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Distance Learning
Aug 11, 2020

Get Back to School by Going Back to Basics

Don’t look for brand new ways to manage student behavior during distance learning; look for small changes you can make to your strong classroom management strategies.

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Welcome to the 2020-21 school year. Are you ready? I don’t feel ready.

After the spring we had, I looked at summer as a time when I would relax, our kids could take a break from their screens, and we could all enjoy the sunshine. Is it just me, or did summer last 12 seconds and now here we are? If I never experience another pandemic it’ll be too soon.

This moment certainly feels unique, but a declared pandemic has happened before; it’s happened in our recent history.

In the spring of 2009, the H1N1 influenza virus started showing up in US schools. By May, 980 schools were dismissed affecting more than 600,000 students. In June, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimated at least 1 million cases had occurred in the United States and the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a pandemic. By the end of the summer, cases started to show up in universities.

Just like today, back in 2009 the CDC came out with guidance for institutions of higher education on how to reduce the spread of H1N1. Recommendations included:

  • Encouraging the campus community to get vaccinated
  • Isolating students and faculty who had flu-like symptoms
  • Emphasizing good personal hygiene habits
  • Cleaning surfaces regularly
  • Discouraging attendance at campus events for anyone with symptoms

While the guidelines gave good information on how to keep the virus from spreading, they didn’t offer much on how to conduct courses in the middle of a pandemic. In fact, in a survey of the emergency plans of 50 flagship institutions’ in the United States, researchers found all 50 had the exact same instructions on how to handle the flu in 2009-10; only 16 included any information about alternative ways to teach courses during the pandemic.[1]

Sounding familiar?

The University of Toronto's 6 Points of Advice

Well, the University of Toronto noticed this gap in their own emergency plans and decided to do something about it.[2] On top of their other policies, the administration created a committee to ensure the university maintained student success and course resiliency while supporting faculty to deliver quality instruction in the event courses couldn’t continue – or students were unable to attend – in person.

Thankfully, H1N1 never overwhelmed the University of Toronto and they didn’t have to implement their plan. However, all their work came in handy during the 2014-15 school year when their teaching assistants went on strike. To be sure all faculty had the same information about how to adjust their courses, the committee handed out a 6-point advice sheet with the basics they all should implement:

  • Collect and maintain a record of all grades.
  • Post critical course material on the course site.
  • Develop communication strategies and ensure students are clear on the communication tool or platform to be used.
  • Plan for alternative means for assignment submission.
  • Understand the methods and policies governing the modification of evaluation methods.
  • Consider online learning activities as both a supplement and a substitute for other learning activities.

Not only were these six points helpful touchstones for teaching faculty, they worked! All 4500 courses continued and all final-year students planning to graduate did so as scheduled.

Looking back at the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, I see so many similarities between the guidance provided then and the guidance provided now. How many of your school districts have policies in place for physical classrooms? I’m talking about guidelines for social distancing, hand washing, disinfecting. How many of those same districts have recommendations for teachers on how they can utilize technology to build relationships with students? How many of you know what your district expects around collecting and monitoring student behavior data this year?

The more I looked at the University of Toronto’s 6-point advice sheet, the more I saw a template for getting everyone on the same page to manage student behavior regardless of the context. Come to think of it, these six points match up nicely with The Center on PBIS recommendations for returning to school.

The Center on PBIS Return to School Recommendations: Getting Back to Basics

The Center on PBIS came out with a load of resources for everyone from state-level leadership on down to classroom teachers for how to return to school after our experiences in the spring of 2020. Looking through the guide for schools, I found myself focused particularly on the section “Back to Basics”.[3] The section works as a list of things to remember, but it’s more than that. It’s a reminder that good classroom practices work no matter the context. Specifically, educators should:

  • Connect with students and families
  • Screen students for additional support
  • Support student success by establishing routines and expectations
  • Teach and reinforce expectations
  • Monitor student behavior and identify additional needs

Do you catch the similarities between this list and the University of Toronto’s advice sheet? What if we combined the two and created a 6-point advice sheet for managing student behavior? Something like this...

1. Connect: Use many communication strategies and clarify boundaries

TbD August Supplementary Documents-1.jpg

Building connections with students and families is an important part of returning to school. It’s possible your strategies for creating these relationships under typical circumstances will work this year. It’s also possible building relationships this year will be more challenging. One way to start is to decide how you’re going to communicate, how often you’ll connect with students, families, and staff, and what information you’re going to share.

Consider this: How many ways do you communicate with other people during the week? I have at least nine.

  • Text
  • Phone call
  • Email
  • Social media
  • Zoom
  • FaceTime
  • Google Meet
  • Slack
  • Websites

How many ways do you offer to communicate with your students and families? Do they know all the ways? Are you sure you reach everyone with the methods you offer?

Beyond how you’ll connect with everyone and what you’ll share, it’s incredibly important to set boundaries on when you will be available to others. Set office hours for yourself. Make sure everyone knows that leaving a message is ok and you’ll get back to them at a specific time. Your mental and emotional health is important, too. Setting these boundaries helps maintain balance.

2. Screen: Assess student needs

Screening students throughout the year to determine the additional support they need is standard. What might be different this year is which students need more support. Students who thrived in school may find distance learning to be challenging. Similarly, students who found in-person school difficult might need less behavioral support doing school from home. Some students have experienced trauma and loss. Some are scared.

  • Are virtual assignments working for all students?
  • Are there alternative ways students can interact with the material, with each other?
  • Are some students struggling behaviorally in this environment where they didn’t in the physical environment?
  • Which students are actively engaged?
  • Which students are doing everything in their power to get attention?

As you get ready to start the school year, consider how you will assess your students’ needs and determine what supports would help them. (I’ll give you a hint: Assessing student needs is likely going to require documentation. Keep reading, we’ll get there…)

You don’t need to come up with totally new ways of managing behavior. You already have strong practices in your toolbox. However, some strategies require modifications this year.

3. Support: Make expectations accessible

At the beginning of any school year, you spend time talking about school-wide expectations and what those look like in every setting in your building. Revisit your teaching matrix and be sure every context is covered – even the online ones. Maybe you have expectations typically posted in the hallways, at the front of the classroom, and all over the cafeteria. If your students are home, it’s still important to make those expectations accessible. Some ideas to consider:

  • Post your school-wide expectations on your school’s website.
  • Write them up and send them in the mail so families can post them where their students do school.
  • Start your online classes by reviewing expectations.

If your students will attend school in-person, you likely have additional ways to describe what “Be Safe” looks like in your school. Embed those district guidelines for social distancing, good personal hygiene, and protocols to your expectations. If lunch isn’t going to happen in the cafeteria, post lunchtime expectations wherever lunch happens. You get it.

Whatever you do, be sure your students know the expectation and what it looks like in your classroom.

4. Teach: Adapt your classroom management skills for online

Distance learning can feel so strange it makes you think you have to teach differently, too. Not true. You don’t need to come up with totally new ways of managing behavior. You already have strong practices in your toolbox. However, some strategies require modifications this year. Particularly for teachers starting the year in distance learning spaces, some of the ways you manage behavior and teach classroom expectations require adaptations.

Hooked on Innovation has some simple ways you can use technology to your advantage:

  • Virtual Backgrounds: Have students select either a solid green or red background – or some other color/pattern – to quickly show if they agree or disagree with a topic.
  • Teach students how to raise their virtual hand.
  • Use the chat space for impromptu surveys.
  • Let students use analog tools: Putting a pencil to paper right now feels so good when you spend most of your day interacting with screens. Share a math problem on your screen and have students work through it on paper. When your timer goes off, have students show you their responses.

Also, reconsider any expectation you have for students to turn their camera on during instruction. There are lots of reasons a student may not feel comfortable turning it on and lots of alternatives you can provide.

  • Use a virtual background
  • Use a bitmoji, school photo, or favorite selfie as a profile picture when video is turned off
  • Ask students to share their opinions with audio confirmation, in the chat, or with a virtual thumbs up.

5. Monitor: Document your experiences (You didn't think we'd skip the data, did you?)

Can we all agree spring 2020 was an extreme way to end the school year? With distance learning classrooms, technology struggles, concern about everyone’s health, jobs, and future, the thought of writing a referral may not have made it onto your to-do list.

This year, we think writing up what happens in your classrooms is critical for everyone to be successful in the long-term.

In their simplest form, referrals are a way to document the interaction between a student’s behavior and an adult’s response to it. Distance learning experiences are no different. Now more than ever, the referrals you enter give your school teams and leadership insight into what’s working and what’s not working for you and students every day. Not only that, every referral gets students one step closer to getting the additional support they need. Some ideas to consider around documenting your experiences:

  • Review your school’s referral process. If it relies heavily on school happening in-person and your school will start the year online, find ways to adjust the process to accommodate the context.
  • Enter behaviors as Minors this year: For schools engaged in distance learning, there isn’t an office to send students. Almost every unwanted behavior is going to be managed in the classroom. Entering behaviors as minors is a way to document that they happened without feeling like every behavior requires major, office-level attention.
  • Take advantage of paperless systems and online workflows.
  • Make sure everyone knows what behaviors to look for in their distance learning spaces and how to handle them.
  • Update referral forms to include ‘Distance Learning’ as a location.

Make documenting your experiences, your student’s behaviors, their strengths, challenges, and achievements a priority from the beginning.

Then, as a team, make sure you're actively looking at the data teachers collect. Look for students engaged in low-level, regularly-occurring, attention-maintained behaviors. These students could benefit from Check-in Check-out (CICO). The Center on PBIS has some good ideas for how to adapt CICO for distance learning environments, too. Watch for students who are more withdrawn than usual, disengaged from instruction, or quick to shed a tear. These students may need additional, one-on-one connections to make sure they're getting what they need.

6. Follow the core components of your district's guidelines

This piece of advice adapted from the University of Toronto’s guidance doesn’t have a nice counterpoint from The Center’s guidance. However, it’s important to remember while we’re in the middle of a pandemic. Your district and state likely have their own mandates and guidelines around indoor spaces, social distancing, and conducting the school day. As you think through how your school operates, consider how these guidelines and mandates come into play. For example, if students will be in-person:

  • Do you have a handwashing routine?
  • What about when students need to use the restroom?
  • Have you taught your kindergarteners about covering their sneezes and coughs?

It isn’t lost on me how hard all of this is. Most of the time, it feels like we’re hanging on from one moment to another. It’s too much to focus on everything. So, maybe it’s a little easier to focus on just six things and move from there.

Start the year building connections with your new students. So much of the school year will depend on the trust you build starting from that first day. As you build relationships, look for which students need more support, which strategies are working for your whole class, and which ones aren’t resonating. Teach everyone the expectations and make them available wherever your students are. Don’t look for brand new ways to teach them either; look for small adaptations you can make to your strong classroom management strategies. Document everything – every high, every low, the expected behaviors and the unwanted ones. Write it down. Think about that documentation as a way to communicate what you need and what your students need to the people with the resources to give you more support.

And by all means, wash your hands.

1. Meyer, K., & Wilson, J. (2011). The role of online learning in the emergency plans of flagship institutions. Online Journal Of Distance Learning Administration, 4(1). Retrieved from https://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/spring141/meyer_wilson141.html
2. Regehr, C., Nelson, S., & Hildyard, A. (2016). Academic continuity planning in higher education. Journal Of Business Continuity & Emergency Planning, 11(1), 73-84.
3. Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, State Implementation and Scaling up of Evidence-Based Practices Center, National Integrated Multi-Tiered Systems of Support Research Network, National Center on Improving Literacy, & Lead for Literacy Center. (June, 2020). A School Guide for Returning to School During and After Crisis: A Guide to Supporting States, Districts, Schools, Educators, and Students through a Multi-Tiered Systems of Support Framework during the 2020-2021 School Year. University of Oregon. www.pbis.org.

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Megan Cave


Megan Cave

Megan Cave is a member of the PBISApps Marketing and Communication team. She is the writer behind the user manuals, scripted video tutorials, and news articles for PBISApps. She also writes a monthly article for Teach by Design and contributes to its accompanying Expert Instruction podcast episode. Megan has completed four half marathons – three of which happened unintentionally – and in all likelihood, will run another in the future.

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