It was too much for Tanner, a seventh-grader in the Northridge area of Los Angeles, who is twice exceptional — she is gifted and struggles with ADHD and generalized anxiety disorder.
“She couldn’t take it. We had to make changes,” McPherson said. Now Tanner sits in a sensory swing in her room and bounces on an exercise ball for breaks. When she grows overwhelmed by the noise of the whole class, her teachers move her into a Zoom breakout room by herself. “She can push a button to ask for help. This works well to block out the sensory overload.”
Families across the country are grappling with how to respond when in-person learning doesn’t translate smoothly into virtual learning. With over 74 percent of the largest school districts in the country fully remote — representing more than 9 million children — parents either need to find a way to make schooling work or drop out of the workforce, a problem that is largely affecting women. McPherson, an elementary school teacher, needed Tanner to be more independent so she could teach her own remote classes.
Parents and students are seeking creative ways to adapt and redefine success. “Helping my daughter find her voice and feel secure are the lessons I’m focusing on more than reading, writing or math,” said Lydia Elle, a single parent in Los Angeles raising a 10-year-old girl named London. “Because I hear her struggles in real time, we get to practice her self-advocacy.” Elle, who works as a wellness consultant, is prioritizing her daughter’s social and emotional skills this year.
Distance learning is hard on all students, and it is particularly challenging for youths with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. More than 16 million (9.4 percent) of children in the United States have a diagnosis of ADHD. And according to a national 2016 parent survey, 6 in 10 children with ADHD have at least one other mental, emotional or behavioral disorder, such as anxiety, depression or conduct disorder.
This translates to millions of neurodiverse children such as Tanner, whose families are doing whatever it takes to have peaceful days. And even for children who are neurotypical — such as London — remote schooling poses daily battles.
Ours is one of many families that started the school year with a detailed vision of how remote learning would look, and the reality is that our daily goals are changing as the pandemic drags on. Rather than live in constant conflict with our children, we are adapting how we deal with it. These strategies have been shown to help:
Identify high-priority classes or academic subjects
Devorah Heitner, author of “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World,” advised: “Try to create realistic working blocks. Most kids can only work for 20 minutes before needing a break.” Parents have to pick their battles and prioritize which classes need a child’s attention the most.
“If your kid really struggles with reading, for example, make sure that is the one class you focus on,” Heitner said. “For reluctant readers, ask for high-interest reading material that is intrinsically relevant instead of an assigned book.”
Michelle Paris, a psychotherapist in Chicago, has learned to listen when her third-grader son needs a break. “Sometimes we let him skip classes if he is too tired or overwhelmed,” she said. “I let him play with his toys while he is on mute. Playing is learning.”
Treat all plans as a working draft
I’ve seen the importance of flexibility with my children — ages 10, 13 and 17 — and husband, a high school math teacher, who are all fully remote. In August, we created a rotating schedule of who would work in what spaces. It worked for three days before everyone was arguing: She’s distracting me. He chews too loudly. You’re bumping the table.
Our nonbinary middle child Dylan, who has ADHD and sensory issues, could not tolerate sitting still. We scrapped the workstation arrangement. The best way to get Dylan through Zoom school was to coat the floor with plastic sheeting and let them paint madly while listening to class. We’ve given up trying to keep paint off the walls, the dog and the sink — this is what works to keep Dylan engaged.
Embrace mindfulness skills
“Doing what works” is a valid strategy. I spoke with Sydnie Dobkin, coordinator of the Adolescent Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) program at Northwestern University’s Family Institute, about how kids and parents can use therapeutic skills to cope with the stresses of remote learning.
“Dialectical behavioral therapy can benefit everyone,” Dobkin said. “It combines cognitive techniques and aspects of Zen Buddhism, such as mindfulness and radical acceptance. The cornerstone of DBT is the idea of dialectics, which means two opposing ideas can both be true at same time.”
By validating conflicting realities, people are able to move forward instead of living in denial. For example, a child might practice saying, “I don’t like remote school, and I can find ways to be successful.”
“Mindfulness skills, such as nonjudgmental stance and staying focused, are the foundation to access other skills,” Dobkin said. “One is effectiveness — also known as the ‘do-what-works skill.’ You do whatever is needed in the moment to best meet your goals.”
For Tanner McPherson, doing what works meant talking to her PE teachers about feeling self-conscious during class. “She has body-image issues,” her mother said, “so now they let her do PE with the camera off.” The goal of getting Tanner to participate was achieved.
Focus on adding non-screen activities instead of setting screen-time limits
I asked Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health and associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, about screen time. Every parent I know — with kids from toddlers to teens — worries about excess screen use.
“We can’t really limit screen time. We pretend we do, but there is constant ambient exposure with smartphones,” Rich said. He advises that parents shift their energy into improving the non-screen time. “What are your kids not doing? Are they not playing basketball, going outside, getting enough sleep?" And then teach them, he said, to be strategic about how they plan the 24-hour day.
It’s a refreshing, radical idea: Accept the nine hours of screen time and focus on effectively managing the remaining 15 hours of the day, allotting unplugged time for exercise, family meals, sleep and downtime.
Partner with your child’s teacher
Marcos Alcaine is a third-grade teacher in a two-way Spanish immersion class in Evanston, Ill. We spoke about how critical the parent-teacher partnership is during remote learning. “In the classroom, I can see when my students are struggling,” he said. “Now I often rely on emails from parents to tell me.”
Trusting relationships are the key to a high-functioning classroom, and Alcaine is fostering personal connections. “One student asked to be a co-host on Zoom so they could share something about their identity with the class. The student was well prepared and read a story,” he said. “Now everyone wants to be a co-host on Zoom. Talking about identities coincided with Latinx heritage week, which led to great conversations about everyone’s families.”
Because keeping kids engaged in e-school is a constant and exhausting effort, Alcaine has brought more play into learning. His class is planning a virtual party. “The kids share ideas, and we put the results in a Google graph,” he said. “We’re doing math, and they like it because it’s about their party.”
Alcaine wants people to remember that kids and teachers are facing unprecedented stress levels, and times are not normal. “School districts cannot operate as business as usual in terms of all that we have to teach and do,” he said. “I see the opportunity gap growing, particularly for our students of color. This is a time to focus less on standards and assessments and more on supporting our kids.” Alcaine seeks to create lasting connections with his students and their families.
A few weeks ago, I overheard my youngest telling her teacher: “This is my school nightgown. I change into my sleeping nightgown at bedtime.” A rush of thoughts swirled in my head — Wow, my standards have dropped. I’m glad she loves her teacher. At least she is participating. — and I decided to chalk it up as a successful example of “doing what works.” And on we go, like families and teachers everywhere, adapting wherever possible.
Carrie Goldman is a writer, educator and mother of three living in Illinois. She is the author of “Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.” Find Carrie on Twitter @CarrieMGoldman.