Homeroom: My Grandkids Are Struggling. I Don’t Know How to Help.

Online learning hasn’t been easy for them.

An illustration of a boy looking at a laptop, with an older woman on the screen holding up a worksheet
Elena Xausa
illustration of a 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,

I’m trying to supervise my 9-year-old grandson through online learning. He has ADHD, is extremely smart, and gets bored with the slow pace set by the teacher, who’s trying valiantly to engage 28 different students.

Often, once he has figured out the answer to a problem, he starts playing online games. Keeping him off those creates endless battles and frustration for both of us.

Meanwhile, our 12-year-old granddaughter, who always excelled in math and science, is now failing, and has been diagnosed with depression.

I’m sure some students have done well with online learning this past year, but that hasn’t been our experience. Is there anything I can do to help turn things around?

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

Your letter speaks to the profound pain and sense of helplessness that a large number of kids, parents, and caregivers—many of whom are grandparents like yourself—are enduring. A year in, even with vaccinations under way, this pandemic seems to be dragging on and on, and is giving rise to mass trauma that has left so many children reeling academically and psychologically. Despite the scale of this trauma, the challenges facing your grandchildren—and the complicated mix of emotions underlying those challenges—are unique, as they are for every child. Taking an inside-out approach that starts with inquiring into how your grandkids feel is the key to developing practical strategies that will help them.

Though every family is different, grandparents can be in an especially good position to facilitate the honest conversations that are the start of this inside-out approach: Many aren’t facing the same professional burdens that parents are, so they have more time to devote to this process; they are not as subject to the patterns of resentment that can occur between parents and their teenage children; and they have the experience of having parented their own kids.

As a family member who understands your grandkids’ lives but isn’t their parent, you can encourage them to talk openly about their feelings. They should have time to vent, and to cry, if that’s what they want to do. We adults can imagine how awful it must be for kids to endure the isolation and sadness of remote schooling in the midst of a pandemic, but giving them a chance to voice those feelings for themselves is crucial. Their spending all day in front of screens makes it that much more important that we check in with them so they can check in with themselves. If your grandchildren’s parents are around, both you and they should do this regularly with the children. More information for everyone will help you know how best to support them.

As you have these conversations, you’ll be able to home in on concrete ways to make the next few months a bit more tolerable. Let’s start with your grandson. The problem at the core of his academic life is unstructured downtime. He’s a good, if distractible, student who has too much time for diversions while his teacher makes sure that his 27 classmates are caught up. Unlike in a classroom, where the teacher could keep a closer eye on him and assign extra work when he’s idle, he’s now left to fill time on his own.

So begin by trying to re-create what would happen in the classroom. Contact his teacher, explain the situation, and ask whether he or she can provide additional work for your grandson. If the teacher is too overwhelmed to supply extension activities, buy an inexpensive workbook a grade level ahead of his. (We love these math, reading comprehension, and writing series.) Or you might ask your grandson to write a response to a news article every day. If he finds that tedious, ask if he’d prefer to write about sports. Or even video games. Anything to keep him productive and engaged.

You may not win the argument to get him off games entirely, but you can propose a deal that uses them as an incentive: As long as he focuses in class, learns the material, doesn’t disrupt others, and completes his additional work, he can play for a predetermined period of time after the school day is over. If your grandchildren’s parents are the primary caregivers, they will likely be making the rules. In this case, enforce their guidelines by presenting them together as a united front: Here’s what we all think is best for you. This joint approach with the parents may help reduce pushback from your grandson.

For your granddaughter, there is no simple solution, but if it’s any solace, you should know that she’s not alone. School closures have prompted an awful mental-health crisis, and letters such as yours are important in spreading awareness. Your granddaughter is undoubtedly feeling isolated, so letting her know how many people are having a comparable experience is a good place to start.

Given that your granddaughter has been diagnosed with depression, it sounds as though you’ve already taken the essential first step of helping her seek professional mental-health services. If possible, she should speak with a therapist on a regular basis. And you can support your granddaughter by giving her space to talk about her feelings so that she has a way to process and work through them. Encourage her to reconnect with friends over the phone or via video apps. Help her make time for sleep and some kind of basic exercise. Make sure that she’s not skipping meals, and provide a healthy option when possible.

You have a lot on your hands—more than many could manage, so don’t forget to follow the same advice you’re giving your grandkids. Try to make sure that you have someone you can talk to, and try to squeeze in exercise, even if it’s just a walk with your granddaughter. If your grandchildren’s parents are in the picture, be sure to let them know when you’re feeling overburdened so you can all work together to lighten your load.

There’s no sugarcoating the challenges that your grandchildren face. But by encouraging them to discuss their feelings and strategize small ways to routinize personal reflection and care, you’ll be teaching them one of the most meaningful lessons that they will ever learn, inside or outside of the classroom.


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