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Arizona Family Counselor: Virtual Learning Can Be Stressful For Kids

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: The interruptions to life as we'd like it in 2020 have been difficult to come to terms with. As adults, we have the benefit of understanding what is happening around us, to some extent, at least. But for kids, 2020 has created a stunning gap in their routines. Being out of school has meant being away from friends and consistency in education, but also in basic needs for some. Now, as teachers across the state and country work to make the 2020-2021 school year productive, divides are more apparent than ever. And that's evident even how kids may be feeling about classes starting back up again. For some students, the return — even online — may be welcome. For others, it's just another reminder that something is terribly wrong. Earlier, I spoke with family counselor Jemeille Ackourey about how socioeconomics are playing on children's emotions.

JEMEILLE ACKOUREY: One of the distinguishing factors is I think we're putting a lot of emphasis on looking at the kid and saying, "Either this kid is excited about it, or this kid isn't." I think a lot about excitement over education and learning is a learned attitude. They put a lot of responsibility on the parents. So for the kids that we see are excited about returning to school, even if it's a hybrid or if it's an online learning, they have some basic things in place that eliminate the fear and uncertainty and allows them the freedom to focus on starting a new school year. And for those children it's predictability, it's safety, and it's a routine and structure. They're allowed to simply look forward to going back to school. And I think the other piece of that is, is the attitude in which the parent is embracing it and the parents that are embracing it and have things in place, even though they may be feeling a little uncomfortable with such uncertainty, and the uncertainty is like, "If we're going back to school, how long is this going to last before we have to switch over to, you know, being an online school or vice versa, starting online and then switching over to going back into the classroom?" Those parents are at least demonstrating to their children that everything is going to be OK. So, for instance, I have a mom that is doing, they're starting school online, and she's a working mother and very concerned about how they were going to be able to do this. Well, she worked it out with her boss that she works [a] four-day work week. She found five other mothers who are in the exact same situation that she respects, admires, the kids all get along. And they've created a pod. And at this woman's house, she has five little tables set up, distanced from each other. There's the computers thrown up on the TV screen. And mothers will take turns facilitating, proctoring this classroom environment. Now, of course, the teacher's going to be teaching it, but they're there to help, you know, redirect the child, ask — answer questions that need to be answered and to perform, to provide some sort of environmental structure. Kids are looking forward to that. They are so excited about a small classroom of four of their best friends.

GOLDSTEIN: For those children who, who don't have that possibility of having that environment, I wonder what sort of additional stress would you look for us as a professional when it comes to the fact that there is the uncertainty on top of the fact that, well, what I was used to as a school routine is, is gone. Are there lasting effects possibly that you might be concerned about?

ACKOUREY: My concern would be, is if the stress is prolonged stress. We know with children, with anybody, prolonged stress is traumatic. Our body, you know, our body keeps the score. It shows and it and the anxiety can prevail long after the stressors are gone. So those are the things that I would worry about. And especially if they're concerned about school and they're upset about school and then they are, then they make the connection. The link is then created — the emotional link. School and stress becomes linked together. I would be concerned that that stress, even on a go-forward, even after things are figured out that they link school with stress. And those are the things that we have to be working with the kids through now in real time.

GOLDSTEIN: Let me come back specifically to parents. Certainly we know from educators that engaged parents at whatever level, whether it's folks, high income, low income, whatever it is, if parents are able to be more engaged, we've seen that that leads to better results for students. How can parents help, in addition to the pod you mentioned, but how can parents potentially make this a more positive experience to make sure that it works for their children, certainly, but also maybe even the family unit?

ACKOUREY: It starts first, I think, with attitude, and attitude and mood. Parents have to focus on possibilities and not limitations. Parents have to present to their children that this is going to be OK. We're going to get through this. This is a tough time. It's a difficult time. But we'll lean on each other and we'll get through this. They can't be hearing parents worry and fret over the details of managing their day to make this work. So, again, it's clearing the emotional road so that the kids have the freedom just to focus on their education. But I think kids are hearing an awful lot. They're hearing a lot of this worry and that's dangerous. So — because ... it's affecting their emotional well-being, their psychological well-being. So that's the first start with parents, how they can, how they can be helpful. The second is, don't isolate yourself. And that doesn't mean go out in public and join parent groups. But there's a lot of online support for parents to be able to even connect with themselves, even if they create their own support groups and share best practices and ideas. Part of it is to also normalizing things. They're not alone in this, nor do they have to function alone in this. Parents also need to know, learn how to reach out. And, you know, we talk about it takes a village to raise a child. Well, right now we got to pull our village together. And many people don't have that. They're pretty isolated. They're, they're transplants from another state. They don't have family members here. They've been busy with their work and their career and getting established that they don't, they don't even know their neighbors. Now is really the time to emotionally be able to connect with people, socially connect with people, and doesn't have to be face to face. We could reach out. So it's developing that support group. The other thing parents can do is stay very well informed with the school. I know that the schools are working feverishly to keep their Web pages updated with parents' support and information. Parents have to stay informed, and they need to stay as plugged in as possible. And then the other piece is ask for help. You can't do it alone. Ask for help.

GOLDSTEIN: Jemeille Ackourey is a family counselor based in the Valley.

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Steve Goldstein was a host at KJZZ from 1997 to 2022.