Is your child enrolled in school, but doing remote learning, either full or part time? If so, you may be ready to tear your hair out, even though school has barely started. If you're facing defiance, tantrums, and tears, join the club. The problem is not with your patience, or your child's motivation. The problem is that remote learning is NOT how children are designed to learn.
There's not a perfect solution, but there are strategies to make remote learning work better. Anything we can do to help the child feel more related to the teacher or other students will engage her, so that needs to be prioritized.
Then, make learning rewarding for your child in other ways:
- Give your child more control and autonomy.
- Foster their curiosity, excitement and sense of discovery so the learning is fulfilling.
- Set up the environment and schedule to support your child in staying focused, so they begin to enjoy a sense of mastery and competence.
Finally, consider how your relationship with your child affects your ability to teach them, and make that work for you, not against you. In fact, you may be surprised to learn that your most important job during remote learning is connecting with your child and reducing their anxiety.
In my next two posts, I'll be sharing practical strategies to help your child stay engaged with remote learning. Today, we begin with one of the most common questions I'm hearing right now from parents:
Why do children give their parents such a hard time during remote learning, when they perform just fine at school?
Puzzling, right? But it turns out there's a good reason. All children fear that if they "fail" to show their parent how smart they are, their parent will stop loving them. That's much higher stakes than failing to impress their teacher. So they resist applying themselves and get belligerent. They probably couldn't articulate this, but they figure that if they don't even try, they can't fail, and you won't see that they aren't quite as smart as you'd hoped.
Why on earth would your child have this fear? Because they need you so desperately, and children always worry that parents will find them lacking and stop loving them. Unfortunately, the daily experience of most children in school is coming up against the limits of their knowledge and their skills. That's normal for a student. But it's worsened by the way we often teach, which is to constantly evaluate kids, telling them what they did wrong and what they need to do better. That's an experience that could easily cause a young human to conclude that they're inadequate.
The Secret That Transforms Learning: Growth Mindset
To settle down and learn, your child has to know that you love them unconditionally, and that you're totally unconcerned if they struggle to understand something or aren't magically good at something -- because you know they are more than enough, exactly as they are.
The reason you're comfortable with your child not yet knowing many things and not yet having many skills is that you know they're a kid -- they're still learning. You also know that it's fine that your child has to work hard at knowing those things and developing those skills. That doesn't mean they're not "smart." It means they're normal.
In fact, it's time to move beyond the whole concept of "smart," which implies that kids are either intelligent or they're not. That's one of the beliefs that makes kids give up on learning, and it turns out to be false. The truth is that our brains are always growing in response to our experience, so we can always work on getting better at things. So it's never about being smart, it's about growing your brain.
When you talk with your child about this, you can use the example of building muscles by working out. You wouldn't try lifting a huge weight and then give up "because I'm just not strong!" You would work at it until you met your goals. Similarly, your mind grows and gets better at solving problems and learning new things the more you practice. This way of viewing our brains is called a growth mindset, and it's an essential antidote to self-judgment and fears about achievement.
This means that your most important job in supporting your child to learn is NOT to teach. It's to connect! That's what helps your child feels safer and more secure, less likely to go off the deep end when he struggles to understand something.
To decrease anxiety and increase cooperation, step back from evaluating your child in any way. That's the teacher's job. Your job is to celebrate every step in the right direction, with constant encouragement for your child’s efforts.
So focus on actions your child can control: practicing skills, persevering, managing their frustration when they encounter a challenge. (Challenges are brain stretchers!) Instead of pointing out which problems your child got wrong, focus on what they got right, and ask them how they they think can build on what they already know, so they can learn even more.
Next time your child insists that they just aren't good at something -- Math, for instance -- You might say "You just don't feel comfortable with math YET! Do you remember how you used to struggle to draw a heart, but then you tried every day and now you make a great heart? Math is the same! A little bit each day will grow your brain so math gets easier and easier -- and more fun!"
Empathize when it’s hard, and point out that heavy lifting is what builds mental muscle. Tell your child that you have seen them do many hard things, and you're there to support them. What will help them do this hard thing? Having you sit next to them? Doing the first few problems together? Tackling one problem at a time, then putting on music to dance to their favorite song, then facing the next problem? Sure, your child might say they need ice cream to cope with math, and you may not agree to ice cream after each problem, but you may well let them choose a special treat when they complete their math assignment for the day. Over time, your child will gain more confidence in their ability to solve problems, and more frustration tolerance when things are tough. But for now, you're just giving them support to manage themselves through their fear of not being good enough, so they can tackle the work.
Remember that you make the weather.
Your own mood matters tremendously, so stay as relaxed as you can. If you get angry, your child is unlikely to learn much that day. If, instead, you keep it fun, make work into games and contests against the clock, your child will respond to your playful mood.
Like most of us, you may have tried hard to be a good girl or boy and please the teacher when you were young. It's important that you notice any tendencies in that direction now, and let them go, because they usually conflict with supporting your child. You have a different role now: to support your child through a stressful situation, helping them learn at the same time that you protect their love of learning.
If your child seems uninterested in schoolwork, remember that no child is lazy. All children want to master things and feel competent. So if your child resists schoolwork with you, remember that’s their anxiety about whether they will be smart enough to please you, and remind yourself to stay calm.
You can certainly hold the line that your child needs to do what the teacher has asked. But your mission is to set those expectations with a sense of humor, and act as your child's support person as they get the work done, rather than stepping in to judge and test.
Sidestep power struggles by using empathic limits. If your child is resistant, empathize: “I hear you. You wish you didn’t have to do what your teacher has assigned. You don’t think it’s as much fun as playing video games. I bet when you grow up, you’ll be a video game inventor, you like them so much!”
Then set the limit: “Even so, your teacher said we need to do XYZ, so you do need to do these assignments for your teacher.”
Finally, tell your child how they can get their needs met: “As you know, once you complete three cards (with three assignments), we get to go outside and play soccer. Which card do you want to tackle first? How can I help you get started, so you can complete it sooner?”
No matter how calm you are able to stay, you won't get cooperation until you've connected with your child and helped them with any anxiety they're feeling about learning. The best antidote to anxiety is to start every morning with at least ten minutes of roughhousing to get your child laughing, before you begin schoolwork. Laughter and physical activity actually reduce the stress hormones circulating in the body, so your child is more able to handle frustration and other emotions that come up as they manage themselves through the learning process.
Equally important, laughing together helps your child feel connected with you so they’re more open to your influence. In fact, if your child tends to be anxious or resistant, you'll probably need to do roughhousing after every single assignment, to take the edge off and get both of you laughing.
You can see that your child needs to feel positively connected to you or they can't learn from you. That means they need to feel heard and encouraged by you, so you'll need to take their problems seriously and help them find solutions. They need to feel safe to show you all of their emotions, including the "negative" ones, so you'll need to accept their unhappy emotions with grace and patience. And since connection needs to be renewed daily, you'll need to build connection rituals into your daily routine.
Does this seem like too much to handle, especially if you're also holding down a job or caring for a baby? It is! It's unreasonable that parents are expected to be their children's teachers! It's an impossible job, and there's no way to do it perfectly.
But that's also true for parenting in general, and you do that every day. The good news is that as your child develops a growth mindset, they'll find it easier to manage their big feelings while they're learning, even when they struggle. You're giving them a gift that will help them learn more easily, not just during remote learning, or even when they're back in school, but for the rest of their lives.
And the mind isn't the only thing that grows when we stretch it. Every day that you're able to model grace under the pressure of remote schooling, you're stretching your heart, and your capacity to love. Once your child is back at school in person, you might even look back at these days with gratitude.
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