Partnering with Parents for Learning Support in a Pandemic

There are concrete strategies and supports for diverse learners than can be translated into support for online learning, a vital necessity for virtual and home schooling. There are four key areas of focus, all anchored in the first: partnership with parents.

We build those relationships at the best of times, but there has perhaps never been a time when this relationship has been more critical to the success of our students. More than ever, we need parents as partners and allies, because our students need all of us to be on the same page (and screen), working together.

At the same time, teachers and parents working together for the ultimate benefit of students should never mean that they should become dependent on the adults in their lives as learners. On the contrary, much of that great, coordinated adult support around student learning should be aimed at self-monitoring. The more students are able to own and internalize positive learning practices and healthy habits of mind, the more they are able to read their own cognitive, emotional and physical needs independently and self- adjust using the tools and strategies we help them acquire.

This provides the foundation for what educators struggle mightily now to achieve: active participation. Although active participation is what we always aim for, this is a different challenge in the online learning space. Note I say different, but not impossible. The unique aspects of online learning do require some new thinking and adapting of the tools we have in our in-person teaching repertoire.

One principle that may help you make this shift is to think about how to provide concrete learning supports in the virtual world. While the digital platforms may be virtual, we want and need the learning to be real.


The shift to online teaching changed the expectations not only for teachers but for guardians as well. We have all been witness to or heard stories of families attempting to juggle their own professional responsibilities and provide academic support to their children throughout this pandemic. Look at any social media page and you will see memes on this subject that make you laugh (and cry).

The partnership between schools and families right now is vital. As much as we are working to support children, we are being given the challenge to think creatively about how we can also support their guardians. They need our help, and we need theirs.

Have you ever ordered from one of those meal-in-a-box services that gets delivered to your door, which includes each ingredient carefully measured out with step-by-step instructions to assist you in creating a fantastic, gourmet feast? I encourage us to use that same model when helping families to create stable learning environments at home. The small act of sending just a few materials to the home can go a long way with building rapport and providing families with the confidence (and the actual things needed) to set their child up for success. Here are some materials to consider including in your kit:

  • A design checklist of the student’s workspace
  • Focus (fidget) tool
  • Small white board and marker
  • Teaching manipulatives (e.g., snap cubes, dice)
  • A visual outlining expected behavior (much like the posters you had up in your physical classroom)

This kit can also include personalized items for students who may benefit from specific tools. Have fun pulling these kits together, and be confident that families will be truly grateful for your efforts and time.


Behavior analyst Jessica Minihan states that “developing self-monitoring skills reduces unwanted behaviors and empowers students. It’s an important step in helping them learn to cope with challenging moments while being aware of and managing their own behavior.”

In the classroom, remotely and in life in general, we want students to become skillful at reflecting on and regulating their own behavior. To do this, students need ways to monitor their behavior. Now, more than ever, as students learn from home, we are eager for them to become further aware of how their behaviors are affecting both themselves and the people in their learning space. Just as dieters become more aware of what goes into their body when they write it down, when students are given time and prompts to reflect upon and document their own behavior, they become more aware of it.

Many recording systems are available. Some students may do best with a tally system, placing a mark on a paper each time they engage in the targeted behavior. The behavior does not have to be negative; for example, if the issue you are trying to address is the student’s call-outs, have them record how many times they raise their hand, which is the socially appropriate, alternative behavior you are hoping they use.

Some students may do better with a rating system. Have students give themselves a rating at the end of the class on how well they engaged in positive, target behaviors (raising hands, staying in their seat, work completion). To encourage accuracy, the teacher may give a rating as well and the student’s goal is to match your rating. In this way, you work toward mutual trust and honesty.

Even if the student rating is low, you can then provide them with positive praise for matching your rating and encourage a higher rating in the next lesson. A student using a rating system may also benefit from doing a check-in at the beginning of class—setting a goal for what rating they hope to achieve—then rating themselves half-way through and again at the end. This provides a chance for them to reset if things are going poorly.

When implementing self-management systems, it is crucial to have the students’ buy-in. As we of course are aiming at intrinsic motivation, it may be appropriate to introduce and launch the practice by including some kind of tangible reinforcement for participating in the collection of the data, such as access to a preferred activity or mutually agreed upon item contingent on participation, or providing a certificate or feedback of merit. Most importantly, a self-management system, like any tool, requires teaching. While it would be far less time-consuming to give a student a piece of paper and tell them to keep track of their behavior, this, like any academic skill, requires practice, guidance and feedback.


There are many ways to help focus student attention and increase active participation. One example is the use of Academic Bingo Boards for specific subjects. To do this, provide a student with a single sheet of paper with boxes in a Bingo card format and in each box, illustrate words or phrases that are likely to be said by you during the lesson. If you are teaching a lesson about Passover, you might include boxes with the words “Moses,” “Plagues” and “Egypt.” This tool can be used with select students or by the whole class. Either way, students are tasked to listen for those words and place a dot in the box when you say them. Their goal is to fill up the entire page. This can help keep the student focused on the lesson and provides them with a hands-on action to engage in at the same time.



Visual Schedules

For students (and for all of us), knowing what is coming next helps to ease anxiety. The use of a visual schedule is just as important, if not more, in the virtual setting. It empowers people with a feeling of control over their environment and their experience of time.

Placing a visual schedule up on the screen as students log into the class allows them to see the plan for the day. It can also be used as a transition tool by placing it back up on the screen each time you move to another task. I am always amazed to see how a visual schedule, when used to its full potential, can be a powerful preventative strategy for challenging behavior. It helps lower anxiety among those students who are most prone to be anxious. In turn, as their anxiety wanes, so too does their tendency to engage in challenging behaviors.

Fidget (Focus) Tools

Fidget tools are a popular support in classrooms. They are typically used by students as a way to channel their energy and movement in a way that is least distracting to themselves and others, while at the same time helping them to focus on the task at hand. For that reason, I like to call these items focus tools, as that is their purpose, to help students focus.

How do we replicate the use of focus tools during online learning? Have students create a box of 3-5 focus tools that are available to them during online lessons (or include a few in the kit you send home). Should a tool become disruptive to the student or others, the teacher can use a verbal prompt to have the student trade out their item for a new one, by saying, “It looks like that tool is being used as a toy; please switch it out for another approved tool that will help you focus.”

Should the student end up cycling through all the approved tools, a discussion can be had about other ways to help them stay focused. At that point, a new set of materials can be chosen to explore as focus tools, or a different strategy to address concerns about on-task behavior should be explored. A visual outlining the use of focus tools during lessons is also an excellent way to make the expectations of their use clear.


Give yourself permission for hands-on learning to continue in the remote setting. Our homes are filled with creative items that can be used as manipulatives (toys, recyclables, clothespins, toothpicks).

We can also use household items as ways for students to respond (a True/ False sign made from toilet paper roll).

One unique way teachers are having students respond is by having them collect three types of wearable accessories from their home (sunglasses, hat, scarf). Ask them questions and have them put on the item that represents their response: Yes = scarf, No = hat, Maybe = sunglasses. Students are now moving, participating and keeping their hands busy, which means they are less likely to engage in disruptive behavior and more likely to be engaged in learning.


The above strategies and supports can seem overwhelming, and by no means are there any expectations that a teacher would put all of these into effect. But if we can keep two overarching factors in mind, I think we have a better chance of being successful: Continue to implement teaching strategies that you are confident using in-person, now translating them for the virtual space; and “design for the margins.”

Ceasar McDowell, an MIT professor of civic design, coined the term “design for the margins” to illustrate the idea that when you create supports for individuals considered to be the margins of society, it has this beautiful side effect of benefiting everyone. Journalist, author and educator Kara Newhouse further explained that “the idea that creating equitable and flexible design can benefit all members of society undergirds universal design, a concept developed by architect Ronald Mace. Rooted in the disability rights movement, universal design is typically applied to products and the built environment.” McDowell teaches us that these “principles offer a valuable way to reimagine educational spaces, particularly during the coronavirus crisis. With the rapid switch to distance learning, schools struggled to serve students who are at the margins.” At a time when almost all of us are on some margin at some time, what an incredibly empowering and liberating way to approach curriculum design and classroom management in general. Plan for those students with unique learning needs, and you are more likely to be successful with every student.

Explore these options and expand upon them in ways that fit your class and each of your student’s needs. Then pick the one that aligns best with your teaching style and learning culture, and implement it. If you approach curriculum and classroom management through the lens of reaching all learners, coupled with online adjustments to your already existing practices in the classroom, you are setting up everyone, including yourself, for success.

Mia Hyman
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning, School Policies and Procedures
Published: Fall 2020