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Online School is Now in Session: Seven Tips to Set Up Student Work Areas

As the 2020-2021 school year kicks off, online school is still in the cards for many students in the U.S. What we all thought (hoped) would be a temporary measure in the Spring has become the new reality –at least for the short-term. And, of course, it's not just schools that have had to pivot. Caretakers and college students are now spending the time to outfit their living spaces to make academics as fun, productive, and educational as possible – for however long online school and college are ‘learn from home.'

Whether you're already in that boat or about to hop on board, keep reading for our top tips to setting up your students' (or your own) work areas for academic success – from grade school to college.

male student sitting at desk facing computer

TIP #1: Pick the Place. Every online learner in your household needs his or her own space to plug in and get cracking. But how to pick the place…especially when there's more than one student in session?

"Don't get locked in by what worked before," says Olivia Omega, Speaker and Brand Strategist and mother of three students learning from home in Denver. "The spaces that were fine in the Spring may be all wrong for today's needs. Walk through the house with your student/s and ask where they feel comfortable or might want to set up. Their answers may surprise you or make you see new possibilities in your home."

Some potentially overlooked spots include kitchen islands or nooks, children's bedrooms, and outdoor areas like balconies or porches. Choices that may have been hard to commit to in the Spring – like lofting a bed to get additional space or completely clearing out a closet – may start looking like doable solutions.

TIP #2: Analyze the Space. Once you've got the places picked out, pull up a chair and start really thinking the work area through. Are there enough electrical outlets? Is there space to turn in a desk chair? Is there any exterior light coming in? Is there too much exterior light coming in? How's the noise level?

After you've analyzed the what's and how's of the space, think about what could be done to make it better. Some of our customer's suggestions include:

  • Power strips with USB ports
  • Desktop fans
  • Window shades
  • Extra-long charger cords
  • Either desktop or drawer storage for pens, paper and books
  • Scholarly wall hangings (e.g., a multiplication chart or solar system poster)
  • Easy to grab reference books, including a desktop dictionary and thesaurus
  • "Comfy area" like a beanbag chair or soft carpet for reading

You can also get more cost-friendly tips for your homeschool space in our Home Office Setup Ideas blog, which recommends – among other things – adding adhesive hooks for cord management and making sure there's room for comforting items from around the house (like a throw pillow, blanket or plant).   

TIP #3: Consider the Customer. Online school is obviously going to look very different for a kindergartner and a high schooler, much less a kindergartner and a college student, but it also could look very different for students closer in age. Consider the specific needs of each of your young pupils and try to match the space or the features to the person as best you can.

"A child who can read and operate a computer by themselves for more complicated assignments is going to have different requirements than a youngster who needs close monitoring for short spurts," says Omega. "Seating is one aspect that can vary quite a bit depending on age. My 18-year-old daughter, for instance, prefers to curl up in a big comfy chair in her room to get work done while my 15-year-old son happily uses the same desk and office chair setup he uses for gaming. Primary school teacher friends of mine also recommend ‘activity chairs‘ or ‘wiggle chairs' to help focus younger kids."

Don't skimp on the décor either. Whether your student's main interest is Sponge Bob, skateboarding or social justice, invest in a wall hanging, framed picture or inspirational quote to get them feeling comfortable from the start. Many students will be participating in virtual classrooms, so work with them to pick out something that represents their unique selves that can be seen when they go online.

TIP #4: Make Way, Make Way. Just like Moana's Dad sings, you've definitely got to make way – and room! – for all your students and their new learning set-ups. If you're feeling cramped, take a good hard look at your household and move anything that's not 100% necessary for the next three to six months into storage. Our SmartRental contact-free storage process is a quick, easy, and affordable way to make way for academic success – and mental serenity. After all, no one performs at their best crammed into an uncomfortable or crowded space.

If all you've got to work with is a chair and a table, however, Omega recommends trying your hand at some (light) arts & crafts to make an inexpensive homeschool classroom of sorts.

woman with paint brushes

 "Kentucky special education teacher and Mom Angelina Harper went viral over the summer with her ingenious foam core ‘portable work stations' for kids that can work at an island or tabletop – and moved all around the house. Heck, I'm thinking about trying it out for myself!"

Don't forget about your outdoor space either. Many students will likely be required to participate in some form of P.E. and it's tough to jump rope in a packed living room. If you have a yard, porch, or balcony, clear it out and make it usable for your students' physical assignments – at least until the weather holds. 

TIP #5 Use What You've Got. The coming of COVID-19 has forced a lot of us to get a lot more comfortable with ‘using what we've got' rather than running out to purchase a quick fix. Before you commit to buying anything, take a long look around your house – and your storage unit. Could that nightstand be a good table for a printer? Could a yoga mat help wheeled chairs move more easily on a carpet? Could that old art supply box be cleaned out and used for office items?

Online school means all of us – students, educators, and caretakers – must get creative about what we actually need, and what can do in a pinch. While there's no guarantee that 100% of students will be back in their classrooms and dormitories in 2020, there's also no need to spend a lot of money on items that might not be necessary in a few months or year. 

TIP #6: Get Feedback – and Adjust. Whatever you do to get ready for the first bell ring, don't feel too locked into it – and don't make your student/s feel too locked into it either. Ask your student/s what's working – and what's not – and be prepared to help make changes to improve outcomes. If your child mentions a squeaky chair or a distracting dog or a sore neck, listen to what they say and try to find solutions.

"Ultimately, students know what they like and don't like about their set-ups, but it may fall to you to coax answers out of them," says Omega. "Assure them that you want them to be as successful as possible and as comfortable as possible and that you'll work with them to make online school during COVID-19 tolerable if not enjoyable. If there's a lot of pushback to the idea of even using a dedicated space, try to keep your patience and think up alternate ideas. Some kids just aren't good at identifying what's bothering them, or what they may need that they don't have, so stay calm and keep the lines of communication open. If, at the end of the day, your student does his or her best work sitting on the floor in the kitchen with the cat, well then – you've got your set-up."

TIP #7 Crowdsource Solutions. If you're at your wit's end with online school and have run out of ideas to make your home work for homework, quit trying to come up with all the solutions on your own. Ask around what your friends, fellow parents, and teachers recommend. People are generally happy to share inventive techniques or ideas they've stumbled across, especially during these very unique times. Sure, blog posts like this are great, but don't forget that you can – and should – still benefit from the social safety net provided by the schools and fellow parents. And if you've come up with a fantastic idea for your student's homeschool spaces, by all means, make a point to share it with your network – and us!

There's no question that online school presents a lot of challenges for everyone affected. While we can't control outcomes on a large scale, we can control (or at least adjust) the spaces that our students work from to help them prosper. If you approach the challenge with creativity and collaboration in mind, there's no telling what you and your student/s will develop – and what lessons you'll learn that have nothing to do with schoolwork, and everything to do with teamwork.

About the author

Bree Neely

Bree Neely is a communications expert and former Brooklynite based out of Denver, Colorado. She is co-founder of Direct Object, a marketing firm serving national B2B and B2C clients. When not tapping away at her keyboard, she keeps busy traveling, skiing and overseeing a variety of children and animals.

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