The coronavirus (COVID-19) has changed our lives in myriad ways. Virtual learning or having to navigate a mix of learning from home and in person has been one of the biggest changes for families. Pediatric experts at Children’s Hospital Colorado have been helping patients and families balance school, mental health and daily life throughout the pandemic. These tips from pediatric psychologist Laura Anthony, PhD, and clinical learning specialist Jodi Krause, MA CBIS, can help your family, too.
Challenges of homeschooling and virtual learning during the pandemic
While many kids have returned to in-person learning, others may have a hybrid schedule alternating between home and school, or may have been in and out of the classroom due to a potential exposure or shifting school schedules. If your child is still in part- or full-time virtual learning, they’re likely dealing with fatigue, increased screen time, stress and more.
Is “Zoom fatigue” real?
Yes, and parents should be on the lookout for it. Videoconferencing is as tiring for kids as it is for adults — maybe more so, particularly since many schools require kids to keep their cameras on during group learning periods. It’s tough to be on camera, and studies suggest video interactions are measurably more taxing than in-person interactions. Encourage your child to turn off their camera when they can and turn off “self-view” when they can’t turn off their camera.
Virtual school also puts demands on kids’ working memory, flexible thinking and self-control (also called “executive functioning skills”) beyond what they may be able to manage on their own. This may lead them to feel overwhelmed, tired and frustrated. Dr. Anthony recently ask her teenager about the number of online platforms they navigate for school. The answer? “Too many to count.”
If your child or teen is showing the signs of Zoom fatigue, such as difficulty paying attention, crankiness or melting down, it’s OK to take an unscheduled break.
How to set realistic expectations around screen time
The realities of the last year have at times made it difficult for parents to know how and when to set screen time limits. Kids have been required to spend a lot of time on screens for school, for one thing, and many parents who have to work with kids at home have taken much-needed advantage of screens as a distraction tool. That’s OK. It’s great to set limits around screen time when you can, but if it isn’t practical right now, don’t worry about it. It’s better to let go of the idea of perfect parenting than to stick to impossible expectations, says Dr. Anthony.
You should also encourage kids to connect with their friends and family online, since travel and in-person socialization are still limited, especially for those who aren't eligible to get vaccinated.
Help kids set their own limits
Talk with your child about knowing when it’s time to step away from screens — when they experience dry eyes, blurred vision or headaches, for instance. Teaching kids to regulate their own use of screens is a skill that will serve them for the rest of their lives. Try to set a good example by screening your screen time, too.
Tips to support your virtual or hybrid learner
Clinical learning specialist Jodi Krause, MA CBIS, knows about adapting the environment to suit different learning styles. As a brain injury educational coordinator in our Department of Rehabilitation, Jodi helps patients, families and community teachers understand the complexities that children with chronic medical needs and learning disabilities face in the classroom. Her advice can help support all kids, and parents too, when school, work and family-life collide.
Here are Jodi’s top tips for home-based learning:
- Identify a structured quiet workspace for your child. This space should be as distraction-free as possible — away from TV or music. You may want to have your child wear noise-cancelling headphones if several family members will be working in the same space.
- Use timers and alarms on your phone or other smart device to help structure activities.
- Schedule breaks throughout the day and explain to your child when they can expect their next break.
Supporting students with individualized educational programs (IEPs)
The stress of virtual learning can be exponentially greater for kids with physical or learning disabilities or chronic medical needs because they are a unique category of learners. They are used to getting extra learning support through an Individualized Education Program (commonly referred to as an IEP) or 504 plan at school.
Jodi shares these additional tips for supporting students with IEPs when learning at home:
- Be flexible with your schedule and alternate your child’s preferred and non-preferred tasks (or likes and dislikes).
- Take breaks. Breaks are especially important for kids with physical or learning disabilities or chronic medical needs, because they may get tired more easily with tasks that require high levels of concentration and focus.
- Use picture schedules (if needed) and checklists to help kids understand expectations.
- Organize printed materials by subject and use folders and color coding to help organize schoolwork. On each folder, write down the work that needs to get done and have your child check it off as they complete the work.
- Use incentives and rewards for getting schoolwork done and avoid power struggles. Rewards for listening and doing well can help keep learning at home positive and fun. Avoid punishing your child by taking things away if they have trouble focusing or completing the work.
- Ask your child’s teacher for help in reducing the number of items per assignment or assignments per day if your child is having trouble getting all their tasks done.
- Use assistive technology like audio presentation and speech to text for children with learning disabilities. The Chrome browser has built-in extension apps for this. If your child has a Special Education teacher, they may have other suggestions for learning tools that may be helpful to your child.
Through it all, remember to do what works best for your family.
“Each child is unique, and what works for some doesn’t work for all,” Jodi says. “Parents should try to provide encouragement and remember to keep a good balance between work and play.”
What to do if your child is struggling in online school
Online school doesn’t work well for all kids, and it’s particularly challenging for younger children. If your child is struggling, speak with their teacher about possible accommodations to make virtual learning easier on them. Also, encourage your kids' love of learning and curiosity by following their interests outside of online school. Our child life specialists created a list of recommended activities and schedules by age group to help families create a sense of normalcy and structure during this unusual time.
Worried about social or academic skills?
Try not to worry too much. Instead, do your best to focus on how resilient your kids are. Have they learned something new? Have they built new skills? Focus primarily on their mental health, not their academic growth. They may end up with extra resilience, independence and empathy because they lived through a pandemic — all skills that will serve them well as adults.
Try to encourage and support your kids rather than punish them for missing assignments or poor grades. Don’t forget to give your kids lots of praise for adapting to changes.
What about the parents?
You’ve probably heard the term “work-life balance.” It refers to an ideal state where a person can prioritize the demands of their career and personal life equally. As more households consist of two working parents, it’s becoming harder some families to maintain a balance. The increase in dual-income households has placed a particular burden on working mothers, who are more likely to be responsible for the housework and childcare upon returning home from work, known as the “second shift.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that many moms’ and parents’ sense of work-life balance has recently decreased dramatically. In addition to the role of working parents, many have taken on additional roles as educator, therapist and friend to their children, all while navigating their own stressors that come with living through a pandemic.
The pandemic’s impact
According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics, since the onset of COVID-19:
- 27% of parents have reported a worsening in their own mental health
- 48% of parents have reported loss of regular childcare
- 21% of parents have reported having to change or reduce their work hours due to changes in school or childcare
- 7% of parents have had to leave a job
- Of those who have remained employed, 45% of parents report being unable to perform optimally at work and having to change their career goals
- 53% of parents report feeling guilty when working due to decreased ability to attend to childcare duties
Parents who have difficulties achieving work-life balance have been shown to be at risk for a variety of negative life outcomes like marital difficulties, stress, increased social isolation, decreased physical and mental health and reduced job performance. These consequences impact kids’ health, too. Parents without work-life balance show increased engagement in ineffective parenting strategies and increased likelihood children will experience emotional or behavioral concerns. It’s important for parents to know about and recognize these unintended consequences and take steps to address them. Keeping an eye on the whole family’s mental health is crucial. If you feel your family needs help, call your doctor and your child’s pediatrician. They can offer advice and refer you to specialists when necessary.
Finding balance as parents
Fortunately, our mental health experts say there are concrete steps parents can take to help improve their personal well-being and the well-being of their family. Take these overall strategies to heart:
- Be realistic. Focus on what is most important. Set small and achievable goals for the day. Give yourself permission to say “no.” Above all, be compassionate with yourself and others, recognizing that things do not need to be perfect.
- Care for yourself first. Prioritizing self-care can be challenging, particularly when you feel like you’re in survival mode. But when you make time for self-care, you’ll find you can accomplish both your personal and professional obligations more efficiently and effectively. It’s like that pre-flight safety spiel: In case of an emergency, put your own oxygen mask on first, before helping others. Practicing meditation, controlled breathing, yoga and exercise all help with managing stress.
- Set boundaries and stick to them. Create a designated workspace at home for yourself, too. Establish consistent work hours and try to unplug when you’re not on the clock. Implement a transition plan when switching from “work” to “home.” For example, go for a walk, change your clothes or listen to a short podcast.
- Be present. Purposefully focus your attention on the present moment, whether engaged in professional or personal aspects of your life. This will allow you to be more responsive and productive, as well as less overwhelmed and stressed.
While we aren’t out of the pandemic yet, COVID-19 vaccines for most kids and all teens are here, with more vaccines for younger age groups on the way. As everyday life slowly starts to feel more “normal,” refamiliarize yourself with recommendations from the experts, involve your child in decisions where you can and remember to give yourself some grace along the way.
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