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Emotional Needs Should Come First for Families During the COVID-19 School Closures

Families need support, not added pressure

Published on: April 10, 2020

homework child

Hours after we got the news that schools would be closed for weeks due to the coronavirus social distancing efforts, my husband and I received our first communication from our school. The email subject line read, “March Homework and Activities.” That was quickly followed by an email stressing the district’s efforts to put together educational activities for at-home learning. The next day, a Friday, we received an email from our school principal emphasizing the importance of creating consistency through routine and structure as we continued learning at home. Over the weeks that followed, emails from the school district have continued to pour in, with guided educational activities, sample schedules and supplemental materials to print. 

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that they were struggling — we all are. We are in the midst of a global crisis.

On the first Monday of “homeschooling,” I pushed the weight of the crisis and the demands of my full-time job aside and started on the activities assigned. I have a doctorate in education and experience working with young children, but this was no small task. After an hour, every one of my three young children had a meltdown. They didn’t understand why they couldn’t see their friends and teachers or go play on the playground. They refused to do any of the activities. 

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that they were struggling — we all are. We are in the midst of a global crisis. But not once has the district named this experience for what it is: a traumatic event. District communication has been filled with ways to continue instruction at home, with no resources on how to implement trauma-informed practices throughout this time. We should be operating under the assumption that children will fall behind academically, and that parents are already overwhelmed and overloaded. Once we do, we can turn our attention to how children can learn and grow during this difficult time.

In our case, my husband and I are both still employed and have access to resources to meet our basic needs. Families without our privilege: Those who have lost resources, who aren’t sure how to feed their family on a daily basis, whose health has been directly impacted by COVID-19, or who have children who receive special education services are receiving the same message on the importance of creating structure for children and are being urged to continue learning at home. But, in my experience as a behavior analyst working with families of young children, I have seen firsthand how difficult it is for families to focus on any academic education when their emotional and behavioral needs are not being met.

While school districts in our region are doing a great job ensuring that families have access to technology, it isn’t as simple as providing a computer to every family. Teachers have received years of education on how to run a classroom and implement effective teaching practices in person. They are experts at building relationships and individualizing instruction for their students. Now, they are being asked to put in hours to learn new technologies and translate the experience in the classroom to remote learning, all while meeting the needs of their own families. This time would be better spent training teachers on trauma-informed practices, so they can continue to build relationships with and support students and families in navigating this stressful time. 

Many surveys about technology needs have popped up in my inbox over the past weeks. Instead, families should be asked whether they need help connecting with mental health professionals before they are asked to continue instruction at home. The message from school districts should be that emotional well-being is the top priority, as research has shown that academic learning can be challenging, if not impossible, before emotional needs are met.

Right now, families need support in navigating children’s emotional needs more than we need age-appropriate math worksheets. We need school districts to recognize and communicate the impact of trauma on children’s ability to learn and process new information. 

We need schools and districts to provide information about emotional learning rather than details about accessing online learning websites and creating daily schedules. And we need to be reassured that when we do go back to normal — whatever that may look like — our schools will be there to support our children again, just as they’ve always been.

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