Emily King, a child psychologist in Raleigh, offers advice on how parents can help children navigate this difficult school year.
You know what’s been tough during the COVID-19 pandemic? Being a parent in 2020. It’s also not been that easy being a kid.
All normal routines went out the window in March, when Gov. Roy Cooper ordered public schools in the state to shut their buildings and shift overnight to virtual schooling.
Now families are trying to figure out this school year, with the 115 public school districts across the state opting for either all-virtual classes to start or a blend of in-person and virtual learning.
“It’s completely uncharted territory for all of us,” said Emily King, a child psychologist based out of Raleigh.
Here’s some advice from King on how to help children through this challenging time.
Set 2020 Expectations
It’s not realistic to have the same academic goals for your kids this year as you have had in the past, King said. Children aren’t going to be learning in the same way, and families are facing immense stressors whether it’s worries about health, losses of loved ones due to COVID-19, intense financial pressures or just the effects of ongoing social isolation and uncertainty.
She wants people—school personnel and families alike—to recognize the challenges of 2020 for what they are.
“Something that’s happening is people still, whether it’s parents or teachers or administrators, still kind of have 2019 goals for 2020,” King said. “And it’s just not going to work out that way.”
Parents should focus on their children’s social and emotional health and let those be the top priorities, with academic achievements falling below that. Beyond that, good enough needs to be good enough.
Know Your Child’s Needs
Each child is different when it comes to how much socialization they need, depending on if they are introverts or extroverts, King said. Given that there aren’t as many natural opportunities to socialize this year, parents should think about what type best fits their children and how often they need to interact with peers to be happy and satisfied.
Some children may be overwhelmed by too many activities on virtual portals like Zoom, so setting up extra playtime online might not be the best option. If you’re comfortable with outdoor sports or unstructured playtime with neighborhood friends, that can allow for some physically distant socialization.
For middle school and high-school children, there may be options like virtual clubs offered through a school, community groups, or city recreational departments.
Whatever you and your child choose, having outlets for fun is a key part of their well-being.
“Thinking through where your child gets joy, and where your child feels happiness and making sure that that’s a part of their day and their week,” King said, “is going to be really helpful in making this emotionally sustainable for them this year.”
Create Dedicated Schoolwork Areas
Just like many adults working from home, children need to have a regular area to do their virtual learning. It will help them focus and also unplug.
“A child needs their workspace too and one of the reasons for that is so that they can walk away from it at the end of the day, and mentally be done with it,” King said.
The workspace doesn’t need to be elaborate, just a space where a child can expect to do their learning and know that the school day is over when they leave that area. Here are some ideas of ways other parents have set up workspaces on a budget.
Having set times of days when learning begins and ends will help children process the situation better, King said. And, importantly, it lets them know when they’ll have down time to decompress from a day of virtual learning.
“If we’re doing everything on the fly, it is disorienting and not predictable,” King said. “And when things are predictable, and kids can trust their schedule, stress is lower.”
Many schools are starting out with schedules for kids, some of which might not be doable for all families. If you’re working from home, King suggests using breakfast or lunch to regularly touch base with your children to see how they’re doing and help them process the day.
In addition, she suggests helping children schedule regular FaceTime calls with grandparent or friends, so that children have something to look forward to.
Explain Financial Stressors
The pandemic has thrust many Americans into financial uncertainty, including in North Carolina where more than 1.2 million people have applied for unemployment.
Children in those households are also feeling this stress, and it’s important to express to kids that the adults have it under control.
“Help kids to just understand that they can trust the parent to figure it out,” King said. “Even if you are not actually sure how you’re going to figure it out, trust in yourself that you will figure out something.”
She suggests saying to your child, “This is not your responsibility. I’m going to figure this out as your parent.”
Lean on community resources as best you can, whether it’s friends, faith communities, family or others to help figure out your next steps. Dialing up 2-1-1 connects you with a statewide program that can find resources to help with housing, food, childcare, and other pressing concerns.
“The more community we can build around our kids, the safer they’ll feel, even if a parent is out of work or has to change work in order to make this financially sustainable,” King said.
Navigating Difficult Behavior
Not every child is going to navigate the switch to wearing masks in a classroom all day, or logging on to school from a workstation at the kitchen table.
Parents can address disruptive behavior, whether it’s refusing to take part in school or something else, by first looking at if children are getting enough sleep, healthy food, and quality interactions with their peers.
“If we’re seeing those emotional difficulties in our children, probably one of those needs isn’t being met and you need to kind of back it up and figure out what’s going on,” King said.
She suggests asking the following: Is my child eating well and sleeping well? And have they gotten enough social interaction to be able to show up and pay attention to schoolwork?
If not, work to figure out how to meet those needs, whether it’s adjusting bedtimes for younger children or being more intentional about making time spent with friends a priority.
Don’t hesitate to reach out to teachers, King said. They may have observations from the classroom (or through the screen if virtually learning) that you’re not seeing and have ideas of how to help.
Talk to your pediatrician as well, to see if she or he has suggestions of ways to get your child additional mental health support. Most therapists and psychologists are offering tele appointments right now, King said. And most health insurance, including Medicaid, cover needed therapies.
Take Care of Yourself
One of the best ways to support your child is by being in good emotional shape yourself, King said.
Children look to their parents for stability and being frazzled or upset over the disrupted school schedules, financial worries and more can impact kids.
“We can’t help our kids unless we are feeling emotionally stable,” King said. “And we’re going to be stressed because we’re problem solving constantly.”
Figure out what self-care means for you – is it a time to get away and exercise every day? Or unwind at night with a book or a relaxing bath? Maybe it means having some quality adult time with your own friends. And getting enough sleep is huge.
Whatever it is, making room for your own needs means you’ll be in a more rested and stable place to help your child navigate their own struggles related to the lifestyle changes brought on by COVID-19.
Convey to children that, yes, this is a difficult time, but it’s one the family will get through together.
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