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Virtual Learning: 4 Ways to Support Your Child’s Social-Emotional Development

As parents, you know the critical role social and emotional learning plays in your child’s overall success. Sure, learning reading, writing and arithmetic is important. But, how can you expect your child to do this in a world that is full of uncertainty, in a virtual learning space unlike anything they’ve experienced before, all away from their community of friends?

“Children’s learning can be challenged when they are anxious, stressed and fearful, and it can be even more challenging for those with underlying mental health conditions or learning disabilities,” said Catherine Riley, MD, a developmental-behavioral pediatric specialist Banner Children's. “The more we can encourage and positively support them as we navigate this unique time in all our lives, the more confident and resilient they will become.”

Research has shown that when our children and youth feel safe and supported, they perform better in school, have more positive social interactions, are more confident and empathetic toward others and can persevere through challenges. Providing social-emotional support has always been an important part of learning in school, but it may be harder for your child while learning remotely.

“Let’s face it, these are unprecedented times—for our children, for our families and for our educators,” said Jerimya Fox, a licensed professional counselor and a doctor of behavioral health at Banner Behavioral Health Hospital in Scottsdale, Arizona. “While we as parents are grappling with family and work challenges, our kids are navigating this too. They miss their friends, they miss their normal activities—they may even miss the routine of school and being in school.”

Now that you’ve taken on the role of administrator of your child’s learning, there are things that you can do to help nurture an emotionally intelligent child. Dr. Riley and Dr. Fox share four ways you can support your child’s social, emotional and behavioral health during virtual learning.

Be Present When Present

You are at home a lot more these days, which means a lot more time together with your kids. Although you may “see” them more, are you actively engaging with them on a daily basis?

It’s important to set aside time each day to really connect, talk and play with your child. Ask them how they are feeling, what they are learning and show a genuine interest in their lives. It shows your child their emotions and feelings are important and matter to you.

“It can be as simple as a family meal together to check in on their day,” Dr. Riley said. “Parents know their kids best. But taking time to really be present enables you to notice when they might need a bit more support and encouragement or if they need extra assistance with school.”

Adapt and Think Outside the Box

While teachers are getting creative with new techniques and methods for teaching online, you can get creative too.

“During COVID-19, we have to all think outside the box,” Dr. Fox said. “Physical activity and social connections are very important to your child’s development. Just because we are socially distanced, doesn’t mean these still can’t be accomplished.”

If your child’s football season may not happen, maybe the coach has set up weekly calls to motivate the players and talk about a training regimen they can do at home. Schedule time with your child to go to the park and run drills. Keeping them physically active is not only great for their physical health, but their mental health too.

If your child is missing their friends, schedule a virtual sleepover or hangout session. Or figure out a way your child can socialize in person in a way that is safe.

“Doing the right things, there is no reason your child can’t do something outside together with friends, so they don’t feel so socially isolated,” Dr. Riley said. "Something like a neighborhood scavenger hunt can be fun. Something that can be supervised with appropriate social distancing and fun to talk about afterward."

Limit Exposure to News and Social Media

If you’ve ever felt worse after watching the news or scrolling through your social media, you aren’t alone. Whether it’s COVID-19 or politics, the constant barrage of news and negative posts can build up your fear and anxiety—and your child’s feelings and emotions too.

“Not that you shouldn’t know what’s going on, but it can be overwhelming and anxiety-provoking,” Dr. Riley said. “You end up watching more and more and begin to normalize through it. We’ll get back to some normalcy again, but try not to get sucked into the negative media.”

It’s not a bad idea to limit both your child’s and your exposure to the news and social media. Once there is a major breakthrough with COVID-19, you can be sure that someone will tell you. Checking the news once a week is enough to keep current and help reduce everyone’s stress and anxiety.

Engage in Acts of Kindness

Have you ever heard “kindness is contagious?” That’s because being kind and even observing kindness actually has a ripple effect of happiness. Kindness and giving act like a natural antidepressant because they release feel-good brain chemicals in our brains. It can also help build appreciation and gratitude during this difficult time.

“For younger kids, they can help write letters to a grandparent or friend who lives alone,” Dr. Riley said. “For older kids, maybe they pick up groceries for someone who can’t leave the house or help clean up their yard. These simple acts of kindness can have a big impact on physical and mental health.”

Bonus: Know Your Child

If you have more than one child, you know each one is very unique—and so are their learning styles. While one child may do very well independently, another child may really struggle.

“You know your child best,” Dr. Fox said. “If your child has a learning disability or a developmental disorder such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or autism, online learning may be more difficult or challenging and require more support from you and their teacher.”

If you see that your child is struggling, don’t hesitate to reach out to their teacher and other educational professionals for help. They can help provide tailored guidance and resources to help get your child back on track.

Is your child anxious, withdrawing or shutting you out?

“Most kids are pretty resilient and naturally will adjust to new routines, but for some kids it may be tougher,” Dr. Riley said.

While some kids are great at vocalizing when they need support or help, others might show you they need support with their actions. Pay attention to the verbal and nonverbal cues from your child to see if they may need additional support.

For little ones, it may be acting out, difficulty transitioning to new activities or showing defiant behaviors. For older children and youth, it may show up as disengagement in things they once enjoyed, frequent frustration, anger and anxiety.

If your child is struggling with online learning and COVID-19 or they simply need someone to talk to besides their parents, don’t hesitate to seek out support from the school, their pediatrician or a licensed behavioral health specialist.

For additional support, check out more parenting articles on the Banner Health blog or social-emotional resources by CASEL, the largest think-tank on social-emotional learning.

Parenting Children's Health Behavioral Health