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Preserving Children's Mental Health During Distance Learning

This year has been bananas, but our kids aren't monkeys...

By Chelsea DelaneyPublished 3 years ago 6 min read
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Preserving Children's Mental Health During Distance Learning
Photo by Maria Thalassinou on Unsplash

As a veteran teacher turned nanny, I have a unique view into distance learning. I understand the ins and outs of a teachers world that are often incomprehensible to parents, I have sat by frustrated children for countless hours of distance learning, and I have coached parents with frazzled nerves who are doing their absolute best. "Distance learning is better than nothing," is no longer a redemptive silver lining for parents or teachers who have had countless breakdowns at this point. In short, it sucks.

Part of this general suck-itude is fueled by the following fear: the longer this pandemic continues, the greater the learning loss will be. Now, I'm not here to debate whether 'learning loss' is a real thing or not, although I have strong feelings about measuring progress based on definitions that were created for groups, not individuals. What I'm here to suggest is that this debate puts our attention in the wrong place.

Whether or not you believe in and fear 'learning loss,' is irrelevant. If we don't care more proactively for student's mental health during this unprecedented time, they won't have the stamina to continue to learn in this way. We won't get to find out if 'learning loss' was a real thing or not, and thousands of students who were already disengaged from school before the pandemic started, will simply walk away for good.

So how do we do this? There are literally hundreds of articles online about this topic by now, but I'm going to share my observations, made with compassion for all of us as we work through this time together.

Take it Seriously

To be clear, all the parents I know are already doing this to the best of their abilities. I know no parents who are saying, "Stop complaining and suck it up, it is what it is." But what I have heard is well-intentioned dismissiveness in the form of, "I know it's rough, BUT...

...you're doing a great job.

...it won't last forever.

...it's almost the weekend.

Stop it. Stop it right now. Stop trying to tack a silver lining into something when it doesn't exist for most kids. Remember the last time someone did that to you? It's annoying. Well intentioned, but annoying. These positive messages are all great things to remind kids of, but not after they've broken down crying or are staring at their screen glassy eyed.

Instead, try listening deeper. Ask them what parts were the worst today. Do they think the teacher could have done anything differently? How would they remake the worksheets or the online platform? Are classmates moods based on the subject, the time of day, or something totally different? Legitimize what is happening for them by helping them investigate it. Even younger children can articulate, in some form, what they don't like and what was hard. The more seriously you take their complaints, the less stress they feel around them being inconvenient.

Kids hearts are pretty damn generous--if they think their complaints are stressing you out, they'll try to keep them to themselves in a myriad of unhealthy ways.

Give Them Things They Can Control

No matter how illusory control is, we all need to be able to pretend that we have it sometimes, especially when the world around us is out of control. When you try to help your kids with their distance learning and they say, "But that's not how my teacher does it," they are not trying to get on your last nerve. When they click randomly around their open browser tabs for what seems like an eternity, they're not just trying to waste time. In fact, I'm convinced that many of kids most annoying behaviors during this last year are not simply boredom or an attempt to piss us off. Rather, they are rooted in trying to regain a sense of control over a world they do not understand.

So where else can we give them that control? How can we champion their decision making, intuition, and needs? These things may or may not be related to distance learning. The important part is that kids be given choices and trusted to execute them. If those choices turn out to be mistakes? Even better. Then we walk with them through cleaning up the mess, which is another excellent way for us to exert our influence and control over our surroundings.

Help Them Stay Physical and Tactile

It can be as simple as a walk in between online meets, or as complex as learning a new skill like sewing, cooking, or boxing. Some families find this complicated with how full the online schedules are. My advice? If your student can only sit attentively, in a non-stressed manner, for twenty minutes at a time, then you ask them to move every twenty minutes, regardless of whether or not it interrupts the school day.

Talk to your kids teachers about these needs--they want your kids to be well as much as you do. In fact, they may be able to help you get creative in the process. I have one young man who has large rubber bands wrapped around the legs of his chair so that he can bounce in place. Google 'homemade fidgets' and let your inner arts and crafts nerd run wild.

Our brain is simply not meant to carry the entire weight of living, and distance learning forces our kids to be in their heads much more than is sustainable. The brain and body are meant to be a team, each informing and supporting the other. Help your kids to remember this, even if it's just by continuing your own physical pursuits.

Understand Who and What You're Replacing

So many parents feel like this year has thrust them into "having to be the teacher." Though I can understand why they feel this way, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, most teachers I know prefer that parents don't try and take on that role. We know that you can do the basic math or construct a clear sentence, but tutoring your own children adds layers of complication to an already complicated time.

However, there are some tasks it would be helpful for you to sub in on. Throughout the day, whether consciously or not, most teachers are taking the pulse of the physical classroom. We're noticing things like body language, on and off task behavior, in and out of seat students, tone and volume of voices, and types of questions being asked. Among other things, we're monitoring for stress, and offering support when need be.

Sometimes it's in the form of a break--some off topic chatter at one table, asking someone at a different table to go run an errand for you so they can stretch their legs. Other times it's in the form of silliness to lighten the mood. I used to have a stuffed, purple monkey that I would walk around the room to my eighth graders on days we were collectively stressing. I made up a voice for the monkey so he could ask them questions and sing them songs. Some would laugh, some would roll their eyes at me, but the tension in the room would definitely ease after the monkey came out. Don't be afraid to look like a dork! Your kids will have a hard time embracing the resources present in their playfulness, if you deny your own goofy side.

You can also replace your kids classmates in one key regard. Let them see you feeling frustrated at something (not them) and hear your process for working it through, or even just the acknowledgment that sometimes we can't get through it right away. Sometimes we are stuck for a bit, and that's okay too. In the physical classroom, they watch this scenario play out around them constantly, and so they know they're not alone when things get hard. It's much harder for them to have the same experience online.

Finally, at the end of the day, make sure the day ends. No matter how many assignments your student may be missing (they're all missing a few at this point), don't let them continue to work into the evening. Forgive yourselves, and them, for everything that is left undone, and just be together. Tell them explicitly that the health of their emotions is more important to you than all the grades in the world.

Think that's too complex a concept for younger kids? You can steal a line of mine from last week with an over anxious young one: "Report card, schmort-card. Let's go play board games." He spent the whole rest of the afternoon breaking out into giggles and saying "report card, schmort-card" under his breath. When we finally made it back to his homework, he did it with no complaints.

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About the Creator

Chelsea Delaney

Life is weird, write about it, paint about it, dance about it, and sing about it too. Use every language in your arsenal to sculpt the world you want to live in. Writer, educator, artist, and creative midwife--this is what I do.

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