We are now in week 6 of quarantine and remote school. If you’re like me, you are probably wondering, “Am I doing this right?” This question applies to my professional life as well as my personal life. Without the normal face-to-face daily interactions I typically enjoy with multitudes of people, I need to check in on myself as an educator and as a parent. So I thought I would share some essentials with parents who may feel the same or are seeking advice at this crazy time.
I’m indebted to Phyllis Fagell, author of the book that has become my new obsession, Middle School Matters: The 10 key skills kids need to thrive in middle school and beyond – and how parents can help. Phyllis recently did a webinar for the American Middle-level Educators Association (AMLE) providing guidance for educators during COVID-19. Her key ideas apply to parents of adolescents and teenagers also.
Although as an adult you should certainly keep all of this in perspective, don’t expect your teenager to be able to do so also. Teenagers and young adolescents are inherently egocentric. They think the world revolves around them. And, as 21st Century parents, we often oblige them by actually making the world revolve around them. So while you may lecture your kids about how other people have it much harder than they do, it should come as no surprise that they care more about the loss of their senior prom or graduation ceremony than they fret over the shortage of ventilators in America. Don’t take this personally. Much has been written about kids adjusting to the quarantine. How about kids adjusting to their parents? Between all our evening obligations, prior to quarantine, my wife and I were rarely home at the same time during the week. Our three kids have had to adjust to our presence in their lives 24/7. Personally, I think we’re pretty awesome, but, do our kids think so? Just realize, it’s an adjustment.
Phyllis points out that this crisis perfectly encompasses the N.U.T.S. Recipe for Stress: Novelty, Unpredictability, Threat to the ego, and Sense of control. Even the least anxiety-prone amongst our kids are going to feel some degree of tension during this unprecedented time. Don’t ask your kids if they’re OK. I have asked middle school kids who are crying hysterically in the hallway if they’re OK and they say, “I’m fine Dr. Gately, thanks.” If you sense that your child isn’t OK, trust your intuition, assume they’re not. Make efforts to connect with them. Sit with them while they do schoolwork, play cards or a game with them. They’ll open up. Your kids may be more irritable. In times of pressure, compassion and empathy can be hard to come by. Share your own struggles, explain to them that you also may not be your best self at this time. Validate your children’s feelings but don’t approve of all of their behaviors. Teenagers are hard-wired to expect criticism from adults, try to make four positive remarks for every piece of constructive criticism you offer.
Consider the two central goals of adolescents and teenagers: INDEPENDENCE and AGENCY. At a time in their lives when kids need to construct their identities separate from their parents and establish control of their environment, during the quarantine, these are precisely the things they have been deprived of. Phyllis recommends giving kids opportunities to be helpers. We’ve seen countless examples in the media of teenagers creating personal protective equipment for frontline health workers and carrying out other ambitious schemes to contribute during the crisis. But there are more modest and impactful things your kids can do. How about giving your child a goal of connecting with an elderly family member or even a family member or friend who is quarantined alone, every day? I try to visit my elderly dad with my daughter, Juliet, regularly. We drop off pastries and wave to him from the front door. Juliet spends the rest of the day talking about it, even though our visit lasts barely 10 minutes. If your children don’t already have basic household chores, now is a good time to assign them. In the absence of clubs, sports, tutoring, and other afterschool activities, students have more time than they did before the quarantine. Helping out with some family duties can give them a sense of control and relevance during a time of isolation.
Somebody shared with me this meme from social media:
It’s funny but I think it makes an important point. If your child has reached middle school, you cannot do it for them. You can’t hope to follow all the links to Canvas, Google Classroom, Nearpod, Desmos, Flipgrid, Quizlet, Kahoot… I can keep going, but you get the point. You know who CAN follow all of this, your kid. Your child needs to do the schoolwork, not you. Set aside time each day where your children sit and show you what they did or what they are going to do, provide them space and materials, then let them do their work. If your child is struggling, email the teacher. Even though we are doing remote instruction, that doesn’t mean you won’t be contacted if your child is not performing or engaging with the work. Your child’s teachers will reach out to contact you if they are not connecting and participating in virtual instruction.
There are many resources online to guide you in helping your child create a routine and a schedule. One thing to keep in mind, let your child participate in the creation of the schedule. We have a fourth-grader, we’ve created a checklist for her. Our 10th-grade daughter is completely self-directed but our high school senior needs the occasional reminder to get back to work. Remember, teenagers want independence and agency, if they don’t either create the schedule for themselves or at least participate, they won’t follow it. As my wife said to my son, “I don’t care what you decide your schedule is going to be, just make sure you have one.” Most important: MAKE SURE YOUR KIDS ARE SLEEPING AT NIGHT! Nobody benefits if the kids sleep all day and are awake all night.
We are employing Pass / ND (not demonstrated) grades for the 3rd marking period. The high school is using a “do no harm” approach to determine grades for students. This is a great time for parents to focus on learning rather than achievement. Don’t expect perfection. Partner with the school to make sure kids are engaging every day and joining in on live teaching sessions but keep the focus on learning. If your child needs additional time to complete an assignment, just email the teacher. We understand that your home routines may be topsy-turvy at this time, so let us know if your circumstances require greater flexibility.
The loss of social connections at this time is probably felt most acutely by our teenage children. This is a critical time in their development, they are constantly forming their sense of self through interactions with peers. More than ever, we are relying on technology to support connections and relationships. Phyllis encourages us to make distinctions between passive use of technology and device use that facilitates connections. In our house, we have relaxed restrictions on our children’s use of devices at this time so that they can stay connected to their cousins and friends. We monitor to ensure that they’re not spending hours on TickTock but we’re happy when we hear them laughing and enjoying time with their friends. You should ensure that your kids are connecting with friends and family every single day. They need this. Put it on their checklist.
The airplane safety protocol to place the mask on your own face before assisting your child has become a cliché because it speaks to an essential truth about parenting: we’re no good to our kids if we don’t take care of ourselves, and if we neglect our well-being, we’re also setting a very poor example for our kids. If you watch television or consume media in any way, advice about self-care during the coronavirus is almost impossible to miss. The nature of quarantine enforces a vague inertia that seems to discourage actions we should take to stay healthy. Who feels like exercising, meditating, doing yoga, eating right, or sleep hygiene when the world is gripped by a deadly pandemic. But we must resist this impulse and hit the reset button. If you’ve been neglecting your own personal health and wellness, hit that “button” and start today. And if you try today and fail, try again tomorrow. Get out of the house, somehow break your routine. Even though every emotion you’re feeling is dictating against self-care, do it anyway. Nobody likes flossing but we do that. Really, you have to. Don’t worry, nobody can see you, in fact, we can’t come within 6 feet of you, so this is an excellent time to try a new habit. There are lots of apps that can help you: Mindfulness. Eating and exercise. Even sleep.
Most of all, treat your families and yourselves with patience and grace. This is an unusual time, unprecedented! Don’t expect to be perfect, don’t expect to have it figured out. You are amazing people who strive to do your personal best. If you reflect and you haven’t been your best, there’s always today, there’s always tomorrow. Don’t be afraid to reset and start over.