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Virtual Learning Is Difficult. But Is It Too Much to Handle?

Here are some age appropriate considerations for parents.

Mohamad Hassan / pixabay
Source: Mohamad Hassan / pixabay

By Genevieve Yang, M.D., and Timothy Rice, M.D.

When COVID-19 forced schools to go virtual this past spring, reported declines in learning performance were not surprising. A recent study showed math and English/language arts outcomes suffer most when students switch to virtual instead of on-site learning.

As a result, many parents, along with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), have pushed for the return of in-person classes. Yet, in the present uncertain environment, there is a real possibility of a sharp rise in infections in areas with mounting cases, or a second wave in the few states experiencing a decline in cases.

In other words, in-person learning may remain a public health hazard for most children, not to mention unsafe for teaching staff.

Yet, if classrooms remain virtual, what can neuroscience and psychology advise us about the inevitable struggles of the youngest learners?


Young children are easily distracted. Especially before the age of 11, their brains have not developed the hardware (yet) for maintaining focus. Adults must step in to help.

In traditional classroom settings, the simplest accommodations for young children who cannot focus on their own are in-person instructors intervening to re-direct wandering attention. While difficult for working families, these children now taking online classes still need adults to redirect and maintain their attention.

What can parents do?

Eliminate distractions

Young children’s distractions are things that promise instant gratification: food, pets, toys, colorful cartoons, or socializing with other household members, for example. Early school-aged children think in the short-term about both rewards and punishments; they focus on instant rewards and cannot tolerate discomfort very long. Parents should eliminate all household distractions in the room where the child engages in remote learning.

Pick developmentally appropriate rewards

As children get older (usually by age 11), they’re able to consider more complex or longer-term goals. They can think about the longer-term consequences of their actions and factor in the contexts for their decisions.

For example, snatching from the cookie jar when Mom isn’t watching will have a different result than doing so when she is. Very young children may not realize this, but older children do.

For elementary school children, appropriate rewards might include favorite foods, a quick walk outside with a parent after completing an assignment during a break before the next one; or playtime with pets.

Middle-school-aged children are also interested in social rewards, like impressing their parents, teachers, or friends. Praise and supporting self-esteem are especially important at this stage. Make sure your child knows how much you value and admire his or her continuing effort at learning and look for opportunities to "catch” your child doing things you can praise (such as their homework). Consider rewarding learning efforts with additional time permitted to socialize with friends.

By remaining sensitive to your child’s phase of development, you can design more appropriate incentives to complete schoolwork.

Lack of social reward, lack of engagement

For many young children, schoolwork is not inherently rewarding, and much of their interest in school involves social rewards such as socializing with friends in class. Others are motivated to impress an encouraging teacher who supports their self-esteem — a social reward that motivates engagement with schoolwork. By age 13, children typically begin to value the opinions of peers more than adults, but this trend subsides as they get older.

Virtual learning removes many of these socially rewarding interactions that motivate learning. As a case in point, 41 percent of American teens reported in a recent Common Sense Media poll that they hadn't attended a single online or virtual class since schools went virtual.

Find opportunities to praise your child for their efforts and remind them how much you value and are proud of their hard work. Then set expectations that ongoing engagement in schoolwork is a necessary prerequisite for socializing with friends.


  • Virtual learning presents challenges to children and their parents.
  • Parents need to acknowledge these challenges.
  • Consider the challenge an opportunity to bond with your child and help them.
  • Be sensitive to your child’s level of development. It is not realistic to expect an elementary-school-aged child to stay on task for longer than 15 minutes unmonitored; children typically develop a better ability to stay on task starting in 6th grade.
  • Adjust your expectations, help them stay on task, and motivate them.
  • Eliminate distractions as much as possible.
  • Consider creative social incentives.

With continued societal recovery and hard work, in-person school will be back in session soon.

About the authors:

Dr. Genevieve Yang received her M.D. from Yale in 2018 and is currently a research track psychiatry resident at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Dr. Yang also completed a Ph.D. in Neuroscience at Yale, where she studied computational neuroscience and functional magnetic resonance neuroimaging biomarkers in schizophrenia patients. At Mount Sinai, she plans to engage in neuroimaging-based cognitive reappraisal and neurofeedback research.

Timothy Rice, M.D., is an adult and child and adolescent psychiatrist in practice in New York, NY. He is currently the co-chair of the World Federation of Societies of Biological Psychiatry’s Task Force on Men’s Mental Health, where he focuses on safety and risk factor reduction with male children, adolescents, and young men. He is a member of the Association for Child Psychoanalysis, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, as well as the American Psychoanalytic Association, where he is Chair of the Child Advocacy Committee. His professional and research interests include the promotion of health and well-being in youth populations.