How to Deal With the Stress of Distance Learning

How parents can deal with the stress of distance learning this fall
Photo: blackCAT / E+

At the time of this story’s publication, nearly every school district in the DC metro area had announced a fully virtual start to the 20-21 school year. Most of the holdouts were still planning a hybrid model, in which parents can choose part-time in-person instruction or full-time virtual instruction. That means that come fall, nearly every family in the DMV will be dealing with the stress of distance learning at least part of the time.

Health experts say these school closures are necessary to keep children, teachers, and their families safe from COVID-19. But that doesn’t make the challenges of distance learning any easier. Many families experienced technology issues last spring. Parents who are not teachers themselves sometimes struggle to explain material to their kids. Working parents have to juggle their own work with their kids’ schooling. And then there’s the challenge of keeping kids focused and engaged.

Luckily, experts say there are steps parents can take to prepare ourselves and our families for more distance learning—and things we can do to help it run more smoothly come fall.

Set a positive tone. “Parents can set the tone for the whole family and help bring about a level of acceptance,” says Megan Davis, a licensed school psychologist with the Counseling and Assessment Practice of Fairfax. “It’s so easy to get stuck in the negativity and what we are missing rather than make the most of it.” So remind your kids—and yourself—that although the situation is not ideal, you can all work together to get through it.

Communicate frequently. Check in often with your kids, making sure to ask open-ended questions about how their day is going and what they may be struggling with. For younger kids, Davis suggests asking about the “roses and thorns”— the good parts and bad parts—of their day. “With good communication, you can catch feelings of depression, anxiety, or loneliness in their earliest stages and get ahead of them rather than wait until they really become a problem,” says Davis.

Build in “me time.” “In times of crisis, we need to increase our self-care,” says Davis. “It is important for parents to have an outlet every day; to do something that’s just for them.” So whether it’s taking a morning walk, doing yoga, reading, or chatting with a friend, set aside that precious time to recharge your batteries. Otherwise, you’ll quickly get burnt out.

Establish a schedule with built-in breaks. Some sort of visual schedule is helpful for everyone, even if you don’t always stick to it 100 percent. That schedule should include plenty of breaks for both you and the kids. “Kids like to know what’s coming,” says Davis. “If they don’t like to do math, they’ll be more motivated if they know they can do something fun afterwards, like ride their bike or play a game.” And you’ll be more motivated if you know you’ll get that coffee break.

Ask for help when you need it. Don’t hesitate to email or call your child’s teachers with any questions or concerns. Talk to his pediatrician or school counselor if he’s really struggling. And reach out to friends and family when you need to bounce ideas back and forth or simply to vent.

What distance learning what like this spring for one local middle school teacher.

Most importantly, go easy on yourself.  Things are not always going to run smoothly, and that’s OK.

“We don’t need to pretend that this isn’t challenging and that we aren’t frustrated,” says Davis. “Nobody knows how to ‘pandemic.’ We all just have to do our best to figure things out as we go.”

And remember—this, too, shall pass!


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