How to help kids cope with the mental health challenges of virtual learning

Advice for parents whose children, especially pre-K through first grade, are finding remote classes difficult

A few weeks into the school year, many parents, like Abigail Ram, are finding remote classes are especially hard for the youngest learners, pre-K through first grade.

“My youngest daughter is Elena and I feel like she has the most difficult time with virtual school this year. She’s only in kindergarten. Her attention span is small and having her use the computer is difficult. She also started a new school, so I don’t know many of the families and she doesn’t know the other students,” Ram said.

Eileen Kennedy-Moore is a psychologist counseling parents, like a mom whose preschooler couldn’t sit still during a Zoom class.

“She saw all the other parents and kids sitting there, singing the song. Meanwhile, her kid was running around the room screaming, ‘No Zoom, no Zoom.’ And I have to say my sympathies were entirely with the child. But actually what this child was doing was appropriate self-regulation,” she said.

She said screens with lots of faces can be overwhelming for kids, especially young ones who can’t communicate their feelings. And now is when parents need to be even more supportive.

“It’s a strategy that I think a lot of parents might be able to use is to invite, rather than push. So I suggested that she sit in on the little Zoom meeting and be very interested in the story or the song that they were doing. And I said I bet you a nickel the kid’s going to be looking around to see ‘what are they doing?'” said Kennedy-Moore.

She said the advice changes slightly for children of different ages.

Advice differs depending on child’s age

“Second and third graders usually are more socialized into school. They know what to expect and they usually want to please the teacher. So with that one, though, if your child is really, really objecting and getting all upset about it, we want to ask more questions and really try to understand what is going on here,” she said.

“Just to talk with my kids about what’s happening, and not be afraid to talk about hard topics with them. They’re aware of a lot and I think that helps,” Ram said.

Ram says letting kids get up and move their bodies also helps.

“If it’s not a wiggle card, it’s something else. They roller blade in the house. They do all kinds of stuff in the house,” she said.

Kennedy-Moore says to keep their curiosity engaged with lots of time outdoors or reading books. But it’s an issue weighing on educators, too.

Washington Township superintendent Joe Bollendorf says the mental health and well-being of his students is guiding his efforts to reopen schools to the maximum extent possible.

“We have students that are suffering. We can’t control their home environment or the things that they may be dealing with,” Bollendorf said.

He says he’d feel terrible if someone got sick and died as a result of school being open.

“I would feel equally guilty if I could have provided an opportunity to lend support and help and well-being to kids that need that social and emotional component in their lives. And their state of mind without those supports, if something terrible or bad happened to them, I would feel equally guilty,” he said.

There was a  backlash when Gov. Phil Murphy considered cutting funding for mental health services in schools.

During budget proceedings, Sen. Sandra Cunningham said, “While we had to make some tough decisions in this year’s budget, I am grateful we were able to restore funding to many important public services. Funding for school-based mental health … will ensure we continue to invest in our future, despite the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic.”