Canada·In Depth

Kids who didn't take to online learning are falling behind. Here's what parents can do

Fatigued by online learning amid the ongoing pandemic, many parents worry their kids are falling behind when it comes to school. Here's how some experts suggest tackling that.

'We're going to have to go back to the basics with our kids,' says one mental health expert

Noah Valentine poses in front of a birthday cake wearing a T-shirt that says: 'COVID-19 ruined my 14th birthday.' (Submitted by Sharie Valentine)

Noah Valentine thought he'd get caught when he started using bot extensions to automatically join his online classes for him. But as the weeks stretched on from December to February, none of the teachers in his program noticed he wasn't really there.

"There was a time period where things got really dark and I just didn't have any motivation," said the 15-year-old Edmonton student. 

Noah said he didn't build any software himself; he just combined multiple bots so that his computer would join each class, say "hi" when his name was called for attendance, and then sign off when the class was over.

"No one picked up on it. I was really surprised, because I thought it'd be obvious that somebody was just sitting there for 45 minutes not answering anything. That, like, is not real."

Noah is enrolled in Alberta's full-time online learning option, which he says is "void of any connection." His grades have slipped from being in the 90s to him essentially failing Grade 9, said his mother, Sharie Valentine. 

She said she had a conversation with Noah about the potential consequences when he told her about the bots. "But I listened to some of his classes … and it was like, 'I don't blame him. This is really boring.'"

Connection — that thing Noah said his classes were missing — is one of the most important parts of life for children and adolescents, mental health and education experts say.

Connection to peers is often what keeps high schoolers interested in school, and close personal relationships are key to development in younger kids, according to Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, an associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier University and co-author of Pushing the Limits: How Schools Can Prepare Our Children Today for Tomorrow's Challenges.

And experts say connection is also the thing that will get kids interested in school again and help them heal from the isolation of COVID-19.

Christina Fiorda and her 10-year-old son Aiden pose for a selfie. (Submitted by Christina Fiorda)

Aiden Caranci, of Maple, Ont., is another young student who hasn't been able to adjust to online learning. The 10-year-old has autism and is nonverbal, but he recently learned to communicate through pictures using a tablet-like device.

"When we tried to do online [school] — forget it, like, that's not even possible," said Aiden's mom, Christina Fiorda. "If I got my computer out, he would say, 'Uh uh.'"

Now, it's a win when Aiden can do 15 or 20 minutes of online lessons with the help of his behavioural therapist, Fiorda said. He was previously attending school two days a week.

The social progress Aiden had made through years of therapy has been wiped out during the pandemic, Fiorda said. He now hides whenever anyone comes to their house. She's also worried that he and his sister will always associate school with confusing changes, wearing masks and worrying about a virus.

So what can parents and caregivers do?

'Go back to the basics'

Children and teens need to get comfortable interacting with other people face to face again, said Mellanie Fraser, the mental health co-ordinator and a counselling therapist with Alberta's Fort McMurray Public School District.

She's counselled students, parents and teachers through the region's devastating wildfire and flood, its economic downturn and now COVID-19. 

"We're going to have to go back to the basics with our kids and turn off our computers, turn off our TVs and our videos, and just talk to our kids and teach them how to respond to interaction," said Fraser.

Listen to your child talk about whatever they want to talk about, she suggested, even if it's Pokemon or video games. That will help them adjust to once again reading body language and other cues we don't always see through online interactions. 

It'll also teach them that you're a safe person to talk to, which means they'll be more likely to turn to you for support the next time they're struggling, Fraser said.

Nancy Marchese, a psychologist and board-certified behaviour analyst at Breakthrough Autism, is shown in this 2016 file photo. (CBC)

Nancy Marchese is a psychologist and board-certified behaviour analyst at Breakthrough Autism in Richmond Hill, Ont., where Aiden Caranci receives therapy.

She said she strongly recommends sending kids to camp this summer, if possible, or setting up safe outdoor gatherings with another child from their class before school restarts in September.

"Social isolation has been very challenging for children, including children on the [autism] spectrum," said Marchese. "I think we need to factor that in: how do we help support children on a social level?"

Fraser also cautioned that some kids will say they want to continue online learning in September because they're anxious about dealing with peers and teachers again. But she said parents who agree to that risk making their child's social anxiety "into a bigger monster."

Speak highly of your child's potential

Some parents may be surprised to learn how they can involve themselves most effectively in their child's education.

Parents can do more through "soft involvement" — like expressing high expectations for their child and encouraging good work habits — than through things like helping with homework, said Gallagher-Mackay. 

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It also helps to speak respectfully about teachers and the value of education, and to point out ways that school lessons apply to the real world, she said.

"There are really good reasons why parents sometimes are furious at the school system. But when home and school can be on the same page … that tends to foster learning."

Focus on the fun

Marchese said focusing on the fun parts of school will help kids with special needs get back into their routine.

A child who loves music would benefit from joining their online class for five minutes, when there's a song, for instance, even if they can't handle staying for the whole lesson.

This strategy can work during the last week of school in June or at the beginning of the year in September. 

"Let's start re-associating school with all the great stuff that school is," she said.

Chill out about studying …

Both Fraser and Gallagher-Mackay said parents should try not to worry too much about short-term academic outcomes, like a few bad grades.

Working with teachers to plan for a little bit of "just-in-time catch-up" before September could be more effective than spending all summer reviewing lots of material, said Gallagher-Mackay.

It's more important for young people to feel connected to family members and peers right now than to catch up academically, added Fraser. She said when parents tell her they plan to get a tutor, she challenges them on it: "Is that your pressure and stress, or is that for your child?"

"Your child needs to be socialized. Your child needs to know what it's like to play," she said.

… but save credits if you still can

One exception to this is for kids who are failing a class or their whole year; families should do what they still can to save those credits, said Gallagher-Mackay. Many teachers are being flexible this year and will likely accept late work.

She said research has found that repeating courses is associated with negative outcomes later on, like dropping out of high school.

"I think the theory is that … we don't learn when we think we're bad at things," said Gallagher-Mackay. "Kids learn better when we play to their strengths."


Emma Paling is a senior writer with CBC News in Toronto. She edits stories for CBC's world news section and writes articles about climate change, health and general news. Emma previously worked as a reporter at HuffPost Canada, where she covered Ontario politics. Reach her at