Since we started virtual learning, I noticed some changes in my daughter’s behavior . . . some very challenging changes. She may have started the day pleasant and cheerful, but by her first virtual learning break of the day, she was short-tempered and prone to unexpected outbursts and overreactions. Her younger brother, as her constant and ever-ready playmate, often bore the brunt of these sudden mood changes. We felt like we were walking on eggshells, doing our best to keep the peace and not provoke any strong reactions.
The first day, I chalked it up to a random bad mood. We all get them, right? But by the second and third day in a row of increasingly challenging behaviors and moods, I realized that my daughter was frustrated, and she was letting that frustration show with us because she felt safe with us.
Why was she frustrated? Well, she’s 6, and learning virtually at 6 is really hard. Because it’s my favorite motivation theory, once again, I’ll draw from Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory to describe why virtual school is hard, particularly for young children with limited general knowledge, reading ability, and tech savvy. As a recap, according to Self-Determination Theory, all people have 3 innate psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. These needs must be met for healthy development, motivation, and well-being.
1) Autonomy – feeling in control of your own life and behavior
2) Competence – feeling capable of accomplishing what’s important to you
3) Relatedness – feeling a warm connection with others
So how does virtual learning make it more challenging to meet these 3 basic needs. First autonomy: Virtual work often means less flexibility and less choice for students in how they complete their assignments. Families may not have access to a printer or all the art supplies students used in school so assignments must be created in a way that is accessible to everyone. Assignments must also be submitted online. In some cases, schools may allow photographs of students’ work, but often the work is completed and submitted within an online interface that has zero flexibility. Next competence: Because the teacher cannot walk around the room checking on students’ progress, it’s easier to miss that a student is struggling and needs extra help. and it’s harder to offer quiet words of encouragement or a helpful redirection. The added complications of learning the required technology only increase the frustration and confusion students (and parents and teachers) may feel. And, perhaps in my daughter’s case the most important factor, relatedness: It’s hard to focus for hours on a screen. It’s isolating to see your teachers and classmates but not be able to truly connect with them. The students have to keep their microphones muted to prevent the cacophony of life in everyone’s households from drowning out the teacher, but keeping the students muted means they have little to no chance of developing a camaraderie with each other. All those little ways that we communicate with our friends, a whisper, a gentle nudge, a knowing glance, a giggle, a smirk, are not possible virtually.
I realized that my daughter was putting in a lot of effort attending school virtually, and what she needed from me was a safe haven to simply just be and connect. How did I help her with this?
First, we upped our hugs. We’re an affectionate family, and both of my kids love snuggling. My daughter is getting a bit too big to fit comfortably on my lap, but we made it work. She began giving herself periodic 1-minute Zoom breaks to come get a hug and sit on my lap briefly – to just feel warmth and connection. I also made it a point to be more affectionate and playful with her throughout the day and evening.
Second, during her school breaks I recommended activities that I knew would help her feel fulfilled and energized. My impulse is to send my kids outside for some physical play to let off steam, but my daughter isn’t very outdoorsy and she’s not big into physical play. Her preferred activities are singing, telling and reading stories, and playing games. I laid off the suggestions to go outside and instead encouraged her do those activities that I knew would bring her joy.
Third and very importantly, I made a point to join her on her breaks. She was feeling really alone during her virtual class meetings, so I made a point to take a break from my own activities when she was on a break. We read books together, she told me stories, we played games, and we put puzzles together. I included her little brother, but I made sure she was my primary focus during her breaks.
And finally, I started giving her a lot more grace when she acted out. Emotion regulation (the ability to control your emotional states rather than acting out) is a developmental skill that younger children are just beginning to learn. Even adults struggle with emotion regulation at times. No, she shouldn’t yell at her brother or me or say hurtful words, but she’s 6 and she’s dealing with a really difficult situation. It’s easier to show patience and extend grace when you see what’s behind the behavior. By responding with gentleness, she was able to calm down sooner. By offering a hug or an empathetic response, she felt connected and loved even though her behavior wasn’t ideal. This doesn’t mean that I gave her carte blanche to act however she chose, but rather, I did my best to prevent such behavior by offering her positive outlets for her energy. If those didn’t work, I reminded her that it was okay to feel frustrated, mad, or however she was feeling, but it was not okay to treat others badly, followed up with suggestions on how she could let those feelings out (for example, stomping or yelling in her room, punching a pillow, deep breathing, hugging, crying, talking to someone, etc.). Mostly, I just tried to be there emotionally for her, avoid judgment and lectures, and reserve a follow-up conversation for later when she had the mental energy for such a talk. Sometimes I had to explain to her outraged brother, that no, it wasn’t fair or right that his sister yelled at him or hit him and I will talk to her more about it later, but she’s feeling really frustrated right now so let’s be kind and help her. She knows she shouldn’t yell or hurt people’s feelings or bodies, and, given the time and space to let her frustrations out, she will usually reflect on her behavior and apologize independently. School is hard enough for her right now, so I’m just trying to focus on her needs and ease her load when I can.
I make it sound so pretty and neat above, but let me tell you, this has been a messy, emotional process for all of us. I think I spent about a week constantly uttering “Serenity now!” between tightly clenched teeth ala Frank Costanza and futilely popping Ibuprofen for my vise-grip stress headache. I have been beyond frustrated. I have vented a lot to my husband. I may have given myself a sudden and drastic haircut (FYI – I do NOT recommend that as a coping strategy). I have lost my cool more than once unfortunately, but I’m trying and I’m learning and I’m doing better every day. This is tough. We’ve never done anything like this before. We are ALL going to make mistakes, some small and some big. Just as we need to give our kids grace, we need to give ourselves grace too.
Thanks for reading!
(And seriously, think twice about cutting your own hair.)