It’s a Strange New School World… Still

Another school year has begun. But this one is unlike any other. All the emotions that come up for you and your children at this time of year are exaggerated and exacerbated by Covid. Nothing is normal, nothing is predictable. But school is school however it is conducted so I offer some thoughts.

Whether your child is excited about school starting or dreads it—either in class or remote or both—may have a lot to do with the support system. We want our children to take responsibility for their education, but we usurp that responsibility when we tell them how it should be done—when we adults take control of their education and learning process. We fear that children don’t care about their education, so we direct instead of support. Our children need us to learn how they learn best, to set up the support system they need to do their best, and then trust that they will find their way.

It is the rare child who likes to do homework and is self-motivated enough to set up the time for it without procrastinating and grumbling at the very least. If your child is self-motivated, defer to his lead on when, where, and how much homework is done. Stay involved with what he is studying, oversee, ask questions, etc. Then count your blessings, step back, and allow him to navigate his own way.

Other children need stronger scaffolding within which they can find some autonomy. Scaffolding is a temporary structure used to support workers as they perform their task. Children thrive on structure. When our expectations are appropriate to the child and their situation, they usually meet them willingly. Scaffolding is temporary because it needs to change as your child’s needs change. The more children are involved in setting up their scaffolding, the more they use it.

Whether your child simply needs a consistent homework time, is an ADHD child who requires your calm presence (we’ll get to this) or has more involved processing difficulties requiring a specific plan as well as outside help, the amount and placement of the scaffolding is different for each child. Establishing the appropriate scaffolding requires trial and error and can take a while to get right, especially during this pandemic. Keep in mind that your child will respond well when the scaffolding is right. This doesn’t mean she will suddenly love school or zoom or doing homework, but her resistance will decrease.

Your tendency is likely to set the structure of your choosing—typically what you wanted or assume to be best—and then expect your child to fit into it. Resist the “I know what’s best for you” approach and put the time and effort into getting it right. Once you do, then your job is to let go of how your child maneuvers the scaffold. For instance, if he resists doing a particular homework assignment or is especially frustrated or tired, let him know that you trust him (connection). Would he like to find a different approach? Can you allow him to decide whether to do it today or not? Does he want you to leave it between him and his teacher (problem solving)? If you need to get more involved with the teacher be sure to include your child or at least let him know you are contacting the teacher.

Letting go means remaining supportive of the scaffold but not expecting the results you want or when you want them. Your child may need to remain on a low rung for a long time before progress occurs. She may want to do only the minimum required if that. Letting go means staying involved yet trusting her process with support and encouragement, never criticism. She may need more confidence before stepping up to the next rung or improving her grade. Find small ways for her to take the lead. Remember, you are not her teacher (unless you are homeschooling), you are her support system.

Now for your calm presence! Amid the pandemic, this requires staying present in the moment more than ever before. You do not know what’s ahead—no one does. Give yourself and your kids a break from having to get it right. Talk together about this unchartered territory and decide together that this will be a time of trial and error before finding the best way.

Problems can arise for parents impatient with the process or who are not structured themselves. Some children find their way fine in an unstructured environment; some simply cannot. It is not fair to blame that child for unwanted behavior when he is coping in an environment that does not meet his needs. Instead of letting chaos reign, get some help on how to set a structure.

Remote learning is great for some kids and a disaster for others. Special needs are not getting the attention they normally do. Some children are disappearing from view when neither the school nor the parent can be watchful. When specific individualized scaffolding is needed and is not or cannot be offered, expect difficult behavior. Instead of punitive measures aiming for compliance, work together with teachers and administrators to build a different, more effective scaffold for that child. Your child’s ability to cope and feel in balance is the bottom line for how successful he will be. Getting the scaffolding right both at home and at school is where effort is rewarded.

Don’t expect to fly by the seat of your pants and land securely. But also don’t expect to get it right for a while. Give yourself and everyone else a huge break. Everyone is doing their level best to get through these times.