“I don’t want you to be mad at me,” said my kindergartener, “but I hate school.”
We’ve been distance learning since March, and my six-year-old has finally hit the wall. He’s a smart and curious student who loves to learn and attend traditional school, but he’s burning out on Zoom, just like the rest of us. It’s not that he’s refusing to sign on or sliding out of his chair or melting down over homework. It’s much more subtle than that. On Wednesday, he looked at me and said, “I don’t want you to be mad at me, but I hate school.”
He doesn’t hate school. He hates Zoom. He hates learning at home, alone. Burnout and depression in young children are real, and I’ve been doing my best to prevent Levon from succumbing to these things as we face another semester of remote learning. So many parents have reached out to me to say that their child is struggling, so today I’m sharing what we’re doing to help Levon remain happy and healthy during this challenging time. I say “we” because I’m not doing it alone. My husband tags in both before and after work and my sister, who works for us (and four other families, prior to Covid) as a nanny supports Levon in all of the ways I’ve outlined below. While I consider myself responsible for my son’s mental health, my sister is responsible for mine, and my hat is off to all parents who are struggling to balancing work and distancing learning without any help.
ADVOCATE FOR YOUR CHILD
Levon’s asynchronous work includes a lot of coloring. He loves to draw and color on his own schedule, but around Thanksgiving, he started to rail against coloring. It became the thing he hated most, and he was in tears over every worksheet. I finally emailed his teacher and explained the situation. I told her we would complete the other parts of the assignments, but we were giving him a break from coloring. As a perfectionist and over-achiever who, in first grade, used to choose to stay inside during recess to finish (and sometimes re-do) my assignments to make them even more perfect, this was hard for me. I’m 38, and I still feel a pull to please teachers — even Levon’s teachers. I felt tremendously stressed as a student, which was not my parents’ doing. They tried to assure me that simply doing my best was enough, but their voices were never a match for my internal perfectionist. It is my greatest hope that Levon never feels the way I did. I want him to learn to set boundaries for himself to avoid burnout. To learn that it’s okay to say, “I need a break, so I’m taking one.” It’s my job to model that behavior and to advocate for him until he’s old enough to do so for himself.
After emailing his teacher, I told Levon that sometimes we get so tired of doing the same thing over and over that we need a break. That’s why we take vacations. And we’re going to take a vacation from coloring. “This week, we’re not coloring anything. We’ll start again next week.”
A break was exactly what he needed. He’s still annoyed by coloring assignments, but he completes them without a fight, and they provide an opportunity for him to learn another important life lesson — sometimes we have to do things we don’t enjoy. And even if we don’t enjoy them, we have to do our best.
VALIDATE THEIR FEELINGS
When Levon told me he hated school, I didn’t try to talk him out of it. Instead, I said, “I totally understand. Zoom school is the worst. You can’t see your friends, and you can’t play at recess or eat lunch together. I hate it too.” It was such a relief to him that he wasn’t in trouble for feeling the way he felt. I even encouraged him to repeat it, louder and louder. To get it all out. He was delighted to run around his room screaming “I hate school! I hate school! I HATE SCHOOL!” While he shouted, I sang “School’s the worst! School’s the worst!” and eventually, he fell on the floor giggling.
“I know Zoom school is the worst,” I told him, “but we have to do it for a bit longer, okay?”
“Okay,” he said.
Then he plopped down in his seat to complete another day of distance learning.
Don’t try to talk your kid out of how he feels. Validate him. It might be exactly what he needs to keep going.
FREQUENTLY COMMENT AND COMPLIMENT THEIR WORK
Nothing upsets Levon more than when his teacher doesn’t call on him during Zoom. He’s working in a vacuum, and not having the chance to speak upsets him much more than it would in a normal classroom setting. He craves interaction and response and often asks me, “Mom, do you want to see my progress?” He actually wants me to be over his shoulder, watching and interacting with his work. His attitude is so much better when I frequently check in on him during class time. His desk is right across from mine, so he’s never alone during school, but he likes for me to comment frequently and be aware of what he’s working on. Yes, it makes it much harder for me to do my own work, and I completely sympathize with parents who have to work from home during school hours. It’s an impossible task.
One particular morning, I was on a deadline and simply couldn’t be as attentive as usual. I explained him that I had to work, but that if he put on headphones, I would sit next to him, and we could do our work together. I sat down at his little table (the benefits of being short) and he frequently looked over at me and smiled, completely satisfied with the arrangement.
Earlier in the year, we had a friend join Levon for some of his Zoom sessions, and he LOVED it. During the current Covid surge, we’re not allowing him to host friends, but we hope to resume this later this semester. It makes a world of difference for him.
PLAY DURING ZOOM BREAKS
At the beginning of the year, I made sure to play and engage with Levon during his breaks between Zoom sessions. His class schedule is:
- Zoom from 8:30 am – 9:10 am
- Zoom from 9:30 am – 10:30 am
- Zoom from 12:30 pm – 1 pm
The first and last sessions include his whole class. The middle session is a small group and includes two half-hour sessions — reading and writing with his teacher, and math and art with his amazing teacher’s aide. Over the course of the semester, he became more independent and I stopped feeling the need to make every break feel like recess. But I’ve come to realize that recess is important. Sometimes he’s happy to play alone, but other times he needs me to play with him. He needs interaction. I’ve been doing my best to be mindful of his mood and make time to play when he’s clearly craving it.
Again, some work schedules don’t allow for such flexibility. Don’t feel guilty if you can’t devote yourself to daily recesses. We’re in survival mode right now, and if surviving the day means your kids skip school and watch TV in their pajamas while you get some work done and figure out how to make tomorrow better, that’s okay. They’re not going to fall behind because they miss one day. They’re not going to fail because they take a week off from coloring. I carry zero shame about the amount of frozen chicken products my child eats these days. I’m thrilled that he eats them because I’m tired of making him sandwiches. My only goal is to help him survive this semester, and if I thought Zooming from the backseat of the car while it’s parked in the driveway would make it more fun for him, I’d let him do it. In fact, we might try that tomorrow.
How do you help your child avoid meltdowns during distance learning? Share your advice in the comments.
Jessica Butler is the co-founder of Raise, stepmother of two, and adoptive mother of one. Prior to Raise, she was a writer on USA’s "In Plain Sight" and TNT’s "The Last Ship." She and her husband, writer/producer Warren Bell, co-created the Nick at Nite series "Instant Mom," based on her life as a stepmother. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and six-year-old son, Levon.