It is no exaggeration how challenging times are right now. Most everyone is feeling overwhelmed in some way or another – worries over job security, the economy, the health and safety of loved ones are only a few of the concerns that we are dealing with. For parents these concerns can be compounded if their children are struggling with learning from home. When children are experiencing frustration or sadness due to the lockdown, it complicates their learning. So, what can parents do to help their children stay positive and interested in learning through this unparalleled time?
As Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper M.D. explain in Smart Love “The long-term goal is to help your child develop the ongoing capacity to make good choices and pursue them in an unconflicted and competent manner. Children learn to govern themselves effectively only by identifying with your kindness and helpfulness towards them. Genuine self-discipline is generated by a love that is abundant and available.”
High-quality programs understand the importance of these formative years and strive to ensure their preschoolers learn that school is a positive place.
As noted in Smart Love Solutions in Early Childhood, “The purpose of preschool is not to teach your child any particular content, such as color or numbers, but to introduce her to the school setting and show her that it can be enjoyable.”**
If your child’s preschool is offering at-home learning activities they should be voluntary to ensure a positive association with school. If your toddler isn’t happy during an activity, there is no reason to continue as this will only cause conflict and unhappiness in your home. Instead we suggest finding activities that your toddler enjoys and insert some cognitive elements into their play. For example, if your child loves wheels, maybe you can count the wheels of the cars in front of your house. If your toddler loves animals, maybe you can explore if their giraffe is taller than the lion, the polar bear, the monkey, and then fox. Or you can play “I-Spy Something Blue” and have a scavenger hunt to find all the blue toys in your child’s room and have fun counting the blue treasures together! You can find more activities for your toddler and learn how to incorporate learning organically in Smart Love Preschool’s Magic Basket here.
“If you are able to remain available to his needs and his timetable, he will associate the school experience with feeling loved, cared for and in control. This will set the tone for the many years of school to follow.”**
For children in grade school, this time may be more challenging as their schoolwork is likely a requirement and may not offer much flexibility, which adds more stress and pressure to an already stressful situation. Parents may be noticing that when it comes to their schoolwork, their child may be easily frustrated, fatigued, lacking motivation, irritated, or sad. These are appropriate responses as it is very hard to learn when you are missing your friends, irritated from not being able to get help from teachers, or frustrated that you can’t participate in your favorite group activities. So how can parents help their child through these difficulties? By avoiding power struggles, and helping to alleviate their child’s stress, frustrations, or other unpleasant emotions, children will become more available to learn but need their parent’s help to do so.
Parents help their children navigate these unhappy emotions and losses by listening, empathizing, and offering their compassion. When your child becomes upset, you can try to engage in a conversation by stating your observations in a sympathetic tone:
‘I see you are upset/frustrated/irritated, can you tell me what is going on?’
They may or may not be able or willing to talk at that moment but be sure to let them know you are available if they do want to talk later. When they are ready to talk, simply listen to what your child is going through and avoid offering solutions. It’s important to just listen and allow your child to release their emotions. After they are done talking be sure to name the emotion your child is feeling if they weren’t able to do so themselves. It could sound like:
‘It sounds like you feel frustrated/mad/disappointed when you can’t reach your teacher.’
Then validate what they are going through followed by offering your comfort or sympathy.
‘That is very frustrating. I know all these changes are not easy and I’m sorry that things are the way they are.’
Then offer a hug, a little activity, or something that she likes to help lead her to a more pleasant emotion. It could sound something like:
‘Would you like to take a quick break and walk the dog around the block with me?’
‘Would you like me to fix your favorite snack while you work?’
By helping your child process their emotions, you are guiding them out of those unpleasant feelings and showing them effective ways to manage losses and stress.
“Responding sympathetically, [parents] will make a positive contribution to their child’s development of a more stable inner well-being, thereby helping the child become less vulnerable when things go badly in the future.”*
By the time children reach adolescence and high school, they are likely more accustomed to working independently and may not need their parent’s help organizing their work or preparing for tests or projects. But because friendships are such an important part of a teen’s life, they may be experiencing sadness, disappointments, or other unhappy emotions due to social distancing. All these feelings are normal responses to what is going on and can contribute to difficulties with learning from home. When it comes to their schoolwork, teens may become easily irritable, frustrated, or simply lack motivation.
As with school-aged children, the best way to help your teen during this unprecedented time is by avoiding power struggles as they only aggravate issues and cause distance in your relationship, and also by helping your child alleviate stress and process their losses. By listening, empathizing, and offering compassion parents help their teen process and move beyond their difficult feelings. For teens it may sound like:
‘I notice you don’t seem too interested in schoolwork, how is everything going?’
Your teen may or may not want to talk about it at that time, but lay the foundation so they know you are available if they do want to talk.
‘Okay, I know things are really hard right now, so if you ever need to talk, I’m always available.’
When they are ready to talk, be sure to just listen and avoid providing commentary or solutions. Help your teen let off steam or complain by simply nodding or providing words of understanding like ‘yeah’ or ‘mmhm’, which will encourage the conversation to continue. Then validate what they are going through:
‘Yeah, I know, it’s super hard to stay motivated with all of these changes. I’m sorry your prom [or sport] was cancelled, I know how important that is to you.'
Then follow it up with an act or activity that will allow your teen to know how much he is cared for.
‘Would you like me to make your favorite meal for dinner tonight?’
‘Maybe we can watch your favorite movie together?’
'Would you like to make some chocolate chip cookies later?'
Talking about their problems or frustrations frees your teen from their emotional distractions that are preventing them from caring about their schoolwork. Letting them know you care and are available can help them refocus their efforts.
“You play the crucial role of helping your teen weather disappointments by encouraging and facilitating her ability to take pleasure in sustained and proficient effort.”*
It’s important to note that these Smart Love responses are not single-use, but rather a steady and consistent approach to parenting. In other words, your child may feel comforted one day, but then the next day, struggle again. The challenges that this crisis poses are many and children need their parent’s kindness, patience, understanding, and love to cope. Remaining positive, calm, and flexible is the most effective approach to helping children through these challenging times.
“When children’s needs are responded to generously and positively, children acquire the inner resources to function flexibly and effectively in the real world.”*
*Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, by Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Smart Love Press, 2011
** Smart Love Solutions for Early Childhood. (2012). Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D. Smart Love Family Services.