Remote learning has children tethered to their screens. And while necessary to stop the spread of coronavirus, all this screen time can cause an unfortunate side effect in kids: remote learning burnout.
Nancy (whose last name was withheld to protect her privacy) knows this phenomenon well. Last spring, when her daughter’s school went remote, her and her husband thought their daughter had adjusted well. During the school days, she would shut her door and not allow her parents in. They respected their elementary-school-aged daughter’s independence, assuming she was attending classes and getting her work done.
In early June, though, she bounded down the stairs with a pair of scissors and her computer cord. She had cut the cord because she didn’t want to learn remotely anymore. Since then, she’s refused to be online except to play video games or watch movies and TV shows. Every time Nancy and her husband try to coax their daughter to the computer, she throws a tantrum.
“She won’t do Zoom playdates with other kids anymore. We set her up for a virtual camp. She won’t do that,” says Nancy.
Her daughter’s teachers also revealed that she would often leave online classes to play with her toys. This kind of behavior can be a tell-tale sign of remote learning burnout. When Nancy and her husband told her they were considering remote school again in the fall, her daughter burst into tears and said, “I can’t. I don’t want to ever do online learning again.”
Broadly, burnout is defined as a lack of motivation or energy due to stress or exhaustion. It can be characterized by low morale, anger, irritability, anxiety, lack of focus, and trouble problem solving, says Dr. Pam Hurst-Della Pietra, founder and president of Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, which researches technology’s impact on children and provides resources for parents.
For Dr. David Anderson, who treats children and adolescents with and other behavioral disorders at the Child Mind Institute, it’s not surprising that children experience burnout from remote learning. The nonprofit provides clinical care for children, teens, and young adults struggling with mental health conditions and learning disorders.
“It [online school] has nowhere near the depth of stimuli that you get from traveling to school, being around friends, being in a classroom,” says Anderson. “We expect over time that some kids are going to stay engaged and some kids are going to get very bored with the same presentation day after day.”
While he says any child can be susceptible to burnout from remote learning, he knows that children with mental health conditions or learning disabilities may face additional challenges. For example, Nancy’s daughter, a former client of the Child Mind Institute, has anxiety and obsessive compulsive tendencies. Nancy says she wasn’t offered any extra support from her school during remote learning, and teachers were patient and understanding but “seemed to be just barely surviving themselves.”
“Schools are set up to provide in-person support for a lot of kids with learning challenges,” says Anderson. “But for a kid who’s really distractible, who can’t seem to sit still or stay in their seat… the digital format isn’t adapted to provide this support.”
Remote learning is also tough on parents, says Anderson. Many parents have told him that they now need to engage and support their kids if they need extra help, not teachers.
To that end, Anderson acknowledges that it’s OK if parents slip up during this difficult time. He urges them to practice self-care to cope with the challenges of remote learning, if they have the time and energy.
Hurst-Della Pietra suggests similarly that parents avoid blaming themselves, their child, or their child’s school if their kid is struggling with online school. “Try to remain positive and adapt as you can, understanding that this is not a perfect system, but it is designed to keep everyone safe,” she explains.
Fortunately, there are ways to overcome remote learning burnout or mitigate its repercussions. Mashable spoke with experts to get tips to alleviate its effect on your kid.
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Understand your kid’s needs and experiment with solutions
Many parents are already taxed from a spring of online learning. But try to demonstrate a positive attitude, even when it’s difficult. Kids take their cues from you, says Hurst-Della Pietra. If you act like online school is horrible, they’ll pick up on that.
First, Hurst-Della Pietra recommends reminding your kid why an education’s important. You can ask them what they want to be when they grow up, and if they think that’s possible without an education. If applicable, you can also tell them a story about a time you were grateful for your own education.
To help them focus on the positive aspects of remote school, ask them what they learned and found interesting after each school day (if you have the time and energy). You should also remind your kid that the situation is temporary and they don’t need to be perfect at online school.
You can optimize their workspace in the following ways to help them focus and get them excited about learning, says Anderson.
Decorate their work space to make it more engaging. This doesn’t have to cost extra money. For example, you can place your kid’s favorite photos, artwork, or Post-it notes with encouraging messages on their desk. Just make sure the additions aren’t distracting.
To that end, remove distractions like toys from the child’s room.
Put school supplies your kid likes in their learning area to get them excited about school.
Observe what helps your child pay attention. If you have multiple kids, try putting them in the same room so they feel more focused and less alone. If that further distracts your kid, though, separate them if you have the space.
If you’ve tried to make the situation better for your kid yet they still complain about remote learning, don’t force them to like it, says Anderson. They might think you’re ignoring how they feel. Instead, recognize their feelings to help them validate their stress. You can say something like “I see how hard this is on you. Let’s think of solutions to make it easier.”
You can also ask open-ended questions like “What will make this experience better?” to show you’re willing to work collaboratively. Know that you might be met with a blank stare or a surly attitude, depending on your child’s age or disposition, says Anderson. While you can’t necessarily prevent this, it’s still good to ask for their input to show you care what they think.
If your kid completely refuses to log onto school, try to figure out why. Does it happen before a specific subject or because they don’t like a particular teacher?
“Does your child fight about logging in every day for every class? Or is it situation specific?” says Hurst-Della Pietra. “Getting at the root of the problem is important.” In doing so, you’ll be able to implement more effective solutions to make remote learning less painful.
Ultimately, remember that your relationship with your child is also important, says Hurst-Della Pietra. While you want your child to learn, you don’t want them to blame you for having to log on, thus damaging your relationship. You also want to protect your own mental health. If you’re having constant fights over logging on, try seeking outside help by talking to your kid’s teacher about ways to make the experience more bearable (more on that later).
Practice with the technology beforehand
Some of the exhaustion your child might experience could be caused by the online learning platforms themselves, says Anderson. Some kids might feel frustrated if they can’t navigate a platform with ease. Or maybe they’re using multiple pieces of technology throughout the day.
To help, Anderson suggests that your child practice logging onto the platforms before school starts and clicking around, so they can get comfortable with it.
If your kid runs into issues, remind them that they can ask their teacher for help. Or, if their school has an IT staff, either of you could email them with questions.
Anderson acknowledges that learning platforms can be daunting but encourages kids to familiarize themselves with each one as much as possible before asking if changes can be made.
Develop a routine
Kids really benefit from predictability, says Hurst-Della Pietra.
If kids know to expect a certain rhythm to the day, they’ll likely feel less overwhelmed, she says. This can also help your kid avoid waking up early or staying up late to finish assignments.
To that end, sleep and consistent meal times are important, says Hurst-Della Pietra. Without quality sleep, it’ll be even harder for your child to learn, especially if they’re feeling burned out. And if they know to expect meals at certain times throughout the school day they can anticipate when they’ll have to stop working to eat. Plus, like a good night’s sleep, food provides energy to power through the day, says Hurst-Della Pietra.
Breaks are important, too. For example, you can schedule one hour of remote learning, and then have your kid take a break, then block in 30 minutes or an hour of wellness, like yoga or a walk, says Hurst-Della Pietra.
A lack of socialization might also contribute to your kid’s burnout, says Anderson. To guard against this, schedule socially-distanced playdates or Zoom hang outs before or after school.
If you don’t have time or energy to monitor your kid’s schedule while you work from home, or you don’t work from home in the first place, you can call them on the phone to keep them on schedule or have family members and friends help with check-ins.
Consider learning pods
If online schooling is just not working for your kid, explore whether you can start or join a learning pod suggests Hurst-Della Pietra. A small group of children meet in person to learn together, supplementing or replacing remote learning. Parents often hire tutors, teachers, or take on teaching duties themselves.
Hurst-Della Pietra says they can help alleviate isolation in students, thereby reducing burnout from online learning, and school in general.
If you do consider the pod route, do know they’re not a perfect solution. Pods can worsen racial inequity among students, which was already a problem before the pandemic. Read up on ways privileged parents can tackle the issue here.
Unfortunately, pods aren’t an option for everyone given their cost and time commitment. If quitting online learning, isn’t feasible for your child or you, chat with your kid’s teacher about alternatives.
SEE ALSO: 7 coping skills to deal with anger you might be feeling right now
Talk with your kid’s teacher
If you’ve noticed your child is depressed, anxious, or otherwise exhibiting emotional distress, it’s time for a talk with their teacher, says Hurst-Della Pietra.
“We think schools are more empathic than ever to how difficult this [distance learning] is,” says Anderson. “People didn’t choose this… So we’ve seen more openness in terms of school and home collaborations than ever.”
However, Anderson cautions against dictating to teachers what should happen. This might cause defensiveness on their part.
“If parents try to tell teachers how to do their jobs or teachers try to tell parents how to do their jobs, you often get less of a diplomatic engagement,” says Anderson.
Instead, you can say something like “How can we reduce the struggles my child is experiencing? You can also tell them what you’ve observed about your child when it comes to online learning, so they know what works for your kid and what doesn’t.
Here are some potential solutions to work on with your teachers that Hurst-Della Pietra recommends:
Suggest your child start and end the day with their favorite class or classroom activity (if they have one and that’s possible).
Ask teachers to include activities that could make online learning more engaging (like games where your child interacts with other kids rather than just a teacher).
Explore the possibility of a flipped classroom, which includes small-group discussions and activities rather than lectures.
Ask if the teacher has space in their schedule for 1:1 time with your child, if they don’t already do this.
Request that classes be recorded so your kid can access the material at any time, but know that recordings may not be possible because of privacy concerns. Hurst-Della Pietra thinks some kids may suffer from information overload, which could lead to burnout from remote learning. Recorded classes could take off the pressure to jot down everything during a class.
Hurst-Della Pietra also suggests connecting with fellow parents to learn if they’ve faced these challenges and what they’ve done. It might help to meet with the teacher or school administrators as a unified parent group.
“Parents are trying to do so much right now,” says Hurst-Della Pietra. “Things aren’t perfect right now. They [parents] have to give themselves a break.”