School’s on! (for everyone)

By MAUREEN PRATT, Catholic News Service


The opportunity to learn is one of the gifts I appreciate most in life. The process can be difficult, but knowledge, once earned, is ever-present and can be brought to bear in myriad life situations.

In recent months, as someone deep into an online master's in theology program, I've witnessed firsthand the challenges faced by learning institutions, and those who teach as in-classroom programs have been adapted to virtual lectures and other work — during a pandemic, no less!

Among the clumsier aspects of virtual classwork are personal interactions that lose some of their spontaneity, even with the "raise hand" feature, and the uneasy feeling of always being "on camera" during synchronous sessions (dare I say it — it’s not so easy to snooze on Zoom!).

Yet, although these transitions have sometimes complicated the actual learning process, I have a sense it has been an easier road for adults in university programs than for families with young(er) learners.

Without the structure of school and the social component of being among classmates, children have experienced unprecedented and often unsettling changes at a time when other aspects of life during COVID-19 have been disrupted.

"There are so many more anxious kids, now," said Marie Kanne Poulsen, chief psychologist at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.

With some schools opting for at-home learning and others bringing students to school under modified, coronavirus-enforced guidelines, students might not be exactly sure of what to expect or what they will ultimately learn. As the new school year approaches, even more uncertainty — and anxiety — might surface and interfere with education goals.

"The underlying thing kids need is belonging as a member of the family," said Poulsen, a Catholic mom and grandmother. She suggests several techniques to help alleviate some of the uncertainty for parent and child and foster a sense of belonging.

A schedule adds structure during days that might otherwise lack focus.

"Kids at home need to have a schedule," said Poulsen. "The schedule isn't onerous, but life's daily living activities. You build into it self-care — (moms and dads) need to take care of themselves -- and playtime and family time."

Also, said Poulsen, "Especially now, rituals give predictability, too. The goodbye ritual, the good-morning and bedtime rituals."

Parents should still have certain expectations of behavior.

"So often, when we're exhausted as parents," said Poulsen, "we let things go, or kids get away with something. Age-appropriate expectations are important — and be sure to follow through."

Prayer with and for everyone strengthens spirituality and a sense of service to others, even in an era of social distancing.

"Saying grace and saying prayers at night," said Poulsen, "that is doing something for others."

During the pandemic, the negative might seem to overtake the positive. Expressing thanks can help regain balance.

"Gratitude — how important that is for mental health," said Poulsen. "There is amazing research on gratitude and mental health. When something good happens, even something small, write it down on a poster, a whiteboard, that everyone in the family contributes to. Or, put it on the refrigerator."

Learning is hard and is made harder during a pandemic. But conscious attention to having fun is still important.

"I'm a real believer in family fun together," said Poulsen. "Card games, a jigsaw puzzle — sometimes as parents, we forget to have fun. Doing things as a family is a way of connecting in a nonverbal way, too."

Fun, prayer, belonging and a sense of gratitude — sounds like a good way to go back to school!