The uncertainty of what school will look like and how long all of this will go on, along with the fear of the virus, are stressful for parents and kids alike. Research suggests that stress and trauma can affect executive function, which includes skills in organization, critical thinking and problem-solving, planning, decision-making and executing tasks. All of these are critical for success in school and life.
With all the options, and the possibility of things changing with little or no warning, how is a student who regularly needs reminders about permission slips and borrowed instruments going to navigate worksheets, digital file folders, multiple learning platforms and endless distractions? How will alternating schedules and changes in activity options affect the well-being of kids who thrive on routine and stability?
Children will cope better if they develop a sense of control or autonomy, especially as they move to middle and high school. Here’s how we can help them navigate the transitions ahead.
Assess available options. Some private schools and public school districts are offering several learning options, or are planning to start with distance learning and move to hybrid or in-person learning when possible.
“There’s no right answer, and there is no good solution,” says Elizabeth Pinsky, a child psychiatrist and pediatrician at Massachusetts General Hospital. “It’s a completely different decision for every family and for every child.” For children suffering from social isolation, and not comfortable with virtual learning, transitions back and forth may be worth it, says Pinsky. For kids who are medically complex or higher risk, sticking with remote schooling might make sense.
Look at your own attitude and approach. For Dana Martinez, a Los Angeles health-care analyst with children in middle and high school, accepting and acknowledging the new reality — and recognizing that it has not been easy on anyone — helped her family develop adaptability and flexibility. “I’ve kind of backed off the academics,” says Martinez, whose husband teaches at a public high school. “My focus is on keeping them mentally balanced. I think this is really tough. And I think it’s scary.”
At the same time, parents need to feel confident that “even something that may be good for a majority of kids may or may not work for their families,” says Meira Levinson, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who recently co-authored a New England Journal of Medicine article on “Reopening Primary Schools During the Pandemic.” Parents need to be willing to advocate for what their kids need.
“Have a lot of generosity and grace with your middle-schoolers and high-schoolers,” adds Pinsky, who says that adolescents are most impacted by the pandemic, in part because they are no longer able to spend time with friends and be away from their family, things that are developmentally appropriate.
Create time daily and weekly for planning and organization. Even in pre-pandemic times, what we asked students to manage, track and schedule didn’t necessarily match where they were developmentally. A sixth-grader juggling seven classes, all with short- and long-term assignments, and extracurricular and family obligations, was usually a recipe for stress.
Now more than ever, creating time to organize and track work or projects in a written planner and write out schedules can relieve anxiety. Having your child do so virtually with a friend or relative might lessen the load on a parent or caregiver, and strengthen connections and a sense of community.
Some tips: Schedule a block of time at the beginning of the week to peruse online portals and map out weekly plans, and then have shorter daily check-ins. Divide days into blocks of time devoted to movement, work and rest around set obligations to provide structure. Collaborating with kids to find fun and appropriate transition strategies to start and end the day, particularly if they will be at home, is one way of letting them design solutions and feel empowered. Also set up systems — binders, digital folders, workspace areas — through working together to brainstorm what will need to be adjusted if your child’s schooling moves from remote to hybrid or in-person hybrid learning.
Set up a space for school. Cherika Chatman is a home and office organizer in Houston whose daughter, Maya, 13, has spent much of the time at home since school buildings closed in March. Maya’s public magnet school will begin the school year virtually, and Chatman’s is helping her create a home study space that feels fresh. “We’re changing it up so that she can have a different environment going into the school year,” says Chatman. Rearranging a room can provide a fresh perspective, and organizing supplies and a workspace can get students mentally prepared for an unprecedented school year.
For students doing much of their learning at home this fall, having a designated area separate from other family members can be helpful. For remote learning, useful supplies would include a laptop or similar device for classwork, headphones for video meetings and classes, several reliable writing utensils, a paper planner and one physical binder with dividers for note-taking in each class.
Spending school time outdoors is another option, even if it’s for only a few months while weather permits. Sara Jeffries of Alexandria, Va., has researched putting a yurt in her side yard, so she and neighbors could create an outdoor classroom where her son and two or three friends could work online together and “sort of quarantine together.”
Identify support and collaborate to find solutions. For parents who have not previously been very involved with their child’s school, Lauren Hittner, a Somerville, Mass., primary-care pediatrician and mother of a preschooler and second-grader, says now is a great time to become engaged and to share the process. “We need everyone’s creativity to solve this,” she says. “We need to honor our teachers’ creativity and embrace the new rules with child-centered learning.”
The concept of adults collaborating to educate one another’s children is not new, says Harvard professor Levinson. It’s an idea “that’s in virtually every society in the world across virtually every time period.” Of course, this is not always possible or easy when both parents are working, and families have increasingly had to come up with flexible child-care arrangements or creative timing where parents and caregivers shift things to different times of the day.
Prioritize social and emotional support. It’s no secret that the pandemic has been emotionally trying for all of us, and that increased stress affects a child’s executive function abilities. Some school districts have brought in additional counseling and mental health support, with online access increasing the number of students they can reach. Even the best intentions around navigating binders, written planners and managing distractions are less effective if students generally feel overwhelmed and anxious. Having older children proactively identify which supportive systems work well for them — including virtual tutoring and mental health support — can invest them in the process.
Explore alternative activities. In my office, I’ve found students become more motivated to develop better organizational skills when they see how much more free time they can have to pursue activities and interests, and how much more sleep they can get by finishing work with fewer distractions. For some students, the lack of fall activities and back-to-school traditions may amplify the disappointments and frustration. The panic pivot from spring was only supposed to be for a few weeks, yet here we are, with seemingly fewer glimmers of hope. Here, too, is an opportunity for reframing. So much of what students traditionally have been required to do for school and activities left them without much free time. Students who are trying to carve out time to pursue activities they enjoy may be motivated to develop their executive functioning skills.
Ana Homayoun is an author of three books, including “Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World.” Learn more about her at anahomayoun.com or follow her on Twitter at @anahomayoun.