Wondering how to set up your child’s learning space for e-learning this fall? We spoke to a local teacher about space design, methods of keeping kids on track and calm.

Harford County first grade teacher Alley Hart, who recently wrote a detailed list of ways to setup your child for success during distance learning at home, talked with us about how to set up a designated workspace for kids, products they’ll need and effective ways to help them get through this next semester of distance learning at home. You can read more of her tips and tricks here, which includes her original popular Facebook post on the matter.


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Janet Jefferson (00:14):
Welcome to Third Floor Views, where we at Chesapeake Family Life talk about health, education and living with kids. I’m your host, Janet Jefferson. Today we are discussing how to best set up your home for success with virtual school. Here with us today is Alley Hart, who is a teacher in Harford County. Thanks for being here with us today. Alley, let’s jump right in. So first Alley, I’d love to hear just a little bit about you as a teacher, sort of where you’re teaching and maybe a little bit about your classroom before the pandemic so viewers and listeners get a sense of sort of like who you are as a teacher and what you’re transitioning from.

Alley Hart (00:55):
So I teach first grade at an elementary school in Havre de Grace, which is in Harford County. My classroom is very innovative. Something that I started a few years ago was flexible seating. And that’s the opposite of traditional, what a traditional classroom would look like. I don’t have desks, I have tables. I also have ball chairs, which are exercise balls on a little chair. And then I have bumpy seats for the texture, cushioned floor seats. I have lap desks. So if the student wants to sit on the floor or lay down, they can use that or a clipboard, just anything that helps them learn the best that they can because obviously not everyone responds well to a hard chair, especially young kids when the primary grade level. So that’s just really helpful for them to take ownership and control of their learning and they get to decide. So they get to choose. I pretty much let them, I would let them choose any way of seating daily. But a lot of times the kids, once they got comfortable with a certain seat, they would continue to use that one just because they liked how it felt as they were learning. And then obviously we would do all the modeling with that in my classroom, we do a lot of hands on things and group activities just to build that community and something that I always like to instill in my kids is always, always, always be kind and helpful. And in our classroom we call ourselves a family.

Janet Jefferson (02:22):
So it sounds like a lot of choice, but also a lot of diversity. So kids can choose a lot of different environments and already having a bit of a family or home-like setup. So thinking about how parents can transition a classroom into their house, where would you suggest that parents think about setting up their child workspace?

Alley Hart (02:48):
So there’s really no right or wrong answer to this. Anywhere that the student can learn, obviously with as minimal distractions as possible, works. And I know that everyone’s house is much different, some people have extra rooms, some people have extra space, some people don’t really have extra space. So the people that don’t really have extra space, I know that a lot of people have said, they’re going to use their kitchen table, dining room, table, their family room, whatever. That’s fine. As long as the child has access to the resources and materials that they’re going to need. That helps build independence and it helps with organization, which again helps with independence and less distractions on the parents. So for all the things that the kid knows, the child knows where items are and they’re labeled and organized, then for the parent, that’ll be less involvement for them during that learning time. I saw some people, which I thought was a really great idea using those rolly carts, the three tier rolly carts from Ikea or Target, for those people that can’t set up like a space that’s going to stay there. That’s a really great way to organize materials that will be used. Now, if they have the space to leave the items there, then that’s great too. But I know a lot of people don’t, so that’s just another alternative.

Janet Jefferson (04:01):
So it sounds like you’re really working on independence, which makes a lot of sense, especially with elementary school kids being at home with working parents. So anything that we can do to make things a little bit easier on parents and create that positive environment for kids? So we’ve got our rolly cart or we’ve got our space in the house, what supplies and tools should be included in that space?

Alley Hart (04:26):
The normal school supplies, pencils, and along with pencils, you want to have a pencil sharpener. One of my teammates actually said that and I was like, Oh, that’s a great thought. We just don’t think of that because it’s always in the classroom, but at home you might not have that unless you’re using lead pencils or something else. But then also a must would be headphones. I’d say to alleviate the distractions for the student and for anyone else who’s around them or nearby parents, working parents, siblings. So that’s really important. And I know that for my students, we’ve used headphones before. The earbuds aren’t the greatest thing, just because it ends up being a distraction because it’s hard to get in or they fall out. So the bigger ones, almost like you have on, it doesn’t have to be fancy. They sell them at Five Below, The Dollar Store, Target, The Target Dollar Spot. You can find them pretty inexpensively. But obviously if earbuds are the only thing people have, that’s better than nothing. So that, and then also since the students will be using technology devices, I would say some sort of case, or maybe just somewhere that the student knows where to put that when they’re done, because obviously what we want to teach them good technology manners or etiquette, if you will, to make sure that we keep them protected and safe. Oh, another helpful thing might be little small whiteboards or like sheet protectors that they can use whiteboard markers with to have a reusable resource if they’re not using paper all the time. And like I said, with the normal school supplies, notebooks, paper, any of that kind of stuff, it will be helpful because they will be doing things non virtually.

Janet Jefferson (05:59):
So a few things that you said, I was like, Oh yeah, definitely. You’re talking a lot about technology, even though we’re talking very simple technology like headphones. So I think access to outlets and power. So whether that be like a power strip or whatever, that would be useful. So thinking about where in the house to set up, having access to power. And I love your comment about pencil sharpeners because kids love a sharp pencil. I feel like particularly elementary school students, it’s like, Oh, if my pencil is not sharp, I can’t do the work. So the importance of that, whether it be electrical or handheld, but all of these things are also really simple and certainly achievable for parents. You were talking about the sheet protectors, the plastic sheet protectors and I feel like that’s such a classic teacher hack and sneaky things that teachers do that parents wouldn’t necessarily think of and that I think are just brilliant. Are there any more sort of off the top of your head that you can think of that things that you implement in your classroom that maybe save money or make life easier for you or your students that parents can implement at home?

Alley Hart (07:12):
I use timers a ton. In my distance learning ideas, I had a big thing on timers and it doesn’t have to be so explicit, but just having that so the student can see visually how much time is left. It can be sand timers, kitchen timers, any kind of digital timers. And actually I have the kitchen ones from The Dollar Store, they do beep, they’re digital. So it makes noise. They know when it’s over. However, it depends on the child too, that it could be a distraction. So in my classroom, some of my kids can use those or sometimes they just watch it. So then I would use the sand timer, but then sometimes kids will watch that. So it really just depends on the child what kind of timer to use. But those are really helpful for time allotments for assignments and tasks. And then also a break time to use that as well so they know how much longer they have and there aren’t any meltdowns or confusion on when to get back to work. Because at the end of the day, this is still going to be a school day. We’re still treating it like school just because it’s in a different environment, doesn’t mean that the learning can’t still occur and then they can be the best. They can still be the best learner they can be.

Janet Jefferson (08:22):
I think that’s important to remember too, is what each individual student needs and that yes, a timer is a great tool, but what sort of timer really depends on the kid. And so making sure that you think about what would work best for your student and just because it’s on this list, it’s like, well maybe that’s actually not going to work after all. And that’s okay. And so parents being flexible enough and thinking about their own child’s needs and really what makes the most sense.

Alley Hart (08:48):
Something else that is really, really important. I mean, every teacher in America I’m sure would agree that in the beginning, we always go over rules and expectations. We have posters and we do it with the student and we have visuals and that just really helps get them ready for what it’s going to look like. So doing that at home, it’s really important just because it is going to look different. It’s going to be similar, but it’s also going to be very different. So having a visual poster of the expectations and rules while learning. So that’s also important to do with the child. I know I’ve said that a couple times, but it is just really important because it creates the buy in for the student, to be able to get excited. And it creates that ownership that they’re coming up with their roles and expectations with the parent. So they feel in control and they feel more empowered and excited to get the school year started. Just like setting up the learning environment, we want them to feel that sense of empowerment and excitement. So all of the things that are being done to prepare for the distance learning year, making sure that we’re doing it with the child so they can see what it’s going to look like and know the expectations ahead of time. Being proactive is really, really important. And that’s something that we talk about a lot in my school. We’re a PDIF school, which is a Positive Behavior Intervention and Support school. So we do a lot of behavior interventions and just being really positive. Like we don’t dwell on negative. There’s a lot of ignoring of that but then as soon as the child does something great, we praise them. It’s just more successful and they can be ready for the next thing instead of dwelling on something that wasn’t so great.

Janet Jefferson (10:29):
And I think a lot of this is also, there’s sort of a parallel to like Positive Parenting Philosophy. So a lot of these ideas, which makes sense, here you are at home, just transferring it to the classroom. Now we’re just going the other direction.

Alley Hart (10:43):
And it can be hard. I understand that even as a teacher, we weren’t used to that when we first started it and it’s an adjustment, it’s a mindset, but that’s why I’m trying to help parents because I know they’re frustrated and I know that they know I don’t have any answers and they certainly don’t have any answers. No one has all the answers, but if we can all be in this together, that’s going to set their child up for success.

Janet Jefferson (11:06):
Absolutely. So we’ve talked about choices and then we just now talked about guidelines and expectations and putting up a visual for the child to be able to see in front of their workspace and making sure that you do that together with your child. So coming up with those rules together, could you talk a little bit about maybe some other ideas you have to help actually get work done? I know one of the things that you’ve talked about and posted online is the idea of a “First, Then” chart. Could you just speak to that a little bit?

Alley Hart (11:38):
So a First, Then chart is just a really simple visual way for the child to know what needs to be done first and then what you can do after. So the first would be maybe like the nonpreferred activity or the academic task or assignment that they’re doing. And then the ven would be like a little break or something that they get to do next. So it’s not really like a schedule. It’s not like you’re saying first, we’re going to do science, that we’re going to do writing. You’re saying, first you work on this math activity, then you can get two minutes with your Playdoh. So it’s just so they can see, okay, as soon as I’m done that, then I get to do something that I really want to do. So that really pairs well with the timer, because if you have that in front of them and the timer, as they’re doing their work, you can keep reminding them of that. And speaking to that, saying things like, as soon as you’re done, then you can go do your Playdoh and then we’ll come back and do something else. That helps to motivate them through the activity, especially for those students that have a really challenging time staying on task. It visually helps them to continue on, instead of it just becoming stressful and becoming a meltdown. It’s a proactive way to get the students to complete the assignment, to the best of their ability and then doing something that’s preferred.

Janet Jefferson (12:57):
Again, talking about buy-in, so getting the student excited to do even the less desirable tasks.

Alley Hart (13:05):
And it helps them not feel like they’re being told, I’m mean of course told, but anytime an adult is saying you need to do this because I said, so. The kids respond because you said so? So what? I don’t want to do that. So it just gives them, Hey, first we do this, then what do you want to do? Having them choose again, that choice is really big, it makes them feel like they’re in control, having them choose the preferred activity. Obviously it’s not going to be something that’s going to take a long time, but just something quick, easy that they can look forward to once they’re finished.

Janet Jefferson (13:38):
Yeah. I think sometimes adults get caught up in that adult child separation, but children are humans and we need to treat them with respect as well. And nobody likes being bossed around and being told what to do.

Alley Hart (13:51):
So I agree, and I always try to take it back to the adults, as an adult, you don’t want to hear it because I said so, and but at the same time you want them to feel like they can come up with these ideas on their own too. And saying, because I said so, it wasn’t really going to get them to that end goal.

Janet Jefferson (14:10):
Nor is it fostering independence. So speaking about that, let’s say a child is having maybe a challenging time. Could you tell me just a little bit about this idea of a calm space and how it is different than maybe your classic time out space?

Alley Hart (14:28):
The calm space is what it’s called, a space where the child can calm down. So in my school, actually, every single classroom has a peace corner is what we call it. But it’s also a calm space and we proactively teach the students what it is, what it’s for, when you would go there, and why you would go there. Something that’s really big also in our school is ‘why,’ teaching kids why we do things. So then again, that builds that independence. And that goes back to everything we’ve said, it’s just talking to them, teaching them and guiding them. So the calm space would have a timer, maybe a bean bag, chair, something comfy cozy. You don’t really want it to look like timeout because then it looks like a punishment. And let’s be honest, every single person has emotions, we feel a certain way. I get angry. I’m sure you get angry, but we know appropriate ways to handle it. Well, a child doesn’t have that skillset yet. So it’s our job to teach them what they can do. So when you get angry, that’s fine. It’s okay. You can feel angry, but when you’re angry or when you’re upset, take five minutes in the calm down, or a peace corner, calm down space, whatever you want to call it in your house, to just relax, like do deep breaths that calms us down, being mindful of our breathing, and then maybe like squishing something with our hands. Because I know like when you’re angry, you get really tense. So that’s a really good way to teach them all those feelings that you might have when you’re angry or upset. And then what you can do, like how you can channel it into something appropriate and positive. So it’s really simple. You just have like a little little space. We have a little rug in ours. We have a bean bag chair. We have one of those pillows that has the sequins that if you rub up, it goes a certain way and then rubs down. And that’s really satisfying, kind of channels their energy into something else. We have a weighted stuffed animal, which is really helpful because that pressure just helps calm them down. So that’s really helpful. And I saw one at Target the other day, it was a little unicorn. I was like, this is great, but it doesn’t have to be anything you don’t even have to get that. Maybe like some stress balls, some squishy balls, some things that I have put in mind that I can just print off, it’s called a labyrinth. It’s almost like a maze. And you would take your finger and slowly run it down from top to bottom of the maze as you’re breathing. There’s some other pictures that we have in ours. It’s like a leaf or there’s a flower. And it shows arrows where you can run your finger and as you’re running your finger down, it shows you how to breathe in and breathe out. So just anything that will bring the child from 10 to 2 in a five minute span. And if they need more time, then we always give them more time. We say, okay, are you ready to talk about it? And if they say no, then obviously they need a little bit more time. Obviously you’re going to have kids that take advantage of it a little bit. And you’ll know if your kid’s going to do that or not, but a lot of times, by the time I’m ready to talk to them, they’re calm. We can have a conversation. Because you can’t reason with an angry seven year old, both of you have to take a little time, calm down, and then you can talk about it. Because as adults, I know we get frustrated too. So that just really helps everyone. And then you’re able to talk in a calmer way. Also, the timer’s really important there. I think I did mention that, but just using that timer to show them that, okay, here, you’ve taken five minutes to calm down. Are ready to come out? Are you ready to talk about it? And then if not, that’s fine too. And the sand timer is really good for that. That’s what we use in the classroom because that’s another strategy. They can watch the sand come down. And that’s just the way another way to channel their energy into thinking about something else.

Janet Jefferson (18:05):
A lot of the things that I’m hearing you say make me think about meditation and meditation for kids. And some of those practices that you can take from those philosophies and then apply during the school day or even during any day.

Alley Hart (18:19):
We did a lot in my class. We do a lot in our school on mindfulness, mindfulness for ourselves, self care, but then also mindfulness with our students. So not really yoga, but any type of deep breathing exercises, belly breathing. So something else that we have in our peace corner is that little plastic ball that expands. And then you can push it down and it closes. And we use that as a visual to show our stomach like deep breath and then letting it out deep breath. And they can do that as they’re breathing. So that’s just another thing to do. But yes, we do a lot with mindfulness and meditating. I feel like people talk and think about yoga and it’s this big thing that’s very popular now, but ours is not so fancy. Mindfulness is just breathing. It’s just focus on your breathing and getting calm. So that’s really all it is. And that’s what we do with our kids too.

Janet Jefferson (19:16):
Yeah. And it sounds like it can be really, really effective. Let’s talk a little bit about the power of routine. How important is it? Is it something that parents really need to stick to at home?

Alley Hart (19:28):
The answer is yes. Think about us. I always go back to adults, we go through things too and having a routine, having a schedule, having structure just helps you be more productive. So if we’re more productive and we have a routine, then imagine what the kids could do with their routine. And it doesn’t have to be anything crazy. Like routine, get up at a certain time, eat breakfast, you change your clothes. You feel better when you’re out of your pajamas, you brush your teeth and then you’re ready to go at a certain time. So if they get up earlier than they might have some extra time to do something, but if they get up late, then you’re going to have to rush through that. So it’s just about starting the day in a calm way. Like, you know, they’re not hungry because they didn’t breakfast. They’re not thirsty because they had their milk or whatever. They don’t have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the teaching live because they’ve already done all of that. So it just helps build success right from the beginning, which if you have a good morning, you tend to have a pretty good day. If you have a rough morning, you have to come back from that. And that’s way more challenging than starting off in a good foot.

Janet Jefferson (20:33):
So true.

Alley Hart (20:36):
Independence. I know we’ve mentioned that a lot too, but if this child knows the routine, they know the schedule, then they tend to after a couple of times of doing it with the parent, they just tend to do it by themselves. And a lot of times in the classroom, there’s a schedule for a reason because the kids, they know what to expect. There’s no surprises. There’s not going to be any like, Oh, well I wanted to do that. It’s like, no, but this is what we do every day. And then once this is done, then you can do what you want to do.

Janet Jefferson (21:03):
Yeah, definitely. Your expertise is first grade, but a lot of these ideas seem really transferable to either age up or age down. Do you have any specific suggestions on things to really keep in mind for either younger or older students?

Alley Hart (21:23):
I teach first grade so obviously that’s what I think about and what I do in my classroom. So a lot of that is geared toward young learners, but for the older learners, the times could be adjusted, the timers, what you put in the calm down spot would look much different than what you might put in a younger kids calm down space. So again, having the child be a part of that, because if they’re a part of that, they will express what they find interesting or want to be in there. So it’s really just comes down to the child and their needs because it’s not a one size fits all. It’s about knowing your child or asking them if you don’t know. It’s okay to ask them, get their input. I think that’s just really important. And then it’ll be tailored to your specific child.

Janet Jefferson (22:18):
I think again, that buy in is huge. Because if they don’t want to do it, then that makes things that much harder. So we are now starting a brand new school year distance learning. And this is really different than last year, because last year everyone started the year in the classroom and had time to create a bond with their teachers and create community with their classmates. This year that’s not how we’re starting, at least for much of the country. Could you talk a little bit about how to create community virtually and what are some things that parents can do to help the teacher foster those sort of relation building moments?

Alley Hart (23:00):
Yeah. So I think that as long as the parents are involved and joining those meet and greets that are available to them, joining that back to school night, having the child next to you, that’s showing the child that my mom or dad, or whoever I’m living with is wanting to be a part of my school. So then it shows them that they want to be a part of it too. Children do what they see. So if the parent is all about it and so positive about it and excited, then usually that trickles down to the child. Another thing would be just providing support to the teacher, whatever that might look like. And especially communicating, because I know that a lot of times parents will message another parent, ask them a question, and then it doesn’t look the same with their child’s teacher or whatever the case may be. And then the parent never really went to the teacher. And I know sometimes you don’t want to be a burden, but honestly, the teachers would always rather the parent ask a question or clarify or communicate directly to them first because usually that just dissolves the problem right away, rather than just a lot of roundabout, other people getting involved. I just feel like communication is really important. If the parents and the teachers are on the same page, the child is the most successful. So even though there are challenges and learning environment might be different and the parent is a lot more involved in the child’s school day, it just shows the child that they can still do their best. Everything’s going to be okay because my mom and my dad and or my foster mom, or my aunt, or my uncle, whoever, and my teacher, you know, we’re all on the same page and they all want what’s best for me.

Janet Jefferson (24:44):
I imagine that that’s going to be even more challenging this year, too, just because we don’t have those face to face natural moments where you can bump into a teacher or a parent and have those conversations like, Oh, is my child struggling or I’m worried about this or that. It’s hard to have those natural moments. Now it’s going to be either a scheduled conversation on some sort of video platform or an email. And so many details are lost through text or email. So I think that really does put a lot of pressure, both on teachers and parents, but we got to up our communication game this year.

Alley Hart (25:24):
Yeah. I’m sure that a lot of teachers do have like some sort of communication app. We use the app called Class Tag, which is really great because it’s not as formal as an email. I know I give my phone number to my parents, but not everyone’s comfortable with that, which is fine. So for the app, you can message right on there. You can do it from your phone. So it’s just as easy as a text, get notifications when there’s a response back. But also, I know for me there, I post a lot of pictures or a lot of announcements or reminders on there. So it’s almost like a Facebook feed, what it looks like, and I can keep adding stuff and then parents can like it or comment. So also that’s really good for communication. So just being a part of whatever the teacher’s providing, like sign up for those types of things, try to attend as much of the virtual things as possible. I think that’s just the best way to communicate and build that community among everyone involved.

Janet Jefferson (26:20):
Yeah. I think that really does emphasize the importance of relationship building between the parent and teacher, especially under the circumstances we’re in right now, because a parent is going to be a lot more involved in the day to day learning than maybe they were traditionally involved in. I have one more question for you. And I just want to talk briefly about positivity and the power of positivity and how it’s important to remember, because I think especially for younger students, they are so excited about school and going to school and seeing their teachers and touching and hugging and kissing their friends. And that’s not available right now. So how can we make home learning fun? And what role does positivity have in that?

Alley Hart (27:08):
So obviously everyone’s house household or home, looks different from house to house. And as long as the parents are positive and encouraging, I think that just really sets them the child up for success. So even as adults, I know everyone yearns for that positive verbal affirmation, whether it’s from a spouse, whether it’s from your boss, whether it’s from a coworker, just knowing that they’re doing a good job makes you feel good. So the child is no different. They like to hear that they’re doing a good job. It can be just even simple things like, wow, thanks so much for getting yourself ready to go without being told or thanks for following that direction quickly. Saying something like, thank you because it shows them like, Oh wow. Like my mom thanked me, just something as simple to us. But to them, it means a lot. I know that in my classroom also I write some little notes, even as simple as a post-it note or like, Hey, you’re doing a great job. I’m really proud of you for XYZ. Parents can utilize that too. And I’m sure that the child will feel so great hearing that from their parent, even if they’re in the room with them every single day. A handwritten note is something that they can hold onto. It’s tangible, but it doesn’t cost money. It doesn’t take a lot of effort. Just something that’s really easy. I’m also being positive. We talked about creates buy-in. So as positive as the parent is, the child will be positive on that parallel level. So if the parent is super excited and even if they’re really not, but showing their child that they’re excited, then usually the child feeds off of what they see. So that’s really helpful. And then anything, like if there are tangible things like, stickers don’t cost a lot of money and that’s really helpful, maybe not for the older kids, but that’s why like a handwritten note I think the older kids would love that too. I knew like our fifth graders love anything like that. It just makes them feel good and anything that makes us feel good, we want to continue doing, especially if that helps us in our success at school.

Janet Jefferson (29:20):
How to use positivity to get through this year and try to make it as fun as possible. Because I think it’s really daunting to parents right now because we don’t know when it’s going to end, but we really worry about our kids and want them to have fun. Because school, we think of as a fun place.

Alley Hart (29:37):
I know that this all seems like a burden, which it is, it’s very inconvenient and we don’t like to be inconvenienced, but for parents just remember that it’s inconveniencing teachers too, and we are here for you. So just reach out to your child’s teacher. And if we can think about nothing else, it’s just through this unprecedented and inconvenient time, it’s something special per se, that your child will have these memories forever. So whether it’s a positive memory or not so positive memory, it comes down to how and what they’re seeing. So hopefully the more positive that we can be, then the more positive they will be, which will then create success and build that lifelong love of learning so when they do go back to school, they’re still positive about it. And not already, like, especially for our younger learners, not already just liking school because of what it was. So I can’t really say enough about being positive. I know you have to talk about what’s the problem, so you can fix it. And I’m all for that too. But at the end of the day, it is what it is. Can’t change everything. We can definitely help it, but just trying to make the best of a situation that isn’t what anyone really wants.

Janet Jefferson (30:53):
Well, thank you so much, Alley, for being here with us today to address so many of our questions about how to really set up our home, to get the most out of the space and make it as positive as possible for our students this year. We love to hear your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you enjoyed what you heard today, check out more at thirdfloorviews.com. I’m Janet Jefferson. This is Third Floor Views. Thank you for listening.