Written By: Tan Su-Lynn, Educational Psychologist
In the midst of this current COVID-19 crisis, there is so much uncertainty for parents and children, which translates to overwhelming stress about family members’ health and safety, as well as an upheaval of school and work routines.
With no external help from grandparents, or the essential childcare centres to mind the kids of dual- income parents, no part-time helper to clean the house, and with the panic that ensues with each announcement from the government about the tightening of circuit breaker measures, it can feel like the end of the world. Foreboding desire to tear your hair out and scream in exasperation. And to top it off, parents now find themselves playing the role of “teacher” in supporting and facilitating their child’s Home Based Learning endeavours.
Yes, I hear you.
Singapore has just heard from its Prime Minister, who has decreed that current circuit-breaker measures will extend beyond the initial 4th May deadline, which is now 1st June, which adds the novelty (if you are so inclined to be a paragon of good cheer) of an additional month of government sanctioned acronyms that must be helping ministers and bureaucrats find their feet too!
Families in Singapore and the rest of the world are experiencing increased stress and anxiety right now. So, amidst this chaos, here are some tips for you to help your child cope with HBL, which will hopefully help in restoring some order in this otherwise chaotic household atmosphere..
As we all practice social distancing, it also provides an opportunity to slow down and pause, and to find our own footing in learning new ways to live. Children continue to grow and develop as they encounter new life experiences, including coping with this inescapable global pandemic, so it is important to continue fostering positive relationships and strengthening emotional connections with our children.
- Work out a daily routine with reward system
Research suggests that children benefit from schedules and engaging in productive activities, so plan activities that will create structure and fun memories. Set aside specific times for doing online lessons, doing homework, and reading or visiting virtual museums. To keep your child engaged and motivated, consider breaking up the day into smaller manageable blocks, taking care to cater to the short attention spans of your kids.
Visuals are especially great for reminding younger children what to do and how to do it, and these visuals can be simply hand-drawn and paired with keywords and then stuck on the wall. For some children who have completed their online lessons and are getting restless and fidgety, you may want to give them a to-do list of activities that they can complete independently, empowering them.
Guiding your child in setting goals and scheduling tasks are part of valuable life skills of time management and task organisation. Once their tasks are completed satisfactorily, they can be rewarded. Hence, if you would like your child to be more independent, polite, helpful, then rewarding them for their good behaviour in which these traits are displayed will be a good starting place for you.
For example, you can explore the effectiveness of “if/then” statements such as, “if you finish this piece of homework, then you can play 15 minutes of computer games with your brother”, or the use of a token system like “each time you can stay seated for 15 minutes, you get a token, and after you get 5 tokens, you can exchange them for something of your choice”. Tokens are reinforcers that the child earns which are exchanged for a larger reward based on their achievements. This system also helps in gaining instructional control, as well as acquiring self-monitoring skills and delayed gratification. Just as with any behavioural reinforcement strategies, the token system can be adjusted over time as your child’s skills develop and can be utilised less frequently. It is up to your parenting style and the temperament of your children to devise token systems that keep them engaged.
- Recognise and praise efforts
Change is difficult for everyone, including for your child. If they are able to conduct themselves in an appreciable manner in certain scenarios in which they were previously unable to, this in itself is an accomplishment worth celebrating! Remember to give credit for their displays of maturity – praise them, show affection, or give a little treat. Children and adolescents learn very quickly by receiving direct feedback from adults. By reinforcing appropriate and desirable behaviour, the more likely your children will repeat this behaviour and overtime will coalesce into a good habit.
While it is part of being a parent to have to say “NO” to some of your children’s inappropriate requests or behaviours, it is important to ensure that you mindfully maintain a balance of more positive than negative interactions with your children. Try to focus as much as you can on the good things that your child is doing. After all, having more positives throughout the day helps in those moments when you have to say “NO”. Be deliberate and consistent in praising and rewarding them, and to follow through with providing the reward as soon as your child demonstrates the desired behaviour. In working out the goals with your child, it will be reasonable to start by picking 1 to 3 behaviours or skills to focus on for reward and praise throughout the day. Items used as rewards have to be of value to the child and should not be easily accessible unless earned – this would keep your child motivated in completing the tasks and meeting the goals.
- Manage screen time
In this circuit breaker period, having extra screen time will not hurt, especially to reach out and to stay socially connected with friends. However, do set expectations with your child that the change in rules is a time-limited exception and regular limits will be put back in place when this circuit breaker is lifted.
While flexibility is important during this period, by no means should you allow unlimited screen time. Work out with your child on managing screen time. In the local mainstream schools, your child can be expected to be using technology to support HBL consisting of about 2-3 hours of online learning every day. With your child already spending time on online learning, work out with them on an agreement to take short breaks in between their online lessons and reduce their recreational screen time. This can be replaced by partaking in creative projects such as painting or baking, or using recycled materials to make toys or playing board games with the entire family. This also means that parents should also monitor their own digital device usage. Make use of this time to nurture new healthy habits for yourself and your children.
Now that the government mandated circuit breaker has been extended, you shouldn’t worry about having to keep the children entertained. Yes, it is inevitable that they will whine and complain about boredom, but remember that boredom can be harnessed. It is through boredom that allows them to create their own meaning and purpose, to be resourceful and to get to know themselves better. When young minds are free from distraction and constant torrents of information, they discover ways to create and find their own fun, or to further explore something that they are already interested in. This could be writing a book, staging a performance, drawing and painting, and the list goes on with endless possibilities!
- Encourage emotional expression and validate your child’s feelings
Children need to be secure about accessing their emotions rather than fearing them. To do this, they need to cultivate essential skills of being aware of their emotions and dealing with their experiences and concerns in manageable doses.
Being able to express our emotions allows others to understand how we feel, helps us to manage our own stress, worries, disappointments and sadness, and prevents us from spiralling into negative and maladaptive ways of coping. Holding in or denying our emotions sometimes unconsciously results in angry outbursts or aggressive behaviour. One way to teach children about expressing and managing their emotions is by using books or through videos, and even modelling for them in the sense that adults are role models for their children, who ‘model’ the behaviour of their parents through observing and imitating.
For older children and adolescents, perhaps the most painful part of this COVID-19 crisis and HBL is the loss of important school experiences such as school or national competitions which they have trained very hard for, or performances which they have put in hours of rehearsals into, and the daily interactions with friends. Give them a safe space to share their feelings and listen without judgement and without giving advice or reassurance. Some will be worried about missing out on activities expected to help them with school admissions, and these feelings of worry and stress are indeed valid. So again, allow them to acknowledge and share their feelings, and then express confidence in their ability to rebound.
- Practice empathy
With all the changes happening around us, it is indeed a challenging time for yourself and for your children. Start by having empathy for yourself as you navigate through uncharted waters in this battle against COVID-19 and its impact on routines and lifestyles. Yes, it is messy and chaotic, and it is OK to be not OK with any of this.
Children learn by watching the behaviours and reactions of the adults around them, so use this as a critical opportunity to prepare them to deal with uncertainties in life. Other than using books or TV shows to help children learn about empathy, you could also talk about how doctors and nurses are working to care for others with COVID-19 and to elicit their thoughts and feelings as they imagine what the healthcare workers are experiencing. Another example would be imagining what their teachers are experiencing with WFH (working from home) and HBL. By teaching and practicing empathy, your children will grow up being more compassionate and altruistic with the genuine intention to help others without expecting anything in return.
For children with special needs, it is likely that they would have had access to regular therapy services or remediation support either provided by external agencies or are school-based. It would be beneficial to maintain collaboration with the therapists to see if there are workable options that can be carried out at home so that your child’s learning is not impeded. It’s indeed a challenging time for everyone, and more so for children with special needs and their parents/caregivers. With big changes happening, it can get really overwhelming especially for a child with special needs. Remember that these behaviours are not personal but are the manifestation of a skill deficit which occur to meet a need. Professionals can help to support you through this. Reach out to a professional here. You are not alone.
For children with anxiety or mood-related concerns, this circuit breaker period will likely exacerbate their mood swings, emotion dysregulation, and problems with attention and focus. This is the time to be even more patient and supportive of your child. For younger children, you may notice some behaviours or physical complaints, for example, having tummy aches, headaches or nausea, which are somatic manifestations of underlying anxiety or worry. If you or your child feels overwhelmed, do reach out to a professional here that is in tune with your needs.