Don't forget to let them play

A powerful message for parents when schooling at home

Child playing
Dear parents,

Please don’t stress about schoolwork. Soon, I will have your child back on track. I am a teacher and that’s what I do best. What I can’t fix is the social-emotional trauma that might impede their brain from learning. So right now while your child is at home, I need you to share your calm, share your strength and share your laughter. No child is further ahead or behind than they were, so your child is exactly where they need to be right now.

With love,

Teachers everywhere x

You may have come across this meme on social media recently. Actually, it is pretty close to the truth.

Due to COVID-19, many children are currently at home under the care of their parents who are attempting to work at the same time. But are parents expected to recreate school at home? Parents who decide to home-school have made the conscious decision to take full responsibility for their child’s education. They are not typically trying to work from home themselves.

The current situation with school closures due to a pandemic is not home-schooling. Children being schooled at home in these uncertain times undoubtedly puts added pressure on the whole family at a time when anxiety is already high.

Anxiety can lead to excessive worry, unexplained physical symptoms, crying/meltdowns, aggression, and avoidance/refusal.

Presently, we cannot remove all of the uncertainty, but we can take opportunities to reinforce the things which are definite, and things we have control over.

Boy and father study together.

Things that are definite

Now more than ever is a time to remind your child how much you love them and want them to be safe and well.

Take time to share an age-appropriate story about something you found difficult and how you overcame it e.g., like learning to play the piano or giving a talk in front of a large audience.

Then ask your child to think of a time they overcame something and talk about how often doing something for the first time can be tough.

By demonstrating to your child they already have what it takes to be resilient in the tough times, you can build their confidence, create hope and reduce fear.

Discuss with your child how practice, perseverance and optimism are the ingredients for resilience (for younger children, that’s a lesson in itself, discussing each term and its meaning).

Things we have control over

Handing over some of the control to your child (within reason) is not always a bad thing.

Making a list of activities for the day and allowing your child to choose, might just be a life saver for the avoidant/refusing child.

For example, take a sheet of paper and divide it into a 4 X 5 grid. Use different coloured markers to categorise activities into:

  • School
  • Creative
  • Exercise
  • Relaxation and
  • Rejuvenation.

School activities could include reading, maths or science tasks; Creative activities could include art, craft, or cooking; Exercise could include a backyard handball game, walking the dog, or a neighbourhood teddy bear hunt; Relaxation might include watching a movie, doing a jigsaw, playing a board game, or having virtual chat with a friend; and Rejuvenation activities might include eating a healthy lunch, taking a bubble bath, or even an afternoon nap.

The categories and activities need to be personalised for your child. If you have a child who loves to read, then reading might come under Relaxation instead of School, and for the science-lover you might put doing science experiments under Creative pursuits.

Handing over control to your children might go like this. Tell your child they must complete one activity from each category, each day.

For something a little more concrete, the same thing can be achieved by writing the activities with coloured markers on paddle-pop sticks and having children chose one stick from each category.

It is all about giving them choice, while keeping things in balance!

Step into their shoes

Remember that spending the whole day at home for weeks on end is as new for your child as it is for you as their parent.

For children having trouble adjusting to a change of structure and environment, here is a great way to teach them to see something from someone else’s perspective.

Imagine you have two children doing school at home and they are arguing. Sit in an open space (lounge room or back yard, but not a bedroom) and take a large pair of adult shoes and place them on a sheet of drawing paper in the middle of the space.

Ask each child to share their thoughts and feelings about what happened. Ask them to think of someone who wouldn’t have behaved as aggressively or acted out in the situation they described i.e., someone who would have stayed calm. They might give an example of another child they know, a parent/friend or relative or even a movie character.

Next, ask each child in turn to stand up and slide into the big shoes and try and imagine what the person who remained calm would have been thinking.

Give one child a crayon or marker and ask them to trace around the shoes. Remove the other child and the shoes and ask both children to write some rational, calming thoughts on the paper, in the outline of each shoe.

Save the drawing for other times when your child/children find their behaviour is getting out of control.

Don't forget to let them play

Research tells us that children use free play to make sense of things they find hard to understand.

In the current context, parents might observe their child playing coronavirus games or games with a theme of illness or death. This is normal, and probably helpful for the child to understand what they are experiencing.

There is no need to stop this type of play, but if parents are concerned about the mental health of their child, they can raise the game as a conversation point to check in on how their child is going.

There are excellent resources available online to help parents support children during the COVID-19 pandemic provided by Emerging Minds.

Take care!

About the author

Dr Elizabeth Edwards is a Teacher, Psychologist and Senior Lecturer in UQ's School of Education.

Her research focuses on childhood anxiety; in particular, the relationship between anxiety, stress and cognitive performance.

Her most recent work explores the translation of lab-based science into treatments for emotional disorders, specifically training attention and memory processes that have, in turn shown promise for reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression in children aged 8-11 years.

Dr Edwards is currently working with collaborators to secure funding for a larger scale study to continue this new and innovative work.