How Parents Can Support Their Children During School Shutdowns
Given the stress that educators, students, and their parents are under because of the current national health crisis, I thought it would be helpful to share this post written by one of our Keys to Literacy trainers, Noel Foy. She is also a neuroeducational consultant.
Globally, schools are shutting down — some for a minimum of 30 days, others indefinitely. With very little warning, parents and children are adjusting to a whirlwind of new homebound changes and routines, many of which are adding high levels of stress to their daily lives. There is one new role many parents or caregivers didn’t anticipate filling on such short notice: Homeschool Teacher. While the thought of taking on this role may be initially overwhelming, take comfort in knowing you have been your child’s first and most important teacher all along. However, transforming your kitchen or dining room table into a classroom is another story.
As you step in and support your child’s learning, a certain amount of stress is to be expected. Your child’s well being is a priority, and so is yours. Since parents don’t leave the hospital with their newborns and a parent toolbox in tow, allow me to equip you with a crash course of information, tips, and strategies about the science of learning and managing stress. If there was ever a need for a parent toolkit, it’s now.
How Stress Works
It all starts with a trigger. Worried thoughts follow, which activate a part of the brain called the amygdala, the brain’s alarm. It sends a “Mayday!” message to the brain indicating a threat, releasing stress chemicals which produce physiological changes throughout the body — rapid heart rate, sweaty palms, body tightness, headache and/or stomachache — and turn on the Fight, Flight or Freeze reflex needed for survival.
Given what parents and kids are currently facing, there are too many triggers to mention — disruptions to routines, job instability, cabin fever, challenges of working remotely, health concerns and missing friends, sports and extracurricular activities — any or all of these triggers can spark worried thoughts, which in turn make your body feel “off” or agitated and can propel you into fight, flight or freeze.
Add to that, the contagious effect of stress and anxiety — the spread of negative emotions from one person to another can escalate and put everyone on edge, making this transition period very unsettling. Regardless of triggers, the stress response will work the same for adults and kids, so being aware of this cycle is an important first step for you and your child(ren).
How Stress Impacts Learning
Students (and adults) may experience stress as anxiety, frustration, anger, boredom or lack of relevance to a task. When in these negative emotional states, your child will not be receptive to learning and unable to intake, process or retain new information, as the thinking brain will be blocked.
When your child is in fight, flight, or freeze, whatever you’re teaching won’t stick; the brain is in survival mode and is trying to avoid danger. When the brain perceives safety, the thinking brain will come back online.
It’s important to note the brain does not discern between perceived and “real” threats, so not knowing how to start an assignment or getting stuck on a math problem could trigger the brain’s alarm to interpret these situations as life-threatening emergencies.
How Stress Impacts Behavior
Behavior is communication. When students appear
uncooperative, lazy or reluctant, they may actually be trying to say, “I’m
stuck, don’t get it or need help.” Or, the stress response might just be doing
activate their stress response may exhibit the following behaviors:
- Fight: breaks a pencil, throws an item, says something nasty
- Flight: flees the room or makes multiple bathroom/nurse trips, spaces out the window
- Freeze: plays dead by putting head down on desk or makes a “deer in the headlights” stare and feels stuck
How Parents Can Decrease Stress and Cultivate a Healthy Learning Culture
Stress inhibits focus, processing, memory, learning, and performance. With that in mind, here are some tips to facilitate your child’s transition from school to home and hopefully limit the amount of fight, flight, and freeze episodes:
- Environment — the brain responds well to a safe, low threat and welcoming environment…smiles, enthusiasm, and respect go a long way. (respect for each other’s responsibilities and space will be especially important if you’re working at home)
- Structure — you will need to build some type of schedule and structure that suits you and your family, especially if you’re working remotely. You may want to stick with the typical school day hours…or perhaps your older kids will work at different times than the younger ones…you might front-load harder stuff in the morning and have your kids do more independent tasks later (so you can hopefully get more stuff done!)
- Workspace and Time Robbers — to avoid tasks taking longer than needed, identify where you/your child will work best…is it within earshot of you or a spot free from interruptions and loud noises? Be sure you and your kids are rested, fed and watered…have necessary books, school supplies, and materials at designated workspaces…are clear about directions of a task/assignment…set timers when needed…remove distractions such as cell phones and other electronic devices (keep devices in a different room from workspace).
- Achievable challenge and chunks — the brain likes tasks that are challenging — not too hard or too easy…it also likes to learn in chunks. It’s reasonable to take a brief movement break at least once every hour or between classes or assignments. If tasks are too difficult, you may need to provide support or a scaffold. If information is coming in too fast or if your child doesn’t understand the task or remember the directions, they can quickly become stressed and go into cognitive overload. If, on the other hand, tasks are too easy, you may suggest ways to make them more fun or challenging.
- Cue how to do vs. tell what to do — provide visuals of behavior expectations, directions or steps (i.e. homework routine steps, family norms) and use problem-solving prompts or questions. Instead of saying, “Put your homework in your folder,” ask your child to follow a visual with pictures of these steps or ask, “Where does homework go after you complete it?” Cuing how to do a task facilitates independence and executive function skill-building.
Stress Management Tips and ABC Strategy
As you and your child adapt to the disruptions and changes in daily life, notice your warning signs: What are your thoughts? How does your body feel? Remind yourself of how the stress response works — if your child is thinking, “I stink at Math” (or reading, writing, sports, music, etc.) or “I’ll never get this,” these thoughts can send an emergency message to the brain and release stress chemicals which will inhibit learning and affect behavior. The same can happen to you when you’re entertaining anxious or negative thoughts. When this happens, you can do something about it: apply the ABC Strategy from ABC Worry Free, a book published in response to the spike in anxiety we’ve seen in kids over the last ten years.
Here are the 3 steps:
- A=Accept how you feel (validate your feeling vs. dismiss
or judge them)
- B=Breathe through your worried thoughts (calm your
- C=Change your thinking (shift to a more productive
perspective or action step)
Note: For the breathing step, you can do any breathing practice you like, as long as it’s slow, deep breathing vs. quick, shallow breaths.
Here are two examples which might resonate for your child:
- A=Accept — Math is hard for me.
- B-Breathe — Do slow, pizza breaths to calm myself.
- C=Change my thinking — Learning isn’t always quick and
easy — this will take extra practice to improve.
- A=Accept — Mistakes terrify me.
- B=Breathe — Do 4/6 breathing to reset and keep myself calm.
- C=Change my thinking — Mistakes are part of the learning process and teach me more than my successes. Learning, not perfection, is my goal.
Here’s one that might resonate for you…
- A=Accept — I’m having trouble adjusting to my new routine.
- B=Breathe — Do slow, deep breathing to calm my nervous system and temper my frustration.
- C=Change your thinking — I will be better equipped to problem solve and adapt when I’m calm and level headed…I may even learn a new skill or way of thinking.
Now…try applying this 3 step strategy to your worried thoughts. You might consider putting your thoughts to paper by making personalized ABC cards, say on index cards…perhaps take a picture on your phone or post them around the house in visible spots as reminders to Accept, Breath, and Change your thinking. Like any new skill, learning this strategy takes time and intentional practice, but making the investment will pay healthy dividends, as you will learn a life skill to manage anxiety-provoking situations whenever they surface — anyplace, anytime.
Be patient, kind and as calm as possible with yourself and others as you learn and adapt to your new, emerging routines. Forget perfection. Ask for help when needed…perhaps you have an extended family member who can chip in by reading a book or teaching a concept remotely to your child.
I hope you and your children find this information practical and empowering. One of the best gifts you can give your children is to model healthy ways to adapt to new situations and manage adversity or stress…they will learn more from your examples than from any lecture. You can’t do it all, but you can inspire, facilitate and support…and those are lessons that will stick for a lifetime.
Neuroeducational Consultant Noel Foy, commonly known as Neuro Noel, is a former classroom teacher and Learning Specialist. She is the founder of AMMPE and the Author of A.B.C. Worry Free, a children’s book that provides an actionable approach to managing anxiety and includes tips for educators and parents.