Ministry of Education, Guyana

Help Your Child (and Yourself!) Handle a Virtual Learning Meltdown

If I’m being honest, technology has been a saving grace for my family over the past year. Screens have given us opportunities for education, entertainment, and even respite as we’ve navigated life during a pandemic.

But kids who have been schooling part- or full-time in front of a computer screen are also feeling the effects of technology overload, particularly in the absence of other social contact and activities. And while some things in our world seem to be slowly inching back to normalcy, it’s clear that remote learning is here — at least in some capacity — to stay.

If you parent or care for school-aged children, you probably know the virtual learning meltdown well by now. Your child has had enough, and tears or a tantrum (or both!) have arrived in the middle of a virtual lesson. What do you do now?

I reached out to Miranda Hubner, a School Behavioral Strategist, to talk about it. She told me that many of the behavioral challenges families are facing during the pandemic are related to virtual learning. She identified struggles with engagement, constantly being on camera, increased anxiety, decreased confidence, and distractions at home as being common for young students right now. All of these challenges can lead, understandably, to a child feeling unable to cope.

Here are a few ideas to help you and your child get through the meltdown.

1 Acknowledge the feelings.
According to Hubner, fatigue from online learning and less social interaction means kids are having more difficulty handling their emotions. Sometimes just naming the feeling your child is experiencing is enough to make it feel more manageable. Are they angry? Overwhelmed? Tired? Being able to say how they feel to a grown-up who will listen can not only help calm a meltdown, it helps build emotional intelligence — which contributes to mental health and social success.

You might say: “I can tell you’re having a really tough time right now. Could you help me understand what you’re feeling? I’m wondering if you’re angry or tired? Thank you for telling me. I feel that way too, sometimes, and it’s really hard. Would you like a hug?”

2 Call in reinforcements.
You don’t have to handle this all alone — let your resources support you! Think aloud with your child about the ways their favorite people or PBS KIDS characters have handled their big feelings. When kids recognize that others have a tough time, too, it can make the situation feel more normal and help them process things from a different perspective.

You might ask: “Can you think of a time when Arthur was having a tough day? What helped? What do you think he would do right now?”

3 Embrace flexibility.
Although it might be tempting to “power through” the meltdown in order to get finished, human brains don’t function well under lots of stress. Continuing on when your child is overwhelmed may do more harm than good for both of you. Have your child step away from the screen, get a snack, and find something to laugh about together. Once they feel calmer and less stressed, they will have more access to problem-solving skills and be better able to retain information.

If a short break doesn’t help, Hubner suggests you reconsider your expectations for the day. “It’s not about the quantity of the tasks but the quality,” she says. Instead of completing five more math problems, have your child complete one more problem and explain to you how they solved it. If writing feels too hard today, have your child voice record the story they’re creating — podcast style. “It’s okay to think outside the box,” says Hubner.

You might say: “Let’s try a 10-minute break from this to let your brain rest. You’ve been working so hard and I can tell it’s tough for you to concentrate right now.”

4 Give yourself some grace.
As a parent or caregiver who is now playing the additional roles of teacher, tutor, counselor, and friend, you might be experiencing your own meltdowns from time to time. Hubner suggests parents give themselves some grace and take it one day at a time. “This past year has been one full of ups and downs, and [parents] have stepped up to the plate to encourage and facilitate their children’s education, which is not an easy task.”

The great news is, what works for your kids will probably work for you as well! Feeling overwhelmed and struggling to cope? Name your own feelings and give yourself permission to feel them. Call in support when you need it — send a text to a friend or family member to vent or to ask for encouragement. And find a way to give your brain a break from the stress — even a short break to drink a glass of water or step outside for a deep breath can do the trick! 

Hubner wants parents to know that a great deal of learning happens naturally as families connect through conversation. If you feel like your children didn’t get enough done for school one day, know that playing PBS KIDS games together or watching and discussing an episode of Odd Squad as a family is also valuable to your children’s learning — and to your relationship.

Remember that we’re all navigating a really hard situation, and a few meltdowns are to be expected. Hubner says one of the keys to success for families right now is lots of encouragement. So to both you and your young learners: You can do this!


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