From New York and New Jersey to North Carolina, millions of parents are grappling with an unprecedented choice: Should we opt in to all-virtual classes, even if we live in an area where there’s some level of in-classroom learning happening? Or should we keep them home?
“[Parents] are balancing their child’s educational, social and emotional needs, and there is no correct answer because there are risks on both sides,” said Steven Meyers, a professor of psychology at Roosevelt University in Illinois.
One factor many parents are grappling with is the impact that a mid-year — or even mid-fall — pivot could have on their children’s emotional well-being. Is it harder on kids to start them off in the classroom, knowing full well that things may change again if local COVID-19 cases start ticking up?
HuffPost Parents spoke to several psychologists about the mental health consequences the in-classroom-to-remote-learning pivot could have on children down the road. While it’s totally fair to be concerned, here’s what parents should also consider.
Kids are resilient.
Throughout the pandemic, mental health experts who work with children have emphasized their resiliency. Yes, this has all been weird and hard for kids. And yes, children who have a history of mental health issues or who have experienced trauma as a result of the pandemic are at greater risk for serious emotional consequences. But “kids are generally resilient,” said Rachel Busman, senior director of the Child Mind Institute’s Anxiety Disorders Center.
That’s worth keeping in mind while deciding what to do this fall. Kids can handle disappointment and change, particularly if they’re supported by a “microsystem” of family and peers who help validate difficult emotions and teach them effective strategies for coping.
“Resilience comes from both within your child (their minds, brains and bodies) and from you (their families, relationships and communities),” explained Sharron Russell, a psychologist and director of positive education and student support with The Shipley School in Pennsylvania.
She emphasized that resiliency is “teachable” and “learnable” with some practical approaches.
But some kids could really struggle with the disruption.
So much of parenting comes down to knowing your kid, and this moment is no exception. While a lot of children can absolutely roll with big changes, others can’t.
“Some kids are more adaptable than others,” Busman said. She said this is a moment for parents to be really thoughtful about their children’s temperaments, as well as their specific academic needs and how those might be harmed by a mid-year shift from in-person learning back to an all-remote model.
“Some kids have unique learning challenges that really make it so that changes in structure — or changes in instruction — have big consequences,” Busman said. If that’s your child, you might decide that maintaining some level of continuity is a really big factor in how you make your decisions about the upcoming year.
If your kiddo is old enough, talk to them about all of this. Which route do they perceive to be more disruptive? Starting with remote learning and continuing on that path, or making a pivot if it comes to it?
“In actuality, both are disruptive and pose challenges,” Meyers said. “However, perceptions and preferences likely vary from one child to the next.”
Be careful you’re not offloading your own feelings.
A big change in plans isn’t inherently harmful, but it could quickly sour if you as a parent bring your own emotions into the mix.
“If parents go into a situation carrying their own anxieties — or anticipating a bad response from their child — that gets transmitted,” Busman said.
She offered this example: If you tell your child they’re going to spend the night at Grandma’s house — and that you know it’s a big deal and they can call you if they get upset — that conveys you’re expecting it not to go well.
If you tell your child that they’re going to spend the night at Grandma’s house and you think they’re going to have a blast, that conveys the necessary information (that they’re having a sleepover at Grandma’s) without unintentionally broadcasting that you’re worried about the plan.
Of course, it’s OK to be stressed and anxious about all of this. It’s OK to be upset about the options currently available to your family. Busman, herself a parent, acknowledged how stressful and impossible this all is for parents. But when you talk to your kids about the current plan — or about any changes as they arise — you should keep that in check.
“To your kid, you want to present confidence,” Busman urged.
No matter what you choose, let them know that the only “certainty” right now is that things will probably change.
Shielding your child from the uncertainty of this upcoming year isn’t a good idea whatever track you chose to start off with. “It is honest — and appropriate — to share that adults do not know what will happen and we don’t have all of the answers,” Meyers said.
In any family conversations about the upcoming year, “plant the seed” that things could change, Busman said. Reassure your kid that if they do, you’ll talk about it as a family. You’ll help them get answers to their questions, when possible, and be there to support each other through tough emotions.
You can actually convey all of that pretty simply, by saying something like: “This has been a very unusual time when we’ve all had to practice flexibility,” Busman recommended.
And no matter what you ultimately decide, or how things change, keep checking in. This is going to be a long, intense year that children and parents are going to get through one step at a time.