Image: CNBC, 2019

This is the fourth in a series of posts on online learning in the (k-12) school sector.

The first is: What needs to be done about online learning in the school sector? 1. An introduction.

The second is: Online learning and (k-12) schools: 2. Technology and cost issues

The third is: Online learning and (k-12) schools: do we need a different curriculum for online learning?

Challenges for parents

The emergency response to Covid-19 when students had to stay and study at home highlighted both the importance of schools, besides being places of learning, and the challenges for parents, particularly but not exclusively working parents. Much of the research into the impact of emergency remote learning highlighted the stress this placed on many parents, especially when they had to make a choice between sending their children to school or opting for online learning.

It is important to state at the beginning of this post then that I believe all children should be able to attend school full-time, if at all possible, for many different reasons, such as social development, a safe place to be when parents are out working, and a range of cultural and sporting activities that would be difficult to do at home, as well as the importance of learning with skilled, trained teachers and other students.

Nevertheless, there are important roles for parents (whether working or not) in supporting online learning. I will argue that these roles need to be clearly defined and communicated, not only for emergency remote learning, but also for any work to be done at home as part of regular schooling. 

At the same time, this will be a short post, because the role of parents supporting online learning need not be a great deal different from what they would be doing anyway, with some exceptions. I have also been greatly assisted in this post by my wife, who is an experienced special education teacher who works closely with parents.

General learning support

There is a lot of research going back to the 1960s which emphasises the importance of parents in their child’s learning. The Plowden Report (1967) in the U.K. recognised that parents play a vital part in the early development of children and that there is an association between parental encouragement and children’s educational performance (based on a lengthy statistical analysis of research conducted for the Plowden Commission).

Parental encouragement can take many forms, but some examples are as follows:

  • talking to children about their school work
  • asking questions of the child, and discussing the answers
  • listening to what they have to say about their school work
  • reading with children
  • general encouragement to pursue a particular interest (inside or outside of school work).

All such examples apply just as much to emergency remote learning. In addition though, online learning will require some additional help.

Supporting online learning

The most valuable things parents can do is to provide students with a regular structure for studying at home. In particular (and somewhat dependent on the age of the student):

  • a regular (and if possible a dedicated) space to do their studying that is as free as possible from distractions (for some useful advice on this, click here)
  • regular times for study (online or other, such as reading school books and doing other study activities), interspersed with breaks for relaxation and play. There needs to be some flexibility, but children/students should get used to a regular rhythm in their studying at home (to stop arguments, these times should be negotiated with the child, and once agreed, should be posted on the fridge door, then followed.) This is why it is particularly important that teachers have a clear idea of the amount of home study time expected and that this is communicated to students and parents
  • some help in setting up a computer or tablet for study, in conjunction with instructions from the school. This may mean putting the learning management system url in the bookmarks folder, helping set up passwords, and some general help with computer operation (although in some cases the child may know more than the parent!); if together with the student parents have difficulties setting up or connecting, they should contact the teacher – or school IT specialist if there is one – for help. Pre-loading specific software or resources on loaned tablets, or distributing flash drives, can be helpful for families without adequate computer access or skills
  • ensuring that when online, the student is focusing on school work at the set times, and especially is not accessing unsuitable sites
  • checking on deadlines and regular submission of work
  • communicating with the teacher if students are really stuck and don’t know what to do.

If teachers require students to do home-based project work, parents can help with providing appropriate materials or tools, and supervision if necessary. Maybe they could help with for instance the production of a short mobile phone video to demonstrate the student’s work. 

Parents should NOT do the child’s home work

There are several reasons for this. The most important is that the student is the one who has to learn, and parents can’t do that for them. The second is that it is easy to confuse a child if the parent asks them to do something that is different from what the teacher is asking of them.

So parents should by all means answer questions or discuss issues with the child, but the child must be the one who decides what to write or report back to the school, and the child has to do the necessary studying and thinking to complete learning tasks. Learning to be responsible for our own learning is a really important skill for everyone to develop, and parents should help their children to do this by making them do the work and not directly teaching them.

It is a fine line to walk between parents providing encouragement and support, attempting to be a teacher, or doing the student’s work, so schools should provide clear guidelines on the role of parents and the support they should provide for students studying at home. (This would be useful even without emergency remote learning).


It is really important to set up the online learning component so that it is as self-sustaining as possible. Most parents are not trained as teachers or computer support technicians and during a pandemic they have many other concerns as well as their children’s studying.

Thus excellent communication is necessary between school, teachers, parents, and students. In particular, the role of parents in supporting their children’s learning at home should be clearly spelled out (and preferably negotiated, especially during a pandemic). This is good policy with or without a pandemic. Parents can make the difference between successful online learning and a stressful, disastrous experience for everyone, but they need help and guidance from the school.


Central Advisory Council for Education) (1967) Children and their Primary Schools London: HMSO (The Plowden Report)

Up next

Creating an appropriate culture of learning online.


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