Schooling During COVID-19
Updated: Sep 21, 2021
Dear fellow parents,
Hi! I’m checking in from a real and raw place this week. Talking not as therapist to parent, but as parent to parent. This week many of us are facing another big transition… the formal start of schooling at home. Some of you have been doing this for weeks already and are (hopefully!) starting to adjust to this change. This schooling at home… notice I did not say homeschooling. What we are doing is NOT the same as homeschooling. It is crisis schooling. We are trying to create a plan for formal education for our children at home in the midst of a global pandemic. This is very different then a carefully planned out and conscious decision to homeschool. We can’t minimize the emotional impact of all that is happening on our children’s availability to learn.
We are in the midst of a very challenging situation – we all are – regardless of the ways that we are impacted in our own individual homes and families. We ALL feel challenges and we all feel a sense of threat. A feeling that things are not safe. All you have to do is go on a walk to feel this. I am a runner. And I have always said that you see people at their happiest on trails and in nature. People smiling and saying hi, waving and nodding happily as you pass. Recently though, this feeling has changed dramatically. This past week on my run people were wearing masks. People separated from each other to create distance as we passed. People looked scared and stressed. There was a very palpable sense of fear and of self-protection.
On a neurobiological level we react to threats and challenges in two ways – usually a dance between both. A dance between hyper arousal (activation of our sympathetic nervous system) and hypo arousal (activation of our dorsal parasympathetic nervous system / dorsal vagal shut down). This is really REALLY important to know and get when it comes to understanding learning and functioning during this time. In order to be able to learn and to function well in life and relationships – we need to be operating from a place of calm – from a regulated space (the in between – parasympathetic nervous system activation versus hyper arousal of the sympathetic nervous system or the hypo arousal of the dorsal vagal shut down). When I say regulated I mean that we are connected with what is happening in our body and aware of our feelings and needs. We are in control of our responses versus reacting from a place of dysregulation (hyper or hypo arousal). What does this look like in real life? Well let me share what it looks like in my home. My son operates mostly from a state of hyper arousal when he is struggling. Hyper arousal is just a fancy way of saying full out FIGHT mode. This has always been challenging and hard to parent – but recently we have come so far in knowing how to support him and things have felt a bit easier. Enter COVID-19. In the first couple of weeks of changes and adjustments we saw a big spike in aggression, tantrums, sleep disturbance (nightmares, trouble falling asleep, night waking, etc)… his brain was perceiving threats and challenges and he was feeling very dysregulated and not at all in control. He was struggling! My oldest daughter does more of a dance, but mostly she operates from a state of hypo arousal. Hypo arousal is a fancy way of saying SHUT DOWN mode. For her this sometimes looks like being spacey (not responding, head in the clouds), avoidant, and uninterested. The dance looks like a quick shift from happy and playful to unrelenting heavy and deep sobs, triggered by something as “simple” as a stubbed toe.
Ok, so what does this all mean for schooling at home? It all comes down to availability for learning. If children are in hyper or hypo arousal they are NOT available for learning. Not only are they not available for learning, but trying to “make” them learn will create a lot of conflict and problems in your home. So before any learning, we need to make sure our kids are regulated. That their parasympathetic nervous system is activated – meaning our children are able to think clearly and logically and respond to you versus react. They feel grounded and safe. They can take a deep breath. They are here. Not spaced out, lost or flailing. They are present in their bodies, in this moment. They are available for learning. How do you know what state your kids are operating from?
For kids in hyper arousal you may notice:
Arguments over school work
Tantrums about doing school work or during the process of trying to complete schoolwork
Being hyper and unfocused, bouncing around, not staying seated
For kids in hypo arousal you may notice:
Refusal to do work
Shutting down, tearfulness, being stuck
I’ll say it again… In order for learning we have to first help our kids find a regulated state. Lisa Dion, founder of Synergetic Play Therapy, has a wonderful free webinar on regulating through the Coronavirus. You can access that here: https://learn.synergeticplaytherapy.com/product/regulating-through-the-coronavirus/
I highly recommend taking the time to watch this. It discusses the importance of being regulated ourselves so that we can help our children find that place of regulation and internal safety and comfort as well. This is so important right now. Not just for schoolwork, but for our overall emotional and mental health during and after this COVID-19 experience.
Back to schoolwork. My daughter is in second grade. To be quite honest up until this week we really did not do any type of schooling at home. We were struggling to survive. I was transitioning to a completely new way of practicing play therapy, a total overhaul of how I deliver services, overnight. And let me tell you, I am not a technologically savvy person so this was an adjustment! My kids were struggling emotionally and I was trying to support them as they processed and released their own emotions, while I was simultaneously trying to figure out how to be ok myself. Sound familiar? Basically, we had nothing left for school. Fast forward to this week. We started to tackle the daunting task of schooling at home. This week my 7 year old also started complaining of stomach aches daily. After much googling and once I got past my panic that this was appendicitis during a pandemic, I realized this was stress. She had been very avoidant with regards to school work. Very distracted. Very discouraged. Very overwhelmed. She was also sad. She didn’t like the idea of seeing her teacher over a screen. As much as she misses her teacher, seeing her over a screen was actually more triggering than comforting. It was a reminder of how much things have changed. Of the permanence of this situation right now. That this is not just a break, but that this is the new normal. So we were slow to start with school. I tried to organize and plan this week, to make things a little less overwhelming (for all of us!). And Thursday we sat down and officially had our first lesson. It took hours. It was not graceful. But it ended well. Here are some of the strategies I can share that have helped us and that I hope can help you:
Acknowledge the emotional piece of crisis schooling. Reflect the dislike, the challenge, the longing and loss, the overwhelm, the newness. Reflect that this is an adjustment and in the beginning it feels weird and different. Reflect what you observe to be YOUR child’s unique emotional experience of schooling during COVID-19 (Hey, maybe they love being on the computer and are excited!). Start there.
Share your understanding. This is where you can share and model your own authentic experience of schooling during COVID-19. Use your own challenges to model this. For me I shared how challenging teletherapy was for me at first and how it made me sad that I couldn’t welcome children into the playroom right now. I shared how all the schooling resources were overwhelming for me and how I didn’t know where to start either. I also shared what helped me. How organizing and planning helped me get my head around the schooling. And how I came to embrace teletherapy: a heavy sprinkling of regulatory activities and a positive mindset…
Regulatory Activities. Regulatory activities actually work best when built in preventatively. They are much harder to access when fully in fight mode or shut down mode. Some of activities you can build in are: breathing, moving, proprioceptive input (self-massage, weighted blanket), cold (ice cold water to sip or splash on face), and nature. What this looked like for us Thursday included deep breaths, a dance party mid school work, moving the schoolwork outside and ice cold water to sip. What we will be building in next week will be fidgets to use during school work as well.
Mindset. It’s important to reflect the suck. But we cannot stay in the suck. That is a recipe for exhaustion and burn out. We have to reflect the suck, regulate, and then SHIFT our mindset. Some of my favorite mindset shifters that I use with myself, my kids and my clients are: One step at a time. The more I do it the more I get it. Breathe THEN take the next step. And my all-time favorite: We can do hard things!
I’m going to leave you with this. Please, please, please incorporate flexibility and grace into this schooling process. There may be days when you don’t get any school work done at all. There may be many days when you don’t do it all. You may lose it, they may lose it. Please be flexible and please give grace to yourself and your children. Our nervous systems are doing a constant dance between hyper and hypo arousal and it takes a lot of work right now to feel regulated. And that is the MOST important part, to regulate through all of these challenges and threats. To maintain a sense of emotional and mental safety as much as we can. And from this place – this place of emotional regulation and safety – from this place we can focus on learning. Trying to promote learning in a place of dysregulation (for them or us) will only create more distress with no real educational benefit if our children are not available for learning.
Stay well - thinking of you all,