Dr. Joseph E. Colford, Ph.D.
School corridors are empty. Students and teachers all are home-bound for the duration of the shelter-in-place requirements in response to the threats caused by the coronavirus. Parents now become the primary supervisors of their children’s education.
With few exceptions, school districts have set up video conferencing opportunities for children to resume their education online. Teachers present lessons, give assignments, and expect homework to be completed in these virtual classrooms. Parents are the ones to see to their children’s compliance with these online directives.
Although this instructional format may work for the delivery of the core content material in the major subject areas of language arts, reading, math, social studies, and science, what about yet another critical subject: Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)? Even if there were structured SEL activities carried out each day in the classroom, how does that subject translate to an online format with individual children isolated in their own homes, far from the opportunity to interact with their peers in practicing those SEL elements? After all, SEL includes socialization with classmates, a key component to practicing such things as self-control, relationship-building, responsible behavior, and interpersonal/communication skills.
It is at times like this when parents might have to take the lead with SEL and become the instructors rather than just the monitors of this vital subject. Incorporating some SEL components not just into online lessons but also into the fabric of many stay-at-home hours might just include some of the following:
- Self-control/self-management: The value of routine and of a schedule of expected daily activities can assist children with their allocation of time at home. It’s not that such a routine has to be lock-step and unchanging, but rather one that allows some deviation from time to time for engagement in other tasks. As long as children know the value of such activities, the more likely they will be to accept them. In fact, having children assist their parents in the development of a daily schedule will make it more likely that they will follow it. Here are some tips for daily schedules.
- Relationship-building: With whom will some children be able to build relationships while separated from school and neighborhood peers? Perhaps providing collaborative, rather than competitive, experiences in the home with siblings is a good place to start. Keep in mind that age differences among siblings may determine how easily such cooperation can be fostered. That is, children closer in age than three years may be a bit more competitive than those beyond that age span. Nevertheless, providing an incentive for such cooperative efforts can help. Can the older sibling provide assistance in online school work for a younger sibling? Can they negotiate who gets to pick the next television program? And what an opportunity for children to practice empathy! How about talking with them and having them identify those friends or family members who may be particularly troubled by the current lockdown and having them come up with something to allay their discomfort: a phone call, a handwritten card or message dropped in the mail, or a prayerful moment in their behalf.
- Responsible behavior: Reinforcing with children the importance of safe and healthy practices in the midst of the virus threat is essential. Discussing with children all those safe practices that they undoubtedly have seen in the media over these last few weeks (hand washing, social distancing, hands away from face, etc.) is vital. Additionally, opening up safe practices as a discussion point at home also will allow them to claim ownership of this need. If given the opportunity to contribute their own thoughts on additional safe practices for the home and community, parents may be surprised to hear what ideas their children may come up with.
- Interpersonal/communication skills: In homes where there are siblings of different ages, it is important for parents to be able to demonstrate and reward these skills in their children. They should be open and acknowledge from time to time how frustrating it is to have to be home-bound with no one else but each other to play/talk/interact with. Parents will have to take the lead in allowing children to express such frustration in socially appropriate ways by showing them how it is done. Using “I” messages can be useful: “he” did not make me angry, rather “I” am mad because I wanted to watch something else on television. Encourage children to express their frustration about being sheltered in place without being judgmental and downplaying their feelings. Parents also should use these same “I” messages: “I” am disappointed that you haven’t completed the assigned school work; “I” am frustrated just like you are, so together we can make this new arrangement work. Find free resources from ChildWIN here.
In summary, parents can indeed bring SEL into the home during these trying times. Since this new practice of shelter-in-place is a far cry from what children prefer, it will take some time to redirect them to a routine thrust upon them by this external virus threat.
Parents also have some major adjustments to make in managing it all. First, they must be aware of their own emotional reactions to the lockdown and be able to monitor their statements and other behaviors in front of the children. This is not to say that they should deny their own level of anxiety with them, but rather they should send the message that they are able to cope with it. The Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) provides three viable suggestions for parents as they create this new in-home classroom:
- When trying to change a child’s behavior, use a 5-to-1 ratio of positive interactions or praise to every negative interaction or corrective statement, whether it be for completing the online academic assignments in a timely manner or interacting in a positive way with a sibling. Teaching a new behavior involves a preponderance of positive feedback over negative.
- Remind children of the positive, pro-social behavior that is expected of them, even before it is expected. “Remember to wash your hands before you eat.”
- Teach alternative behavior in order to reduce undesirable behavior. That is, let them know that they can fidget with a rubber ball or some other item rather than put their hands to their face during the crisis.
Joseph E. Colford, Ph.D., NJ Licensed Psychologist
Professor Emeritus, Georgian Court University