By Deborah Wood, Ph.D.
The date is fast approaching for a “review” of my second grade and fifth grade grandchildren’s pandemically prompted homeschooling experience. Completed reading lists, worksheets, drawings, writings, and lots and lots of photos with descriptions of the children’s activities are going into digital folders for each child, for each subject, for each of the first two marking periods of the school year. Whew. No wonder teachers get a full day off at the end of each marking period for this!
Based on my memories of elementary school, Math is still Math, and most of the other subjects are pretty much as I remember them. A new component, however, is a topic under Health Education which is entitled “Mental and Emotional Health”. For the fifth grader, this encompasses effective communication skills, dealing with complex emotions, setting and striving toward goals for personal well-being, decision-making for various interpersonal situations, and effective time management to reduce stress. Concepts for the second grader are similar, just slightly simpler. This is important stuff involving skills that were formerly assumed to be gained from family and community experiences. Not so anymore.
The mental health needs of children have increased over the past decades and have worsened due to the pandemic. According to UNICEF, the world’s advocate for all children, “The disruption to routines, education, recreation, as well as concern for family income and health, is leaving many young people feeling afraid, angry, and concerned for their future.” So how can we grown-ups support a child’s progress toward being a mentally and emotionally healthy individual?
During homeschool, we talk a lot. We listen to each other, too. As much as possible our homeschool days include opportunities to chat about what one of us is doing, or what we’re doing together. We can share opinions. We (especially the 3 grandparents involved in this mission) can relate past experiences to topics at hand. There’s no judgement about personal likes and dislikes. If a student has a new idea about an activity, or wants to drop the activity and move on to something else, that’s okay, too.
Some thoughts, especially worries, should be kept from children. The problems of the world are not for the youngest people to solve. Children can be included in an age-appropriate way about Covid-19 (get your shots and wear a mask), family finances (don’t be wasteful with food, electricity, etc.), the global economy (contribute to food and clothing drives), and climate change (plant trees and reduce car trips), etc. Save the grown-up conversations for when the children aren’t around.
During homeschool, we frequently communicate in words and actions that we care about each other. That’s the most important message.
Books are effective tools for observing emotions and their consequences. Even babies enrich their understandings of their own emotions by looking at board books with smiling or tearful baby faces in them.
In homeschool we often read a book together, taking turns to read aloud if the students desire, pausing to comment or ask questions about a characters’ feelings, motives, and reactions to what’s happening in the story. The second grader easily understands that certain actions could be helpful or hurtful to another character. The fifth grader can grapple with unforeseen consequences and the hard choices a character might face.
There’s a progressive order to emotional intelligence. First, one must accurately identify one’s own emotions and pinpoint the causes. Secondly, one learns to identify similar emotions in others – through books and movies, but more significantly, in the real people in one’s life. Third is the discovery that one’s actions can cause emotions in those real people. In the most emotionally intelligent individuals there exists the self-control to modify behavior toward the best course of action. The chosen action supports the emotional well-being of oneself as well as the other people that may be involved. That’s how healthy relationships are maintained.
Goals for Well-Being
Speaking of relationships, friendship is an advantageous commodity for well-being in childhood, indeed for any stage of life. It is widely recognized that the pandemic has posed obstructions to children spending time with their friends. Research on people of all ages acknowledges the importance of having friends, as anyone who has had one knows, a friend makes the fun times more fun and the hard times less hard. Physiologically, friendships also boost the immune system and psychologically, friendships make us want to take better care of ourselves.
With the near future still foggy – homeschool, remote school, or school in masks in a school building – there ought to be some friends in the picture. Note: Chesapeake Children’s Museum is welcoming homeschool families on the third Thursday of each month at 10:30 am – outside in the park for now.
Another source of well-being for many people (of all ages) is the pursuit of creative outlets. One of our students enjoys weekly violin lessons; the other draws and dances. They both take pleasure in putting on shows, even for an audience of one or two. Perhaps in addition to the curriculum requirement for mental health, and in support of it, schools should offer creative activities every day to every grade level.
Steps to decision-making include listing options and weighing the pros and cons of each. Seek out missing information when needed. Consult with someone who has been at a similar crossroad. (Ah, another benefit of a friend!)
Children can be supported with suggestions for compromise – which may be a blend of two options. Younger and more impulsive children are usually less able to think of compromises.
A helpful approach is to coach a child through this process until it becomes second nature.
Effective Time Management
The key to time management is to have the right amount of tasks within the time limit. We are much less rushed to do school work during a camping trip, for example, than on a day requiring two-way transportation. It’s definitely less stressful when there is more time. The children are usually involved in choosing the order of activities, and since the amount of time a particular task needs may be unknown, the last activities are those that are less of a priority to get done that day.
It is a bit stressful not knowing how much more time we will have to homeschool. We have packed a lot into the time, though, with the children’s well-being at the center of it all.
Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.