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Fall is here, students have finally returned to in-person learning, and the customary new school year buzz is in the air. Layers of change and loss marked the prior academic year, and now caregivers and their children are facing another round of transitions and shifts. We are all feeling the effects of prolonged stress. What can we as caregivers do to make launching into a new school year of in-person learning the positive experience it should be for our children?

Why is it so important to embrace the return to in-person learning?

Our children look up to us as role models and keeping an open mind about the transition to in-person learning is vital for supporting them to be confident, resilient, and to manage their own fears and anxiety. It is understandable that, as caregivers, many of us are navigating our own trepidation, exhaustion, and confusion about what the coming months will look like.

Recognizing both what our children have lost, and what they stand to gain, from being back in the classroom full time, can help us to neutralize our own ambivalence and find sources of positive thinking. There is a wealth of research from this past year proving that getting off screens and back to hands-on learning will benefit our children enormously.

Educational neuroscientists now recognize that all learning environments require students to exercise higher order cognitive abilities, called executive functions, to overcome challenges and develop competence and independence. During school-age years, a child’s brain establishes the framework for executive functions, which are essential for academic and life success (Burns, 2020). Studies have shown that all day screen exposure leads to structural changes in our children’s brains that affect the executive functioning skills that underlie learning. (Jha and Arora, 2020).

Being onscreen for long periods of the day, especially for younger children whose brains are undergoing rapid early development, has significant negative impacts on processing speed, working memory, attentional control, and verbal reasoning. Prolonged screen time also reduces the vital cognitive connections required for retention and retrieval of learned material (Firth et al, 2019, Liu et al., 2018). Further, when children are removed from the in-person school setting, we see an impairment in social emotional abilities such as self-regulation, empathy, collaboration, and relationship forming with their peers.  

Teachers and the classroom community are irreplaceable, and being back to school will ultimately have a profoundly positive impact on our children’s long-term progress towards their learning goals

How do we return to routine mindfully?

After these last eighteen months of change and instability, our instinct might be to dive back in and immediately pack our children’s schedules with academics, sports, arts, and other activities they have been missing. Many working parents are sapped and need kids to be out of the house, off screens, and engaging in healthy activities.

Denise Pope, Ph.D, Senior Lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, where she specializes in student engagement, cautions that “While so many of us are longing for a return to in-person school and activities, reentry may be challenging. Returning to a highly structured routine with limited flexibility may be a welcome relief for some and a major stress for others (Pope, 2021).” Some may have welcomed the safety and security of being at home and being removed from academic and social pressure they might experience at school. Our children might lack confidence in their academic abilities or social skills as they re-enter. Now is not the time to prioritize schedules and consistency at the price of social emotional responsiveness.

If your child is expressing that they do not want to go to school, empathize and find places to be emotionally in sync. Share with your child your own struggles as well as the positives. Creating opportunities for conversation allows us to identify and normalize their feelings and offer reassurance. Reaching out to teachers and counselors at school if your child is feeling particularly disconnected communicates that their feelings are important and that they will be safe and supported.

5 Tips for a Fresh Start to a New Year of Learning:

  1. Plan as a family. Make a time to sit down around the table and prepare a weekly schedule together that works for everyone. Consider the time buffers needed around tasks to accomplish everything without scrambling. Let your child take the lead. Ask your child to choose activities they would most like to layer in. Resist the urge to add more to their plate. Plan something special with your child for the end of the month that they can look forward to as a reward!
  2. Model positive screen use habits. Talk to your child about why too much time spent onscreen is not healthy for them or you. Sort screen time into categories – recreational, social, and educational. Set clear screen time expectations in advance for each category of screen use, including times of day, and stick to the plan. Use lock boxes and parental controls when needed. Finally, model healthy screen habits yourself. Stop scrolling when your child has a question, make eye contact, and put the phone aside for the moment. Consider setting up a healthy competition where family members, including you, earn points for putting down the screen when it is time.
  3. Keep up the learning at home. Caregivers have supported their children’s education in a whole new way throughout the pandemic, and children have adapted in remarkable ways to keep learning alive at home. Keep it up! Schedule in both hands-on and minds-on activities to balance screen time. Weed the backyard, tackle the forgotten laundry pile, have Dad teach your child how to fix their bike chain, or make dinner together. Plan family board game nights, project time, or a reading date with your child at the coffee shop. Do homework together with friends at the park or library or learn a new skill or hobby via an interactive online class together on a weekend afternoon.
  4. Set up simple systems and strategies. Consider your child’s strengths and challenge areas when it comes to their Executive Functioning, and target growth areas. Work together to consider the scaffolding your child needs to be more independent now, while also stretching skills they will need for greater independence down the road. Have them design a simple, visual version of their weekly schedule for the fridge. Go shopping for workspace refresh supplies including a filing system, desk organizers, and a calendar. Hang a small whiteboard by the front door for each child where they can list tasks and items to remember for the day.
  5. Be kind to yourself. We as caregivers are shouldering so much now and attending to our mental and emotional health is key. Accept the importance of rest and routine for yourself. Take each day as it comes. There may be days when you can have grit and push through, and there may also come days when you need to take some time to be alone and read or take a walk. Recognizing underlying sources of anxiety, burnout, and pressure ahead helps to build our own frustration tolerance and gives us the energy to take a breath and talk to our kids through the tough times.

As we return to missing our kids during school hours when the house is eerily quiet, they will be missing us again, and we will all be happy to be at home together at the end of the day. While the transition feels tough, we can all agree that this change is something to celebrate! Contact Organizational Tutors to discover more about how an executive functioning coach can support your student in tackling a new year of in-person learning with confidence.

Sources

Burns, Martha, PhD. “Logged In, Checked Out: How Executive Function Can Upend the COVID Slide” The Science of Learning Blog, https://www.scilearn.com, September 17, 2020.  https://www.scilearn.com/executive-function-covid-slide/

Firth J., Torous J., Stubbs B., Firth J.A., Steiner G.Z., Smith L., Alvarez‐Jimenez M., Gleeson J., Vancampfort D., Armitage C.J., Sarris J. The “online brain”: how the internet may be changing our cognition. World Psychiatry. 2019;18(2):119–129. doi: 10.1002/wps.20617.

Jha, A. K., & Arora, A. (2020). The neuropsychological impact of E-learning on children. Asian journal of psychiatry, 54, 102306. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ajp.2020.102306

Pope, Denise, PhD. Rethinking Normal: Back-to-School Tips for 2021. Challenge Success.org, August 5, 2021, https://challengesuccess.org/resources/re-thinking-normal-back-to-school-tips-for-2021/

Takeuchi H., Taki Y., Asano K., Asano M., Sassa Y., Yokota S., Kotozaki Y., Nouchi R., Kawashima R. Impact of frequency of internet use on development of brain structures and verbal intelligence: longitudinal analyses. Hum. Brain Mapp. 2018;39(11):4471–4479.

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