Recruit and Retain: The Future of Education

Children Who Thrive in Online Learning

Online learning has taken a toll on children -- at least when considered as a group. Some have fared worse than others. Some, on the other hand, have functioned better online. The group includes a wide range of children including some "creative types" and some with special needs. Some are not only able to self-manage but have more opportunity to excel when they're allowed to do so.

Children who require special education services have been among the populations hardest hit by physical school closures. Some can't have their needs met online because they require hand on hand guidance. Others have had their attentional needs challenged to the breaking point.

Some students with ADHD and autism, though, have fared better outside the traditional school environment, along with some students with anxiety and some others whose rhythms aren't quite in tune with the school day.

In physical classrooms, there are some children who struggle with controlling their impulses and staying out of other’s physical spaces. There are others who are edgy when they can’t maintain personal space or who easily enter states of overload. There are children who benefit from a high structure environment. Then there are children who don’t require as much structure – and who don’t thrive in it. Schools strive to individualize, but they can’t be everything to everyone, especially when there are lot of bodies in a small space.

Children learn best when in an optimal state of alertness. They have varying ways of reaching that optimal state.

There are anecdotal reports of students thriving -- including some who had behaviors that made it harder for others to focus and do their work. One middle school teacher told Edutopia about a student who fit the "class clown" prototype until learning went remote ( The teacher speculated that his behavior had become less distracting because he himself was no longer as distracted by everyday things and was better able to focus.

The Golden Star Tribune reported on one Bloomington Public Schools sixth grader with autism who surprised his family with his response to remote learning; he asked if he could keep going with online school ( NPR, meanwhile, profiled a student with ADHD and seizures who thrived when allowed to self-regulate (


In online schooling, students often have more down time that is truly their own. The new freedom may, curiously, include the ability to keep working right on through break time.

Call it flow time or call it hyperfocus: Some children really enjoy delving deep into topics. For some, a source of frustration for some, it means they're not performing to capacity. However, there is a cognitive cost to switching tracks. Some experience it more than others. The general public is more aware of the children who can't pay attention than the ones who can't stop paying attention or who have trouble switching tasks. Some children are slow to come up with ideas for writing assignments and projects but once they get going they can keep going. Some take a deep pleasure in their flow time.

School, in its more common forms, is full of transitions. The day is scheduled. Young children come to the rug and return to their seats multiple times a day. They put away one set of materials on cue and take out the next on cue. They take group bathroom breaks. They often don't have the option of staying in for recess to continue working on their projects.

The scheduling can give predictability. It can contribute to a sense of safety. Micro-scheduling takes place for a reason, but it’s often about meeting group needs more than individual ones. One basic fact of school life: Children can't be left alone in the classroom. Getting into line for recess – with the teachers managing the wiggly children in line and the ones who don't want to tear themselves away from what they’re doing -- is among the day’s routine challenges. If a child doesn't come promptly to line, the teacher may need to call the office.

Managing Anxiety

Social anxiety can make school difficult as can perfectionism. Some teachers have implemented rules about how children come to school even when it's in their own bedroom, for example, no ‘stuffies’. For some, it’s good -- it helps them stay in school mode. But some can use their stuffies!

There is an individual element to what constitutes a distraction and what constitutes a healthy break and opportunity for recharge. The Los Angeles Times profiled several 10- to 15-year-olds who found their school stress lessened when school went online. Gone were fears of getting to school late or not looking good to their peers. The 10-year-old enjoyed Lego breaks, which for him were not an academic distraction. The article noted though that the students had home support and the benefit of attending schools that were not entirely new to online learning.