Strategies to help parents with students learning from home
With some schools providing a hybrid model of learning for students learning remotely from home, for parents and caregivers the experience will be anything but remote.
This major change in day-to-day life will inevitably cause heightened stress, frustration and anxiety within families.
Dr Georgie Fleming, a University of New South Wales child psychologist said that parents experiencing these kinds of emotions are likely to become less patient, more punitive, or more withdrawn.
“And what we know from science is that ineffective parenting can play a big role in creating and exacerbating behaviour problems in kids,” she said.
This can consequently play a major role in how those students are able to respond to remote learning.
However, Dr Fleming has some practical strategies you can discuss with parents and caregivers which can help if applied properly.
“[These] strategies are simple to write about but can be a lot harder to implement in real life,” she said.
“This is a Super Parenting approach that takes time and effort but is worth it because it works.”
Here are Dr Fleming's strategies:
1. ‘Special Play’ everyday
Special play is a particular kind of play that parents should do with their child.
Special play should be explained as:
- Child-led: This means following the child’s lead in the play: they’re in charge! Parents should follow their child’s lead by avoiding asking lots of questions, making suggestions, or giving directions (e.g., “why don’t we colour her hair in rainbow?”). Instead, they should reflect their child’s speech, describe their play aloud (e.g., “you’ve collected all the blue blocks”), and give them compliments on their ideas and behaviour (e.g., “you’ve built an amazing rocket!”).
- One-on-one: This means no distractions (e.g., phone, news), no siblings, and only one parent at a time (if this applies to the household).
- Creative: This means doing activities that don’t have rules like colouring, Lego, and kitchen or train sets.
You can learn more about doing Special Play here.
Special Play doesn’t have to be long—five minutes with young kids is enough to have an impact—but it does need to happen regularly.
Daily special play will do a couple of important things:
1. It will help maintain the parent-child relationship at a time when it’s harder than usual because the child is more disruptive, and the parent is less patient.
It’s five minutes every day without disobedience and back-chat, filled instead with all of their good qualities. Daily special play can also help with any non-compliant behaviour because the child is reminded of all the great things about their parent, and when we like someone, we’re more likely to respect their expectations.
2. It will help regulate big feelings.
This pandemic is scary. For kids, daily special play provides unfettered access to the person most helpful for sorting out their big feelings: parents and caregivers. For parents, it’s five minutes without worry and uncertainty, filled instead with fun and laughter.
2. Use lots of praise
Praise can be very powerful for changing behaviour.
When a behaviour is followed by a good outcome like praise, that behaviour tends to become more frequent.
There are a few things that can increase the likelihood that praise will lead to change:
- Make praises specific: Specific praise tells the child exactly what is liked about their behaviour. For example, “you did so well playing by yourself while daddy finished his work call” lets the child know that the specific behaviour liked was ‘playing by yourself’. A “good job” might feel nice, but it doesn’t increase specific behaviours.
- Praise the positive opposites of the undesirable behaviours: When parents ‘catch’ their kid doing something, it’s usually the not-so-nice behaviours. Praising the positive opposite flips this around by ‘catching’ the good stuff. Do parents dislike it when their kids fight with each other? Ask parents to think of the ‘opposite’ of this behaviour. Is it using kind words with one another? Is it taking turns? Is it using words instead of fists? Whatever that behaviour is, whenever it happens, catch it and praise it. For example, “I just heard the best sharing happening in here” gives your kids positive attention for the behaviour you want to see more often: sharing.
- Make your praise emotional: Kids tend to understand our emotions when they have let parents down, especially at a time like this when patience is low. But at the heart of the parent-child attachment relationship is emotional connection and this makes emotional exchanges meaningful and motivating for kids. To reduce the chances that they seek out emotional exchanges with parents using undesirable behaviours, they should ensure their child is getting their emotion when the good stuff happens. This can mean pairing praise with smiles, affection, and changes in your tone and face.
3. Use rewards
Rewards are another ‘good outcome’ that can increase specific behaviours.
Parents can and should use rewards liberally, but they should ensure the reward is linked to specific behaviours.
This is the difference between rewarding a child for “being good today” and rewarding a child for “ticking off all three worksheets” or “doing the washing up” or “going the whole morning without swearing at your sister”.
Like non-specific praise, getting a reward for “being good” might feel nice but it doesn’t increase specific behaviours.
At a time like this, families might consider introducing a ‘token economy system’.
This system involves giving the child a tangible token (e.g., a sticker, a plastic coin) every time they do a pre-specified goal behaviour (e.g., listening the first time, using manners).
After collecting enough tokens, they can ‘trade’ them for something from their personalised reward list.
This could be anything from an ice-block, to screen time, to choosing the movie after dinner.
4. Use consequences
In the same way that behaviours followed by a good outcome increase in frequency, behaviours followed by an aversive outcome decrease in frequency.
This is why using consequences following undesirable behaviours is really useful: consequences can reduce misbehaviour.
There are a few things that make consequences more likely to be effective.
- Consequences need to be consistent: When a particular behaviour is followed by an aversive outcome every time it happens, kids learn that the behaviour is never going to get them what they want. But if a behaviour is followed by an aversive outcome only sometimes, then kids can start to think “I might get away with it this time”. This kind of thinking means that undesirable behaviours will keep happening.
- Consequences need to be fair: Consequences can vary – from time-out to privilege removal to ignoring by the parent. The important thing is that the consequence is fair: time-outs shouldn’t take place in dark rooms, privileges shouldn’t be removed for weeks, ignoring shouldn’t last all day. Parents should aim to use consequences sparingly: the ratio of positive to negative interactions should fall heavily on the positive side. Parents should avoid punishment that involves causing physical pain. Science shows that corporal punishment worsens behaviour problems over time.
- Some consequences warrant a second chance: For some undesirable behaviours like non-compliance with a parent request, it may be warranted to use a reminder or warning before implementing the consequence (e.g., “If you don’t …, then …”). This is because something like non-compliance might happen because the child didn’t hear you or got distracted by something. Other behaviours like hitting or spitting probably deserve an automatic consequence. This is because these kinds of behaviours are never okay under any circumstances.
- Implement consequences neutrally: When we implement consequences, it’s usually for a behaviour that upsets us and we tend to show these emotions to kids. But it’s important to remember that it’s the consequence that changes the behaviour, not the delivery of it. Consequences don’t need emotion to be effective and, in some circumstances, a highly emotional consequence can worsen the behaviour because kids tend to become more emotional as parents get emotional. Implementing consequences like a robot means that you are showing your kids how to be calm when stressed and seeing this can help them calm down.
- Debrief the behaviour after the consequence: Debriefing—having a conversation with the child about why a behaviour wasn’t appropriate and the effects it had on other people—is important for kids’ learning. However, caution parents about the timing. Good learning doesn’t happen when emotions are high so debrief once everybody has calmed down.
- Have a family meeting: In the same way that explaining the reward system can be helpful for motivating kids, it can be helpful to have a family meeting to discuss the discipline system. Set kids up for success: kids should know what parents expect of them and what the consequences are when they don’t meet those expectations.
The most important thing to remind parents and caregivers about using consequences is that kids thrive when there are consequences.
Having fair, firm boundaries that are consistently enforced creates a structured environment in which kids can feel safe.
5. Take care of yourself and remind parents to do the same.
The first step in taking good care of kids is taking good care of yourself.
Self-care is fundamental to effective parenting (and teaching).
Self-care will differ from person to person, but regardless of how you do it, make sure you schedule it in. Protect it. Prioritise it.
This is a lot of advice and hopefully some of it is useful.
I call this kind of parenting ‘Super Parenting’ because it’s hard: it takes time and effort to establish and maintain these ways of responding. But Super Parenting is only the method, it’s not the goal. The goal is Good Enough Parenting. There’s no such thing as perfect parenting and you’re going to stuff it up all the time because you’re human. But kids are resilient and forgiving. Your best is good enough. Even if your ‘best’ isn’t as good as before the pandemic hit, it’s still enough.
Dr Georgie Fleming is a researcher and clinical psychologist specialising in childhood disruptive behaviour problems, who has spent the last six years helping parents develop strategies to more effectively manage their kid’s defiance and aggression.