How Online Learning Can Affect Student Health

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When the coronavirus pandemic began in earnest in the US in March 2020, schools and universities across the nation went into lockdown. Millions of students were required to complete their spring semester studying remotely from home. The results, unfortunately, were far from stellar.


And yet, as infection rates continue to soar in many states, it looks increasingly like those same students will be spending at least part of their fall semester online as well. Several of the largest school districts in the US have already announced their plans to remain closed for the time being.


While experts fear the effect that continued school closures will have on students’ academic and social wellbeing, the potential health impacts are no less significant. The good news, though, is that there are many things you can do to not only to help your little online scholar learning, but also to keep them happy and healthy along the way.

Special Needs Students

Every learner is unique, and their needs are unique as well. However, students who have been diagnosed with a particular learning challenge may face particular obstacles in making the transition to online learning, particularly if they were enrolled in special education courses on-ground. 


Students may feel disoriented by the sudden transition to remote learning. They may feel isolated by not seeing their peers and teachers on a daily basis. And the stress and anxiety of such an abrupt change might exacerbate the health challenges they already face, whether physical, psychological, or emotional.


The good news, however, is that, as difficult as the unexpected shift to online learning may be, there are also incredible opportunities. In fact, the adaptability of remote learning technologies can be especially beneficial for special needs students. 


For instance, it’s currently estimated that 1 in every 160 children is on the autism spectrum. While these children may struggle in a typical on-campus environment, online learning provides options for tailoring learning strategies to the students’ exact needs and interests. 


This can range from the enhanced use of interactive games and visual elements to the integration of music, each of which can benefit not only the students’ learning, but also their emotional and mental health. And when students are happier and more peaceful, they’re also going to be less stressed, which has been shown to decrease inflammation and boost the immune system.  

Setting the Stage

Whether your child is managing a pre-existing condition or not, trying to succeed in a remote learning environment can be immensely stressful for children and parents alike. One of the best ways to reduce that stress is to set the stage for your child’s success.


And we mean that literally. Creating a workstation dedicated solely for your child’s at-home school day will help them to feel more at ease with online learning. Ideally, they’ll have what they need to do their work efficiently and effectively right at their fingertips. 


Best of all, when your child sits down at her workstation, her brain will soon learn to recognize this space as the time and place for focused work. This can also help your little learner (and you) better differentiate between the at-home school day and your child’s off-time. After all, whether you’re talking about your career or your child;s schooling, when you go remote, it can be very hard to maintain the proper work/life balance


One of the most difficult lessons that telecommuters can learn is how to maintain boundaries to avoid the temptation to always be working, or the guilt that comes from not working when you think you should be. And that’s a lesson that online students must learn as well, if they’re not going to fall prey to stress, anxiety, or physical and mental exhaustion.  

Sleep Disruption

The significant increase in screen time that is inevitable with the transition to online learning can also have a strongly negative impact on the quality of children’s sleep. Studies show that the blue light emitted by today’s digital screens can decrease the brain’s ability to produce and absorb melatonin, the body’s principal sleep hormone.


And when children aren’t getting consistent, quality sleep, they’re at greater risk for a number of physical and psychological effects. They’re going to be moodier and more irritable. They’ll likely have difficulty with memory and concentration, impacting their ability to learn. 


Worse, perhaps, is the decrease in immune function and the increased risk of high blood pressure and blood glucose levels. Even if your child is otherwise healthy, these are health impacts that can be particularly dangerous in the face of a pandemic.


To mitigate these effects of increased screen time, it’s vital to practice good sleep hygiene. That means setting a strict early evening cut-off time for all blue light-emitting digital devices and perhaps even establishing a no-device-in-the-bedroom policy


You may even choose to invest in blue light filtering glasses or screen covers to reduce your child’s exposure. Still, though, nothing has been shown to be as effective as reducing daily screen time and stopping use of all digital devices several hours before bedtime.  

The Eyes (and Ears) Have It

Teachers are specifically trained to spot the subtle signs of vision and hearing challenges in their students, especially the youngest learners. With the transition to remote learning, though, teachers aren’t getting that chance. 


And that’s why it’s more important than ever for parents to learn to spot the signs for themselves. For example, if your child is having frequent headaches, is squinting, or has poor hand-eye coordination, that may be a sign of vision problems. Likewise, if your child has difficulty pronouncing certain words, asks you to repeat yourself, or is slow to respond to you when you speak to them, they may be experiencing hearing loss.


The good news is, you may be able to have your child’s vision or hearing checked through telehealth services, rather than risking a trip to a clinic. 


If it turns out that your child is experiencing challenges with their sight or hearing, though, online learning can be a particularly useful tool for accommodating their needs. E-learning platforms, in general, can be easily and affordably adapted with screen readers, for example, for students with visual impairments.

The Takeaway

The sudden shift to online learning has important implications not only for children’s academic wellbeing, but also for their physical, psychological, and emotional health. The good news, however, is that for almost every negative impact, there is a positive solution. The key is to be informed and proactive so that your child’s remote learning experience can turn out to be even better than you ever imagined!

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