Homeroom: My Child Is Near Tears Every Day—And So Am I

Our son needs structure, but he also needs to unwind. What should we prioritize?

A crying child and two parents are submerged in a sea of tears. A book and report card float in the water behind them.
Elena Xausa
Squiggly pencil

Editor’s Note: Every Tuesday, Abby Freireich and Brian Platzer take questions from readers about their kids’ education. Have one? Email them at homeroom@theatlantic.com.

Dear Abby and Brian,

Everything feels untenable. I am so frustrated for my son, whom I’ll refer to as “Caleb,” who is in first grade. I’m frustrated for his teachers too, and for me and my wife. Caleb is on the verge of tears by the time online school ends at 2:30, and, to be honest, so am I. His schedule is different every day, and he can’t read well enough to follow all the directions, so even though I am working and ignoring him most of the time, he interrupts me just often enough to make me seem unprofessional. After his day is done, we let him watch TV until my wife or I can stop working, which is around 5 o’clock most days. This means that one of us has about an hour with Caleb before bath, dinner, and bedtime.

So here is my question: My wife thinks it is okay for us to spend that hour with Caleb essentially doing nothing, while I think we should use that time to at least try to cover some of the academics that Caleb is missing this year. Should we do what my wife says is better for Caleb (cuddling, playing with Legos), or should we make sure to read with him and introduce math concepts? Obviously, hanging out and relaxing is easier, but I don’t want Caleb to struggle in the future because of the disaster that is this year.

Long Island City, New York

Dear Anonymous,

You and your wife both have a point. Remote schooling is, for many kids, not providing anything close to the sort of education possible in a classroom. Instead of teachers, parents or other caretakers—many of whom, like you, have full-time jobs—are monitoring students. As a result, many students aren’t receiving the typical level of support—both in terms of academics, as you’ve focused on, and emotions, as your wife has.

The academic shortcomings are somewhat easier to describe. Every available e-learning interface has problems. Students need to learn to mute and unmute themselves; time lags and bad internet connections plague participants; teachers try to screen-share and fail. And those are just the technical issues. Even when the technology works perfectly, remote learning is no substitute for in-person learning, especially for children with special needs. Children in remote school are surely not learning as much this year as they would have in a non-COVID world, full stop.

The lack of joy in our students’ lives is equally apparent. So many students are missing out on the parts of school that they loved most: running around, playing games with friends, and just being silly.

Kids need both. They thrive on structure and benefit from enrichment, but they also need a chance to unwind and spend time with other people—real people, not on a computer screen. We suggest divvying up your free time between the two, guided by Caleb’s level of fatigue and his excitement about learning-based activities. But don’t wait to consider that question until 5 p.m., when you and he are both exhausted. Rather, let’s look at your whole day, and try to strategize about where you can intervene so that Caleb arrives at the end of the day in better shape.

First let’s look at the roles you and your wife are playing in this dynamic. To help Caleb feel most comfortable and supported, you will need to make sure you’re both taking on a bit of the schoolwork and a bit of the fun. You don’t want to assume polarized roles where Caleb vilifies you as the parent who will make him work, and your wife as the nice parent whom he can just take it easy with. Kids are preternaturally disposed to know whom to ask for what, and polarized roles can lead to “answer shopping,” where Caleb perceives one parent as the person to ask for a break and the other as the person to ask for help. Consistency between you and your wife will allow you to be a united front, so Caleb will know to expect the same responses from both of his parents.

To make these difficult days less difficult, start by setting reasonable goals based on the age of the child. You say that Caleb is on the verge of tears by the end of the day and that he regularly interrupts you during your meetings. Both of these problems might be solved by taking a few minutes during breakfast each morning to create a daily plan. Review the day’s schedule with Caleb (both what’s on his schedule and what’s on yours), preparing tabs on the computer, printing out any materials he’s going to need, and setting out snacks and a water bottle where he can get them without your help. All of these changes will help mitigate your stress level and Caleb’s potential frustration.

From there, do your best to establish a more supportive routine. If you have 15 minutes to spare around lunchtime when Caleb is eating, ask him to describe the highlights and tricky parts of his day. Maybe you can spend a couple of minutes on a challenging concept. This way if there’s something he doesn’t understand in class, he doesn’t need to panic alone or come running to you immediately. Instead he’ll know that around snack time or lunch time, or exactly at 11 o’clock when you or your wife has a break, he’ll be able to ask questions and check in.

By the end of the day, you may find him in a better place, more ready to take on a constructive activity of some sort. If that’s the case, we recommend trying to make learning feel more like a game, and less like school. Read a book aloud together, in a cozy spot that feels less like another school lesson and more like snuggle time. Perhaps do a shared reading of an Elephant and Piggie book, which have two characters in dialogue, so each of you can have a part. Ask him to play detective and try to guess how Elephant and Piggy feel based on the pictures. He can write down unfamiliar words on index cards and decorate them to put up on a word wall for practice.

On the days when you and Caleb have the energy to do a math lesson—say, using objects to create groupings of ones and 10s—go for it, but a casual approach to math enrichment can also be beneficial. The National Council for Teaching Mathematics, which offers a free trial membership, is an invaluable resource for lesson ideas for children of all ages, and the National Association for the Education of Young Children has excellent recommendations for games and math activities for younger children. You might, for example, take out a box of dominoes to work on adding up the dots. Or perhaps you can work on pattern recognition by playing with Legos and asking Caleb to continue a pattern you’ve started or to create one of his own. These types of activities don’t take much preparation and can be based on a simple concept, and they’re fun.

And if he needs to forgo any of this for a game of hide-and-seek, that’s okay too. Once we begin to emerge from life under quarantine, education standards will (hopefully) be revised and expectations adjusted. Of course you don’t want him to struggle in the future. But what matters most right now is tuning in to his needs, which, like all of ours, will change from one day to the next. And go easy on yourself: Any day with a snuggle and a book is a good one.

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