The Effects of Remote Learning on Children

Prior to March 2020, school was a constant in the lives of most American children.  School was not only a place of learning, but a place of social interaction, a place to play, a place to share meals and a place to develop and maintain relationships with peers and teachers.  However, with Covid-19, schools across the nation and the world closed and moved to remote/online learning.  Literally overnight, children lost the physical space and time to interact with peers and teachers in an environment designed to enhance the learning process.  In a matter of 24 hours, we went from trying to limit our children’s use of technology, i.e., I phones, laptops computers and Xboxes, to trying to get every school age child set up with a computer so that they could spend 5-7 hours a day doing schooling online.

While this move was essential in the throes of the pandemic, it has not occurred without incident.  Structure that was once created and maintained by school administration and campus buildings has been turned over to children and their families.  Education now relies on self-discipline and self-control, dynamics that are not typically fully developed in school age children.

With this shift in the learning environment has come a reported increase in anxiety, depression, social isolation, insecurities, loneliness, helplessness and hopelessness from students of all ages.  While the mental health of school age children has been a growing concern for health care practitioners over the last decade, with the increased burden of remote learning, we are seeing an even greater increase in mental health issues in this group.  Children are facing a multitude of challenges. Not only do they have concerns about CoVid-19 and its effects on their physical wellbeing, many children are struggling with the impact of new economic stress due to parental job loss, and the uncertainty regarding school, socializing, travel, and day to day living.  Moreover, there are frustrations regarding access to the internet, learning how to use online teaching platforms, and establishing a learning environment within the home that is conducive to studying.  For example, in many homes across the nation, there are several school age children at home doing remote learning from several different schools and two parents working remotely for two different companies.  This means multiple moving bodies in one location trying to work or do schooling at the same time.  This is overwhelming to say the least.

Despite these challenges, there are things you can do to help yourselves and to support your children as they navigate these unprecedented times.  First, as parents, it is important to take care of yourself. It is important to eat well, get enough sleep, exercise and to stay connected to God, family, friends, co-workers, neighbors and teachers.  It is important to address your needs and to get the support you need to navigate the multiple changes at hand. “You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you.” (Is. 26:3) Next, while it is important to support the learning and academic curriculum of your children, it is vital to address students’ social and emotional needs.  This involves being aware of the impact remote learning has on students.   It is important to encourage and support relationships with friends, family, students and teachers with respect to social distancing.

It is important to stay engaged with your children’s learning process and to have a good baseline understanding of both their academic and mental health functioning.  It is not uncommon to see increased levels of anxiety, depression, agitation and frustration.  It is important to notice these changes, to talk about these changes, and to validate their emotions related to the increased challenges. Do not try to “fix or repair” or shut down their emotions.  Rather, lean in, and try to “connect with and comfort” their unrest. Ask them how you might support them and what they need to make this work. 

Model and support a regular exercise program.  Exercise is vital for maintaining mental health in normal times and is even more important now with the increased stress levels. If possible, develop a family exercise plan.  Moreover, it is important to maintain good sleep hygiene and a regular sleep schedule. Encourage your children to completely unplug (no technology or screens) at least one hour, and ideally two hours prior to “lights out”.   Encourage healthy eating and nutrition as without the structure of the school day, many will struggle with their nutrition and nibble on food throughout the day.

Finally, have realistic expectations.  These are unprecedented times and many children and families are struggling greatly.  If you can help by hiring a tutor, enlisting a college coach, developing study pods, and supporting and advocating on school and relationship issues during these times, your student will feel less isolated, less burdened and less stressed. 

These are times of great uncertainty.  We do not know when things will return to “normal”, or what the new normal will look like. While there are many changes occurring in many areas of school age children’s lives, we are, in effect, in a phase, a challenge, of “adaptation” to the new “norms”.   While children are resilient, they need the empathy, compassion and support of family, friends and caregivers as everyone works on adapting to the multitude of changes and challenges at hand.