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Children's mental health expert on rethinking the approach to distance learning

University of Minnesota professor Dr. Anne Gearity explains why parents, students and teachers should embrace the three 'E's' of remote learning.

MINNEAPOLIS — Many students across the Twin Cities just wrapped up their first official week of full-time distance learning as COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations continue to climb across the state.

It’s estimated about 60% of Minnesota K-12 students are currently in distance learning. With shuttered schools, pandemic pressures are piling on teachers, students and families alike. 

“I am really worried about children, really worried about teachers, and have spent the entire week trying to talk parents down from absolute panic,” said Anne Gearity, Ph.D., a University of Minnesota Medical School assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. 

Dr. Gearity has been deeply immersed in this new way of learning, working closely with school districts while counseling children and their families. She hopes that winter break is a time that the ‘three-legged stool’ of education can recalibrate, with teachers, students and parents coming together as a team and perhaps see the setbacks of COVID-19 as an opportunity to reinvent our educational system. 

RELATED: Live updates: COVID-19 spreading to MN long-term care; vaccines could start before Christmas

“They're all saying a similar thing. This is hard. It's not fun. It's not interesting. They don't feel engaged. They don't feel like they know how to do it. They don't feel like they know how to learn. They're tired and that desire to learn which is so core to who children are, is almost being snuffed out,” said Dr. Gearity.

Dr. Gearity argues that we can survive, maybe even thrive, if we throw out the three “R’s” (reading, writing and arithmetic) and embrace the three “E's" instead.

Three “E’s” of Distance Learning:

1.    Engaging

Boldly engaging students in new ways to cultivate their love of learning.

“I think every teacher should be talking to every student once a week alone, because they have to know their students, and the student has to feel like the teacher knows me. so, they really do feel connected, not just a face on Zoom,” said Dr. Gearity. “This is what I would tell teachers, that winter break is coming, and we should all take that time and really rethink how we do school.”

2.    Enriching

Allowing students to be self-learners and lead their own projects.

“Learning makes you feel better," is Dr. Gearity’s favorite mantra. 

“I wish teachers could give assignments that are more enriching or give students permission to follow an interest and go deep into the interest, especially on the high school level. I wish teachers would encourage parents to think about ways to expand the learning space, so that cooking becomes learning or doing chores in the house becomes learning. We can all become active learners,” said Dr. Gearity.

3.    Entertaining

Entertainment is not about humor, but energizing children in a dynamic way.

“We don't understand how entertaining school is for children when they're with each other. They really are entertained when their brains are stimulated at school. And right now, on Zoom, children’s brains are not entertained. They're not energized. There's another ‘E.’ It's really about how do you energize children so that this feels like a dynamic process that they're a part of,” said Dr. Gearity.

With an uncertain end to distance learning, she shared one last piece of advice to help sustain families during this trying time. She reminds parents to stay kind to their kids. 

“You cannot be fighting with your kids during COVID. And I think if you stay empathetic, and you're willing to say, ‘Okay, today, we're going to read some books. And we'll try again tomorrow,’” she Dr. Gearity.