Our children are turning into ‘zoombies’; what can teachers do to help?

Children’s confidence coach Nadine Shenton offers teachers practical advice about building positive online learning experiences in case of another lockdown

As reported in The Times, online lessons and virtual schooling seems to be turning our children into ‘Zoom zombies’ and it’s seriously tiring them out. According to Professor Rob Lue, who runs a centre for teaching at Harvard, our children are spending so much time in virtual classrooms that it’s leading to exhaustion and Zoom-fatigue.

Interestingly, it seems that the more successful the school has been at rolling out online lessons, the bigger the problem actually is. Independent schools have been brilliant at pivoting from the usual school routine to providing a full timetable of online education. For many pupils each day started with an 8.40am assembly and, aside from a few breaks for snacks and lunch, continued with virtual lessons until 4pm. But is there a downside to the quick transition into online learning?

As a coach, specialising in boosting confidence in children, I can totally see why children became so exhausted at the end of last year. Why? Because talking to a screen is so much harder than talking to a room full of people face to face. The reality of working 100% from a screen is that it’s seriously draining. Maybe not physically but mentally it can really take it out of us because our brains aren’t used to so much direct eye contact.

There’s nothing remotely natural about having a screen full of faces staring at us.  When children are in a room with their classmates and teachers (in real life) their faces are never so close, eye contact is much more subtle and also physically move about their classroom or assembly hall to see things from different perspectives. This isn’t the case with virtual lessons.

I know many schools are hoping to return to ‘school as normal’ when the term arrives next month. But I also know that schools are planning in readiness for another lockdown. If that time does come, headteachers and staff need to be equipped with the skills to help their pupils so that they can help boost their energy, refocus their thoughts and inject some fun into their school days spent online.

Here are five tips on how to encourage a positive student experience during virtual schooling.

Keep them moving

Since lockdown, pupils have been going from one online lesson to the next, yet never moving their bodies. Being so still is not what any of us are designed to do, in particular children! I know many schools switched from hour-long lessons to 40 or 50 minute lessons to ensure that children had a break between learning time.

During those breaks, encourage children to move, even if it’s just for five minutes. No matter how old students are they will benefit from moving around their space.

They need to get up and move around, be it a walk in the garden, running up and down the stairs, doing a quick stretching routine. It’s not only good for them physically, it’s also important mentally as it will help refocus their minds ready for the next lesson.

Exercise idea

Get them into the habit of stretching their arms and legs wide (like a cat) or reaching towards the sky and taking deep breaths in. These are great ways to get the blood circulating and increase the intake of oxygen to the brain.

It’s good to talk

Pupils will feel isolated and lost as they learn alone. The teacher-pupil relationship is essential for learning to continue but now, more than ever, students need to be able to connect with each other. Find creative ways to help students feel part of the class. Allow them to have their cameras on during certain times or lessons so that they can see each other’s faces.

This might not be productive all of the time but some of the time it will help them feel connected with their peer group. Remember, this isn’t like a normal school day where they will leave a lesson and chat to friends walking through the corridors or at lunchtime. They leave their online lessons alone and start the next lesson alone. So time together, even if it is online, is vital.

Exercise idea

Play a game with the class such as ‘I went to the shop and bought a… camel… milkshake… football’ and so forth. Work around the class so that each child gets involved. It’s fun and inclusive, and will re-energise them ready for their next lesson.

Ask each child to share an interesting fact on a particular subject, or it could be something totally random. They can share it with the class or with the year group so that they each feel involved.

Repetition is a good thing

Once a teacher has found their way of teaching online, get them to stick with it. When learning online, students don’t like frequent changes in their learning style. It’s confusing and tiring. Once a teacher has a winning formula, allow them to feel happy to repeat the same structure and the same activities.

That said, ask for student feedback on lessons. Are they informative, is the content engaging enough, is there good use of video and other visual aids, are students encouraged to get involved? It’s important for teachers to know what is working and what is not, and this will also allow the students to feel part of the online learning journey.

Prioritise wellbeing in an inclusive way

We’ve all experienced a full term of online learning and lessons have certainly come out of that time. As we go into a new school year, as much as it’s vital that pupils are learning what they need to, and time isn’t wasted and opportunities missed, wellbeing has to be put to the top of the agenda too.

We know that students are stressed and worried for the future. We know that many are feeling isolated and alone. Find time in the timetable to prioritise wellbeing but make it a group activity, again to encourage team work.

Exercise idea

Set students the task of writing out 10 cards, each with an activity they find calming. Make this a group activity and ask pupils to brainstorm calming ideas that are actionable within the school day. Some examples might include:

  • Take time to drink a glass of water (mindfully)
  • Read a chapter of a book
  • Listen to some classical music
  • Think of one thing your grateful for

Parents are your co-teachers

Parents are now more involved than ever with their children’s education but many simply don’t know what to do. As a school you can encourage and empower them with things they can do that are within their control.

Ensure that parents feel part of the school community and ask them to get involved. Stress to them the importance of regular times for sleeping, time spent off devices, good food and exercise. With children working alone during the school day, stress to parents the importance of quality time together.

Weekly online drop-ins with the headteacher or head of year will be welcomed by parents who want to help their children at this difficult time.


Nadine Shenton is a specialist children’s confidence coach based in Hampstead, London and the founder of Confidence In Kids.

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