were incredibly supportive and reached out to him before things got out of control. Now, he is all caught up and feels good about his grades.
I don’t know what age students you have living at home; I don’t know what age students you are trying to teach or engage remotely. But, I do know this: They are all different. Just like with my own kids, understanding that variability and trying to design for it from the start will help. It will help even in the middle of a pandemic.