McNerney: Dealing with Distance Learning—Staying Engaged in Online Classes

By Neil McNerney, Parenting With Purpose

We, as parents, are in uncharted territory with distance learning. Since our generation has never experienced learning in this way, we are making it up as we go along. Fortunately, learning experts have begun seeing certain trends and have been developing suggestions on how to make the best of our new situation. In this month’s column, I will share some tips and ideas that will ease some of the stress and exhaustion of our new learning environment.

Reduce visual exhaustion during lessons.Humans, like many other mammals, are very aware of each other’s facial expressions. There is a lot to learn from someone’s state of mind by looking at their face. This is an excellent skill, but it takes lots of mental energy. Usually, during a classroom lesson, a student is only paying attention to one person’s face—the teacher. The default view for Google Classroom tends to be tiled view, where a student is able to see up to 16 or more classmates. This can cause mental fatigue in students. I would suggest that students use Spotlight view, which spotlights the speaker only, usually the teacher.

Don’t look at other screens during breaks.Typically, at school, students will be looking at the teacher, the board, or other students during active instruction. During breaks, they will check their phones. During distance learning, try to spend as little time on the phone during breaks. It is important to look at something else than an illuminated screen. Getting our eyes to look at something much further away decreases visual exhaustion.

Set up your equipment to reduce strain.We know there are certain setups that will enhance the distance learning process:

  1. Any window should be beside you, not in front or behind you. Having a window in front of your face increases eye strain and having the window behind you increases screen glare.
  2. Raise up the screen if possible. Looking down at a Chromebook all day will cause neck strain. Raising up the Chromebook, even a few inches, can help with this.
  3. Tilt screen back about 10-15 degrees. This will reduce screen glare.
  4. Use a humidifier in the “classroom,” especially directed toward your face. It will decrease eye dryness. As our houses become dryer, this will be essential.

Try to mimic the classroom as much as possible. Try not to multitask. Imagine that you are in the actual classroom. Don’t check your phone during live instruction. Only have tabs open that deal with school.

Print assignments and readings, if possible.With the amount of screen reading happening, it’s a good idea to try to reduce, if possible, the amount of reading that happens on screens.

Move around more.During a typical in-person school day, students move around quite a bit. During distance learning, there are few natural opportunities to get up, change classes, and walk around. It’s easy to just stay seated between classes. It’s a good idea to be more intentional with getting up and moving around. The simple action of going up and down a flight of steps 2-3 times will do a great deal of good in refocusing attention and being able to keep at it.

Do you have other tips and techniques that you would like to share? If so, please let me know and I would be happy to share on my Facebook page.

Neil McNerney

Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor and author of “Homework – A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out!”and “The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s.” He can be reached at

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