For many students, back-to-school this year means heading back to the living room or bedroom where they will be learning remotely.
That creates a host of challenges for parents, teachers and students, who have to grapple with how to make remote learning as engaging as classroom learning.
And that is a tall order, says Rebecca Hedrick, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Cedars-Sinai who is concerned about what children and teens are missing by not being in school. “Social interaction teaches kids about taking turns, about empathy and sharing and how to deal with stress,” she says. “It gives them practice for healthy relationships for the rest of their lives and is critically important.”
Adolescence is when the prefrontal cortex of the brain is physically developing, a process that can be stunted if exposed to prolonged social isolation. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for planning, for empathy and for high-level cognition.
Long-term elevated stress can change the way a child’s brain develops, Hedrick says. When a child is socially isolated, stress levels go up and development slows down. This can eventually lead to a host of physical and emotional problems later in life, including higher levels of inflammatory diseases, heart disease, obesity and hypertension, as well as lower academic achievement and career growth.
But there are ways parents can help, Hedrick says:
- Encourage teens to set up online video parties with friends. Because these kids were all raised on social media, that helps protect them to some degree from social isolation.
- Pull out the board games and have family game nights.
- Get down on the floor and actually play with younger children. Move the furniture in the dollhouse, create a racetrack for model cars. Set a timer for at least 15 minutes and stick with it, Hedrick says, because “kids that age may actually benefit from spending more time with their parents, so this could be a real opportunity.”
- Take a family walk every day and work up to doing an hour of exercise daily.
- Manage your own stress because children take their cues from their parents. Engage in self-care, whether it’s meditation, exercise, talking to a friend or a therapist, or taking some parenting time off by sharing responsibilities with friends.
In terms of actual learning, experts say schools are better prepared now than they were six months ago, when, with little preparation, the pandemic forced schools to pivot to online learning.
Suzanne Silverstein, founding director of Cedars-Sinai Share & Care, a program offering counseling and art therapy in 30 Los Angeles Unified School District schools, says educators are better prepared.
“Kids were wearing their pajamas to online class, they were in bed, or leaving the virtual classroom at will,” Silverstein says. “This time around, the schools are prepared. Students who wear uniforms to school will have to wear them at home. Kids will have to be dressed, and teachers are required to take roll call. All these rules will make the kids feel more like they are in a classroom environment and help with their learning.”
Share & Care is sending out resource guides to parents to help create a better learning environment. Among their suggestions:
- Create a designated workspace. If you have more than one child, separate them to have their own workspace. To make their space special, have them select one of their favorite items and add it to their workspace. Do your best to help them keep their work area neat. Some kids work better by having headphones, which limit distractions.
- Follow a routine. Create a schedule and stick to it. Post a visual schedule for each child on the wall in a common area so they can be reminded of their schedule (e.g., wake up, breakfast, schoolwork, break, lunch, etc.)
- Do some breathing exercises. It’s a great way to start off learning/school time. They are wonderful tools to help children deal with anxiety.
- Take breaks. It is tiring to sit in front of a screen for long periods of time. In addition to scheduled breaks, sometimes you need a quick break to move, stretch or take a breather. It is important to meet your child where they are. Some days may require more breaks for your children than others.
- Get creative and be flexible. This is a very unique and challenging time. It is important to adapt to your children’s needs. For children that have a hard time sitting still, give them a fidget toy or squishy ball to hold and play with while looking at classroom presentations online.
It is also important for parents to model kindness and gratitude in this time. “This is not the time to be negative,” Silverstein says. “During this challenging time, gratitude and kindness can help decrease anxiety and increase self-esteem.”