With school starting all over the U.S., most states are finding that the return to daily in-person learning isn’t a reality again just yet. Remote learning is becoming the “norm” as of now with school-aged children. When children and teens spend a lot of their time isolated at home, and their socialization consists of text and video, their social skills and self-esteem can suffer as they can become lonelier. Here are a few ways you can lower the risk of this happening if your child is taking part in remote learning.
- Practice paying attention to others
An important skill is the ability to pay attention to others while you’re interacting with them. More than 300 teenagers with the highest screen use were more likely to focus on themselves instead of the people they were interacting with. Self-centered behavior can also lead to more social problems with friends. Daily activities that do not involve technology can help them focus and pay attention to others. When families do things together like cooking meals, gardening, or having a designated time when everyone reads at the same time, it can help children maintain the social skill of paying attention to others. Most kids find it easier to focus on friends when they play together in person. When they play outdoors, they can become more able to pay attention to their friends.
- Foster the give-and-take of conversation
In-person interactions at school can help children learn to read facial expressions and body language, give-and-take conversations, and how to change or initiate topics. Having those encounters regularly is one way that they learn how to meet and greet people. Some activities online can help them practice reading others’ emotions by looking at their faces. Try the “Eyes In the Mind Test,” which is when people look at a picture of someone’s eyes and guesses the emotion the person is feeling. Family time can make the biggest contribution to conversation skills. Plan to eat dinner together with no distractions of screens or phones. Kids who eat dinner with their families will form stronger relationships with their peers.
- Maintaining friendships
Parents of remote learning children may have to become creative in finding ways to keep school friendships going. Skype, Zoom, and FaceTime can be useful, but children can become bored with them. Remember that it is safer to connect with friends outdoors than it is indoors. Set up outdoor visits that keep children and teens six feet apart from their friends. Try having them play outdoor games that can keep the distancing at six feet.
- Connect mind and body: “What I need”
Mental health is just as important as physical health. Physical activity, good nutrition, and adequate sleep are all crucial for both physical and psychological health. Children need a set bedtime routine and a consistent schedule, especially during these uncertain times. Children also need to go to bed and wake up as close to the same time each evening as possible. This goes for all ages. It is normal for sleep to shift in adolescence, but consistency is key. Poor sleep can be a sign of depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems.
- Develop an identity: “Who I am”
Children of all ages take in information from both family and friends and develop their sense of identity. School is how children get exposure to others who have similar and different viewpoints or backgrounds and let them confront social rules. Children who are homeschooled and interact with other homeschool kids have shown to be good for their mental health. Positive peer relationships throughout their childhood can make adjusting to the new form of schooling much smoother. Pro-social behaviors that are learned by family, like helping someone in need, help them build and maintain their friendships. Parents should ask open-ended questions and show curiosity about their child’s opinions and interests. Family rituals like special weekly dinner, family game night, or a bedtime ritual can help family bonding and gain a strong sense of self.
- Regulate emotions: “How I feel”
Skills that allow children to understand their emotions and make their own choices on how they respond to them are crucial. Families can practice regulating emotions with their children by supporting strategies to understand and manage emotions like frustration, anger, and sadness. Supporting positive emotions is important, as well. With remote learning becoming a new “norm” for many children, complex emotions are likely to happen in the coming months. School-based risk factors like bullying can have a negative effect on their mental health, but children staying home may have different risk factors like picking up on stress related to work and income challenges, parental mental health issues, and family violence within the family. If you notice strange behaviors like sleeplessness or aggression, it may be a good idea to step in with emotion coaching. Parents should regularly check in with their children and take their “feelings temperature” and suggest ways to practice coping. Things like art, music, and dance can all be creative outlets and help make coping easier.
- Recognizing interdependence: “Who we are”
Responses to the pandemic can threaten the sense of community. Whether due to remote learning or physical distancing measures, families can help make up for the isolation by providing opportunities for children to others’ feelings and practice giving and receiving emotional support. Parents need to attend to their own mental health first. If parents struggle with depression, then aspects of children’s social-emotional development can also suffer, such as building empathy skills and engaging socially.
- The challenges remain, but the tools are consistent
Kids who were vulnerable before the pandemic remain vulnerable and remain the same for children who are both going to school and learning from home. All changes can create stress, regardless if they are happy changes. The ability to adapt is essential for good mental health. The previous strategies are a great toolkit to keep in mind when helping children adjust and cope with stress from the pandemic, economic inequities, racism, unaddressed special needs, or interpersonal problems. Some children need to be in school due to their complex learning needs, having unsafe home lives, and depending on school to buffer issues at home. Keep in mind that not all children need to attend school to avoid a mental health crisis. Wherever and however your child is learning this year, you can support them to continue developing as mentally healthy individuals.
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