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Mental Health: Schooltime Transition During Covid-19

Schooltime Transition during Covid-19

What is normally an exciting time for parents has become anxiety-provoking with the impact of Covid-19 on traditional learning environments. Dr. Wesley Sanders discusses below some suggestions for managing this difficult transition.

The transition back to school can be stressful under the best of circumstances. Shopping for school supplies and new clothes, along with parent-teacher conferences and planning for extra-curricular activities, are compounded by the need to re-establish routines that include getting ready for school and bed each day. And for many families in New England and across the country, local schools are just now cautiously opening their doors to students. Some schools are offering “hybrid” plans that include some in-person teaching shared with remote learning, while others are fully remote, requiring parents to manage a portion of their child’s learning at home. The confusion and shifting guidance from schools and local government officials, anxiety experienced by our little ones, and for some families the need to balance their children’s education with demands of remote work at home add new wrinkles to the school year transition that can increase stress in the home. Although there is no cure-all for these difficulties, there are a few things families can do at home to help ease the transition for both children and parents.

The Importance of Consistency

We live in uncertain times right now. Will my child be safe at school? What happens if there’s an increase in virus cases? How do I put together a “teaching pod” in my neighborhood? The lack of predictability and familiarity can be anxiety provoking for our littles ones. When the world is uncertain, making the home as predictable as possible is essential. This means developing routines and sticking with them each day. Military families are familiar with this idea of the “battle rhythm” when a loved one is deployed; developing this consistency helps parents too! Not only do routines at home reduce anxiety, they also increase compliance. Children are far more likely to follow through with expectations when there are clear and consistent consequences. One caveat: many families are already familiar with the bumpy transition at the beginning of the school year; children may have had extended bedtime or unlimited screen time during the summer months that they are reluctant to give up. Some of this pushback may get worse before it gets better, but don’t give up! These routines will settle in after they become predictable.

Opportunities for Consistency

There are a number of ways we can develop clear and consistent expectations in the home, so here are a few to build on or return to that can be especially helpful.

Household Rules. Develop a list of household expectations with your children. Giving them a voice in coming up with the rules increases their “buy-in” and future compliance. You can always gently dismiss some of the sillier ones (plus, they add to the fun!). Always frame these rules to reflect the behavior you want to see. Remember: It’s much simpler for the local pool to have a sign that says “walk slowly” than “Don’t run, skip, frolic, grapevine, crab walk… etc.”

Pick Your Battles. Decide before your give an instruction if you expect your child to comply. If the TV needs to be turned off at 8pm and you start asking at 7pm without expecting your child to follow through, this may teach your child that, “Oh I can wait until mom/dad REALLY means it.” If you do expect compliance, this may require waiting until the instruction is followed before leaving and attending to other needs in the house.

Positive Reinforcement. Consequences are one half of the coin. If you only offer punishments in the home without positive reinforcement, you are fighting with one hand tied behind your back! Reinforce good behaviors and try to “catch your child doing good” in the house. Reinforcement doesn’t have to be a prize; even specific praise can be highly reinforcing.

Balancing Work Obligations, Parenting, and…. Teaching??

With these stressful times, it’s important to acknowledge that parents benefit from routines too! Creating a predictable home environment helps reduce the natural chaos in the home and frees up more resources to manage the surprises that come along the way. We can’t eliminate all chaos in the home with littles ones running around, after all! Use your resources, including other caregivers if they feel safe and available to do so, or other co-workers, if you might need support taking a step away from the Zoom call for parenting matters. Given all of the new stresses, a helpful philosophy from the military community is to “embrace the suck.” Another way of thinking of this is to practice acceptance and give yourself compassion; we are all going through these uncertain times together and sometimes fighting this reality only contributes to increased suffering. Finally, make sure to provide time for self-care. Parents need to recharge their batteries too. Even if it’s a long bath after the kids are in bed, a walk around the block, or a piece of chocolate after the last work call to transition into the evening, do something small for yourself. Folding laundry and other household chores don’t count!

Tips for Kids Learning at Home

Finding the new “battle rhythm” at home can be all the more challenging when kids are spending a lot more time there for school. Here are a couple ideas for maximizing their learning environment.

Spaces for Learning

  • Ideal: Quiet and distraction-free space. If possible, making a “learning center” such as a desk or table where your child knows they will report to for their school day helps add to the larger goal of consistency and routines. Ensure this is not a place next to exciting or distracting objects (e.g., toys or TV).
  • Realistic: Many families don’t have the luxury of space in a crowded home. Work with what you have and focus most on providing a quiet and focused environment. Headphones are critical here to reduce audible distractions that can’t be avoided (such as nearby siblings!)

Homework Hour

  • Having a separate space to work on homework can be helpful for reducing burnout after a long day of school. The kitchen table is often a great location, as it’s within eyeshot of parents but usually less distracting than sitting in the bedroom or living room near a TV.
  • For families with multiple children, it can be difficult to manage the homework hour and screen time competition. Setting up time zones where each sibling alternates their homework and TV time can be helpful to reduce arguments over the tablet/smartphone/TV for screen time.

Screen Time Leverage

With all the screen time necessary for remote learning, can we still use this as leverage for other expectations, like homework or chores? The answer is usually yes. It may not be possible to monitor your child all day for appropriate screen time use, but consider the end of the school day as the cutoff from media until screen time is earned through other behaviors (e.g., homework completion or chores). This is a tricky balance given our reliance on technology for education, so you may have to get creative!

Parting Thoughts

Although many of the suggestions discussed here can be helpful, parenting is a messy, frustrating, tiring, rewarding, fulfilling, lifelong experience. There is no such thing as perfect or 100% consistent parenting. There are just too many curveballs! Instead, embracing the craziness and ride the wave while doing your best to create consistent routines and maintaining warmth and compassion for your kids and yourself.