How can caregivers support kids when distance learning becomes necessary?

Top tips from a developmental psychologist and parent
Nenad Stojkovic,, CC BY 2.0
Nenad Stojkovic,, CC BY 2.0

Being a parent requires serious juggling skills, and now the COVID-19 pandemic has added a tightrope to the act. Helping your child with distance learning amid all your other responsibilities can feel truly overwhelming, but with a few, easy-to-remember tips, I’m hoping to help ease that load.

Even though I am a developmental psychologist who studies children’s stress response and self-regulation, I too struggled to support my five-year-old and eight-year-old when schools closed in spring 2020. Like many parents, I bookmarked articles and links to educational activities that just left me feeling more overwhelmed. What I really wanted was a one-page handout I could post on my fridge with reminders about simple, science-based tips to make my family’s life easier, not harder. When I shared that wish with a local school administrator, she encouraged me to make one. You can now download that tip sheet, but first, read on for some highlights.

Structure and routines can help children stay focused

It’s unrealistic to assume that parents have the time or means to become their children’s substitute teacher. However, parents can take simple steps to help children engage successfully with activities provided by teachers.

Children thrive when they know what is expected of them (including when, where, and for how long), so it’s important to have a reliable daily schedule and a quiet, consistent place to learn. Schedules and expectations should be flexible and revisited often to ensure they meet everyone’s needs. Remember that younger children, who can’t sustain focused attention for a long time, will need more breaks. Some children may regress in their skills and behaviors during these challenging times. Focus on the progress they are making, rather than worrying about specific accomplishments.

“Children thrive when they know what is expected of them.”

Emotional well-being should be our first priority

This situation is stressful for everyone, and that stress can ultimately undermine our relationships and well-being. To help children understand their worries and frustrations, parents can show them how to name their feelings and the causes behind them. When those feelings get too big, adults and children can all benefit from taking a few deep, slow breaths or closing their eyes and counting to 10. That helps calm the body’s stress response and puts us in a better place to discuss potential solutions.

Amplifying positive feelings can also reduce stress. When you create opportunities for children to be genuinely helpful and independent, you support their agency and confidence, which is especially important at a time when many problems are out of their hands. Sharing a happy ritual every morning (e.g. special greeting, song, silly dance, storytelling, jokes) and highlighting positive experiences at the end of the day can fuel feelings of joy and belonging. Parents should also remember to take breaks themselves. Re-charge, treat yourself, ask for help. When you take care of your own well-being, you can better support your children.

“Amid overlapping crises, sometimes simple caregiving strategies can prove hard to remember.”

These tips are not new, and they are certainly not prescriptions for a cure. But amid overlapping crises, sometimes simple caregiving strategies can prove hard to remember. This tip sheet may not work at first or may not work for every family, but it offers a place to start. The best part about caregiving is that every day is a new opportunity to try again.



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