Parents Feel the Strain as Pandemic Adds New Role: Teacher
New York City mom and author Lyss Stern spends most of her weekdays trying to help her three children learn remotely, and things are not going smoothly for any of them.
"There are a lot of moving parts, and I feel like I am constantly being an octopus," she said. "Are they learning enough? Are they challenged? Are missed assignments piling up? Are they looking at TikTok on their phone under their desk when they should be learning?"
Stern has become more anxious and stressed out than ever before, and she is far from alone. Many parents were forced to become "proxy educators" for their children without adequate training as schools transitioned to distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a new study, researchers analyzed data from over 3,300 U.S. households in March and April to see how distance learning was affecting parents' mental health. The investigators found that just over 50% of all parents had at least one child struggling with distance learning, and were more stressed as a result.
What's more, parents with at least one student struggling were more likely to feel anxious, depressed, have trouble sleeping and/or lose interest or pleasure in activities that they once enjoyed, compared with parents who did not have a child who was struggling with distance learning. This was true regardless of income, number of children struggling or the number of days since schools stopped in-person learning, the findings showed.
"Children whose proxy educator [parent] is experiencing distress are more likely to experience distress themselves, which may create difficulties in adjusting to distance learning or exacerbate preexisting learning difficulties," said study author Joaquin Alfredo-Angel Rubalcaba. He's an assistant professor in the department of public policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
It remains unclear when children can safely return to school full time, but there are things parents and teachers can do now to help families better adjust to distance learning, the study authors said.
For starters, schools can build relationships with parents through ongoing check-ins to discuss how children are coping with distance learning and whether supplemental learning resources are needed, Rubalcaba noted. "Educators [should] be in regular communication with parents, be empathetic to the challenges each family is facing, and build trust with parents as authentic partners," he said.
Many teachers offer virtual office hours so parents and students can check in and troubleshoot any issues before they become bigger problems, said Shyrelle Eubanks, a senior policy analyst at the National Education Association in Washington, D.C.
"If your child is struggling, you should be taking advantage of office hours and attending with your student if you can, or scheduling a virtual one-on-one with the teacher to discuss your child's struggles and how to help them," Eubanks said.
Your school district may also have other resources available, including those that are aimed at improving parents' or kids' mental health, she added.
Parker Huston, a pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Ohio, agreed that parents need more support.
"Teaching is a full-time job, and not one that can be squeezed in while working and tending to a household. If parents are now standing in for a teacher as a proxy educator, they need to know more than how to log on for virtual learning," Huston said.
Children who were struggling before the pandemic will likely struggle even more unless there is a parent at home who can dedicate all day to schooling, he added.
Check in with your school guidance counselor to see what types of resources are available, he suggested. "Kids who don't have much support at home because their parents are working may be eligible for a more high-touch teaching or a tutoring system that the school might have," Huston said.
Eubanks pointed out that establishing and maintaining regular and consistent routines during these trying times will also help parents cope and children succeed.
"You can't get loosey-goosey with routine," she said. "Children should not be showing up to online school in their pajamas and should have regular bedtime and mealtime routines, and designated spaces for learning -- especially young children."
Kids also need to get outside and engage in physical activity every day, Eubanks said. "Children should be encouraged to maintain any connections with friends, religious institutions or other extracurricular activities, as long as it is done virtually if social distance isn't possible," she advised.
Importantly, if parents don't take care of themselves, they won't be able to be there for their kids in a meaningful way, Eubanks said.
For Stern, such self-care involves baths and long walks to clear her head. She also recently started hosting retreats for mothers so they can get off the grid for a weekend and recharge with other moms.
Sometimes professional help is needed, Huston added. "If you or your child is having trouble sleeping, concentrating and showing other signs of severe stress, anxiety or depression, it may be time to speak with a mental health professional," he said.
The report was published online Dec. 15 in the journal Educational Researcher.
The National Education Association offers resources for families and teachers to help keep kids engaged during distance learning.
SOURCES: Joaquin Alfredo-Angel Rubalcaba, PhD, assistant professor, department of public policy, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Shyrelle Eubanks, EdD, senior policy analyst, National Education Association, Washington, D.C.; Parker Huston, PhD, pediatric psychologist, Nationwide Children's Hospital, Columbus, Ohio; Lyss Stern, mom and author, New York City; Educational Researcher, Dec. 15, 2020, online