How to give kids stability during this unpredictable roller coaster of a pandemic
This is the Jan. 10, 2022, edition of the 8 to 3 newsletter about school, kids and parenting. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox every Monday.
Megan Hunt Fryling’s son, Desmond, was looking forward to a packed schedule of play dates during winter break. The 7-year-old was fully vaccinated, so his parents felt especially comfortable with him seeing friends outside of school.
But amid skyrocketing COVID-19 cases, his classmates’ parents canceled the much-anticipated park hangs. This made Desmond sad. Why can’t I see my friends? Why aren’t we visiting my cousins over the holidays? It was distressing for Fryling to see her young son once again isolated. Desmond, a sensitive child, picked up on her anxiety and stress, though she tried to shield him from it.
“There’s no playbook to get your kids through a pandemic emotionally and socially intact,” Fryling, a pastor who lives in Sunland, told me.
Though we’re in a better spot than we were a year ago, with a vaccine that shields most of us from severe COVID-19 symptoms and with kids back in school, this latest surge caused by the Omicron variant feels reminiscent in many ways to the darkest seasons of the pandemic. After appreciating a semblance of normal life over the last few months, it’s demoralizing and disorienting to be canceling trips, play dates and plans to see family. Every time we think we’ve turned a corner, there’s another variant, another set of restrictions.
Like us, children thrive when life feels predictable and safe. When those conditions aren’t available to them, they’re more likely to feel anxious, withdrawn or out-of-control. They may worry again about getting their older family members sick — especially if they’ve lost a loved one to COVID-19 — or a return to Zoom school.
The good news is that parents can be a stabilizing force in their kids’ lives during this era of unpredictability. “If the adults in their lives are emotionally volatile, or their routine is upended, they will feel the stress,” said Rachel Robertson, an expert in early childhood development for the child-care provider Bright Horizons. “If routine and equanimity are preserved, no matter what else is happening in the world, children can be protected from a lot of the impact.”
Robertson and a few other experts gave me pointers on how to help kids maneuver these uncertain times.
Understand and validate their concerns
You’ll need to truly understand what, exactly, is causing your child distress, said Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychology professor whose work focuses on vulnerability and resilience in childhood.
“It’s very important to do check-ins with kids periodically during this time. Find out how they’re doing, create space for them to talk about things they’re worried about,” Weissbourd said. But don’t check in too much, he cautioned. Some parents police their kids’ moods — and try to fix things immediately — in an effort to alleviate their own anxiety. That kind of hovering can make kids anxious, too.
Start with empathy. Acknowledge that this is a really hard time, said Madeline Levine, psychologist and author of “Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World.”
“But don’t tell them it’s going to be alright, it’s going to be fine,” Levine said. “Teach them to sit in uncomfortable feelings by simply saying, ‘Tell me more.’”
Be honest about the fact that you’re concerned too, said Ann-Louise Lockhart, a pediatric psychologist based in San Antonio, Texas — and the fact that you don’t have answers to unknowable questions like, “When will this end?”
You can say something like: “Thank you so much for asking that. I don’t know when things will feel more normal, but we can make the most of our situation right now by being present and finding a new normal for our family.”
Create opportunities for control
It’s important to emphasize the degree of agency your child does have. “In general, we all do better in the face of uncertainty when we’re active,” Weissbourd said.
If your kid is concerned about safety, have a conversation about the precautions you’re taking, like being vaccinated and wearing high-quality masks. If they’re worried about not seeing friends, help them find ways they can safely maintain those connections.
“For some kids, it’s really helpful to do research and investigate. If you’re worried about the resurgence of this variant, you might get online with them and learn more about Omicron and how to prepare for it, for example,” Weissbourd said. “Other kids just want reassurance that you’re on top of it, that you’re going to keep them safe.”
Maintaining routines and rituals will also help your child feel more confident in their ability to weather the storm. These seemingly small, reliable moments — like reading a story before bedtime or having a family movie night every Friday — create stability and a consistent means for connection, Lockhart explained.
A silver lining of this yo-yo of a pandemic is that it gives kids many opportunities to develop emotional literacy and coping skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives.
Instead of trying to manage your child’s difficult emotions by chastising them or telling them that everything is fine, help them learn how to identify what they’re feeling, Robertson said. Then together, you can come up with practices that help them regulate their emotions. These might include listening to music, drawing, being in nature or reading, depending on your child’s interests and personality.
“For middle-age kids [6 to 11] and older, start with the assumption that they will be able to manage,” Levine said. “It’s really important for a kid to learn how to self-regulate.”
Kids learn how to self-regulate — monitor and manage their emotions, thoughts and behaviors in ways that yield well-being and safe, loving relationships — by observing grown-ups. But it’s a sophisticated talent that even adults don’t get right a lot of the time.
“It’s very important for adults to model caring for themselves,” Robertson said. “Narrate your thoughts aloud: Say, ‘This day was really hard for me. I had a hard day. What I need to do is go for a five-minute walk. Would you like to come with me?’ When they’re feeling a similar way, they’ll have that tool available to them.”
These warm, attuned interactions between parent and child that provide modeling and support make up what is called co-regulation, which serves as a “baseline of calm and balance for our children,” Lockhart said. “If your home is chaotic, if your kid seems out of control, it might be because you’re dysregulated yourself.
“Kids will be dysregulated at times. If we respond in a dysregulated state, that’s what they’re learning to do as well.”
Take long, deep breaths when you feel like you want to scream or yell, Lockhart recommends. Use self-talk rather than immediately reacting. (“Kids are supposed to be loud. That’s what kids do sometimes.”) Try not to take their behavior so personally.
Levine used the metaphor of a rocky plane flight. “I used to be afraid of flying. Whenever there was turbulence, I would look over at the flight attendant, who was just going about their business. I was borrowing the calm of the flight attendant to make myself feel better — just like kids can borrow calm from their parents.”
Omicron continues to complicate education
Schools across California are fighting to stay open amid severe staffing shortages, high student absences and infection rates fueled by the record-breaking surge of the Omicron variant. The San Gabriel school district system shut down a middle school and high school for Thursday and Friday, and Montebello Unified is scrambling to find tests and faces a critical shortage of substitute teachers to fill in for sick staff. These are just a few of the predicaments countless districts find themselves navigating, according to my colleagues Howard Blume and Melissa Gomez.
More and more California colleges and universities are delaying the start of in-person classes, including USC and UCLA, report Times writers Teresa Watanabe and Colleen Shalby. Eight University of California schools announced Friday they would extend remote instruction to Jan. 31 as administrators scramble to respond to the winter surge. Private universities, including Stanford, Occidental and the five undergraduate Claremont Colleges, are also starting their spring term completely online.
California’s K-12 students experienced significant academic setbacks during the 2020-21 school year, according to data released Friday by the California Department of Education. The data showed growing achievement gaps, lagging progress in math and English, increased chronic absenteeism and a slight decline in the statewide graduation rate, Paloma Esquivel reports. Black, Latino and economically disadvantaged students fared far worse than their white counterparts, with more than 60% not meeting English standards and about 80% not meeting math standards.
There simply aren’t enough mental health counselors at schools, but the need for their help continues to grow among K-12 students. That’s why the California Department of Education is attempting to bring 10,000 more mental health professionals to campuses across the state. The effort — which requires legislative approval — would aim to entice clinicians into schools through loan forgiveness and deferrals, scholarships to offset education costs and potentially reduce the time it takes for mental health clinicians to get licensed.
Thinking about having a “COVID party” for your children, so they can get infected and, hopefully, move on? My colleague Jon Healey spoke to experts, who have this simple piece of advice: Don’t.
What else we’re reading this week
What does it take to keep schools open during the Omicron surge? A lot, it seems: testing, safety equipment (masks and air purifiers, for instance), and qualified staff, including bus drivers and substitute teachers. There’s widespread agreement that kids should be in school, but at the moment, there are shortages in all those areas across most of the country. NPR
Superintendents across the U.S. are leaving their posts in droves. As many as 1,500 to 2,000 top district leaders have stepped away. Reasons vary, but COVID is involved in many decisions. Some superintendents postponed retirement when the pandemic began and have decided they’ve waited long enough. Others are disgusted by the politicization of the pandemic. This article focuses on Nevada, where three districts are searching for new leaders. Hechinger Report
School district officials in California are worried about losing millions of dollars because of declining enrollment rates. Schools get funded on a per-student basis, and in 2020, the Legislature decided to base funding on districts’ pre-pandemic enrollment and attendance. But starting this fall, funding will be determined by this year’s figures — and they are down sharply, in part because of a lower birthrate and out-of-state migration. San Francisco Chronicle
What happens when students don’t wear masks in the classroom? At least five schools in Massachusetts have allowed vaccinated students to unmask, which the state allows once 80% of students and staff are vaccinated. Most of the schools have not seen significant increases in COVID cases. One, however, Hopkinton High in western Massachusetts, had a spike of 15 cases on Friday, and that’s rekindled the debate over mask mandates. “It’s been exciting to get back to some sense of normalcy, but as we’re seeing an uptick in cases, we’re once again getting reality shoved at us,” said math teacher Jenna Galster. Boston Globe (subscribers only)
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