Nearly one year since COVID-19 changed everything, there’s an end in sight to what we all hoped would be temporary, emergency measures. But that end still feels more like a promise than a reality. When the pandemic emerged as a serious threat in the United States, I was in Michigan, teaching parents and educators about the science of learning, motivation, and resilience. As I watched my speaking schedule implode with cancellations and postponements, I packed my bags and flew home to join my husband and two sons in Vermont.
One thing that quickly became apparent was that parents were struggling to keep their children engaged in school while maintaining adult lives and careers of their own. My personal and professional support group of parenting writers, clinicians, and educators coalesced to organize a virtual Parenting in Place master class series. We began spending a couple of hours every week with what has grown to become thousands of parents gathering online to learn about a wide range of topics, such as child development, diversity, equity, education, and mental health.
We tend to talk a lot about what’s been lost, and justifiably so — it’s important to identify and remedy setbacks, hardships, and losses. The pandemic shines a light on the ugliest and most unworkable aspects of our nation’s education system: disparities in access to technology, highly variable and often inherently flawed evaluation and assessment practices, and inequitable approaches to participation and engagement. All have exacerbated the learning losses many children face — with students of color bearing the brunt of the pandemic hardship — leading to declining mental health. The impact of unpredictable work and school schedules has also been devastating for women, both at home and at work. Families have suffered. A majority of families with children face serious financial problems and say they’re having difficulty caring for their children, let alone maintaining their education, according to a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report, The Impact of Coronavirus on Households with Children, published in September with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and NPR.
While it’s important to support kids’ academic learning during this pandemic, I’m more concerned about their mental health, and how we help our children emerge from this pandemic year with their spirits, minds, and hope intact. A powerful way to do this is to teach them how to reframe, or think and talk about difficult situations in a positive way. Cognitive reframing (also known as cognitive restructuring) is a great tool for treating anxiety and depression because it teaches kids to discover and invest in evidence of possible upsides, which in turn allows them to emotionally and temporally distance themselves from stressful circumstances.
Children and teens watch what we do more closely than they listen to what we say, so modeling the art of reframing is more effective than trying to explain it to them. “We can’t talk a child out of a bad mood or pessimistic outlook; we have to help them reach those a-ha moments on their own,” advises Phyllis Fagell, school counselor and author of Middle School Matters. “We can do that by asking questions that help them embrace the upside, such as ‘What insights have you gained?’ [and] ‘What have you learned about getting through a tough time?’”
Amid the widespread darkness and deprivation, there also have been moments of great illumination and growth. I asked parents and teachers on Facebook and Twitter to share silver linings they or their children or students had found during the pandemic. Erin Park Cohn of Vermont has found many gifts in the small moments this year: Watching her eighth-grade daughter’s “mind work, tackling curious questions about the world, watching her finally be able to move at her pace and make choices for her learning. Doing some algebra together. Hugs and breaks and VT snow.”
Hybrid school schedules, where only half of the students are in the building on a given day, result in smaller class sizes with more opportunities for individual attention and closer relationships with teachers. More parents are attending school board meetings, thanks to the convenience and accessibility of virtual platforms. All kids, but especially those with attention or hyperactivity disorders, can fidget, move, and wiggle in the comfort of their own homes — and that physical activity is correlated with improved academic performance.
What’s more, flexible course requirements have alleviated anxiety for many families. With alternatives to the pressure of raising their hands and speaking out in class, introverted kids may feel more relaxed. Academic differences are less obvious because learning platforms allow teachers to post differentiated assignments privately, avoiding stigma and shame. Opportunities abound to help kids build empathy for others: classmates who have lost a relative; teachers who are struggling to parent, teach, and take care of themselves even as they show up for every student, every day.
Hope Bray, a school social worker in Connecticut, believes the pandemic has helped her serve her students better. “School social workers are not known for our tech skills, and I have learned so much this year,” she told me on Twitter. “We have been kicking down barriers to counseling that seemed insurmountable in March.”
1. Building Deeper, More Meaningful Connections
Like Cohn in Vermont, many families have been spending more time together, either because one or more parents lost their jobs, schools went remote or hybrid, extracurriculars were canceled, or because child care has been difficult to maintain. Well over 1 million parents left the workforce between February and September 2020, according to one analysis — a total that shakes out to 900,000 mothers and 300,000 fathers leaving by choice or because their jobs disappeared.
Whatever the reason, many parents say that they’ve had time to forge deeper, more meaningful relationships with their children. “The time with my two children, and particularly teen, has felt like a precious gift,” Jessica Ashley, founder of Single Mom Nation, wrote to me. “Friday night movies, bingeing shows we all love, kitchen dance parties, piling into my bed to read and laugh — many of these things were previously squeezed out by running around, after-school activities, social stuff, fund-raising obligations and general busyness.” Brian G. Ricca, father of a 12-year-old and 14-year-old in Williston, Vermont, acknowledges the costs that come with the pandemic, but tweets, “I find that we have more time for family dinners. . . . I can have longer and more in-depth conversations with my family and friends.”
Siblings, too, have gained many more hours together — to bond, as well as to bicker. Older children who had long since flown off to college or the workforce returned home to their childhood bedrooms and resumed their place at the family dinner table. Such was the case in our home. My sons are five years apart, 17 and 22, and for a long period during adolescence had very little in common. When my older son’s college closed, he spent an unexpected six months at home, and that time together strengthened his bond with his brother, not in spite of disappointment and frustration over confinement, but because of it.
Chris Lehmann, founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy Schools in Pennsylvania, expresses a similar sentiment. “If nothing else, we got a year with our boys ages 16 and 14. As much loss as there has been, I will also always be thankful for this time with both of them,” he tweeted.
Teachers say they’re exhausted, but also say they’ve gotten to know their students beyond the classroom walls. Now that teachers virtually stream into their students’ homes, they’ve found creative ways to build trust and support. They meet pets, parents, and siblings, and that can broaden educators’ understanding of how students live and learn. Even when students are reluctant to turn on their video or audio, honest conversations and some empathy for a student’s individual circumstances can strengthen connections between teachers, students, and families, and can enrich learning opportunities.
2. More Opportunities to Make Learning Relevant
The good news is that with all this time within earshot of virtual classrooms, parents and caregivers who are able to work from home have more opportunities to find out what makes their children tick — their interests, passions, beliefs, and goals — and to help kids connect the things they’re learning in school to whatever stirs up their emotions. Because without emotion, there is no learning. Or, in the words of Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a University of Southern California professor of education, psychology, and neuroscience, “It is literally neurobiologically impossible to build memories, engage complex thoughts, or make meaningful decisions without emotion. . . . Put succinctly, we only think about things we care about.”
This is where parents are at a distinct advantage this year, because the more time they spend with their kids — especially when they listen and are open to talking about the things that kids want to talk about, when they want to talk about them — the more deeply they’ll understand their children. And the stronger those relationships become.
The same goes for relevance. When children perceive a subject or lesson relates to their own lives, they’re more likely to remember it later. I spent five years teaching in an inpatient drug and alcohol rehabilitation center for adolescents, and in that situation, where my students were often profoundly disengaged from school due to undiagnosed learning issues, lack of self-efficacy, and low self-esteem, helping them find relevance in learning was my main — sometimes my only — goal. Every pedagogical success I achieved happened by connecting lessons to real-world applications, and applications to the students’ lives and long-term goals.
For example, if your child loves pancakes but hates learning about fractions, offer to make those pancakes — but “lose” the full cup measure while bringing out the 1/4, 1/3, and 1/2 cup measures, encouraging the child to work through the math. If a teen hates reading but adores something else, try leaving nonfiction books about topics they love around the house. One of my all-time biggest teaching successes came in response to a student’s refusal to read. He said he didn’t like to read and wasn’t interested in any topic except his dog, a pit bull. The following week, I presented him with Bronwen Dickey’s wonderful book, Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon, and he proclaimed it to be the first book he ever cared enough about to read in its entirety.
3. Increased Self-Advocacy and Competence
One of the most difficult — and for many parents insurmountable — aspects of remote learning is the need for increased parental involvement. Little kids need tech help, older kids need reminders about when and where to log on. Alarm clocks malfunction and video games magically launch behind muted Zoom sessions. Some families have the time, means, and bandwidth (human and digital) to accommodate these needs, but many don’t. In single-parent homes, or where parents have had to pick up extra shifts to make ends meet, the suggestion “make it work” isn’t just impossible, it’s insulting.
This is a great time to give kids the gift of competence, and discover just how much they can handle on their own. Give them the opportunity to manage their own homework, alarms, schedules, and assignments — parents and caregivers don’t have to yield to the temptation to take it all on. Teachers are more flexible and grading policies are temporarily forgiving (my own child’s school is offering pass/fail options, for example).
Inga Carter’s third-grade daughter in Dover, New Hampshire, has “developed all kinds of strategies for making sure that she gets to her Zoom meetings on time. She’s learned to set timers, to plan her day in advance,” Carter writes. “Maybe she would have figured all that stuff out on her own anyway, but it’s pretty impressive to see an 8-year-old solve these problems on her own.” Carter has found that it’s better to take a pause before assuming she needs to step in and rescue her daughter.
Unless parents step back, kids never get the opportunity to show just how competent and clever they can be. Allow them some space to show off these abilities, and help them take charge of home-school communication. Given their hard-won fluency with the various platforms they’re using this year, even little kids know how to ask for one-on-one video call time with their teacher to talk about their needs or concerns, dictate notes to teachers, or draw pictures of concepts they don’t understand as a way to ask for help.
4. More Sleep
One of the biggest benefits of virtual or hybrid school is that kids are finally getting enough sleep. Most, and especially teens (7 out of 10, research shows), get far less sleep than they require. Fourteen- to 17-year-olds need between eight to 10 hours of sleep a night, yet the National Sleep Foundation has found that the average teen only gets between seven and eight hours nightly. Adolescents have a natural sleep phase delay: a brain chemical-induced shift toward a later bedtime and morning wakening. Cluing into this, many schools have shifted start times to adhere to the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation of 8:30 a.m. or later.
Sleep is essential for physical and mental health and for learning. Sleep deprivation is associated with depression, mood swings, obesity, and reduced cognitive function, as well as lower test scores and school performance. Stress and anxiety can make it more difficult to get or stay asleep; early studies indicate alarming increases in children’s anxiety since the pandemic took hold.
Parents can help foster healthy sleep habits for their kids who find sleep more difficult right now due to anxiety, wildly shifting sleep schedules, or lack of sunlight. Talk to your kids about their fears. Help them articulate words that define and explain their emotions. Guide them toward an understanding that today’s stresses and concerns are temporary, that this pandemic will not go on forever, and playdates, outings, in-person playtime, and opportunities for dates and romance will return someday. Understanding that today’s challenges are not permanent can go a long way toward reducing children’s anxiety levels.
Many parents have told me that their teens have gone nocturnal during this very strange year, and I can attest to this phenomenon. My own teen’s sleep schedule began shifting early in the pandemic until he was sleeping during the day and active at night, mainly in pursuit of social time with friends who tended to be online at night. We crossed paths at the dinner table, when he was first waking up and we were winding down for the day. After a week or so, he discovered that this new schedule was undermining his ability to fully engage in school.
If your kids’ sleep schedules are off, don’t try to shift them abruptly. Opt instead for incremental change, 15 minutes at a time, back to a normal schedule (you may have to help them avoid the temptation to nap). Model your own regular, consistent bedtime and talk about why you stick to it: because your health, work, and sanity depend on it.
Screen time has increased during the pandemic, but try to limit evening screen use for the whole family, as well as late-day caffeine and sugar intake. Finally, get outside every day. The exercise, as well as the sunlight, will tire you all out, elevate everyone’s mood, and support the body’s natural circadian rhythms, resulting in better, more consistent sleep. “My son is a senior with great exercise habits and a voracious appetite,” David B. Cohen, a parent in California, shared with me on Facebook. “He’s using the reduced class time and transit time to get in additional workouts and cook up mini-meals during the day. His attitude has stayed mostly positive as a result.”
We’ll all be happy and relieved to leave the COVID-19 pandemic behind, no doubt. But what we’ve learned this year, from our successes and our failures, will be useful in the future. Parents have had to become more flexible, patient, and creative. Kids have had time to read, explore, and imagine. Teachers have learned to use the limited tools at their disposal to become more creative educators, resulting in positive changes around inclusivity, engagement, and assessment.
The history books to come will likely enumerate the many challenges we faced and the mistakes we made as a society as we fought COVID-19. I hope those books will also report that we learned from our mistakes and emerged stronger and more empathetic. My greatest hope, however, is that we’ll remember some of the gifts we discovered in our isolation: of time, of communication, and of the bonding that results from pulling together as a family in the face of hardship.