It is a bit of an understatement to say a lot has happened and changed over the past week. And, given the coverage in the media as well as the constantly evolving information shared about COVID-19, it is no surprise that you or your child may be feeling overwhelmed and stressed in a variety of different ways. On top of that, we recognize that such drastic changes in routine and social distancing can only add to these feelings. In addition to preparing and planning for the shift to remote learning, we have also been consulting with mental health professionals and networks and compiling strategies to use in order to best support the well-being of your child during this time.
Importantly, we would like to highlight that each child may respond differently to these changes. Below are some common changes in behavior and reactions you might see in elementary-age children (note, most children do not exhibit all of these changes):
- Anxiety and worry
- can manifest as different behaviors, ranging from bouts of crying to inattention to irritability to tantrum-like behaviors
- an increase in concerns about the health of others, particularly their grandparents
- envisioning extreme worst-case scenarios
- overly concerned with being clean (such as excessive hand-washing or use of hand sanitizer, to the point where their skin becomes raw)
- Attention difficulties
- Common examples of withdrawal behaviors in elementary-age children include becoming more quiet and losing interest in activities or social interactions
- Physical symptoms
- Sleeping challenges
- Appetite changes
- Either an increase or decrease in your child's appetite. Some children become too overwhelmed to eat or have an appetite, while others may try to suppress their feelings by filling themselves up with food (often comfort food).
Even if you notice a minor shift in your child, or do not notice any changes at all, below are some strategies to consider during this time of distance learning and social distancing:
Talk with your child (but don't go overboard)
As I often tell parents, kids' ears are always open. In other words, they're always listening, whether or not they're directly watching us while we talk. Elementary-age children generally look to us for guidance and may not recognize they can even initiate a conversation or ask a question, especially about a topic like COVID-19. Directly questioning your child may feel like an interrogation, which, in turn, might cause them to clam up and become more nervous to share.
Alternatively, you can normalize their experience and let them know that a lot of kids their age usually have questions and worries about experiences like this and you're curious if they might have some questions, too. By doing this, you'll create a safer, non-judgmental space for your child to express their questions and worries. This then provides an opportunity to find out what your child knows, what they are curious about, and what misinformation needs to be cleared up.
Moreover, it is okay to say, "I don't know," or "I have to think about it." Projecting a calm, cool, and collected attitude is not synonymous with having all the answers. Noting that you are not sure, yet are figuring it out, models problem-solving and perseverance to children. For additional help and guidance about how to phrase these explanations, we recommend referring to the language, tips, and examples used by Betsy Brown Braun in her blog post, Talking to Kids About the Coronavirus.
Be patient while providing reassurance and validation
It is important to reassure children that the adults, including you, are following steps and staying up to date to keep everyone safe, even though the child may not directly see you doing so. It is also important to validate their feelings, particularly of frustration, anger, or fear. It is okay to note how much it stinks they can't go to school right now! And that it stinks they can't have sleepovers or play time with classmates! This helps children feel seen and heard, which will then help them move on to try and make the best of this situation.
Additional reassurance can be provided through consistency. While you'll have to update their daily routine, there are still a lot of things that will be staying the same. For instance, the foods they eat and the fact that they still have to brush their teeth aren't changing. Requesting their help to update other parts of the daily routine, however, will increase their ability to comply with these changes. Such changes include creating a schoolwork schedule as well as a new screen time contract. They're going to be using technology to a higher degree than is typical or preferred--managing those expectations at the outset will increase compliance in the long run.
Model reframing by finding ways to see the glass half full
After validating your child's reactions, find ways to help your child recognize the benefits from an experience like this. Children often do not realize that this temporary shift to remote learning is intended to help others--they are being proactive and helping to prevent the spread of all kinds of illnesses! This is also an exciting opportunity for them to show everyone at Laurence how they can collaborate and complete their distance learning.
Through reframing is also an opportunity to discuss gratitude. Some examples of gratitude reflections could range from being able to do schoolwork while still in their pajamas, to living in a country where medical help is readily available, and that they can have access to the internet and remote learning.
Moreover, this is also an opportunity for your child to be creative and play! Children work things out through play. It's important to give them the space to play with their stuffed animals, action figures, or costumes. For instance, let them play out being mad at the virus. Children can also express themselves in other ways, such as through art or writing. Such outlets foster a sense of control and stability in a time when things can be very unsteady. Keep in mind that these activities would be distinct from the ones assigned by their teachers.
In addition to the value of letting them play and create is your time with your child as well. Your involvement could range from scheduling family game time, to taking a walk together, to doing a family art activity. If there's time, the escape and fantasy of a "feel-good" movie is a great reset for parents and children--I hear Frozen 2 was released on streaming services early!
Reading stories together offers another great escape and positive quality time together. All students have Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) accounts, so if you don't have the book they were really hoping to read at home, you will probably be able to find it electronically using one of the LAPL apps. Another option could be taking Virtual Field Trips from the Met to the San Diego Zoo! In addition, Common Sense Media recently shared this article and these resources, offering numerous tech-based games, movies, and apps to help families de-stress during this time. Some relaxation and mental health related apps on that list that I'm particularly fond of include: Calm (including free relaxation resources), Stop, Breathe & Think, Stop, Breathe & Think Kids: Focus, Calm & Sleep, and Smiling Mind. Under the FAQ section on our website's Remote Learning page, you'll find even more resources in the "Ideas for How to Keep Your Child(ren) Busy While Socially Distancing" tab.
I realize I have shared a lot in this letter. There is a lot of change that has happened in a very short period of time. I encourage you to be patient not only with your child, but with yourself as well. Children are incredibly resilient! This experience can further foster their resilience and grit. One of the most important things children need in order to stay calm and build their grit is a parent or caregiver who stays calm.
If you are feeling stressed, panicked, or overwhelmed, that is okay! Do what you can to regulate yourself first before attempting to help your child. When I think about this concept, I often think about airline safety procedures--parents are always told to secure their own oxygen mask first before their child's. If you run out of breath, literally or figuratively, it makes it pretty hard to help anyone else. Children can recognize when our demeanor, tone, and mood are not aligned, which, in turn, increases distress for them. Instead, letting them know you are feeling a little worried, too, can help normalize your child's experience.
Last, but certainly not least, it is okay to reach out for help if wanted or needed. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me (email@example.com), your child's teacher, the administrators, or other outside support (family, friends, or other professionals). Of note, most health providers have shifted to conducting telehealth services in an effort to ease accessibility as much as possible to their communities. We are coming together more than ever, not just as a school community, but a global one as well.
Along with the hiccups and hurdles, I'm also looking forward to hearing about the many successes you encounter as we all start to familiarize ourselves with this new (temporary!) normal.