There’s a heated debate taking place around the country about whether schools should reopen for in-person classes this month, when many traditionally welcome students back to campus. Numerous districts – including some of the nation’s largest – have already announced plans to continue remote learning, at least for the first half of the term, in areas where the Covid pandemic is still raging. This will have a tremendous impact on families, especially those with special needs students.
To provide some support to parents faced with another round of homeschooling, I reached out to Roseann Capanna-Hodge, a Connecticut Certified School Psychologist in private practice and co-author of Brain Under Attack: A Resource for Parents and Caregivers of Children with PANS, PANDAS and Autoimmune Encephalitis. This pediatric mental health expert works with patients having ADHD, autism, anxiety, depression and learning disabilities.
Capanna-Hodge has valuable insights on the challenges parents are going to face with continuing homeschooling and how some wellness design-focused changes to their living spaces can help them, their students and the entire family cope this fall.
JAMIE GOLD: It looks like millions of American school children will continue to be learning online this coming school year instead of returning to the classroom. Please discuss the challenges that presents for them and their parents, including differences among different age groups and mental health or learning challenge issues. What can parents do to make their homes more learning-friendly for their younger and older children?
ROSEANN CAPANNA-HODGE: The most beneficial thing a parent can do to make their home more learning-friendly for the child, regardless of age, is to create a designated space for learning. Part of having a routine and structure is to have a place set aside solely for learning.
When a child or teen sits down to work in a familiar space, we don’t have to waste precious brain power thinking about little details; where should I plug in my computer, where are the supplies, etc. Instead, their brain can power up and alert them to the task at hand.
For younger children, their learning space needs to be near where you are. For some families, that is at the kitchen table and others is next to a parent at their work desk. Many parents have found that working in tandem in an organized office space works for themselves and their children. Parents want to think about having access to art supplies, paper, pencils, markers, etc. in organized containers at their learning space. Having brightly colored folders with their printed dittos or whatever else they will be using needs to be within hands reach.
For teens, it is important to talk with them about where they are setting up their learning space. While most teens want to retreat to their bedrooms, you need to communicate with them about the best place for them to think. This is especially important when the house is full of multi-age children that may be noisy and interfere with their learning. Headphones are an essential for learning for most teens because they give them both privacy and can help with concentration.
GOLD: What can parents do to make their homes more learning-friendly for children with mental health issues?
CAPANNA-HODGE: Anxiety, loneliness, and sadness are all common issues that children and teens are experiencing right now. And with so much uncertainty about whether our kids will actually be in school this year, these issues may be prolonged. There are a lot of things parents can do to help their children as they battle mental health issues, [including] how they make their children’s learning environment more supportive of their needs.
When one’s nervous system is in a hyper state, that means that a person is more reactive to sensory stimuli. Minimizing stimuli that cause agitation, fatigue, or any reaction that interferes with regulation and learning will help a person feel more connected and comfortable. Consider noise levels, lighting, smells, and tactile needs. Does your child need a quiet environment? Headphones to dampen noise? Or maybe they need a soft blanket when learning? These little tweaks can increase their alertness and engagement, as well as go a long way to making a child feel good in their body.
GOLD: What can parents do to make their homes more learning-friendly for children with learning challenges?
CAPANNA-HODGE: Parents should think about how their child learns best and try to include as many elements to support their strengths. If your child is a visual learner, then having strong visual supports in place is crucial. For example, do they need a larger screen or maybe a big whiteboard with colored markers? If they are a kinesthetic or a hands-on learner, as so many children with learning and attentional challenges are, then including sensory support in their learning environment can really boost their processing. Consider having a big bean bag, a sensory seat wedge, weighted blanket, or fidget items accessible and incorporated not just into their learning environment but use of such items should be scheduled in. A corner exercise area with a mini trampoline or even a yoga mat should be part of your learning area for all children, but especially those that struggle with learning or attention.
Children with learning and attentional difficulties will struggle more with the passive elements of virtual learning, so structuring their learning environment to their strengths is critical.
GOLD: What should wellness design look like for children’s play and sleep spaces at home to make learning easier?
CAPANNA-HODGE: Creating ways or room for children to increase their movement is a much-needed component of supporting children’s physical and mental wellness. With routines being vastly different and so much time on devices, we need to intently find ways for children to be more physically active.
For young children, play is how they learn, and incorporating play into their home-based learning program is an essential component. Just like in the classroom, a well-defined play space that is separate from their learning space will help children shift gears from one activity to another.
Having blocks and dolls out on their desk will only serve as a distraction for young learners. Using a schedule with clear times marked for each activity incorporated with movement to the different spaces helps children not only have routine and structure, it helps their brain shift and alert them to the activity at hand.
The same can be said for teens; they need to have a clean space with learning items in one area and gaming devices and other distractions in another.
GOLD: What should wellness design look like for teens’ play and sleep spaces at home to make learning easier?
CAPANNA-HODGE: Just [as] with adults, it is important for teens to keep their learning or “work” spaces separated from their beds. When our brain associates working with the place we sleep, our subconscious brain can’t see the difference between the two and sleep quality diminishes; hence our attention dips and stress increases. Having a separate desk or table in their bedroom with accessible supplies helps support a teen’s learning, motivation, and overall wellness.
GOLD: What can parents of kids or teens who won’t be going back to school do to make their homes emotionally healthier for the whole family – especially themselves?
CAPANNA-HODGE: Balance, structure and routine in all aspects of a families’ home and life are more important than ever as we wade through this pandemic [and they] give children that sense of control they crave. In small and big ways, giving children and teens control within the home is paramount for mental health.
Having them be part of setting up their own space is a great way for them to do that. From picking out where their learning space is to what goes on their table and desk, children should be a part of creating their learning space. Giving children a sense of control in this way not only reduces anxiety, it builds confidence.
It is important for the whole family to focus on physical and mental health, as well as incorporate daily routines in our life that help mitigate stress; breathwork, yoga, walking, meditation, biofeedback, or whatever else brings the family together and lowers that angst we are all feeling.
With so much time at home, keeping learning spaces organized and personalized for both child and parent helps each of us make that mental shift to working and learning from home. We are in this for the long haul and we have to treat our spaces not as a temporary but set it up for successful learning and working.