Educating Your Child in a Pandemic

Right now, many of us are thinking about back to school decisions. Educating your child in a pandemic is no easy task. Homeschooling? Distancing Learning? In-person school? Even if we are privileged to have a choice, making hard decisions for our families can feel agonizing.

You may even lose sleep over it.

That's why I'm sharing the 9 things you need to know about educating your child in a pandemic.

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Know Your Role

The year was 1992 and I was nervous. It was August and I was entering the third grade. I was anxiously waiting to find out who my assigned teacher was for the year. There were four teachers in the third grade, and two of them were ‘yellers’. You know what I mean by the “yellers”—the teachers you could hear shouting at their students from all the way down the hall. 

My odds weren’t good. I waited with bated breath. Finally the news came, I got a yeller. 

And I cried. And cried.

Fast forward 28 years. I can reflect back on those childhood tears. I now have an understanding that education is far more than rote memorization and the acquisition of knowledge. All effective education is grounded in a warm and loving relationship between an adult and child. While at the surface level we equate education with cognitive development, the roots run much deeper than that. To teach a child on intellectual ideas, you must first connect with the child on an emotional level. 

Many of you will be playing the role of educator this year. Maybe as a support person for distance learning or perhaps as a homeschool parent. If that is you, then know this: 

You can’t scream an education into a child. But trust me…you are going to be tempted to try. 

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Know You are Capable

When it comes to educating your child in a pandemic, you may be plagued with the imposter syndrome. There’s a good chance you feel unqualified and/or unmotivated. 

Personally, I am trained across disciplines. I’m a Clinical Social Worker with years of experience practicing child & family therapy. I also have a Ph.D. in Early Childhood Education and Development. Basically, if psychology, human development, and education had a baby—that baby would sort of be me. 

And I want to tell you, even with all the qualifications in hand—being an educator to my own children is just. plain. hard. There’s no easy way around that. I will not sugarcoat it.  [Listen to my episode on Homeschool Reflections]

Because most importantly, I’m a mom. I’m a mom who has taught my own children. I’m a mom who has gritted her teeth through the hard moments of parenting (in fact, there was some teeth gritting happening just this morning…). I am a mom who has worked intensely to avoid being a “yeller”.

I want you to know that there is a good chance you may feel the same. But if you are choosing to be an educator for your children this year, you are capable. If you are doing it because you have no other choice, you are still capable. 

Because you can do hard things. 

I will be the first one to tell you that it’s a heckuvalotta work to make sure my kids are just fed and clean everyday. And also like you, I already wear a lot of hats in my family. Even if you are doing distance learning with a certified teacher behind a screen, you are going to be taking on a role of educator in your home. You are going to be the human connection and support person that helps to bring it all together. 

So when this educator hat gets tossed onto your head unexpectedly, you may find yourself worried that it might not suit you. Or perhaps it’s not your size and it’s squeezing your skull making your brain nearly burst. 

Even if you never planned or prepared for this, you are capable. You can absolutely rock that educator hat whether its your style or not. As a responsive, loving parent, you have all the tools within you to support your child through this year of school. 

But nobody said it’s going to be easy. 

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Know Why This is So Hard

Let’s admit that many Americans have secret pipe dreams of sending at least one child to Harvard. On full scholarship, of course. When it comes to education and our kids—we dream BIG from the earliest of years. We want them to reach for the stars and strive to give them as many stepping stones towards those stars as possible. 

Now enter a global pandemic. Many of our big dreams are derailed. The year 2020 is a year of loss and we are in mourning. Not only has there been dramatic loss of life, but also loss of human connection, education, work opportunities, and income. 

We are grieving.  But it’s probably not the type of grieving that is associated with a loss of life. The type of losses we are experiencing are called "ambiguous loss”. Ambiguous loss is a loss that occurs without closure or understanding. It leaves us looking for answers and solutions—while we are simultaneously still sitting with the undeniable sting of grief. 

Examples of ambiguous loss include infertility, cultural loss that occurs with immigration, and having a parent with dementia. Or often, living with a loved one who has been changed by mental illness or addiction. 

For decades, researcher Pauline Boss has been exploring the concept of what she coined “ambiguous loss”. This type of loss is characterized by uncertainty. There is no certainty that life will return to the way it used to be. There is no certainty that we will be gainfully employed tomorrow. There is no certainty there will be bacon and toilet paper at the grocery store. 

Pauline explains that we are a mastery-based society that is focused on checking boxes and moving on. Losses that are rooted in uncertainty for the future are perhaps the most uncomfortable. Because we are not equipped to sit with uncertainty. We have very little tolerance for unanswered questions. 

Because, well, Google. When was the last time you were forced to sit with the idea of “not knowing” something?

So here we are. We are mourning our own losses but we are also mourning losses on behalf of our children. Mourning the loss of a “regular” play-based kindergarten class. Mourning the loss of facial expressions that are blocked through masks. 

This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. We are festering deep within our grief and we feel stuck. 

But know this: Kids are incredibly resilient. Even if some of our dreams for them feel broken, our children will not be broken by this.

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Know Your Bandwidth

The flowers bloomed in the Spring, the sun heated up this Summer, and invariably the leaves will fall this Autumn. The outer world keeps moving forward yet it feels in direct conflict from our inner worlds which are frozen with uncertainty. 

We are all grieving. We have missed important cultural events like graduations, funerals, weddings…all events that signal big life transitions and allow us to move forward. Without these transitional gatherings and our communities to surround us, life feels like it has stalled.

So when I ask, “How are you?” I really want to know, “How ARE you?”

Because your well-being matters. There is an abundance of research that examines the correlation between parental well-being and child well-being. The studies point to the fact that the way we feel as parents has a great impact on our children. And if you are going to be educating your child in the pandemic this school year, then you need to be working on you. 

  • You need to be practicing self-care. 
  • You need to be journaling, reflecting, and talking about this life-altering year of 2020.
  • You need to let yourself grieve. 
  • In order to best serve your family, you have to be caring for yourself. 

If you are in the stage of grief that has you feeling burnt out and angry, you need to work on you first. 

Because remember, to learn, children need a warm and loving relationship with an educator. And that my friends is your real work this year: First, love yourself. Then, go love on your child. When it comes to the education bit, the rest will come. 

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Know How to Light the Fire

It’s time that you re-evaluate the goals for your children’s educational journey. This year, we won’t be checking all the boxes on the way to a full-ride in the Ivy League. I'll quote William Butler Yeats, who famously said that "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." 

As parents, it’s easy to get sucked into the idea of filling the pail. Does your distance learning have 10 tasks? Check those boxes and you are done for the day.

But when it comes to educating our children in a pandemic, we need to refocus on energies on lighting the fire. How do we foster a love of learning? Because without it—learning becomes duteous. It becomes just another obligation.

As the parent educator, we can light that fire though attunement, connection, and curiosity

Why attunement? 

Attunement is about setting aside the adult agenda and paying attention to the needs of our children. Maybe your kid is throwing a huge fit about having to handwrite a paragraph for his distance learning homework. So you offer to do the writing while he dictates the words to you. Or your daughter is bouncing off the walls during her daily Zoom session. Instead of repeatedly threatening to take away her TV time, simply tell the teacher that you’ll be taking her outside for some (much needed) movement. 

When we are in tune with our children we meet them where they are at. We notice their struggles and support them when we can, but we also know when to fade ourselves out and give them the wings to fly when they are ready. 

Why connection?

Connection is an emotional closeness that we feel to another person. You might know what each other are thinking. Perhaps you can finish one another’s sentences. When connection is strong, the working relationship proceeds almost effortlessly. But often disconnect happens due to distractions, irritability, or other stressors. The connection must be reestablished in order to proceed with teaching. 

Why curiosity?

Our children are natural-born explorers. When they are allowed to learn about topics and ideas that are inherently interesting to them—they will thrive. Traditional schooling doesn’t always lend itself to pursuing new ventures based on interests…but if you make space for it at home, it will make a difference. 

You won’t always get it right. You will need to give yourself plenty of mental health days. So let’s forget about filling the pail of knowledge and start lighting the fire for the love of learning.

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Know The Most Relevant Types of Learning

“My kid hasn’t learned anything since March!” I heard a dad say recently. 

I beg to differ. Perhaps your child hasn’t memorized the date that World War II began. And she hasn’t completely learned how to do long division. But that doesn’t mean that she isn’t learning. 

A generation ago, learning was heavily based on memorizing content. We grew up in a world where content was harder to access. If you wanted to find an answer to a question, you had to drive to the library and use the Dewey Decimal system to find a book to answer that question. Today, content lies at our fingertips. The result is that learning is focused less on the acquisition of content and more on learning how to use the content. 

It is believed that to give our children the tools they need to thrive in a 21st century career, they need have an education focused on the 4 C’s: Critical Thinking, Creativity, Collaboration, and Communication. 

The good news is that our kids are learning all of these things every day, whether we realize it or not. To foster the 4 C’s at home here’s what we can do:

  • Commit ourselves to be life-long learners
  • Foster and encourage curiosity 
  • Allow for open conversations and discussions
  • Find joint interests to explore together

Do our kids benefit from learning within a community of their peers? Yes, absolutely. But can they learn with just their family at home? Yes, absolutely. Let’s start to appreciate the 4 C’s and the “undercover” learning that takes place in the every day lives of a family. If you can do that, I promise you will feel more confident that you are providing the tools your kids need for a successful future. 

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Know Your Privilege

I know that it feels like we are all faced with hard decisions about education right now. And when we only know our own reality, it can be hard to appreciate the privileges which many of us have. Choosing to keep your kids home is a privilege , even if it’s not a privilege you want. 

I’ll never forget my first client when I was a young social worker just out of graduate school. I was working to reunify families who were separated due to abuse and neglect. Her daughter was removed from her custody because she had left the child with a neighbor while she went to work. On repeated occasions, the neighbor sexually assaulted the child. And the mother knew. 

Does that sound like an unforgivable offense?

As a non-English speaking immigrant without family in the country, her benefits and access to social services were limited. She desperately needed to keep her job to bring in an income to feed her child. But to go to work, she needed child care.

So what should she do? Leave her child with a sex offender and go to work? Or quit her job and land in a homeless shelter, with the risk of losing custody and deportation?

Don’t answer that question. I’m praying that you never have to answer that question for your own children.

Have you ever had to make decisions like THIS?

Because in the current state of the world, there will be families making difficult decisions like this due to distance learning and COVID. There are families all across the world that are making choices between food and safety. 

I have never had to make decisions like this. I have never had to leave my child with an unsafe caregiver. I am privileged.

If you never have to make decisions like this, you are privileged. If you get to choose between homeschool and distance learning and sending your kids to school, you are privileged--even if you don't want that privilege. I just want to say, whatever happens with your kid's education this year, they are going to be okay. Will it be ideal? Heck no. But they are going to be okay. 

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Know Your Kid

As the parent, you know your kid better than anyone. Which is why it’s important for you to advocate for and provide them with two things: an individualized education and movement. 

What is an individualized education? Traditional schooling is geared to meet the needs of children who fall right in the middle of the learning curve. But many, many children do not fall smack in the middle. Some children fall behind the curve and others are ahead of the curve. Even within subjects, there can be variation. You may have a child who is ahead of the curve on reading and behind the curve on math. Which is why it is important to recognize and tailor an education towards each child’s needs. 

What happens when you don’t give a child an individualized education? Often, you will see low motivation and behavior challenges. Children who are bored (i.e. the work is too easy) or struggling (i.e. the work is too hard) will act out with difficult behaviors or withdraw and refuse to engage. 

Homeschool curriculums are especially good at meeting individual learners where they are at. Distance learning may or may not be good at this. If your child is participating in distance learning, it is your job to be the advocate to let the teacher know if the materials are not meeting their needs. Keep an eye out for too much busy work or too much struggle. Neither of which are good for fostering the love of learning. 

Keep an eye on the curriculum, but also ensure that your child’s movement needs are being provided for. Our children have been cooped up and understimulated for months. Whether you send them to school or keep them home, you have to ensure that they are getting the appropriate amounts of movement. Movement is directly linked with brain development and learning. 

Sit down and learn for a few minutes then get up and move. Or better yet, get moving and learning at the same time. To keep our kids learning, we have to make sure their bodies and brains are adequately engaged. 

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Know the World Will Be Weird

When I first saw the CDC guidelines for back-to-school, I was like, “Oh, helllllllll no”. Verbatim. Because the thought of sending my kids in masks, standing six feet apart felt so far from the childhood that I want for my kids. 

Yes, sending your kid to school in a mask is going to feel weird. Totally weird. But keeping them home is also going to feel weird. Because there’s a good chance you have already been at home for months and months. And perhaps you feel your sanity slowly slipping away in the process.  If you keep them home, almost every time you leave the house, you are going to be faced with the weirdness of the world—even as a homeschooler. At least where I live…masks, distancing, plexiglass, it’s all going to be there whether kids go to school or not. At the grocery store, the bank...basically any public location that we take our children.

The world is going to be weird whether inside of school or out. So choose what is right for your family. Don’t ask your neighbor. Don’t ask me. Ask your gut. Trust your instincts. 

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Denaye Barahona

Dr. Denaye Barahona is a loving wife and mama of two. She partners with families to tackle the challenges of raising children. Denaye is a minimalist who claims to be a decluttering expert (don't let her near your closet). She loves to travel, talk health-and-wellness, and give unsolicited advice. She has been featured on the likes of The Today Show, The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, The Minimalists, Motherly, Becoming Minimalist, and numerous other media outlets. Denaye holds a Ph.D. in Child Development and is a Clinical Social Worker with a specialty in child and family practice.