Cyberschool seems to be becoming more popular, and I have been hearing about more families choosing it. I have heard various reasons for this, but a lot of them sound like avoidance- avoiding bullies, academic struggles, or unhappiness in a regular school environment. As a therapist I see a lot of avoidance, and I know that avoidance is rarely healthy. When we allow our kids to avoid things that are unpleasant or difficult for them, we send the wrong message.
On the other side, I’m sure there are positive reasons for attending cyberschool, for example, when attending a regular “brick and mortar” school just isn’t possible. This could include a child being an actor/actress, serious musician or athlete, or having a physical or medical condition that makes attending school on a regular basis difficult. Tianlang Guan, the 14 year old who played in the Master’s golf tournament this past weekend, likely attends cyberschool- or at least he will be if he continues doing well in the PGA. I would also bet that most actors and actresses on the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon do as well. And any school-aged child with a serious injury or chronic illness might have to attend cyberschool, at least during their course of treatment and recovery. Emily O’Connor of Pennsylvania is a case-in-point. She battled a chronic illness, yet through cyberschool has been able to be very successful academically. There may also be low-income families in which a teenager may need to work a significant number of hours or care for younger siblings, a parent, or an elderly, ill, or disabled family member. These families may lack the resources to have their children attend school full-time, and cyberschool may be their only alternative to dropping out. For any of these children, cyberschool can be a wonderful option to keep them from falling behind or giving up, and helping them to continue their education while pursuing dreams or dealing with difficult circumstances.
In this post I thought I would discuss the pros and cons of cyberschool, through what I know about child development and family dynamics, as well as my professional experience. I have given some examples of when cyberschool can not only be appropriate, but necessary. For the average kid, however, I do not believe that cyberschool is a healthy option, and there are a number of reasons for this. I’ve compiled a list of positives and negatives here with some of my thoughts, which I hope will give anyone in this situation some things to consider.
First we have some positives:
1. Flexible schedule- students can learn in their own time, around work, activities, appointments, hospitalizations/surgeries, or other responsibilities. Cyberschool may be the best or only option in these instances- but again, most students don’t fit these criteria. For students, learning to balance school, activities, family, and a social life is a critical life skill, and allowing your child to forego a traditional school environment can perhaps give him or her a false sense of what things are going to be like as an adult. Many adults, most of whom attended a regular school program, tend to struggle with work/life balance, so getting more practice with this while growing up can be very important.
2. Good for families who travel or move often- for example, if a parent is a diplomat, military official, or high-ranking executive. If it’s necessary for your whole family to move around this often, cyberschool may be your only option at having some continuity in your child’s education. Most families in this situation, though, are able to stay in one place while mom or dad travels for work.
3. Students can work at their own pace- such as if they have a learning disability and have difficulty in a regular classroom. This may be true, however, if your child has a documented learning disability, the school is required to offer accommodations to help him or her to succeed. And as a parent, you need to advocate for the necessary accommodations and supports to be put in place. Avoiding this, or giving up too easily sets your child up not to be challenged, which is a mistake in terms of helping your child to get the best education possible. Having your child work at home through a cyber program may also make things more difficult, taking away necessary structure and opportunities for assistance.
4. Helps parents who want to homeschool structure their child’s education. Some parents would like to homeschool their children, but they are not teachers, aren’t sure where to start or how to do it, or aren’t terribly structured or organized themselves. Doing a cyber program might help these parents to homeschool more easily.
5. Allows for more flexibility in what is learned and how. This can be beneficial, especially for students who are very intelligent and highly motivated (on their own) to learn. For those students, this can allow for creativity, unique experiences, and perhaps some wonderful educational opportunities. However, most students don’t fit into this category, so it’s important to understand this. This kind of flexibility can be enabling for students who are okay with doing the bare minimum or doing work that is “good enough”, meaning that they may not be as challenged as they would in a traditional school environment. Being challenged is critical for learning and for increasing motivation.
6. Students have the safety of their own home- possibly less access to negative influences, drugs, violence, etc. This may be true, but is the danger of this real, or is it exaggerated by the school’s reputation, what you have seen in the news, or your own fears? I’m not minimizing the fact that some schools or neighborhoods have some very real danger, but I’m suggesting that incidents in the news or hearsay from others might contribute to a false sense of the danger in your child’s school. And many of the kids who are into drugs, violence, etc. don’t attend school much, so the risk of exposure to these elements may be higher at home than you think- particularly if your child has constant access to the Internet or a cell phone and you are not home the entire time.
7. Fewer social distractions- bullying, gossiping, and other social drama. Opportunities for this can be minimized by keeping your child at home, but if he or she has friends or interacts online or outside of school, there will still be some of this. And although it can be problematic for children and annoying for parents, students need to socialize and there is bound to be some drama that comes along with learning how to do this appropriately. Depriving your child of social opportunities is not healthy, and if you shelter your child, he or she is likely to have problems when it comes time for moving out on his or her own for the first time- such as going to college.
8. Offering children a better education when they live in a “bad” (i.e. low-income, high crime, poor reputation) school district. This may be a valid argument for some, but there are also likely charter schools your child can attend, where he or she can get the benefits of a regular school. There may also be local private schools, if you can afford it or can qualify for financial aid.
Now, we have the cons:
1. Limited opportunities for social skill development- including working with others, making and keeping friends, learning social norms and expectations, and opportunities to experience diversity. This one is particularly important for students who leave regular schools due to being bullied or experiencing other social problems, and especially for students with learning disabilities, ADHD, or Autism Spectrum Disorders like Asperger’s. These students in particular need to practice their social skills, although they may require more support from school staff. Leaving a school environment to avoid these problems may ease your immediate situation, but in the long run does more harm for the child than good. Before considering cyberschool I would take every step possible beforehand, such as being in contact with my child’s teachers, counselors, and principal; attending IEP and other meetings if applicable; and advocating for the necessary supports to be implemented. All children have a right to a quality education, but too often parents find it easier to leave a situation than to “make waves” or create a confrontation. Your child also has a right to be safe and respected in school, and you don’t need to stand for anything less. The school will respond if you take these issues seriously. School is the primary place where children learn how to behave in “the real world”, so if you take this away, your child will likely be missing out. If you ask people in college admissions or employers, they would tell you that social skills rank very high in terms of what they think is important to gain admission to their programs or to be employed by their companies.
2. Sacrificing student-teacher interaction. Of course students can learn on their own or through virtual interactions, but student-teacher interaction is a valuable part of education. For example, with cyber education a student can know when he or she is correct or incorrect about something, but there may be little opportunity to know why- unless the student makes the effort, which could be unlikely (unless he or she is inherently motivated to learn). Even if you work closely with your child, you are probably not a teacher and lack the training needed for learning to be most effective. And even if you are a teacher, students benefit from a variety of perspectives and may not be able to differentiate mom or dad from their teacher, perhaps harming their learning process as well.
3. Less structure, requiring students to do this for themselves, which many struggle with. Again, for students who struggle in low-structure environments, this is going to set them up for a difficult time. This is true to varying degrees for most children, and in particular for students with learning difficulties, ADHD, or even anxiety. Self-discipline is one of the most important skills we will learn as we become adults, and those who don’t learn this will have a very difficult transition- to college, the work world, and to financial independence.
4. Potential for increased cyberbullying- either of or by your child. The more time your child spends online, the higher the probability that this will occur- especially if you’re not there watching their every keystroke (which I don’t recommend). If you say, “My child would never do that!”, how do you know? Many kids who engage in cyberbullying don’t even know they’re doing it. As far as they see it, they’re just having fun with friends- or they think that because it’s online it’s somehow not real and not hurting anyone. In fact, many children laugh at the idea, but it happens a lot.
5. Schools teach important, “real world” skills, like prioritizing, scheduling, meeting deadlines, being accountable, and working within a rules-based system, which will be important in college and/or the work world. Unless your child attends an online college and immediately starts his or her own business which offers significant flexibility, others aren’t going to bend their rules or expectations in order help your child to be successful. There is nothing that colleges and employers like less than a sense of entitlement, which I’ve read is a major complaint about college graduates over the last ten years. Intelligence is important, but in today’s economy, those lacking the skills needed to make it are going to get left behind. It can be difficult to learn these skills in a “loosey goosey” program. Parents can teach some of these skills, but school is the primary place where these skills are typically learned.
6. Attending school at home may bring more distractions– like video games, TV, movies, toys, going outside on a nice day, and so on. Some ability to self-structure, to complete work, and to give work a serious effort is required when out of a traditional school environment. Many kids will struggle with this.
7. Colleges or future employers might frown upon cyber education. I don’t know this to be true, but this is something to think about or research for yourself. There may be some very good, rigorous programs out there, but I have yet to hear of a particularly prestigious cyber program. This may be based on biases, but my impression is that cyberschool is not viewed as a positive thing.
8. Attending school from home may actually provide more access to negative influences– antisocial peers who either don’t attend school or are skipping school, are often using drugs, drinking, or engaging in other negative activities. If you aren’t home during the day with your child and he or she is unsupervised, this could lead to problems. I’ve worked with a lot of adolescents who were into drinking and drugs, and a common thread was poor school attendance.
9. Not all cyber programs are accredited. With any educational program, you need to be sure they have the necessary accreditation, which is like a seal of approval from an educational organization or governing body and means that the program has met a certain quality standard. This is something you should look for in any program, and with the number of programs that seem to be popping up, it’s likely that some don’t meet the necessary guidelines.
When we solve any problem, we should not only think about the positives and negatives, but we need to decide how much weight they each carry. Some pros or cons may mean more to us than others. We also need to consider how any decision might affect our long-term goals. So if cyberschool is something you are considering, think of each of the pros and cons above and what your personal reactions are to each. You need to view these in light of your own situation and values as well. In addition, here are a few questions you might ask yourself:
1. Am I considering cyberschool so my child or I can avoid something unpleasant?
2. How will the cyber program help my child to prepare for life as an adult?
3. What are the logistics of how this will work? When will my child do work? How will my child be evaluated? Will there be any supervision? What else would be important for me to understand?
4. Are there any alternatives to cyberschool that I haven’t considered?
Finally, if your child is struggling in school you should certainly talk with his or her teachers and seek out the necessary supports and information. In addition, depending on the issue, your child or family might benefit from seeing a psychologist. A psychologist can help your child to work through particular issues, develop skills, or make a successful transition to a new school or educational environment. A psychologist could also help your family to navigate any of the circumstances I have discussed. Ask your child’s counselor who he or she would recommend, ask a friend, or check for psychologists practicing in your local area.
(c) Jesse D. Matthews, Psy.D., 2013
*ADDENDUM* (August 18, 2015)
Since I have received a lot of feedback on this article- much of it defending cyberschool, it seemed appropriate to offer clarification. First, I thought I had effectively listed pros and cons of cyberschool (or home school, for that matter), but I suppose the title reflects a bias against it. To clarify, and this is taking into account some of the feedback I have received, when I talk about cons of cyberschool (or pros, even), these do not apply to everyone.
There are plenty of great parents out there who prefer that their child attend school at home and/or online. It is a parent’s right to choose, provided that their child is getting an education. Such parents work with their children, ensure that the work is getting done, and they supplement their children’s education with a lot of great experiences- in nature, at places like museums, and getting together, either socially or for educational purposes, with other families doing the same things. For example, many home or cyberschooling families join co-ops, where they regularly spend time with other families, peers, and educators for activities. In any of these situations, a nontraditional education may be the best thing for the child- at least in the eyes of his or her parents. Some children may thrive in this kind of setting, much more than in a traditional curriculum.
On the other hand, any bias likely comes from my own interactions with children who are doing cyberschool. It is, of course, a skewed sample, since these children are often seen in the context of therapy (their parents recognized some type of “problem” and brought them to see me) or in juvenile detention (so there are legal issues and perhaps mental health and substance abuse too). In most of these cases, the children were not succeeding academically and were put in cyberschool as a way to continue their education, either when they stopped attending school, were expelled, or their parents pulled them out. And oftentimes the children were left home alone all day, often doing little to no work at all. Of course, many parents have to work, but a lot of them didn’t exactly put in time when they were home. So not surprisingly, their children didn’t have much success there either. In my experience, many of these children would be better off in some kind of a structured and supervised setting. I recognize that many alternative programs are not academically rigorous, but at least they would be getting an education and would have some sort of structure during their days, which may at least reduce the harm of doing nothing during this time. Then, of course, you have children with anxiety, ADHD, or learning disabilities, who require more support than they may get at home- especially if left to their own devices. Many of these children, too, would do better in a setting where they can get that kind of support.
I’ve attempted here to clarify some points from the article which I think did not come across in the right way the first time. I hope readers will understand that any bias here was based on my clinical experience (which again, I admit is based on a skewed sample of the overall population) and not some vendetta I have against cyberschool or families who choose it. It is the right thing for many families, but like anything else, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to education, so it may not be helpful to some.