Crisis Schooling during Covid19: supporting your child(ren) in a time of stress and change
Parents and guardians, right now many of you are faced with supporting your child’s education at home. The expectations from school districts vary greatly but if you are experiencing resistance trying to homeschool your children know that this is totally normal. Homeschooling is not an accurate term in the time of a global pandemic, this is crisis schooling. Our lives are disrupted in major ways and we are faced with multiple threats to our physical, mental and financial wellbeing. We are struggling to cope and support others effectively. No one is an expert here, no one in the world has experienced this type of crisis before. This is not a snow day. Your family’s safety is the first priority and needs to be addressed before we can think about learning.
When we lose control in our lives, we naturally seek control. Your child did not chose to stop going to school, stop seeing their friends, and stop doing activities they love. This can be traumatic for your child as it has the potential to be ‘overwhelming, unbelievable, and unbearable.’ This is renowned psychiatrist’s, Bessel van der Kolk’s definition of trauma. The need for agency is a human desire as powerful as hunger or thirst and when we experience loss of control we fight hard to get it back.
Here are some tips to helping your child cope and learn during the Covid19 pandemic:
- Staying home is great parenting! The combination of how contagious and how deadly this virus is means staying home is a heroic act. If you and your family stay home and do nothing else, you are an amazing parent/friend/partner/human. Do the best you can and please spare yourself judgement. This is not an easy time. If you need to go to work at this time and you ensure your child is safe, this is amazing parenting as well. Take a moment to celebrate these small wins.
- Focus on what is meaningful. When we are all uncertain about our future and afraid, we need activities that provide choice and have a sense of purpose. Connect what they are learning to what they love, give them options of when, how and where they work on it. Answer the question: why is this important to learn right now? and then have fun. Some children may find comfort in rote learning activities but others may need work that is tied to purpose. A friend shared that her Kindergartener was not engaged in worksheets but they would have engaging math conversations throughout the day. When my friend was cutting her daughter’s fingernails she asked: ‘If I cut three nails, how many do I have left?’ her daughter took the time to solve the problem because it was relevant and meaningful to her.
- Take a strength based view. Children who express a healthy level of autonomy are better able to resist negative pressures. Talking back is a good thing in moderation, it means they are practicing a skill that can be useful in dangerous times. Speaking up and seeking control is totally normal in this time, for parents our challenge is how to find ways your child can have autonomy. Maybe they can choose what to eat for dinner or what activities they want to engage in that day. When my daughter talked back to me, initially I was triggered, ‘how dare you talk to me like that?’ This can result in a power struggle in the best of times. Now I meet defiance with curiosity, view it as a healthy coping mechanism and set limits respectfully.
- Use humor and a multi-sensory approach. We all learn in the context of emotion. They are deeply tied together. Engaging your sense of humor and your senses helps reset the brain and can redirect behavior back to the task at hand. Try teaching using a hand puppet, take a brain break and do jumping jacks, put on some scented hand lotion. These playful, multi-sensory activities will help kids regulate and cope.
- Sit back and observe. Children create, construct and gain understanding in a variety of ways, trust their desire to learn. The calmer and more regulated we are as parents, the calmer and more regulated our children will be which sets the stage for learning. You will be surprised at what they learn in free play, follow their lead for some time with curiosity.
- Nothing is normal so not being ok is ok. Allow a meltdown a day. These are unprecedented times, we all should be allowed a moment where we are not our best selves without consequences. Allow kids a ‘redo’ or just let it go. Try again later and don’t take it personally. This goes for adults too. We are learning how to cope with a situation we have never dealt with before. If we are a little more on edge or overreact to small things, it is good to acknowledge that this is a traumatic stress response and to give ourselves space and compassion. Modeling how we cope with stress is more valuable than pretending we are not stressed and suppressing feelings.
- Establish a routine that works for you and your family. In stressful times, children benefit from predictability and routine. Each family is different, some of us may have one child and others may have several of varying ages. We can only do what works for us. It may be a very structured schedule works for your family whereas others may do a checklist of things to complete in a day in any order. Both are great. Teachers are also experiencing stress and struggling to do the best they can, this may come across by seeking control and mandating a schedule. Try the best you can but do not allow it to cause additional stress to your family. This is a time for education to be uplifting and engaging therefore assignments and expectations should be flexible.
- Connection is key. When we are stressed we release cortisol which causes us to be dysregulated and less focused. When we feel loved, we release oxytocin which gets rid of cortisol in our bodies. Relationships where we are seen and heard help us heal. Prioritize connection over compliance during this time. Let go of expectations temporarily and empathize. Schools often label resistant behavior ‘willful defiance’ and punish which leads to an escalation. Ask your child ‘what’s up?’ and take the time to listen. Dr. Ross Greene explains this beautifully: https://livesinthebalance.org/about-cps
As a school psychologist, I see how much parents love and want the best for their children. We are all doing the best we can. For some this is a pleasurable time with an increased focus on connection and family. For others this is a time of uncertainty which may trigger past traumas and produce additional stressors. It is important to know that you are not alone and it is ok to reach out for help. The term ‘Social Distancing’ is a misnomer, we need to be physically distant but socially connected. As we struggle to respond to this crisis one thing is for certain, we are living in a historic time that will change the way we live, work, and learn. We just haven’t figured out what that looks like yet.
If at any point you feel you cannot cope, please reach out for help. Crisis hotlines can be called when you need emotional support. 1–800–273–8255