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The Most Important Skill Needed for Distance Learning

Executive functioning skills are crucial to online learning success.

Key points

  • Distance learning is often a poor substitute for the classroom, especially for younger kids and those with ADHD or learning differences.
  • Executive functioning skills such as the ability to manage time, prioritize, plan, and follow directions are crucial for remote learning success.
  • Teachers reinforce executive functions via the the physical environment of their classroom and by supporting organization and structure.

My child doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do. She can’t sit still long enough to do her work, she’s frustrated because she can’t get any feedback from her teacher, and, most importantly, she’s not learning anything.

You’ve probably heard similar words from the parents of many kids who are struggling to learn from home. Distance learning has created so many challenges for students. They need to manage their time, prioritize, plan, think flexibly, follow directions, stay on task, and recognize what needs to be done — all without the face-to-face involvement of a teacher.

Source: seventyfourimages

In a traditional brick-and-mortar school, well-trained teachers recognize students who are struggling with executive functions — a constellation of skills that help students reach their academic potential — and provide modeling, scaffolding, and coaching to help them get their work done. In elementary schools, teachers typically limit their demands for self-management, providing their students with highly structured assignments, regular classroom routines, and feedback.

Distance learning makes it extremely difficult for even the best teachers to notice when students don’t understand directions or know where to start an assignment, or are not managing their time effectively. And individualized intervention is obviously more difficult.

Over and over, teachers have reported observing kids who couldn’t complete simple assignments or follow basic directions. While some of these concerns can be attributed to the hasty implementation of distance learning during the first part of the pandemic, Roy Seitsinger, Ph.D., superintendent of the Preston, Connecticut, public schools, emphasizes that a flat screen doesn’t replace an emotive face and the trusted relationship that a teacher and a student establish in each other’s company. He describes how teachers reinforce executive functions when they design the physical environment of their classroom, create an organization and structure for the day’s routine, and practice proximity control, where a mere tap on the shoulder can refocus a student.

Parents, too, have become increasingly aware of their children’s struggles with executive functioning skills, becoming front-row observers of their inability to manage time, get started on tasks, and avoid distractions. Many wonder what will happen when the demands of school multiply in middle and high school.

Since hundreds of school buildings will be closed indefinitely and many parents are choosing to keep their kids at home, distance learning — with all its imperfections — clearly has some legs.

So what can teachers do? Providing more structure, scaffolding, modeling of specific skills, encouragement, and one-on-one feedback will be more important than covering a vast amount of content. Teachers can also benefit from looking at the model of Outschool, an online learning platform developed to help keep kids on track. Tools such as the educator’s pages at LearningWorks for Kids or the SMARTs program at RESEARCHILD can help them learn more about building executive functioning skills in the classroom.

Source: yongkiet/Shutterstock

And what about parents? Rather than doing children’s work for them, they can help with initiating, organizing, planning, prioritizing, and task completion. Parents can get some great advice from on how to teach these skills.

Students can help themselves as well. Middle-, high-school, and college students often recognize their own struggles with executive functions and want to do better. During interviews with dozens of older students for my recent book, The Gaming Overload Workbook, many shared their tips for reducing distractions and completing classroom assignments. These include the following:

  • Give your phone to your parents for 30 to 60 minutes, or put music on it and shut off all notifications.
  • Reward yourself with food, social media or game time, or another activity after completing an assignment.
  • Take short movement breaks: stretch, walk outdoors, or do some calisthenics.

Finally, distance learning is possible through technologies such as Zoom and Google Classroom, but often is improved by mastering other technologies:

  • Typing and dictation skills can support executive functioning skills such as task initiation, organization, and task persistence.
  • Calendar apps — when used regularly — are a powerful support for struggles with time management, planning, and organization.
  • Note-taking and study apps such as Notability and Quizlet can support working memory and organization.

By mastering these and other technologies, teachers, parents, and students can help build strong executive functioning skills.