Expert Speaker Series: Coping With Distance Learning
Dr. Arthur Brand, Psychologist
 
A child wearing a mask distance learning at the computer with her mother in the background

Tips for parents and students grappling with distance learning

Key takeaways for parents:

●        Examine your issues with anxiety and depression
●        Listen to your children and empower them to make choices
●        Provide structure
●        Set up a designated area for learning at home
●        Teach your children executive function skills
●        Provide some social interaction with others to decrease a sense of isolation
●        Maintain a healthy lifestyle

Distance learning has become a reality for many students in the wake of COVID-19. Coping with virtual classroom challenges has been difficult for some students and their parents – from confronting technical issues to limited contact with teachers and help with lessons. These challenges can be even more apparent for students with learning differences, such as ADHD or dyslexia. In addition, many students have also been struggling with emotional and mental health issues such as anxiety, frustration, and depression caused by the pandemic.

In an Expert Speaker Series hosted by the American Academy, Dr. Arthur Brand, a licensed psychologist specializing in psychoeducational and neuropsychological evaluations, discusses distance learning. Dr. Brand has a private practice in Boca Raton where he works with children, adolescents, and adults, helping them manage anxiety, depression, and frustration.

Dr. Brand talks about the impact of virtual learning on children, how these challenges affect students with learning differences, and solutions to help combat the problem.

 

Question: What are examples of how children with learning differences are affected by virtual learning? 

Dr. Brand: Many children struggle to stay on task under the best of circumstances. Virtual learning can make it that much more difficult to focus on lessons. A child with ADHD faces even more of an uphill battle when it comes to focus. Staring at a screen all day and trying to absorb information virtually can be extremely difficult.

Other students face challenges with a variety of learning, reading, or math disabilities. These students might not understand lessons, but because of the virtual structure, they don’t have a way to get the help they need.

 

Question: What has been the psychological impact of the current environment?

Dr. Brand: There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the virus, along with big changes. Children and teens are facing depression and even grief over the loss of many things in their lives. This anger and frustration, as well as a sense of isolation, can be overwhelming.

 

Question: Do you have a toolbox of strategies that parents can use?

Dr. Brand: First, parents need to focus on themselves and how they talk to their children. It’s important to listen and to try and speak your child’s language. Use words they can understand, even incorporating their vernacular so you acknowledge their perspective.

Ask open-ended questions, which will force them to go beyond “yes” and “no” answers. It’s important to validate their feelings, ask for their feedback, and not judge them. The goal is to empower children and give them respect. You can even give them a say in shaping the rules in the household. They’ll end up teaching you something.

Give your children choices. For instance, they might choose to complete math assignments first. This will give them a sense of control.

I also advise parents to control their own anxiety and frustration. An anxious and frustrated parent creates anxious and frustrated children and vice versa. Those feelings are contagious.

You also want to set aside some “me time” so you don’t get burned out. Tag team with your partner if you can.

 

Question: How can parents provide structure for their children? 

Dr. Brand: I think it’s important to focus on teaching executive skills, like organizing, planning, prioritizing, and time management. It’s helpful to break things down into smaller, doable units so they don’t get overwhelmed.

Create a dedicated workspace for “school.” I advise parents to avoid setting up in a bedroom. It should be a separate space or room that is not associated with playing or sleeping.

You also want to follow a routine to keep things as normal as possible. The repetitive part of a routine is important.

It’s also important to teach them how to communicate with teachers, either during virtual sessions or by helping them write emails.

 

Question: What can parents do to reduce the sense of isolation?

Dr. Brand: You can try doing virtual learning sessions with other students. You might also try to get together with one or two friends if you take proper safety precautions, like wearing masks and social distancing. If you don’t want to be inside, you can meet outside in a park, on the patio, the driveway, or the backyard. Do drive-by check-ins with family and friends.

There are other things you can do if you practice social distancing, like walking your dog with a friend, doing community service, going to the store for a neighbor, or donating to a food drive. Connect your children to places that broaden their understanding of the world.

 

Question: Is there a way to focus on positive things during this time?

Dr. Brand: Sure, one of my colleagues calls them “pandemic positives.” For instance, staying home meant you finally had time to clean out the garage, read that book, or binge-watch that show on your list. Maybe you learned something new, such as how to bake or plant a garden.

You can have your children set short-term and long-term personal goals to give them something to work toward. This will give them a sense of purpose.

Teach your children to be thankful for what they do have – if they’re fortunate enough to be healthy, if you have loved ones or friends close by. Maybe you’ve grown closer to your family during this time. It’s important not to take anything for granted, especially now.

Another thing you can do is focus on physical health. Create an exercise routine with your family, eat healthier, and develop better sleeping habits. You can also encourage creative development and self-expression by drawing, playing music, writing poetry or stories, painting, or whatever your children enjoy.

 

Question: How do parents improve a child’s state of mind and readiness for learning?

Dr. Brand: Well, right now many of us are in a state of “fight or flight.” We’re stressed, anxious, or depressed emotionally and so our bodies react to that physically. This can make you agitated and even raise your heart rate.

The easiest (and cheapest) way to combat anxiety is with deep breathing exercises. If you breathe like someone who is relaxed it sends a signal to the rest of your body that there is no danger. Have your child do this and he or she will be more ready to learn.

 

Question: How do you recommend parents address their own anxiety?

Dr. Brand: Actually, exposure is one of the key factors in overcoming anxiety. If you confront the thing that makes you anxious, fearful, or overwhelmed, you learn how to overcome it so that it doesn’t affect you in the same way. It’s sort of like when you jump into cold water. At first, you want to get out, but if you stay in, eventually the water doesn’t feel so cold anymore, even though the temperature hasn’t changed. You’re not trying to eliminate anxiety or depression but reduce it to background noise that you can almost ignore.

Anxiety is about the anticipation of doing and worrying about what can go wrong. Once you start to do that activity, your anxiety decreases.

 

Question: What can people do to change the way they think when dealing with anxiety and depression? 

Dr. Brand: One thing you need to do is identify your triggers. What sets you off? What makes you anxious or frustrated? What makes you depressed? Once you know your triggers, you will be more prepared to deal with anxiety. That doesn’t mean you can avoid triggers, but you can learn better expectation management. You can start to change your internal language and thinking. It’s important to separate anxious thoughts from outcomes. Anxiety is a scary thought, but it’s still just a thought. It has no cause and effect.

We often get caught up in thinking something bad might happen. Well, don’t stop there. What if (fill in the blank) happens? What will you do? Come up with a plan to deal with it. This can make the situation seem less frightening.

A lot of anxiety and depression is based on irrational thought processes…a catastrophic way of thinking. Confronting that thinking, replace it with more rational thinking, and it often leads to a more positive outcome.

Finally, use humor. You have to be able to laugh at yourself and a given situation. This can help you get out of irrational thinking, too.

 

Listen to the full recording

We thank Dr. Arthur Brand for sharing his expertise and tips for parents. Be sure to listen to the complete recording.

 

Helping children with virtual learning and emotional issues

If your child has been diagnosed with dyslexia, ADHD, or another mild learning difference, we can help. The American Academy program at American Heritage Schools is a specialized program designed to teach students with learning differences.

If your child needs assistance or you have concerns, speak to a teacher or counselor. Contact American Academy or call 561-495-7272 (Palm Beach Campus) or 954-472-0022 (Broward Campus) to discuss your child’s specific needs.