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Common Obstacles Students Face in a Virtual Classroom and How to Manage Them

The COVID pandemic has turned the world—and the world of education—upside down. In a matter of days and, in some cases, overnight, students and teachers were forced to upend the way they taught, learned, and interacted.

This new environment poses unique challenges to students, teachers, and parents. In the face of these challenges, each of these actors has demonstrated resilience and adaptability. Nevertheless, challenges remain.

Read on to learn about the common obstacles students face in a virtual classroom and how to manage them.

1. Lack of Access to Technology

The rise of virtual learning has added new items to students’ school supply lists. Many of these items are expensive.

To succeed in a virtual classroom, students need a computer, laptop, or Chromebook. They also need access to a reliable internet connection.

In this environment, schools and students who already enjoyed this access have a significant advantage. Meanwhile, schools and students who lack this access face significant barriers to learning. Compounding the problem, these same schools and students already struggled to access resources before the pandemic.

recent OECD report shows significant inequities in access to technology between socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged schools. In the U.S., almost all teenagers in advantaged schools had a computer to use for schoolwork at home. Only three-quarters of students in disadvantaged schools had the same resources.

The OECD found that this disparity exists between schools as well. Fifty-nine percent of principals in advantaged schools reported having effective online learning platforms. Only 49% of principals in disadvantaged schools enjoyed the same access.

Across the U.S., moreover, access to reliable internet remains an issue as well. Seven million—or 14% of—school-aged children live in homes with no internet.

Even when students do have access to devices and the internet, this access can be spotty. Families with multiple children find their technological resources strained. This is especially true as many parents are also working from home and vying for access.

Increasing Access to Technology

Schools and teachers have responded to these challenges in a variety of ways.

Some schools have set up mobile hotspots for their students to use. Others have partnered with telecommunications companies to increase their students’ internet access.

Schools with the resources to lend devices to families in need have pioneered such programs in short periods of time.

Tech companies and schools’ IT teams have also worked to increase access. For example, Google has worked to make G-Suite for Education accessible offline.

Finally, teachers have posted transcripts and recordings of live lessons. These asynchronous resources allow students who couldn’t log in during the scheduled class period to access instruction at a later time.

Of course, meeting students’ and families’ technological needs means identifying those needs. Thus, any response to technological difficulties must begin with communication.

Educators must foster open lines of communication between school and home. They must open these lines of communication early, and they must work to keep them open.

Parents and students need to know what supplies they’ll need to be successful. These supplies include technology. They also need to know who to contact and what resources are available if they’re unable to secure these supplies.

They also need to know they can contact teachers as difficulties arise. Even students with the most reliable internet experience outages. Teachers must show flexibility and compassion in dealing with these situations.

2. Difficulty Learning to Use New Technology

Besides access, technology also poses the problem of unfamiliarity. Forced into a remote classroom, students, teachers, and parents are struggling to adapt.

Of the principals surveyed in the OECD study, only 65% felt their teachers had the technical skills to use online learning platforms effectively.

Once again, this deficit hits disadvantaged schools the hardest. Teachers in socio-economically disadvantaged schools are less likely than their advantaged peers to have access to the mentors and training that could help them use the necessary technology.

Teaching Students, Teachers, and Parents to Learn Remotely

Schools can address difficulties with new technology by increasing access to professional development. With limited funding, one option is to tap into experts within the school community. Encourage teachers to share their discoveries of what worked and how it worked.

Ask teachers to conduct professional development sessions for their peers. Many teachers appreciate these opportunities. They are also opportunities to earn continuing education hours for licensure renewal.

Schools should also explore new technologies while exercising appropriate caution. Before purchasing new software, request a trial period or demo. Also, explore how the technology will add value to a remote and regular classroom.

Insights to Behavior is one such technological resource. Insights to Behavior can help teachers manage regular and virtual classroom issues. If you’re a director of special education, schedule an online personal demo to find out more.

Besides supporting teachers, schools also need to help parents and students become comfortable with new technologies. Doing so can improve behavior management. It can also increase student participation and achievement.

Orientation sessions are valuable opportunities for all parties to meet. They also let teachers introduce families to the online platforms students will use. During these sessions, teachers can conduct demos and answer parents’ and students’ questions.

These sessions also serve to open the lines of communication. Sharing contact information and encouraging families to reach out is key.

3. Difficulty Concentrating

Difficulty concentrating is not a behavior management problem new to the virtual classroom. However, it is a problem that is heightened in the virtual classroom.

In a regular classroom, teachers develop routines and behavior management plans. These efforts aim to minimize distractions and maximize learning. When teaching a remote class, developing routines and behavior plans is more challenging.

A virtual classroom is not contained in a single room or even a single building. In a virtual classroom, students are logging in from homes in various states of order and chaos. Under these circumstances, diversity and distance make designing an effective learning environment much more challenging.

At home, students face countless distractions. These include siblings, parents, pets, cell phones, and other devices. Many lack a designated quiet workspace. Those who do have a desk can find the proximity of their bed or couch alluring.

Other distractions are even more detrimental. For many students struggling with family stresses, in-person schooling was an escape. It was a safe space. In the world of remote learning, however, students don’t have that escape. Rather, they are now trying to deal with school stresses while surrounded by all the stresses at home. These conditions are not ideal for academic success or behavior management.

Focusing Students on Learning—Remotely

Focusing students’ attention in a virtual classroom is more challenging. Still, educators can take steps to improve their concentration.

First, schools need to convey expectations clearly. As in the classroom, students should maintain eye contact and an attentive posture.

Teachers should also expect students to attend class from an appropriate workspace. Ideally, this means a desk, but a table or counter remains a viable alternative.

Designing an effective learning environment is an important skill. Teaching a remote class is an opportunity to teach this skill.

Teaching students to create an effective learning environment involves direct instruction and demonstration. Give students examples of effective workspaces. Then encourage them to personalize those workspaces within the guidelines you’ve established.

As much as possible, enlist families to help students manage distractions. For students in chaotic environments, noise-canceling headphones can provide peace and quiet.

Ultimately, though, teaching a remote class requires flexibility and compassion. It requires an understanding that students are people too. They are dealing with the stresses of the world too. They are doing so, moreover, without the resources and escape that school used to provide.

When teaching remotely, educators must balance these stresses and their own expectations. Under these circumstances, behavior management must take a problem-solving approach.

Teachers should convey expectations and enforce them. These efforts should include clear and fair consequences for off-task behavior. These consequences must not be punitive, and they must be flexible. They must, moreover, take into account the students’ needs and circumstances.

In a virtual classroom, observations and record-keeping become even more important. These records can help teachers identify and meet students’ needs. Behavior management software tools can help teachers with these tasks.

4. Difficulty Managing Time

Time management is another skill. It can be learned, but it must be taught. For most students, the structure of a physical classroom promotes time management skills.

In a virtual classroom, though, procrastination becomes much easier. Once again, the proliferation of distractions plays a big role.

In a virtual classroom, teacher—and often parent—supervision is also more limited. This means that accountability is also limited.

Finally, distance and other communication barriers mean students may not know what’s expected. Unless a teacher makes it explicit, students don’t know, for example, how many pieces of evidence to include in an answer. They don’t know how long is a reasonable amount of time to spend on an assignment.

Again, these are expectations educators must provide and the skills they must teach.

Teaching Students to Manage Their Time in a Virtual Classroom

In a virtual classroom, clear and measurable expectations are more important than ever. When assigning a new task, teachers should clearly define the outcome. Instead of asking students to “cite evidence,” ask students to “cite two pieces of evidence.” Offering examples of finished products can also be helpful in setting expectations.

Of course, expectations for an assignment include deadlines. However, teachers should also provide an estimate of the time students should spend on a task.

For larger tasks, chunking can help students manage their time and meet deadlines. Chunking refers to the process of breaking a task up into steps.

Assignment organizers, including virtual applications, can help students to plan their weeks. Once again, involving parents in this process is important to its success.

5. Isolation

Among the hardest elements to transfer to a virtual classroom is social-emotional learning. Education stakeholders most often focus on tangible measures of academic growth. These include academic standards and test scores. Increasingly, though, educators are focusing on developing the whole child.

In addition to academic gains, a social-emotional approach to education equips students to:

  • Regulate their emotions
  • Interact with others cooperatively and respectfully in various settings
  • Actively listen
  • Interpret facial expressions and body language
  • Manage stress and engage in self-care
  • Developing self-awareness
  • Show affection and empathy
  • Make responsible decisions
  • Engage in self-reflection

Remote learning imposes distance and other barriers to communication. These barriers make teaching these skills more difficult.

In a virtual classroom, teachers and students have fewer opportunities to interact. Without careful planning, they have fewer opportunities for academic discussions and cooperative learning. They also have fewer opportunities for informal interactions. Furthermore, the interactions they do have can often feel awkward and inauthentic.

Building Community in a Virtual Classroom

Once again, teachers can take steps to build a virtual community of learners. Providing students with face time is key. Show students your face and let students hear your voice when you teach. Also, consider recording informal videos and offering regular check-ins and virtual office hours.

Whenever possible, create opportunities for students to see and hear their peers too. Cloud tools, discussion boards, small group sessions, and chats can facilitate cooperative learning. Virtual meeting rooms let students interact informally during lunches and breaks.

These steps build relationships. They let students know you care. Plus, they can be opportunities to learn more about your students and their needs. This information can be key as you work to manage a virtual classroom.

Behavior Management in a Remote Classroom: It’s Virtually Possible

The virtual classroom is a challenging environment for teachers, students, parents, and administrators. Knowing how to manage a virtual classroom requires identifying common obstacles students face.

These obstacles are many and varied. Still, each can be addressed with compassion, creativity, and flexibility. Access to necessary resources can make this process easier. These resources include professional development and behavior management software.

Contact Insights to Behavior to learn more about our behavior management application.

School counselors, special education directors, school psychologists, and behavior interventionists can also explore our PD offerings. Register for our free monthly webinar series on managing student behavior today.

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