Building Engagement with Distance Learning

DL #13: Distance Learning is Emotional Work: Tips for Parents and Caregivers

TIES Center Distance Learning Series

Author Note: This article explores emotions and learning from the perspective of families. Check out our companion article, DL #14, that looks at emotions and learning through the lens of the teacher.

All learning, including remote learning, is first and foremost emotional. Emotions drive our thinking, including our attention, memory, and planning/executive functions. If our children are feeling anxious, nervous, or overwhelmed, then this will impact their ability to learn and perform on their school tasks. Likewise if we are feeling anxious, nervous, or overwhelmed, this will affect our ability to support their learning. 

What does this mean for children and families during distance learning, especially as we transition from the end of school and into summer? Should we be trying to manage our children’s emotions? Although controlling emotions might seem appealing, it can also be challenging. Here is another approach you can try: focus on understanding and naming our own emotions. When we understand our emotions, then we are better positioned to take on challenging situations and help our children manage their emotions during their learning. You do not need to become a specialist in emotions, but you will need to think more about your own feelings.

Here are three tips to deepen understanding and communication about emotions for learning. While you may modify the steps to work for you, we hope that some of the pieces will resonate.

Pay attention to your emotions, don’t minimize them

If you are supporting your child’s learning, you are being called upon to regulate your emotions in real time. Thinking and feeling are intertwined and it is almost impossible to have one without the other. 

  • Are you irritated when you can’t understand what your child is being asked to learn?
  • Does worrying about school schedules and communications make you upset, causing further family angst?
  • Do you feel relieved or happier when the weekend comes?

Instead of ignoring these emotional ups and downs, recognize that this is part of the process of supporting your child’s learning, especially when change happens suddenly. It might help to shift your focus from controlling your emotion to expressing emotions so that learning can happen. This can be difficult, as we often: 

  • do not show emotions in the same way,
  • do not feel comfortable sharing emotions,
  • worry that showing emotion is a sign of weakness or being difficult
  • worry that talking about emotions will distract from learning,
  • do not have a strong shared vocabulary to describe emotions,
  • do not have a system in place for sharing emotions and how they are impacting our learning.

Remind yourself that your emotions are important to learning, so don’t squash them, try to notice them. And keep in mind that doing so could provide important modeling for your child to be able to engage in the effective sharing of emotions as well.

Share your emotions as you and your child engage in learning tasks

Once you start noticing emotions, it will become easier to name and share them with others. Does sharing your emotions feel uncomfortable? You might feel like you need to minimize talk about emotions so that more efficient learning can happen, but often sharing emotions while they are happening can help with learning. When you begin to share your emotions during learning tasks, it does three important things:

  • It models language and vocabulary related to feelings
  • It deepens the understanding of how the current situation is impacting your emotions, and how that situation may need to be adjusted
  • It opens up opportunities to discuss feelings with your child and shows your child that feelings are important

A good time to talk about emotions might be when you and your child are engaged in a learning task. When appropriate, you can extend these conversations to ask your child about their feelings related to learning. For example, you might say:

  • “I am nervous to start this new social studies unit, I don’t know much about the National Parks and I am feeling irritated that I don’t understand what your teacher wants you to do today. What do you feel?” 
  • “I am so worried that we are going to miss our scheduled check-in time with your teacher because there is too much going on in our house today!”
  • “I am excited for us to have a break from learning today, this was a challenging week! Are you feeling the same?” 

Collaborating with teachers about what they have used in the classroom might help you to find tools or strategies that will lead to a common way to share emotions and feelings. For example, to share about emotions you could use simple communication boards with colors (e.g., yellow is calm), emojis (e.g., frustration has a jagged mouth), numbers (e.g., positive numbers = a range of positive emotions, negative numbers = a range of negative emotions), or words. Offer flexible ways for you and your child to brainstorm about their emotions, for example, encourage your child to write, draw, text, journal, or share out loud, use an AAC or communication device. Two existing tools used to help identify feelings are:

Note that learning does not require that we feel “good,” the full range of emotions are important. What is important is that we begin to recognize how emotions are connected to our learning and better communication of emotions can help us be productive and learn. Of course, many different factors may be contributing to you and your child’s emotions, not just the learning task. For example, our internal body or physical state, distractions or perceived threats in the environment, a lack of communication support, or our concern about something in the future could be underlying factors that they may share.

Make time for you and your child to both reflect on your emotions and learning

At first, you or your child may not quite know what you are feeling or why you feel this way, but the process of trying to express emotions during their learning is important to develop. With time and practice, this communication will become stronger and more robust and will lead to opportunities to discuss how you both can regulate emotion for learning. If appropriate, here are some discussion prompts to address what strategies helped support emotions for learning for both of you. For example, you could say:

  • How did taking breaks to check in on how we were feeling help you?
  • Can I tell you how thinking about my feelings helped me today?
  • Did you notice how moving your math work to the morning made us both less worried?
  • Let’s write a quick note to your teacher about how happy that journal assignment made us feel.


To successfully think, we need our emotions - cognition and emotions are never separate systems. To support the emotions for learning, there are several tips you can consider: 

  • Get in touch with your own emotions and the role they play in your child’s distance learning
  • Make talk about emotions part of learning, before, during and even after. 
  • Take stock of how you feel before you begin a learning task with your child and allow your child to share too. 
  • Identify supports or strategies that are most helpful in that situation to your learning, share about how the strategies and emotions supported or did not support your learning (e.g., using calm times and quiet spaces for the most challenging learning tasks or saving engaging activities for later in the day when energy might be low and one’s mood might be more negative)

Strategies will differ from day to day and what you think is best for a child may not always align with what your child thinks they need. Share what is working - or what is not working. Enjoy the learning process together. This opportunity to develop new routines and ways of understanding and communicating about emotions will benefit not just academic learning during distance learning, but will empower life-long learning habits for all.

Want to learn more about emotions for learning?

Distance Learning Series: DL #13, June, 2020

All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

  • Hartmann, E., & Posey, A. (2020). Distance learning is emotional work: Tips for parents and caregivers (DL #13). TIES Center.

TIES Center is supported through a cooperative agreement between the University of Minnesota and the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education (# H326Y170004). The Center is affiliated with the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) which is affiliated with the Institute on Community Integration (ICI) at the College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota. The contents of this report were developed under the Cooperative Agreement from the U.S. Department of Education, but do not necessarily represent the policy or opinions of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Readers should not assume endorsement by the federal government. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) leads the TIES Center partnership.  Collaborating partners are: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North-Carolina–Charlotte, and the University of North Carolina–Greensboro.

TIES Center

University of Minnesota

Institute on Community Integration

2025 East River Parkway

Minneapolis, MN 55414

Phone: 612-626-1530

This document is available in alternate formats upon request.

The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity employer and educator.