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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Some kids prefer remote learning, but in-person remains the best mode

Wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, elementary school students line up to enter school for the first day of classes in Richardson, Texas, on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. Despite Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's executive order banning mask mandates by local officials, the Richardson Independent School District and many others across the state are requiring masks for students.  (L.M. Otero/Associated Press)
By Edin Randall and Samantha Bento Washington Post

Jonathan was an avid soccer player, a dedicated student and a social young man who enjoyed spending time with his friends. However, by the time he limped into our clinic after a year of chronic knee pain, he was not attending school, was withdrawn from his peers, had retreated to his room and was worried about the unpredictability of his future.

As psychologists at Boston Children’s Hospital’s Mayo Family Pediatric Pain Rehabilitation Center, we work with youths who have severe and debilitating chronic pain. Kids and teens who enroll in our program typically have withdrawn from everyday activities to reduce or avoid worsening their pain. We have dubbed this coping approach “comfortably uncomfortable.” Counterintuitively, returning to daily life while coping with pain is an essential step toward reaching the ultimate treatment goal: pain relief.

We see a parallel between our patients’ experiences and what many schoolchildren and their families have faced during the pandemic: Remote learning provided many kids relief from struggles such as academic pressure, emotional angst and social stress. Now, they or their parents might be resisting a return to “normal” because they have become comfortable with this unconventional form of schooling.

We worry that this problem will become pervasive as the school year begins – that families will make the comfortably uncomfortable choice of sticking with remote learning to avoid confronting other problems. Some schools are returning to full-time in-person classes, but others are planning hybrid models with in-person and online learning.

Although safety concerns and other circumstances might make a hybrid model or online-only schooling appropriate for some families, a knee-jerk choice to go remote can create a slippery slope of avoidance of what may have caused distress before the pandemic. As professionals who help kids return to a full life after extended withdrawal, we offer this advice to help parents and their children manage a transition back to a new kind of normal:

Break fear-avoidance cycle

Avoiding what we fear often provides immediate relief, but avoidance actually feeds the fear, making it worse. For example, virtual learning provided immediate relief for kids who previously avoided school because of bullying. Parents who had to witness their child’s victimization also experienced relief. Wouldn’t it be easier to go remote? Yes, in the short term. But avoidance removes opportunities to learn how to manage social difficulties.

When your daughter opts out of school because she is worried about getting teased, she’s losing the chance to practice self-advocacy (by letting a trusted adult at school know about it) and emotional regulation (using coping strategies to manage the fear that builds as she walks past her bully in the halls). She also won’t get to connect with friends at school who remind her that she’s liked. Competence and confidence develop through facing and overcoming adversity, not by avoiding it.

Celebrate the uncomfortable

People are here today because our ancestors anticipated threats well enough to avoid danger. The emotional discomfort that comes with facing potential threats to survival (passing that math test, for kids in modern times) is what urges us into action. Waiting for difficult feelings to disappear before action will lead to inaction.

When your son wants to ask a new friend to hang out, he will undoubtedly worry about rejection. When your daughter is studying for a test that she wants to ace, anxiety will build. It is important to remind children that anything that matters to them will probably make them feel worried, anxious or stressed and that these feelings can propel them toward success.

Tolerating – or even embracing – difficult feelings will help your child get comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Don’t expect a smooth path

It may be a bumpy road as children transition back to life as they knew it. We tell our patients’ families to expect this and to focus on recovery rather than ensuring a smooth ride. If your child has a difficult morning and is refusing to go to school, it is tempting to get caught in a power struggle or give in. Instead, redirect your energy toward giving your child space and taking a few deep breaths yourself.

Once everyone is calm, work with your child to develop a short-term action plan. Start simple by creating a step-by-step approach through a morning routine. Next, encourage your child to commit to a few hours in school with the plan to reassess once that goal has been met. Respecting and making small adjustments in response to the bumps takes the pressure off the perfection required for a smooth road.

Help identify what kids value

Our set of values is the compass that guides us toward living a meaningful life. Whether your child cares deeply about connecting with friends or thrives on a sports field, helping them identify what they find important will allow them to navigate challenging moments with confidence and agency.

For example, if your child is refusing to return to in-person school but is excited to resume soccer with their school’s team, you can work with them to make connections between the skills and traits that support success on the soccer field to those required in the classroom. Perhaps they value the camaraderie of the team, the perseverance required when the game isn’t going according to plan or the fun of expressing their creativity with fancy footwork.

These values – connection, perseverance and creativity – can also be cultivated in the classroom. By clarifying their values and drawing parallels between activities they do and don’t like, they can develop a sense of purpose, meaning and joy within areas of challenge.

Foster social smarts

We have heard from some parents that aspects of remote learning – the flexibility, learning at their own pace, minimal social distractions – have helped their children academically. This may be true, but what about social-emotional intelligence? It is through face-to-face interactions that your child navigates peer relationships, develops self-awareness and empathy and learns to collaborate with others.

Take the student who transferred to a new high school during the pandemic, socially isolated and out of practice relating to their peers. That student might opt to go remote this year, worried that making new friends while trying to meet rigorous academic demands could hurt their GPA.

It’s important to embrace your child’s commitment to good grades while reminding them that rejoining student government builds leadership skills, participating in the school play develops teamwork and surviving social drama leads to resilience.

Social smarts are key to a happy and healthy child, and they’re essential for creating a future of strong and effective leaders.

Next steps

It is often important to look beyond the outward struggles and explore what other factors may be fueling the fire. For example, school avoidance may be a sign of undetected learning issues, underlying social anxiety or untreated depression. We encourage parents to have frank conversations with their children to get to the bottom of the issue; however, you may need experts to step in.

Next steps could include setting up an intake with a mental health provider, consulting with a guidance counselor to collect their impressions and learn about school-centered supports or pursuing psychoeducational or neuropsychological testing to assess for learning difficulties.

As we make this next transition, it will take a village to help some kids get back on track. Together, we can encourage the comfortably uncomfortable to return to the world as it is and help them flourish after such a challenging time.