Kathy Koester feels judged. After an intense day cajoling and encouraging her 7-year-old — who has special needs — through remote school, getting a critical alert about missed assignments makes Koester feel like she is “in trouble.”
Koester, who lives in Mundelein, Ill., acknowledges that teachers are trying to be supportive, but she still feels criticized: “I am 110 percent engaged [and] giving everything I have. And these constant messages from [classroom app] Seesaw seem to be saying that my best isn’t good enough.”
Witnessing and reliving
The tone or style of a teacher’s approach to correcting students can be stressful for parents to overhear, says Regine Galanti, a psychologist and the author of “Anxiety Relief for Teens.” One of her children’s teachers “would randomly call on someone in Zoom and expect them to know the answer, and if they didn’t know the answer, she wouldn’t repeat the question,” says Galanti, who overheard this as she was working nearby. “As a therapist, my response was, don’t you realize this was not an appropriate way to talk to children?”
Galanti says that “thankfully” most of what she has overheard in remote school has been “supportive, encouraging teaching. ... But that one experience was eye-opening.”
Witnessing our kids’ experiences can be jarring for a parent, and that can make it more difficult to be patient and supportive with our children.
“We’re a fly on the wall in a room we were never meant to be in,” said Robyn Silverman, a child-development specialist and the host of the “How to Talk to Kids About Anything Parenting Podcast.” When parents overhear a teacher calling on their child when they are unprepared, or when we overhear a negative social interaction with a classmate, “you can’t help but put yourself right back there” to your own school days, said Silverman, who has a son in 5th grade and a daughter in 6th grade who are learning at home.
Hearing a teacher call out your child for not paying attention might make you feel doubly shamed — on behalf of your kid and yourself. When your child isn’t prepared, you may feel like you are in trouble. That is true even if the teacher is trying to be helpful.
Being the grown-up kids need
“As much as possible we need to separate our kid’s experience from our own,” says Tina Payne Bryson, a psychotherapist and co-author of “The Power of Showing Up.” If you find yourself flooded with emotion, or your heart races when you see emails from the teacher, you can try to center yourself and separate your experience from your child’s, says Bryson.
But parents need to be aware when their own school experiences taint how they react to their children’s.
“With an explicit memory, we know consciously that there is an association,” Bryson explains. So a mother who was shy as a child might be especially frustrated listening to her daughter quietly raise her hand on Zoom and repeatedly not get called on. A parent might make the connection and then understand that her own experience is contributing to her frustration. Implicit memory, Bryson says, is trickier. That’s where “we get triggered, but we’re not aware that’s what’s happening.”
According to Bryson, expressing curiosity about your child’s experiences can foster a strong connection with them, while keeping your memories and emotions from taking over. Then, we can ask, “Do you have any ideas about how to make that not feel so bad to you?” This helps them to be more resilient and empowered.
Naming it to tame it
Bryson has other methods for parents who feel anxiety when overhearing classroom interactions. One centering technique she really likes is “Name it to tame it.” Try to name accurately what your child is experiencing, and that can soothe the anxiety. For instance, she says a parent can say to a child, “I noticed today that you were wanting to be called on, and you weren’t. What’s that like for you?”
Once that is in the open, a child and parent can discuss (even if it’s just for a quick moment), and that can help tame the concern.
She also suggests that parents work in another room or get headphones for the child: “Ideally, if a parent is getting activated, it may be better for that parent to not be so intimately involved.”
And, she cautions, don’t email the teacher or talk to your child while you are feeling reactive or stirred up.
While witnessing children flounder, parents may bristle at any sound of frustration in a teacher’s voice and wonder, “Is my child in the hot seat?” Intellectually, we know the teacher may just be exhausted from the overwhelming demands of remote school, but we still may have a powerful response.
Galanti described seeing parents identify with the difficulties so many students are experiencing right now. Some parents have taken the remote-school situation head on and act as an assistant to the teacher, setting up schedules and goals, and feel good about being on top of it all, Galanti says.
But other parents “may feel defeated by remote school and think ‘I’m not going to do well at this. Now, I’m on my child’s team of not doing well at high school. Again’,” says Galanti. This cycle of defensiveness and shame can make it harder to parent in that moment.
Galanti suggests that we all recognize that remote school is putting an “impossible burden” on parents and that self-compassion is needed.
Navigating the email barrage
Feeling chided by all the communications coming from schools can increase caregivers’ stress. School leaders and teachers are trying to keep parents in the loop. But when seeing a note from school in their inbox, many parents tense up.
Leigh Honeywell, chief executive of Tall Poppy, which helps companies protect their staff members from online harassment, offers a few tips on navigating all the updates amid the intensity of working and pandemic parenting.
Honeywell says if the barrage of texts or email is upsetting or undermining your focus, “you can make a special account for school communication and send it all there.”
“Alternatively,” Honeywell says, “can you segment your current inbox to send those notifications to a specific folder?”
Finally, Honeywell suggests outsourcing the first read to a trusted co-parent or friend and having them share with you only on a need-to-know basis. “Even trading off each week with a co-parent could reduce stress,” Honeywell says.
Just acknowledging the emotional labor and time that goes into navigating remote school is an important step. In my community, sharing the ups and downs of remote school with friends who are also living the experience has been a validating and crucial reinforcement for getting through this time.
Bryson reminds parents that kids are not supposed to be so constantly “under a parental microscope” and ultimately, “we shouldn’t be watching it all.”
For better or worse, remote school is bringing our children’s classroom experience home. We want to use this window to inform us and support our kids, but we also need compassion for ourselves and support from others to stay grounded — so we can be the supportive adult our kids need right now.
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Heitner is the author of “Screenwise” and the founder of Raising Digital Natives.