Virtual Learning for Elementary Students: Does It Really Work?

Oct 23, 2023
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Whenever someone pictures individualized, completely online instruction, they typically picture an older student working alone at a computer at home. But, can elementary students benefit from this type of instruction too?

As technology has advanced and as our own cultural norms have shifted, we've learned to fully embrace remote work. Many of today's “office” workers don't report to an office at all, and yet, when we think about virtual learning for our youngest learners, we have a hard time conceptualizing what does that look like? What does it mean for a student not to go into a physical school building? Technology and cultural norms are shifting to embrace this—let’s explore some of the ways that virtual learning works for elementary students.

Virtual Learning Is NOT Just a Student and a Computer

The first thing is that many of us grew up in a very analog world. We went to school, perhaps took one or two, if any, remote classes when students. Most of our exposure to virtual learning environments has been a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic, where we needed to rapidly adjust to learning from home out of necessity over choice. So, it’s understandable that it might be difficult to conceptualize virtual education for an elementary learner that isn't a child sitting with a computer all day long.

However, if you look into virtual learning environments today you'll see a thriving community with synchronous sessions, more time for students to do what they want, and ways to experience learning without the conformity aspects of a usual brick-and-mortar school experience: waiting for lunch, standing in line, raising one’s hand to go to the bathroom, etc. So, in a sense, virtual learning can give our youngest learners a more flexible educational experience.

They can focus on education when and how they need it. Can you sit quietly with your hand in your lap? Because, let's face it, some of our children struggle with those things, but that has nothing to do with how successful or how capable they are as learners.

Virtual Learning Is Great Fit for Some—But Not All—Students

To get a better idea of if your young learner will succeed in a virtual learning environment, it’s important to have a full understanding of your child. Not all students are going to be a right fit for the online model. It really depends on a number of factors, the most important being: can an adult be home with that child in order to facilitate the virtual model? It’s important not to leave children alone all day with the computer. You need an adult to be there, and one who the child will listen to.

There are children who will listen to everything attentively, and there are children who need more guidance and attention to stay engaged. Some students need more structure than others, and they often thrive with the hustle and bustle of school; but others don't. They key is to understand your each child to make the call about whether a virtual model is right.

There's one important caveat here: if it's not right for students, it may not be right, right now. And vice versa. Things change, and going into a online model is not a lifelong commitment. The doors are always open on both ends. What works for you now may not be what works next year. Find a way forward with students as you go because there are so many benefits to virtual learning that are worth exploring.

Virtual Learning Has Multiple Benefits

There are other reasons why a student may not succeed in a traditional brick and mortar model. Some students experience increased anxiety with fire drills or safety drills. Others may not be able to sit still all day. We ask five- and six-year-olds to sit still and stay quiet and listen for seven to eight hours every day, and sometimes, that's just not developmentally appropriate. Virtual learning can give the space that these children need.

Virtual schools can also be a place where students build meaningful relationships with educators. In a virtual model, students are still building relationships with teachers, and often, they have multiple teachers who specialize in each of the content areas interacting with them. As a result, there's more opportunity for students to grow and learn from multiple adults in their lives, and it's easier to get targeted help within the virtual learning model. The data reporting is there—teachers can see almost instantaneously how a student is doing and respond quickly.

Virtual learning may not be the right fit for every elementary student, but when executed with proven strategies, support, and wraparound services, your youngest learners stand to make amazing gains! Looking for tools and resources to help make sure you and your students will be successful with your virtual, hybrid or blended learning program? Check out our Hybrid and Virtual Learning Success Toolkit.

This post was originally published February 2020 and has been updated.

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