Don’t Stress About Academics

Of all the stresses of the coronavirus epidemic so far, one that has risen to the top for many parents is their children’s learning. With schools closed for the foreseeable future, how will children learn? And how can parents be expected to teach them, often while working themselves and attempting to keep everyone in the family healthy and sane during a months-long shelter in place?
Denise Pope – drawing on her 17 years helping families and schools address academic stress as co-founder of Challenge Success, a nonprofit affiliated with Stanford’s Graduate School of Education – advises families that “at a time like this, less is more.”
“Think about how to help your kids continue to develop skills rather than trying to re-create school content by assigning extra worksheets and flashcards,” Pope writes in a letter to families. “Critical skills for kids of all grade levels include reading, problem solving and communication, as well as social-emotional skills like resilience, collaboration, flexibility and positive coping. Use this time at home to support these skills along with prioritizing students’ well-being and engagement with learning.”
Bay Area Parent spoke to Pope about at-home learning during this challenging time.
Parents are feeling pressure to become homeschool teachers overnight, while many are also working. Now that we know we’re in this for the rest of the school year, it’s easy to feel a little freaked out.
I don’t blame them. We’ve heard everything from people saying, “Forget it. I can’t do both my job – and they don’t want to lose their job – and make sure my kids are following their assignments” … to a story where a woman says, “From 9 to 3, don’t call me, Mom. Call me Teacher. And the dad takes over from 3 to 5 and says, “Don’t call me Dad. Call me Coach.” Ewww.
Kids who have resources, who have internet and schools that are giving out lessons – whether that’s online or on paper – are going to get something more out of this than kids who don’t. The achievement gap we know already exists, because of poverty and other reasons, is going to widen, which is so troubling, and why some districts are saying, “We’re not going to do new learning, only review.”
Since different schools and districts are offering widely varying options ­– from all-day Zoom classes to optional take-home packets to nothing – how should families handle academics in this time?
It’s really going to depend on what’s going on in your home. There are some families who can’t do all their school is asking – if a family member is sick, if both parents are working, if it’s a battle with your kid, if your kid has special needs. Some people are saying, “This is crazy. We’re drowning.” There are also people saying, “This is not enough.” I’d say to both those people: Stay calm. Do what you can do.
What can parents do?
We know certain things are linked to academic achievement. One of them is reading. To any parent who is at loose ends, with free reading, you can’t go wrong – whether it’s having kids read beloved books over again or listening to audio books.
People also don’t realize how much learning happens in play. Playing board games actually has a lot of learning involved. There’s a lot of strategy, some critical thinking, maybe some math. There are social emotional skills in taking turns, getting along, communicating and listening. Making forts in the house, which is probably going to drive some parents crazy, there’s a lot of math and engineering involved. How do you keep that towel from hanging off? Put something heavier on it.
Play is learning, particularly for younger kids.
The other thing people don’t realize is that there’s a lot of learning that goes on during chores – fine-motor and gross-motor skills. Or just running around and getting exercise outdoors or having a dance party. There’s learning that happens all the time.
If you’ve got older kids who can go onto a computer, I’m suggesting letting them explore something that they’ve always wanted to explore. There’s so much online from the museums and zoos and aquariums and NASA. It should be the child who picks it, and it shouldn’t be some heavy-duty assignment. Someone being curious and wanting to research something, that’s huge! If everyone came back to school in the fall with the experience of what it was like to look something up and get excited learning something new, that’s a win.
What else should we be focusing on?
We (at Challenge Success) have PDF as our signature: play time, downtime and family time. PDF are protective factors. They protect kids in the long run, and now more than ever. You need to feel that you are part of a family that has your back, that they’re keeping you safe and that they love you unconditionally.
People seem worried about academics, but what most of us are worried about is trauma. The most important thing you can do as a family is be together, calm their fears and let them know you are protecting them.
What about worries that kids are going to fall behind academically?
I think it depends on the age of the kid. If it’s their second semester junior year chemistry class, they’re probably going to want to take some sort of online review or consider summer school if they’re really worried about it. But for most people, the third-grade teacher is going to know the second graders missed a third of second grade. Everyone is going to adjust.
For high schoolers, I’ve heard so many different reactions, and even a bit of relief. “OK, the SAT and ACT have been postponed and AP tests are going to be shorter and open book.” … There are also many schools that are grading this next time period as pass/fail.
The reality is that the colleges are going to figure out what to do. Many are already posting on their websites: “Don’t worry.” There’s going to be a big fat asterisk on every transcript. … The colleges aren’t going to say, “What happened in Spring 2020?” It’s happening to everyone. (The UC system has announced it is temporarily suspending minimum GPA and testing requirements for next year’s applicants.)
Schools are asking Challenge Success what our policy is in terms of grading. We are contemplating a policy that is pass/incomplete because the experience of kids is going to be so varied. Some kids might be able to get work done and focus, and others may not for a variety of reasons, including that they may get sick themselves.
What if you have two parents who are healthcare workers? Or maybe both parents lost their jobs. Instead of fail, everyone does the work and passes, or if it’s incomplete, they’ll make it up at a later time, whether it’s summer or when people have recovered from the health issue.
People say, “Then they won’t be motivated to do the work.”  But grades shouldn’t be the motivation. That’s why I want them to experience what it’s like to learn without a grade hanging over your head. Bring back the excitement of learning something you’re interested in.
It will all work out. All of these organizations that have power – college admissions or the NCAA or scholarships – they’re all going to be figuring out what’s in the best interest of the kids.
What’s the most important takeaway for families? 
Everyone is trying to do the best they can. Everyone living in the same house getting along, that’s the most important thing – the relationship piece. How do you treat others when you’re stressed? How does the family come together? What are the coping strategies you’re modeling? (And when you fail), forgive yourself for that, too, and apologize and model that as well.
Mental health should be the top concern, over academics. Health and well-being come first.

Janine DeFao is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.


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