How Parents Can Best Support Their Children During School Shutdowns

With very little warning, many parents or caregivers have a new role they didn’t anticipate filling on such short notice: Homeschool Teacher.

How Stress Works

It all starts with a trigger. Worried thoughts follow, which activate a part of the brain called the amygdala, the brain’s alarm. It sends a “Mayday!” message to the brain indicating a threat, releasing stress chemicals which produce physiological changes throughout the body — rapid heart rate, sweaty palms, body tightness, headache and/or stomachache — and turn on the Fight, Flight or Freeze reflex needed for survival.

How Stress Impacts Learning

Students (and adults) may experience stress as anxiety, frustration, anger, boredom or lack of relevance to a task. When in these negative emotional states, your child will not be receptive to learning and unable to intake, process or retain new information, as the thinking brain will be blocked.

How Stress Impacts Behavior

Behavior is communication. When students appear uncooperative, lazy or reluctant, they may actually be trying to say, “I’m stuck, don’t get it or need help.” Or, the stress response might just be doing its job.

  • Flight: flees the room or makes multiple bathroom/nurse trips, spaces out the window
  • Freeze: plays dead by putting head down on desk or makes a “deer in the headlights” stare and feels stuck

How Parents Can Decrease Stress and Cultivate a Healthy Learning Culture?

Stress inhibits focus, processing, memory, learning, and performance. With that in mind, here are some tips to facilitate your child’s transition from school to home and hopefully limit the amount of fight, flight, and freeze episodes:

  1. Structure — you will need to build some type of schedule and structure that suits you and your family, especially if you’re working remotely. You may want to stick with the typical school day hours…or perhaps your older kids will work at different times than the younger ones…you might front-load harder stuff in the morning and have your kids do more independent tasks later (so you can hopefully get more stuff done!)
  2. Workspace and Time Robbers — to avoid tasks taking longer than needed, identify where you/your child will work best…is it within earshot of you or a spot free from interruptions and loud noises? Be sure you and your kids are rested, fed and watered…have necessary books, school supplies, and materials at designated workspaces…are clear about directions of a task/assignment…set timers when needed…remove distractions such as cell phones and other electronic devices (keep devices in a different room from workspace).
  3. Achievable challenge and chunks — the brain likes tasks that are challenging — not too hard or too easy…it also likes to learn in chunks. It’s reasonable to take a brief movement break at least once every hour or between classes or assignments. If tasks are too difficult, you may need to provide support or a scaffold. If information is coming in too fast or if your child doesn’t understand the task or remember the directions, they can quickly become stressed and go into cognitive overload. If, on the other hand, tasks are too easy, you may suggest ways to make them more fun or challenging.
  4. Cue how to do vs. tell what to do — provide visuals of behavior expectations, directions or steps (i.e. homework routine steps, family norms) and use problem-solving prompts or questions. Instead of saying, “Put your homework in your folder,” ask your child to follow a visual with pictures of these steps or ask, “Where does homework go after you complete it?” Cuing how to do a task facilitates independence and executive function skill-building.

Stress Management Tips and ABC Strategy

As you and your child adapt to the disruptions and changes in daily life, notice your warning signs: What are your thoughts? How does your body feel?

Here are the 3 steps:

  • A=Accept how you feel (validate your feeling vs. dismiss or judge them)
  • B=Breathe through your worried thoughts (calm your nervous system)
  • C=Change your thinking (shift to a more productive perspective or action step)

Implementing ABC

Here’s are two examples which might resonate for your child:

  • B-Breathe — Do slow, pizza breaths to calm myself.
  • C=Change my thinking — Learning isn’t always quick and easy — this will take extra practice to improve.
  • B=Breathe — Do 4/6 breathing to reset and keep myself calm.
  • C=Change my thinking — Mistakes are part of the learning process and teach me more than my successes. Learning, not perfection, is my goal.
  • B=Breathe — Do slow, deep breathing to calm my nervous system and temper my frustration.
  • C=Change your thinking — I will be better equipped to problem solve and adapt when I’m calm and level headed…I may even learn a new skill or way of thinking.


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