Tips for Engaging Remote Learners

August 12th, 2020

As schools nationwide moved to a 100% remote learning environment this spring, one of the common struggles I heard from my colleagues was around student engagement. 

As an educator supporting students in a K-12 virtual academy, I understand the seriousness of this, and know how difficult it can be when a student closes their computer and simply walks away. I am the MTSS Coordinator and General Education Psychologist for Oxford Community Schools, MI, which includes Oxford Virtual Academy (OVA). OVA serves nearly 5,000 distance learning students, including full-time, part-time, and shared-time learners (e.g., students enrolled in a different district who require coursework that cannot be accommodated in their home district).

On the one hand, I know that our structure at OVA has some really important differences to the remote learning situations so many schools and districts had to adopt overnight. OVA’s Tier 1 curriculum and programs are intended and optimized for distance learning (as opposed to seated instruction). We have an enrollment process that both ensures students have necessary technology and internet access and establishes a parent or guardian who is willing to serve as a “coach” at home and stay involved in the student’s learning and progress. Those structures help us to more smoothly navigate many of the challenges that caused frustration and stress for so many this spring.

That said, there is a common challenge that OVA very much does share with other schools: supporting engagement with remote learners. For OVA, the need to continually monitor and support student engagement is a critical part of our daily work and routines. Online students can indeed simply close their computer and not respond to emails, and that is the daily reality that we operate in and have worked to support students through for the last ten years. Our team is continually refining how to create structures and strategies to prevent disengagement from happening—and foster re-engagement when it does. If your team is restarting in remote or blended learning in the fall, I hope these engagement tips are helpful and supportive to your team.

Signs of disengagement with remote learners

It’s probably no surprise that the biggest sign of student disengagement is that students stop logging in or making progress with their online classes. However, that behavior is a fairly advanced form of disengagement. We’ve found that disengagement actually tends to be a process.

Before students completely stop logging in, we might see one or more of the following warning signs that a student is starting to struggle or pull away from learning:

  • The student’s quality of work starts to decrease
  • The student starts to express frustration in some of the assignments in their courses
  • The student’s level of effort starts to decrease, perhaps turning in only part of an assignment or quiz or doing the bare minimum of what is required
  • The student replies to teacher emails/texts/call with short responses that often do not address the question or topic posed by the teacher
  • The student show signs that they aren’t enjoying learning

Catching disengagement early on

In remote settings, it can be more difficult to monitor these early indicators than in a seated setting, where educators can physically observe students over time. In order to track and respond to these early signs of disengagement with remote learners, our team follows a few best practices.

Collect data around student’s remote learning attendance and engagement

Essentially, we need enough data to know when shifts in student behavior patterns are happening. As in a seated environment, it can be hard to keep track of patterns when things like attendance and grades aren’t recorded. The same is true in a remote environment. 

In the abrupt shift to 100% remote learning environments, many of us had to rethink how we track and record attendance and engagement. Whether using Google Sheets or a data platform, create a method of documenting when students are engaging. A beginning data focus might be in these three major areas: 1)  Attendance 2) Work Completion 3) Grades. While many of us usually have more data available—both in seated classrooms and remote environments—these three areas can be a reasonable and meaningful start to monitoring student engagement. A system where educators are able to easily collect this information and share across any who are stakeholders (e.g. other teachers, principal, counselor, parents) can help to identify disengagement early. Without a system for collecting this information, it may take weeks or months to identify a student need that could have been noticed in the data across a much shorter period of time.

Lean into MTSS 

OVA absolutely uses our multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) with full-time remote students, and it’s been crucial for us to provide non-academic interventions to support student’s academic success. OVA supports a high number of students who are at-risk or who came to our school because they were having trouble being successful in seated environments—whether that be due to behavioral issues or severe anxiety and depression. Many of our students need a Tier 2 social-emotional or executive functioning (e.g., time management, organization) intervention in order to manage their coursework. For that reason, our MTSS implementation includes Tier 2 interventions that support those needs. Addressing those non-academic needs in turn increases engagement; by addressing those barriers to success, the path is cleared for students to move forward. For those looking for more insights into what those interventions look like, here is a link to our intervention menu, which we are continually refining and enhancing based on student needs.

Communicate with your team

No matter the learning environment, teachers can gain a lot of insights by knowing how students are behaving and engaging in other teachers’ classes—especially at the middle and high school levels. For instance, in a seated environment, a student might be acting out in math but have no behavior incidents in other classes. In a remote environment, a student might be regularly working on their math assessments but consistently avoiding working on ELA assignments. We need a mechanism to share those insights in order for us to make sense of them and take action on them. In seated schools, that mechanism is often informal conversations in passing with colleagues. That mechanism isn’t available in remote environments, so it’s important to deliberately make time for those conversations to happen in other ways.

At OVA, we have weekly or bi-weekly child study meetings that bring together each teacher who works with a student along with our counselors and other support staff. We talk across content areas about the student’s progress and needs and collaborate around possible ways to provide support. We also share how we’ve successfully communicated with a student—maybe they don’t respond to emails but will answer a phone call, or maybe they really need a one-on-one virtual meeting with the teacher in order to stay engaged.

Second, we have structured our teams to include both content teachers and mentor teachers. Content teachers deliver our distance learning curriculum, and the mentor teacher is a primary point of contact for the student across all content areas. This means that each student has an individual who is dedicated to tracking their progress across their coursework, and content teachers have a resource to reach out to when students show lack of engagement. 

Sometimes, we find that there’s an urgent level of concern. Other times, we find that a student is simply focusing on a particular subject area first, but is still highly engaged in learning. Either way, it’s been so important for us to be able to share insights and communicate with each other so we can tailor our communications to the student appropriately.

What to do when remote learners start to disengage

In the instance that we identify students are starting to disengage or have truly disconnected from learning, there are a few strategies we implement right away.

Connect with parents or guardians

A school counselor or principal reaches out to the student’s parents or guardians to help provide wrap-around support right away.  Having some background information about what is happening at home can help us provide the right support, right away, and sometimes be a bit creative about what next steps we take. 

Even in the context of the spring school closures—which caused almost everyone to feel stress, frustration, and a disruption of normal support systems—our students still experienced a variety of home situations. Knowing as much as possible about the student’s learning environment helps us better understand how to support that student.

Focus on connection first

The counselor also reaches out directly to the student, and when they do so, they focus solely on connection. They ensure that the student knows that it won’t be a conversation about assignments, or falling behind, or speeding up progress. It’s a conversation about how the student is doing—nothing else. Building that relationship and being very clear that the student’s well-being is the first priority is a really important step to helping students engage again.

Content teachers will do the same: they’ll focus first on getting back into that sense of engagement and building a trusting relationship. When the student is ready, they’ll move forward with assignments again. As an educator, it can be difficult to take this pause while watching days or weeks pass and wanting desperately to get the student on track, so it’s important to keep in mind that taking a step back is, at times, the best way to do just that: help the student re-engage and get back on track.

Implement social-emotional and executive functioning interventions

When students struggle or begin to disengage, there’s almost always an underlying social-emotional or executive functioning issue (e.g., time management or organization). As mentioned above, OVA has developed a number of Tier 2 interventions to meet those types of needs. For instance, our social worker might meet with a student weekly and go over a time management intervention in which students start by planning various tasks in small increments of time, starting at maybe 10 minute blocks, and then scaffolding up to planning a full week at a time. 

Use mindfulness interventions to help students navigate frustrating situations

Students may also start to disengage when coursework becomes challenging. To support students who are struggling in those situations, we also provide Tier 2 mindfulness interventions. For instance, we’ve found that when many students take a break, they engage in an activity that isn’t very restorative, such as playing video games. So as a Tier 2 intervention, we help kids think through what it means to really take a restorative break and what types of activities make them feel calm and centered. We also help students practice respectful and appropriate communication, even in moments of frustration.

Reconsider which supports should be in Tier 1

As in many districts implementing MTSS, we continually evaluate what’s working in Tier 2 and Tier 3 to identify any high-impact practices that we want to implement at Tier 1 for all students. For instance, one of our Tier 2 interventions in the past has been a weekly check-in via the format the student prefers—a text message, a phone call, a video call, etc. This has been so impactful that we’re adjusting this to be a Tier 1 practice. At the Tier 1 level, every student receives a weekly check-in of their choosing, and we redefined the Tier 2 version of that practice to be a check-in along with some kind of instructional element, such as a social-emotional or executive function intervention.

A lot of our current universal best practices started out in Tier 2. Part of this is due to the fact that newer practices are inherently harder to implement–we don’t have our paperwork or processes in place and haven’t developed the habit of doing those actions. But after some time, those practices become second nature and it becomes much more feasible to roll those actions out universally (plus, those processes will have benefited from the natural refining process around workflows and tools).

Provide acknowledgement

Ensure that you are providing positive feedback around the work students turn in—not only to encourage them, but also, frankly, to show that someone is indeed looking at that work. It’s really hard for adults and children alike to invest in or prioritize work that we believe will never be reviewed or acknowledged. By continually acknowledging the effort students put in, big or small, students see that you’re engaged in their work and in their success. Showing students that you both see and appreciate the work they’re doing, the effort they’re putting, the challenges they’re overcoming, and the growth they’ve made helps them see that work as important.

And, in some cases, it’s just as important to provide acknowledgement to parents or guardians as it is to students. Sending a quick positive note home through email, text, or the mail lets the parent know that you’re invested, you see the good in their child, and it motivates all to keep up the great work. 

Supporting parent engagement

At OVA, there are indeed times in which parents are not physically or emotionally able to be as engaged in their student’s learning as they’d like to be. Even if a parent signed on to be the “home coach” for their child, things can happen in their lives that make that no longer possible—whether that be a job change or significant illness or extreme stress. 

When we see that parents are struggling to engage with their student’s learning, our first step is similar to our first step with a student: reach out, focus on connection, and show support. Kindness and supportiveness go a long way, especially in the context of today’s world, in which parents are juggling both working and teaching from home. By learning more about what’s happening at home for the parents, you’re able to better connect them to resources and supports—whether that be counseling or a local food bank or mindfulness exercise for adults.

Closing

As a parent and an educator, I experienced some challenges this spring that I’ve never had to navigate before. And while our experiences at OVA are not necessarily identical to the experiences of our colleagues across the nation, I hope that these strategies help you navigate some of the challenges that might be new to you as well. 

 

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