As we are already several months into the academic year, we are starting to learn what works and what doesn’t. We are also preparing ourselves for the possibility that everything will change again as colder temperatures and flu season approach. Most likely, we have become well versed in what does not work when it comes to schooling, whether it be entirely remote, through hybrid learning or a return to in-person classes with a whole host of new rules. As we navigate these challenging times, there is no shortage of articles, news stories and videos covering the topic and offering advice. To help sort through all of this information, we find it helpful to break up tips into three categories and then within those categories consider different options to choose from that may work for your family. The categories: routine and predictability, facilitating open discussion, and encouraging self-care. Keep in mind as you consider these categories and specific ideas that while the details may differ depending on the age of the child you are focusing on, the underlying principles apply throughout childhood and adolescence, and, indeed, across the lifespan. It also may be helpful to consider that while the goal of school is primarily centered around academic outcomes, it has grown to serve so much more than that in the lives and development of youth. While learning facts and how to be a good test taker are helpful in navigating today’s society as an adult, the best way to foster a child’s happiness and self-actualization is to use this time to teach resilience and psychological flexibility.
Routine and Predictability When faced with times of such uncertainty and chaotic nature, it is best to take a breath and focus on the basics. This is where structure and routine play a major role. When we find ourselves spiraling (as adults, children or adolescents), being able to rely on even the smallest routines can provide predictability, and even comfort. Keeping home life as predictable as possible will provide the entire family with the structure needed to navigate times that are completely unpredictable otherwise. In tackling this, we recommend starting small:
A reliable physical environment can be quite important to establish a sense of predictability. This does not mean the child needs a full home office. Something visual that clearly marks a consistent space where they are expected to complete their schoolwork is important in helping to orient them and facilitate transitions between “school time” and “home time”.
While all of these structures and routines are helpful for predictability, for some they can take away a sense of control from a child in a very uncontrollable time, which runs the risk of increasing anxiety and frustration. To address this, it is helpful to increase a sense of control in your child by offering choices when appropriate.
In As difficult as this time is for you and your child, this is a true opportunity for socioemotional learning and facilitating a stronger and more open connection between your child and the rest of the family. This is a chance to explore where some of the big emotions that are coming up now fit into your child’s development. If it hasn’t already become clear, one thing that children are fantastic at is picking up on household and adult anxiety. They tend to be aware when something is off. This is a very important time to be honest with your child, while also being reassuring. So much is unknown, which can be unsettling for adults and children both.
By clearly acknowledging things you don’t know (will school ever open up, will school close again, etc), while also emphasizing the reassuring things you do know (we live in a safe home environment, I am and will continue to be here with you, we will update and support you through whatever happens), you are conveying and role modeling an approach to confronting uncertainty in life.
When providing explanations or updates to children, it is helpful to do so in a developmentally appropriate way – sharing information that is clear and understandable will be essential to addressing their anxieties. Visual aids may be especially helpful, particularly when discussing day to day routines, handwashing expectations, mask wearing expectations and physical distancing.
Another important piece of open discussion is knowing what your child is exposed to through social media, the news or peers. This can help you be informed as to some of the worries or anxieties that your child may have. It is important to keep in mind the following basic themes: productive vs unproductive worries, maintaining reasonable expectations and knowing your resources.
Even before COVID hit, self-care was a hot topic. Similar to the opportunity to facilitate deeper connection and open discussion with your child, this is a fantastic opportunity for building resilience through focusing on the importance of caring for themselves during difficult times. Though this may not fall under one’s traditional idea of “self-care”, a huge piece of this is fostering growth in your child’s socioemotional learning. This should be worked into part of their every day routine and can be done in a variety of ways.
Humans are social beings and attending deliberately to social interactions is an important part of self care. The time of COVID has led to an increased sense of isolation from others, which has continued into the school year whether the child is attending school in person or remotely. It will be important to foster human connection even more during this year. This can be done through facilitating group discussion in school, virtual or physically distanced hangouts with peers outside of school, sending letters to friends, studying or completing assignments together virtually or in a physically distanced way or other creative ways (such as making a joint playlist together).
In addressing caring for themselves when they are alone, this is a time to encourage new skills such as mindfulness or grounding techniques. For younger children, mindfulness often resembles playing, especially playing make-believe, as it engages their imagination but in a way that focuses on the moment and their “right now” experience. In talking about play, it is important to stress the need for active engagement. While spending so much time inside and with the limit of extracurricular activities, it is important to facilitate hands-on activities when families can. This can be done with outdoor activities such as walking or biking or with indoor activities such as board games, crafting, drawing or painting, cooking or having family dinners.
Lastly, and most importantly of this entire article is the importance of role-modeling self care and fostering self-compassion. This is one of the most difficult times that your family may go through, and everyone is going through it at the same time. Everyone will have their periods when they are experiencing big emotions and big reactions. It is important to have compassion for yourself and for your children. It is also important to encourage them to have compassion for themselves as this is arguably more important for them to learn during this time than any academic syllabus.
Continue to: Schooling in the Time of COVID, Part 2 of 3