Virtual learning is stressful and anxiety provoking for children and their parents. This can manifest in many different ways. You many notice your child having difficulty maintaining concentration, avoiding school work, becoming increasingly reactive to request for chores, lacking motivation to engage in outside activities, having an increased desire for video games, and generally decreased positive affect. In yourself, you may notice feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and lethargic. Virtual learning is hard on everyone in the household. In this blog, we will break down how virtual learning is affecting our central nervous systems during this stressful and unprecedented time, as well as provide tools and tips for the virtual learning process.
“Why am I crying?” and other thoughts
It’s September, the start of the school year– a time that often feels more like a fresh start than New Year’s Eve. Even as adults, the thought of fall feels like new opportunities and adventures to be had. But instead, we find ourselves 6 months into the pandemic, jumping on work zoom meetings, popping our mask-induced chin pimples, avoiding news alerts from our phones, and now stressed about learning algebra again. So it is not at all strange that you feel a zombie, easily brought to tears, highly stressed and wondering “What the heck is going on with me?”
In the mental health community, we recognize that these reactions are your central nervous system oscillating from hyperarousal (fight/flight) to hypoarousal (freeze.) In caveman times, if a bear or wildebeest was coming towards you, your brainstem would take over the part of your brain that makes logical decisions and decide on these three options, fight, flight, or freeze, as means of survival. After you survived, your amygdala, located in your mid brain would store “Bear = Bad!” Fast forward a couple thousand years to today, instead of the bear, the threat is the corona virus, or your child falling behind in school, or a furloughed-induced fight with your spouse and you find yourself feeling out of control, your heart racing (hyperarousal) or incapable of getting out of bed (hypoarousal).
This is true of our kids too. Many of our kids are struggling with virtual school. You may find them having more meltdowns, tantrums (hyperarousal) or zoning out (hypoarrousal.) You may find them jumping off the walls before bedtime (hyperarousal) or needing an excessive amount of sleep (hypoarousal). They have new and added pressures while at the same time are not having their sensory or social needs met. Sitting at a desk in front of a device all day isn’t good for anyone’s nervous system, and its no wonder why they are all flipping their lid.
The Brain and “Flipping Your Lid”
When the lower part of the brain is activated (hypoarousal or hyperarousal) it will be close to impossible for your child to learn because this reaction causes the cortex (the thinking and problem solving part of your brain) to go offline. The cortex is also the place in the brain where self control happens. This can also explain why you might be feeling your child has been especially impulsive and not thinking through their decisions!
In our office we call this “Flipping your lid“. When children flip their lid, our goal as parents, is to help them find regulation again. Being regulated means that your child is feeling calm and safe both mentally and physically, so that they can think clearly again. Below we break down our virtual school tips and tricks as well as provide links to tools from our back to school Amazon list.
These core tasks will create huge difference in what creates a good virtual learning day for you and your child.
- Address their desk area – supplies organization, environment, and a variety of seating options to help regulate in the moment.
- Provide movement breaks – a box of movement activity supplies, a poster with a list of ideas, and structure around how they chose their activities. This will help regulate your child’s body, which helps avoiding flipped lids.
- Create a School kit – a box with fidget toys, and tools to help regulate in the moment.
Addressing their Desk Area
1. Have your child take the time to clean their desk at the start of each day.
You can regulate your child just through their desk environment. Having a clean and organized environment not only reduces distractions, but also help your child feel more prepared to take on the day. We recommend starting each day by having your child clean up their desk area (younger children will need help). By having this routine each day your child can start fresh with a cleared surface.
For her children, Brittani created a desk zone using a poster board. On the board she taped class schedules, class meeting passwords, a hook for headphones, and cute personal touches such as her kiddos names and color coded pencil bags! This board also helps reduce distractions and for many children feeling more “enclosed” by the board can be very regulating.
Each shelf can house a different subject, convenient and out of the way!
2. Create a schedule on a chalkboard
Just as their teacher would on the board, find a place where you can put the child’s schedule for each day. In the schedule, include snack, play, and lunch breaks so the child knows how much longer they have to be in their chair. Have your child practice physically checking off each item on the schedule after it is completed. This will empower them and make them feel accomplished from their day and motivate them to keep going.
We love that this whiteboard fits on the desk, comes with markers and numbered magnets, perfect for lists and schedules.
3. Provide Alternative Seating Options
Another important part of the desk are is seating! Seating is very trial and error – one child may feel very comfortable and regulated in a office chair, while another may need a yoga ball chair, and others might feel the most focused while laying on the ground on their tummy!
In addition, sometimes we become achy if we sit in the same chair for too long, or the lighting in this room gets a little too dark after 2pm. If possible, technology wise, allow your child to have multiple working areas. Changing up the scenery mid-day can help the child to stay energized for their workload. If your child is working from a desktop, try changing out their chair to a bosu ball, or a bean bag chair.
We loved the seating guides by AL-inclusive Therapy Services on their website or Instagram for different seating options to consider!
Alternative seating and desk options:
Convenient for all seating options!
A little expensive, but we love the back support with this unique chair.
Sitting on a balance ball is comfortable for the tush and helpful for the wigglys!
Allows for feet to stay on the floor, adds cushion and allows for motion.
4. Stool for their feet
If your child chooses a chair, make sure their feet are connected to the floor on on a stool. Connecting our feet to the floor helps our body to feel grounded and prevents from excessive wiggles. If your child’s legs are too small for his or her chair, grab a bolster, stool, or big pillow so that your child can sit in a comfortable position
We love the non-stick grip on this stool, keeping the child’s feet grounded, and in place.
6. Always provide a cold drink with a straw
Provide your child will a cold drink constantly throughout the day. Hydration is very important for our nervous system and the cold feeling will keep their body alert and energized. In addition, we know that sucking can be a very strong regulation tactic, so adding a straw to the drink will keep from spills and at the same time be a sensory tool for your child.
Unlike metal straws, these rubber straws are easy to chew on, meeting another sensory need!
Providing Movement Breaks
1. Take proprioception breaks (joint compression; push) (joint traction; pull)
All of us have sensory needs. That is, our body needs to be doing things! Movement breaks are important for your child’s regulation. Having movement included in their breaks will not only drastically improve their mood, but also improve their ability to learn. In the normal world, your child would get these needs met on the jungle gym hanging on the monkey bars. It’s the same reason why you don’t feel your best if you are going to the gym pulling on weights or practicing your yoga. The brain needs to be stimulated in different ways so they will need a variety of activities and as a parent you can pay attention to the movement that their body seems to crave.
- Here are some ways you can incorporate proprioception breaks at home:
- Let your child hang on your stiff arm or a bar
This bar allows the child to hang and go upside down
- Let your child stand on his head (safely) or turn upside down in a big comfy chair
- Let your child jump on a trampoline
Mini trampoline provide a lot of proprioceptive outlet and are relatively inexpensive
- Provide a crash pad to tumble, jump, and land on
We love that you can build this crash pad up or destruct it down. Perfect for tumble breaks!
- Push your hands against your child’s hands for 10 seconds and let them push as hard as they can
2. Make a list of activities to do each day
You can create structure (which is also very regulating!) by starting each day with helping your child to choose the activities from this list that they would like to do that day.
Coming up with movement ideas in the moment can sometimes be difficult, (and also so that you are not having to reinvent the wheel every day!), we recommend creating a poster of movement ideas to reference when choosing activities.
We created a list below and we recommend sitting down with your child and brainstorming movement activities that they enjoy and that your child can do with the supplies you have at home.
3. Whenever possible, do the activities with them
Of course everyday this might not be possible, but providing your child that social connection they are missing is so important to their regulation and development. With virtual learning their day is consisting of only talking to faces on a screen, having a time that is devoted to physical and social connection with you not only will help them prepare to go back to work and can provide co-regulation, but is also a great time to bond!
School Kit: Our Favorite Fidgets and Sensory Tools
Having movement activities during their breaks will help your child be better prepared to learn, but sometimes they will need activities and tools IN THE MOMENT to help maintain their focus and help prevent flipping their lid! For in the moment regulation we recommend having five to six fidget toys available in a box so that they can have something in their hands.
1. Provide Fidget Box
You can buy a bulk kit of fidget toys online, such as this bulk kit from amazon, and switch up the toys every week so that they feel fresh! Also too many options can be overwhelming (and create a flipped lid situation!) so it is best to provide a smaller number of options. We also really love Aaron’s Thinking Putty,
With fidget toys it is important to have a trail and error period with your child to see what structure they need around when they can use them and which items provide the best regulation.
Our favorite Fidgets!
Think slime but with much less sticky goopy mess.
These are low distraction and anxiety relieving!
Your kids will love these!
2. Tape Velcro to the bottom of their desk
We know, it sounds weird. But velcro is a cheap sensory tool with little distraction. As your child learns, they can rub their hands on the pokey and soft sides of the velcro, helping them to listen to instruction while staying within their body.
Because these are such a discrete tool, that are for in-person learning as well. Just ask their teacher first!
3. Provide Blue Light Glasses
Having blue light glasses has been reported to reduce eye strain and improve sleep habits. There is some argument in the community as to if they are truly affective for what they claim – but if your child is reporting eye and head pain it never hurts to give it a try!
These glasses come in all colors, are cute and inexpensive!
3. Weighted stuffed animal, blanket or neck pillow
We also recommend a weighted object – this could be a lap weighted blanket or a stuffed animal. At our office we have many weighted stuffed animals and many of our clients immediately put them on their lap when they enter the room!
You’ll be tempted to borrow this one for yourself!
Use either on their lap, around their shoulders, or for a good nights sleep.
Comforting and regulating!
4. Tie a TheraBand to their chair
For the extra wiggly, having a thera-band, on the legs on their chair can also be very helpful for children – they can kick it, flick it, or stomp it with their feet as they do their work and listen to their teacher. But, look out for how loudly they like to use it and see if they need to be on mute during instruction time.
Keeps them in their seat!
5. Chewy, crunchy and sour snacks
Crunchy foods can meet as oral sensory need, helping to wake us up from a mid-day slump. In addition, just as a straw, a sour candy, or something chewy, such as HI chew can act as a regulation tool for a child. Provide these snacks on a break or even while the child is doing something that is difficult to focus on.
For sensory needs, and the highly talkative! Its hard to interrupt with Hi Chew in your mouth!
A great way to celebrate a job well done, and get energized for the next lesson!
6. Bubble Breaks
After their proprioception break, your child will need to calm his or her body back down. Connecting to the breath is the fastest way to do this. The exhale of our breath is the most powerful tool we have to get back into our window of tolerance. Have a couple of bubble wands on hand and show your child that the longer and slower they blow out the wand, the bigger and more bubbles they can relate. This is a fun way for kids to connect to their bodies and calm down enough to learn.
The exhale of our breath is the most effective way to calm down. Utilize this by challenging your kid to make a HUGE bubble by blowing out very slowly through the bubble wand.
7. Things that smell good
Pleasurable scents can be a powerful tool to make us feel safe, and therefore focused. Fill the child’s learning room with a pleasurable smell like eucalyptus, clove, or peppermint. Or throw some cookies in the oven the last hour of the school day. Your child will know that they are almost done when the sweet smell enters their room and they can look forward to having a treat for their hard work.
Peppermint has calming and energizing effects!
Create your own energizing or calming combinations
This kills two birds with one stone, its weighted AND smells amazing!
You got this parents! Virtual learning is not easy, but by understanding your child’s brain and by incorporating these tools into your day-to-day family life you will find that it is possible to have your child learn AND be regulated. Check out our Amazon page for more of our favorite items including books and sensory tools.
- Create your own masks at home- Great templates and ideas on the Hello Wonderful website.
- COVID Related Social Stories from Autism Little Learners. We especially like this social story about transitioning back to in-person school.https://drive.google.com/file/d/1hpp4dUEw7-r_k4KVihuX7db61GCDd-Sw/view
- Big Life Journal has great resources for kids and parents.
If you have any additional questions, feel free to call our office or click the link below to schedule a FREE 20 Minute Phone Consultation. For more tips follow us on Facebook and Instagram.