With the winter swiftly approaching, children and parents continue to grapple with the complexity of learning from home as the COVID-19 pandemic refuses to loosen its grip. While we had all hoped for a return to normalcy in the fall, such a goal still appears to be beyond the horizon. Indeed, the world seems as uncertain as ever, and parents don’t have the answers.
Many students are struggling with challenges around technology access and food insecurity. We don’t know when schools will fully reopen. We don’t know when our children can hug their grandparents, hang out with friends in person without painstaking scheduling and distancing, or play the sports they love that connect them to peers and community. Most of us aren’t experts in second-grade reading or fifth-grade math. Even parents who are fortunate enough to provide a safe and healthy home for their children are struggling to create the kind of calm and stable environment necessary for supporting emotional well-being and cognitive engagement.
Here are three steps — rooted in science and research — parents can take to help their students cope.
Put Your Oxygen Mask On First
Your children aren’t the only ones dealing with stress right now. As a parent, you’re under enormous pressure. Many of us are trying to hold down full-time jobs while facilitating an online learning environment, alongside the usual day-to-day tasks of raising kids. It’s a lot, especially with the pandemic largely still keeping us confined to our homes.
Blocking out distractions and staying focused is not easy. It requires a great amount of self-regulation, and even then the fatigue effect is never far behind. The well you draw upon to stay calm and focused is only so deep. It’s normal to need a break or to hit a wall and need a release. Self-regulation is about acknowledging -- and forgiving yourself -- when you lose your focus and your patience. And it’s about working to acquire the tools you need to get through each day, from getting extra support from partners and friends to building dedicated breaks into your schedule.
On airlines, we are told to “put your own oxygen mask on first, before attempting to help those around you.” The same should apply to your mental health. Your kids are not only learning from your example, they are co-regulating with you. As you self-regulate, your kids tend to fall in sync. Their ability to self-regulate -- to focus their attention and manage their emotions -- starts with you.
Pounce on Patterns
You know your kids better than anyone. Perhaps you’ve noticed your child now completely loses focus every day around 2 p.m. Maybe you’ve observed your kid getting fidgety or throwing a tantrum when it’s time for a particular lesson. My son, like clockwork, grabs the exact same number of snacks from the kitchen before a certain subject begins. It’s his coping mechanism.
Zoom is difficult enough for adults -- it can be torture for students. Parents should recognize the patterns within their children’s behavior and determine how to help them stay engaged when their focus begins to wane. Find ways to keep their bodies engaged. Let them use wireless headphones so they can stand up and stretch when they need to. Have them sit or stand on a BOSU Ball during class. Go for a walk at lunch, or have a short dance party between lessons. Recognizing and noting patterns will help you learn when it's best to inject these bursts of activity or moments of quiet restoration into your child’s day. It’s important you share these observations with your children’s teachers, so they know what to expect and when to allow greater flexibility.
Recognizing patterns can also help you better build a schedule around your child’s needs, which in turn can help you create new, healthier patterns. Just seeing a plan laid out before them can help kids refocus and feel safe. Remember to maintain a certain amount of flexibility, though. Your schedule should be aimed at providing security and predictably but not at the cost of agency. With so much out of their control right now, it’s important to give kids choices where we can.
Having a sense of purpose is critical to our mental health and well-being -- and right now that’s more important than ever. This is true for children, too. Seven months ago, the world was such a big place. Now, children are lucky if they have a backyard to explore. They are separated from their friends, their teachers, and even some of their family. They are locked out of familiar and reassuring routines.That absence of structure can create a vacuum that saps children of their sense of self.
Helping them find connection to a sense of purpose can help. This could be anchored around service, but it could also be found through exploring new hobbies and interests. My son, for example, has recently started his own YouTube channel exploring black historical figures. The idea for his channel grew from conversations we had about his desire to better understand what’s taking place in the country right now and to explore how he can contribute to a deeper understanding of the stories of black men and women and their contributions. This connects him to the broader conversation in society and to his community as a biracial boy in America — and to his obsession with YouTube.
Parents can help their children discover and develop their sense of purpose through these kinds of conversations. Indeed, it’s important to carve out time to build intentional relationships with your kids. Give them a hug. Talk about their day. Have tough conversations. With communities struggling through the pandemic, the impacts of climate change, and protests around racial injustice, there are certainly plenty of meaningful discussions to be had and ways for children to feel they can act and contribute. Support your children’s curiosities and share what you learn with your children’s teacher, so they can help make their at-home instruction more engaging and meaningful.
The pandemic is far from over, and health experts are saying we should prepare for a difficult winter. Wildfires may continue to rage on one coast as hurricanes slam the other. Civil unrest will likely continue and grow through and beyond the election. Take the time today to begin developing the coping skills and tools you’ll need to safeguard the mental health of your children -- and yourself -- in the months to come.