Three Ss to reduce the stress of “homeschooling” our kids: Simplify, Structure, Support

With nation­wide school clo­sures in effect, many par­ents are now mon­i­tor­ing home­school­ing while at the same time try­ing to make a liv­ing in the midst of an eco­nom­ic cri­sis. In this envi­ron­ment of bro­ken rou­tine and uncer­tain­ty, chances are your child is show­ing big feel­ings and chal­leng­ing behaviors.

In my work as a school psy­chol­o­gist, I’ve been hear­ing from par­ents that despite their best efforts, their chil­dren are strug­gling with meet­ing home­school expec­ta­tions. Kids who nev­er showed behav­ioral or emo­tion­al chal­lenges are expe­ri­enc­ing issues, and kids who had some strug­gles before are show­ing an uptick of chal­lenges. Here are three ways to sup­port your child (and man­age your own stress) dur­ing school clo­sures that par­ents I work with have found helpful.

1) Simplify

If you’re a par­ent sud­den­ly try­ing to bal­ance remote work and home­school­ing, your house­hold might look a bit like mine right now. As I am writ­ing this, I am also tog­gling back and forth between help­ing my third-grad­er with Google Class­room, try­ing to set up my kinder­garten­er for some inde­pen­dent writ­ing work, and field­ing ques­tions every few sec­onds (wait, what is the dif­fer­ence between sca­lene and isosce­les tri­an­gles again?!?).

I’ve come to real­ize in these past few weeks that being super pro­duc­tive with my work as a school psy­chol­o­gist AND giv­ing full atten­tion to home­school­ing my chil­dren is not pos­si­ble right now. Turns out, being a par­ent, teacher, and school psy­chol­o­gist are three dif­fer­ent jobs that can­not all be done well at the same time.

Spend­ing time wish­ing things were oth­er­wise is an exer­cise in frus­tra­tion. And since research shows that accep­tance is an impor­tant trait in pos­i­tive well-being, here are a few mantras about sim­pli­fi­ca­tion you might want to try:

  • I am not home­school­ing. I am doing my best to help my kids learn at home dur­ing a crisis.
  • I am not “work­ing from home.” I am doing my best to work at home dur­ing a crisis.
  • I can­not be as pro­duc­tive as nor­mal because these are not nor­mal times. I will focus on what I can accom­plish in just the next 24 hours and let go of what I can­not accom­plish right now.

Research shows that grat­i­tude is anoth­er way to cul­ti­vate well-being. Even in chal­leng­ing times, there is an oppor­tu­ni­ty to be grate­ful and to be accept­ing of what you can and can­not accom­plish in a crisis.

Here’s one sim­ple strat­e­gy for you and your fam­i­ly mem­bers to start your day: Say, write, or draw (if your child is young) one thing you’re grate­ful for, one thing to do, and one thing to let go of or accept. Putting grat­i­tude at the front of your day will set a pos­i­tive tone for the day. And while you undoubt­ed­ly have more than one thing to do, focus­ing on ONE impor­tant task and let­ting go of impos­si­ble stan­dards will keep you from feel­ing like you are falling short every day.

2) Structure

If you Google “How to sup­port my child dur­ing COVID-19,” the top advice is to stick to a reg­u­lar sched­ule, even when you’re all at home all day. There’s good rea­son for this. For adults and kids alike, rou­tine and pre­dictabil­i­ty are calm­ing dur­ing times of stress.

If you’ve tried to set a sched­ule and your chil­dren are resist­ing it, here are some reminders:

  • Now is not the time to clamp down and con­trol your child’s day. Now is the time to col­lab­o­rate with your child on a sched­ule that works for the whole family.
  • It is okay if your sched­ule does not go to plan every day. Every day is an oppor­tu­ni­ty to fine-tune what is work­ing and elim­i­nate what is not working.
  • Your job as a par­ent is not to recre­ate an eight-hour school day. Your job is to help your child feel safe and do their best with the dis­tance learn­ing plan the teach­ers have provided.

It’s worth reit­er­at­ing that you do not have to recre­ate a full school-day sched­ule. Your fam­i­ly sched­ule may look more like what you would cre­ate over a sum­mer break, includ­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for fun, exer­cise, hands-on learn­ing activ­i­ties, and fam­i­ly con­nec­tion. It is also impor­tant to build in “emo­tion­al check­points” dur­ing the day and involve your child in the schedule.

3) Support

When our chil­dren are expe­ri­enc­ing big feel­ings, they may com­mu­ni­cate them through behav­ior. If your child is melt­ing down over some­thing that seems small to you, it may be a sign they are over­whelmed or flood­ed with emotions.

For instance, when my kinder­gart­ner fell into a pud­dle of tears and screamed at me because she didn’t like the word-sort­ing activ­i­ty that her teacher gave her to do, it wasn’t real­ly about the sort­ing activ­i­ty. After she calmed down using her “Calm­ing Menu” we had cre­at­ed ear­li­er (hug­ging the dog is her go-to), she end­ed up shar­ing that she was sad because she missed her friends. Had I clamped down on com­pli­ance on the assign­ment, it would have been a missed oppor­tu­ni­ty for her to prac­tice calm­ing down and express­ing her emotions.

The impor­tant take­away mes­sage here is that chil­dren (and, indeed, adults) do not have access to their think­ing and rea­son­ing skills when they are flood­ed with emo­tions. If your child can­not focus on school tasks, or you are see­ing them melt down, tantrum, or with­draw, it’s like­ly because they are hav­ing a hard time meet­ing an expec­ta­tion while under stress.

The anti­dote? Empa­thy. Research shows that empa­thy can calm the ner­vous sys­tem and re-engage the think­ing and rea­son­ing side of the brain. When you are in the mid­dle of a melt­down, you might remind your­self of this using the fol­low­ing mantras:

  • My child is not giv­ing me a hard time; they are hav­ing a hard time.
  • Behav­ior is com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and my child is “telling” me they need support.
  • The teach­able moment about behav­ioral expec­ta­tions is nev­er in the “hot” moment. I must calm my child through empa­thy first.

The real­i­ty is, your job right now as a home­school­ing par­ent is less about aca­d­e­mics, and more about cre­at­ing safe­ty, belong­ing, and accep­tance. Your kids can learn about aca­d­e­mics from teach­ers. The most impor­tant skill you can teach is how to man­age big feel­ings under stress. Devel­op a list of calm­ing strate­gies BEFORE you and your chil­dren need them. Post them on your fridge where all fam­i­ly mem­bers can read­i­ly use them.

We are liv­ing in unusu­al times, but we also have a real oppor­tu­ni­ty. Being in close quar­ters dur­ing times of stress is a chance to step back and focus on con­nec­tion. In stress­ful times, chil­dren will be pro­tect­ed if they are con­nect­ed. When all this is done and our kids go back to their schools, we can have giv­en them the gift of con­nec­tion and some new social-emo­tion­al and prob­lem-solv­ing skills.

Rebec­ca Branstet­ter, Ph.D., is a school psy­chol­o­gist, speak­er, and author on a mis­sion to help chil­dren be the best they can be in school and in life. She is also the founder of The Thriv­ing School Psy­chol­o­gist Col­lec­tive, an online com­mu­ni­ty ded­i­cat­ed to improv­ing men­tal health and learn­ing sup­ports in pub­lic schools. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

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SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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