When The Best Thing You Can Do for a Student is Back Off

Let’s cut these kids some slack.

back off students

A teenager sits outside a Subway with a laptop. His dad’s work is in danger of shutting down, so having Internet access at home isn’t a priority right now. Now he sits on the sidewalk, trying to do his work and keep from getting behind. And all I can think is, “What are we having him do that’s so important that he’s outside a fast-food restaurant to access Wi-Fi? Can’t we just give him a break?” 

Widespread school closures are unprecedented, and everyone is trying desperately to find their footing—kids as well as teachers. As educators, our default reaction when students fall behind tends to be to jump in and want to hold them accountable. But I’m suggesting that, in this time of crisis, sometimes the best thing we can do is to back off students. 

Recognize barriers

Equity has become even more of an issue with the move to distance learning. Not all students have access to the technology required for online learning. Kids who do have devices may have to share them with family members. Reliable Wi-Fi or even Internet access at all are not givens. Many kids have parents who are working and are unable to help them with the educational content much less troubleshoot tech issues.

Kids who already faced obstacles to learning (special education students, English language learners, students experiencing homelessness) may now find those challenges insurmountable. They may not be getting their regular support services and lack accommodations to make online school work for them.

Accept that school isn’t everyone’s number one priority

Many families are being economically impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and have had to prioritize their financial survival. Food security is also a primary concern. Older students may be providing childcare for younger siblings or performing other household management tasks that keep them from participating in online schooling.

Be trauma-informed

This is a scary time. Kids have real fears about coronavirus and are feeling the same anxiety and stress as adults. There are concerns around being quarantined and the uncertainty of our constantly evolving situation. Students who have experienced other trauma may find it even more difficult to cope, especially if home isn’t a safe and supportive place for them.

Provide flexible options

So what do we do? When it comes to placing demands on students in any of these situations, we need to back off. Avoid complicated assignments that could overwhelm kids with other responsibilities. Record your online learning sessions so students can watch them at their convenience. Send hard copies of materials to those without access to technology. Find alternative methods for working toward students’ IEP goals.

Continue caring

The last thing we want is for kids to fall through the cracks, especially at a time when they’re so vulnerable. Backing off students doesn’t mean we stop loving and caring for them. It means we’re calling and checking in. We’re providing as much of a safety net as we can. And we’re prioritizing their physical and mental health. If that means letting go of uncompleted work, then that’s what we have to do. 

How are you supporting struggling students? Come and share in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.

Plus, Kids (and Teachers) Don’t Need to Spend 8 Hours a Day on School Work Right Now.

When The Best Thing You Can Do for a Student is Back Off

Posted by Kimmie Fink

Kimmie is an editor at WeAreTeachers. She has 13 years of classroom teaching experience and a master's degree in curriculum and instruction.

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