What to do when you can’t do it all

As school across the country reopen with a patchwork of remote and in-person learning, many parents are wondering how they’re going to make it all work. Between complex school schedules, parents’ own work responsibilities and the ongoing stress and uncertainty of the coronavirus crisis, the reality is that this year will be very different and, many parents worry, very difficult.

However, that doesn’t mean that heading back to school has to feel like a lost cause. By consciously choosing a few top priorities for your child this fall, you can make sure that the most important bases are still covered — and give yourself permission to let some things go.

Go back to basics

Before you worry about all the skills and material your child will be asked to master this year, remember that remote learning itself is still very new and challenging for many kids. There wasn’t a lot of time for kids to master daily routines back in the spring, and chances are procedures will look different this fall anyway.

Kenya Hameed, PsyD, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute, recommends starting by making sure the basics are in place. Does your child have all the supplies they need for remote learning? Do they have a clear understanding of when and where they’re supposed to work? Do they know how to use their remote learning platforms? Making sure the answer is “Yes!” to all of these questions can take time and effort, so cut yourself some slack if things don’t go smoothly on day one (or two, or twenty).

Once that foundation is set, kids can focus on settling into a steady routine. Remember that under the circumstances, showing up consistently is a big accomplishment, and working on getting the basics down can be a meaningful learning experience for many kids.

Consider your child’s individual needs

All kids need a stable remote learning set-up, but beyond that, their needs will differ — a lot. Knowing that there’s no one right strategy can help parents set realistic goals with their children and avoid unnecessary strife.

The first thing to consider about your child is how they’re faring in school generally, says Jodi Musoff, MA, MEd, an educational specialist at the Child Mind Institute. Kids who are struggling with learning are likely to need more support— and usually more structure — than kids who are learning at an average pace or those who are excelling. If you’re concerned your child might need extra support this coming semester, make an appointment to talk to their teacher before school starts to get a sense of what you can expect.

It’s also important to consider your own relationship with your child and how their academic work plays into it. “Maintaining the parent-child relationship is so important,” says Musoff, “and constant bickering over academics can put a strain on it.” You might agree with your child that you’ll only discuss schoolwork at designated times or that you’ll have a treat (and a truce!) after particularly difficult days — for example, eating ice cream and watching your child’s favorite movie together after a tough test.

Every family’s calculation will be different but, depending on your child’s learning needs and the dynamics in your family, you might decide to ease up on the academic pressure in order to prioritize a more relaxed home environment.

Emphasize core subjects

If you find yourself having to pick and choose which content your child should focus on (due to time constraints, your child’s ability to work independently, or whatever else), you’re not alone. In that situation, it will often make the most sense to prioritize the core academic subjects.

“Math, reading and writing are those foundational skills we teach from a very young age,” says Dr. Hameed. “They’re important every single year.” While children may be able to delay science or social studies content without many negative consequences, they need solid math and language skills to excel in other areas. So focusing on these key subjects will usually be a good choice.

This is particularly true for kids with learning disabilities, notes Laura Phillips, PsyD, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “They’re at a much greater risk of sliding,” says Dr. Phillips, “and they need much more consistent, systematic instruction.”

If your child does have a learning disability, it’s especially important to prioritize foundational skills and set goals that include as much focused work in these areas as possible. Your child’s teacher can help you determine what the key skills for their grade level are and talk through ideas for developing them. That might mean encouraging practice through a reward system, refining a schedule that plays to your child’s strengths (doing the most challenging work first, for example) or working with school staff to arrange remote accommodations.

Focus on skills rather than activities

Remote learning can mean lots of different kinds of activities — worksheets, lecture slides, group discussions — and not all of them will work for every kid. That’s why Musoff recommends separating the skills your child is supposed to be learning from the specific activities that teachers assign.

“Right now, most teachers care about the outcome,” she says. “If the assignment isn’t working well for your child in the format that the teacher has presented it in, it may be appropriate to adjust it.”

For instance, if your child absolutely refuses to write out spelling words on a worksheet but they’re happy to recite them while jumping rope, go with it! Just be sure to check in with teachers about changes you’re thinking of making — they can bring up any concerns and let you know what materials still need to be turned in.

The adjustments you make will depend on how much time you can devote and your child’s own preferences, but the goal is for your child to be learning — not necessarily to be completing work in exactly the way it was assigned.

Think beyond academics

As important as academics are, they’re far from the only benefit of going to school. “In school, kids get a lot of exposure to activities that help them develop in all kinds of ways,” Dr. Phillips says. “So with this extended period of time out of school, it’s important for parents to find ways for kids to practice those same skills.”

Some of the key developmental areas to consider prioritizing include:

Socialization. “Healthy peer relationships, social skills and social support systems are such critical parts of development,” says Dr. Phillips. For many children, finding opportunities for online or socially distant hangouts with friends and classmates is just as important as keeping up academically.

Physical activity. Without team sports and gym class, kids need other opportunities (like family walks or fun exercise videos) to develop motor skills and physical fitness.

Building independence. At school, tasks like organizing supplies or keeping a class schedule straight give kids chances to build independence. At home, parents can encourage kids to take on responsibilities like making meals, caring for pets or doing chores on their own.

If all that sounds like a tall order, remember that not every kid will need support in every area. The trick is to think about which activities your child might need to practice more and build opportunities for skill development into their daily routines.

Dr. Phillips notes that variety itself — in whatever form makes practical sense for you family — is more important than any specific activity. “It’s helpful just for parents to be mindful about the range of activities their kids are presented with, since different skills develop in different contexts.”

Trust your instincts

Choosing the top two or three priorities for your child this fall ultimately comes down to your gut feeling as a parent. “Parents really do know,” says Dr. Hameed. “If your child is struggling socially, you know it. If they’re falling behind in an academic subject, it’s probably already something you’re worried about.”

So if, for example, you know your child needs extra support in math but already has their vocabulary words down pat, having the confidence to focus on those key needs and let the rest go will make the school year easier on the whole family.

Hannah Sheldon-Dean is a staff editor and writer  with Child Mind Institute.