Remember before the pandemic, when we thought we were worried about screen time? Now our kids sit for hours in front of laptops or devices — and that’s just for school. While we adults might be more used to peering at and engaging with the world via computers for hours, our kids are not — and they’re expected to do it in the midst of nationwide anxiety. This, experts say, is a recipe for remote learning fatigue.
“It seems safe to say that we’ve all experienced a collective increase of stress,” licensed professional counselor and registered play therapist Loren Lomme of Just Mind Counseling in Austin, Texas, tells Romper. In kids, she says that stress might look like increased mood swings, headaches, stomachaches, changes in sleep and eating habits, and difficulty focusing.
Heather Clarke, MSpED, an early childhood and special education teacher in New York, has seen and experienced the burnout in her own home as well as at school. Her motto through all of the assignments, technology failures, missed communications, and moody days is simple: “Let it go.”
Things are not just “business as usual” right now for students, teachers, or parents.
For children with disabilities and an individualized education plan (IEP), she recommends parents stay in close contact with teachers and school administrators about that plan. “If your child has an IEP, they must receive their services by law,” she says. “Parents, now more than ever, should speak up to ensure their children are getting those supports.” Overall, however, she says unless your child is at “severe risk” of falling behind, one year of disrupted schooling for any kid will not make or break them academically. Things are not just “business as usual” right now for students, teachers, or parents, says Clarke. “We have to make our health, safety, and emotional well-being the priority at this moment.”
To do just that, we asked education experts to offer up strategies for parents whose kids are ready to throw their Chromebooks out of the window.
1. Keep it fresh.
Think about it: Elementary school is a visually stimulating environment. The colors, the walls, the posters — it doesn’t quite look like home. “Keep in mind that most teachers change their bulletin boards often, which increases classroom interest,” says Jill White, an educational consultant and retired teacher who’s been in the field of education for 35 years. She suggests bringing a little bit of school into children’s home-learning space. Keep it fresh and new when fatigue sets in. “You don’t have to buy new things, just move things around if need be.”
Clarke says young learners only need simple yet colorful visual tools, such as number graphs, alphabet charts, and shape charts. “These should all be hung low enough that your young learners can use them as references as needed,” she says. For older kids, she recommends designing their workspace based on their learning styles. Easily distracted students, for example, do best with a semi-private workspace like a desk in their bedroom separated from TVs or their bed by a curtain or divider.
2. Break some rules.
“It's not a natural way [for kids] to learn to sit at a desk or table and have cameras on all day,” says education designer Dr. Karen Aronian, Ed.D. Remote learning was intended to be used as a supplementary tool, not a full-day experience. Pandemic times call for a pivot and a change of rules, like the “no toys in the classroom” rule for home learning, especially for neurodivergent learners.
“Let kids fidget while they remote work: Have their Legos, Barbies, spinners, and Play-Doh or putty, coloring book in reach, as well as their go-to snacks, drinks, and pets,” she says. “They can do these things mindlessly as they follow along with the class or lesson.” Aronian points out that classroom settings, especially for younger kids, usually include toys for educational play. Home should be no different.
3. Let technology do (some more of) the work.
Kindergarten teacher Megan Dean of Spring Lake, Michigan, values balancing between direct instruction and free choice time. “We know that we are teaching 5- and 6-year-olds, and we want to make sure every learning opportunity we provide to your child is appropriate subject matter and length,” she says. “I cannot just talk to them for my whole Zoom lesson; I need to bring in outside tools.”
With that in mind, she suggests taking breaks from Zoom sessions and bringing in tools like Anywhere Teacher to make remote learning feel more interactive and fun for young children. After a recent lesson on syllables, for example, Dean used the app to show her class a fun video with music, hippos, and lots of clapping. “The kids loved it,” she says. It might seem counterintuitive to combat remote learning fatigue with more learning, but Dean sees using outside, interactive tools as a way to keep young children engaged — and parents can do the same to ease remote learning fatigue at home.
While parents typically have more freedom with remote learning for younger children because of the less-structured curriculum, for older students, Clarke recommends communicating with the teacher first. “Parents should feel empowered to have a sincere conversation with the admin and teachers at the school about workload and what learning methods work for their child,” she says.
4. Just ask!
“Ask [your kids] often what’s on their mind,” says Lomme, noting that remote learning fatigue and pandemic stress cannot be separated. “Allow them to share their thoughts about what the pandemic experience has been like for them. There are no right or wrong answers here, and parents can provide some powerful stress relief by just listening and validating their kids’ thoughts and emotions.”
“Your child may bring up realistic fears and stressors that you can help them talk through, make sense of, and work to cope with,” Lomme adds.
One easy way to get a conversation going is to let kids express themselves through art, Clarke suggests. “It doesn’t have to be elaborate,” she says. “It can be drawing, building things, playing pretend.” Her own little one wrote a book about “how he was sad.” It was just a stick figure, she says, but it expressed everything he wanted to say about what it feels like not to be able to play with his friends.
Once the door is open, ask questions. “It looks like you may be feeling frustrated or angry about something. Is that right?” Then, simply listen, validate, continue asking genuine questions — and open up in return. “Your kids will continue to come to you and share how they are feeling if parents also share how they are feeling and normalize a range of emotions,” Clarke says.
5. Enforce breaks and days off, no matter what.
Lorie Anderson is a mom of three and a parenting writer with a background in learning design and technology. She deals with remote learning burnout a lot. “Two of my kids are very extroverted, and the other is more introverted,” she says. “When extroverted kids burn out, it’s easy to tell. They tend to shut down and stop participating as much as they normally would. They don’t seem as excited in the activities and topics that would typically excite them. With introverts, it’s harder to tell.”
“It’s OK to let your kids take a mental health day every once in a while. A long weekend can do wonders for the brain.”
Instead of guessing, Anderson emphasizes the importance of being in tune with changes in your children’s behavior. If you notice burnout, take action. Clarke says that means letting some things go. “Honestly, when my first-grader had a meltdown about schoolwork, I made microwave popcorn and turned on Disney+,” says Clarke.
“Mental health is just as important as physical health, so it’s OK to let your kids take a mental health day every once in a while,” she says. “A long weekend can do wonders for the brain.”
Parents can give themselves a break, too. Clarke stresses that parents should remember educational standards are, well, arbitrary. “Frankly, the vast majority of so-called educational standards weren’t developmentally appropriate before the pandemic for young children. Your child will be OK. There doesn’t need to be a rush on getting this right,” she says.
Loren Lomme, LPC, RPT, of Just Mind Counseling in Austin, Texas
Heather Clarke, MSpED, early childhood and special education teacher
Jill White, educational consultant and retired teacher
Dr. Karen Aronian, Ed.D., education designer
Megan Dean, kindergarten teacher in Spring Lake, Michigan