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“Pandemic Schooling” and our Unmotivated, Resistant Kids: What’s a Parent to Do?

Mother Helps Stressed Teenage Daughter With Homework

I hear lots of parents talking about how their kids are resisting “home schooling” right now in this pandemic situation. Some parents are frustrated; other are worried or distraught. Some are completely at the end of their rope.

I get it. You’re not alone.

I have a few thoughts that will hopefully set your mind at ease, and provide some clarity about the “bottom line” in this situation.

It’s already been said that—while you may be trying to do school work at home, this is not “home schooling” in the usual sense, and therefore comparing your situation with that of home schoolers may leave you feeling (unnecessarily) like a failure. What you are doing is way harder, and I believe you have other valuable alternatives.

Home schooling is generally based on a belief by parents that kids have innate curiosity, and that if we allow them to lead through noticing what they’re curious about and interested in, and giving them opportunities to pursue those interests, they will learn what they need. There’s also often an element of deliberately integrating information/skills that a parent feels are important to the activities that a child chooses (e.g., your child wants to bake a cake, and the parent inserts a bit of teaching about fractions while measuring the ingredients).[1]

In the current pandemic situation, teachers are attempting to transfer the school curriculum and learning materials, as is or slightly modified, into the home. While teachers are providing online support in some cases and they have the very best intentions, there is likely very little, if anything, about this situation that could be called “home schooling”. It’s completely different right from the philosophical foundation and through to the implementation.

And that’s a main reason that it has such huge challenges.

These are some of the problems with trying to suddenly “home school” in these pandemic circumstances:

  • Kids aren’t leading the way—the school agenda is. Trying to get your kids interested in something that they just aren’t, when they’re in their home environment and no longer have their teacher leading them and the group/class connections that formed at the beginning of the school year may be hard or almost impossible.
  • Most kids need to be connected to their teacher to learn. For kids who need this connection, the teacher will have formed that connection and teaching relationship with them over the first weeks of the school year. They are connected to you, their parent, but in a different way. You haven’t been cultivating a relationship with them as their (academic) teacher, nor are you necessarily inspired about the role or inspired about the content you’re trying to teach them. Those factors all make a huge difference.
  • When we’re trying to encourage our kids learn something that the school has sent home, and they’re resisting, we may be putting the school goals before our connection with our child, and if we are, they will resist. They need connection first (see below).
  • Kids feel our stress, especially if you have a sensitive kiddo. First of all, they may feel the generalized stress of the community and the global situation if they’re really sensitive. Secondly, just the fact that you’re probably home from work and probably have financial things to sort out, new routines to create, etc., is a disruption and a stressor. Perhaps you’re worried about family members who live a distance from you; perhaps you have a close friend or family member who is ill or who has died. Kids generally need some predictability. We as parents often need some predictability to help our nervous system stay calm as well. Everyone is feeling the stress and we need to attend to that first and foremost.


Meet Safety and Connection Needs First

What your kids need most in order to learn anything, including academics or social behaviour, is to have their basic needs for safety and connection met first. The neuroscience is clear.

They need to feel your calm (nervous system regulation). Everything you say or do needs to have an underlying message and feeling of, “it’s going to be okay”.

They need to be connected to us, and to feel the safety and security of that strong connection before any learning can take place. Dr. Bruce Perry[2] explains that the needs of the lower levels of the brain must be met first, before we can use the higher (cognitive) levels to learn academics. If we want our kids to learn, we need to attend to:

  • Regulation (safety) first, at the lowest level (reptilian) of the brain. Children need to feel safe (it’s not enough to be told that they are safe, or to know in their heads that they are safe). They need to be able to bring their nervous system back into balance before learning or connecting with others can take place. (Hint: your child is in a regulated state and feels safe when playing—therefore, play lots! You can’t play too much right now!)
  • Relationship (connection) second, at the mid-level. A child needs to be able to connect or attach to their parent/teacher in a trusting relationship, before learning can take place. Specific strategies for doing this include being careful with our tone of voice, and focusing on meeting their needs over and above having high expectations for their behaviours. They might need to feel safe by spending extra time with you instead of doing prescribed worksheets or learning activities.
  • Reason (cognitive learning) third, at the highest level. It’s here that conscious, intentional learning can take place only after the lower levels have been attended to. We can engage our children or students in reflecting, remembering and expressing themselves. They can be fully present to participate because the brain’s lower level needs are met.[3]

The first 2 “conditions” of the reptilian brain need to be met before conscious learning can take place and so that kids will actually remember what they’ve learned.

Let that sink in.

What that means is:

If you’re trying to teach your child something before those first two needs of safety and connection are met, they likely won’t remember the learning anyways,

Even if it looks like they’re learning in the moment.

So go easy on yourself and your kids. If all you can do right now is regulate and connect, that’s okay.  

Some of you probably have kids who likely school-type academic learning (I was one of those kids!) and will happily do at least some of the assigned work. If that’s you, great! If not, give yourself a break and focus primarily on balancing your own nervous system regulation (finding your own calm center) and meeting those first two needs for both you and your kids.

Attending to the present moment is where you’ll find the greatest learning

What do you want your child to learn and remember at the end of this?

We are all experiencing various stresses—losses, loneliness, uncertainty, and many people are feeling a lot of grief.

Taking the time and care to attend to these experiences and feelings with deep compassion is an experience your children won’t forget. This is the opportunity of a lifetime. I’m not suggesting it’s easy or comfortable, and my intention isn’t to minimize the stress and angst you may be feeling. But we build resilience and teach our children resilience when navigate difficult challenges. We’re in one right now, and this is our opportunity, messy and impossible as it might seem on some days.

Your children are learning from you as they experience how you manage this. They will learn something valuable from this experience as long as you engage fully with the experience rather than trying to push it aside to attend to “school as usual”. This is a stressful experience. It’s okay to prioritize attending to your feelings of security and well-being. This will help your children to stay connected to themselves and build resilience. (And a note for those with perfectionist tendencies—“managing” this experience doesn’t mean making no mistakes; it means practicing your ability to accept all of what comes up with you and your kids with compassion, and giving yourself grace and repairing when you’ve fallen short, which you will.)

I’ve said before: “Our children need to be engaged and connected, not compliant and disconnected.”

This is our opportunity to connect, and also a time to pause and review your family, relationships, and whether everyone’s needs were getting met in the system as it was.

For those for whom the school system wasn’t working (you know who you are)—this is a gift of time in which you can reconnect and re-evaluate what your kids need to thrive, both now and when this isolation time is over. I speak with many parents all the time who tell me that school causes their kids anxiety or other distress. Sometimes their kids can manage at school, but fall apart once they get home. Other times their kids display “behavioural issues” at school because their basic needs for connection aren’t met, and they can’t cope without that.

What can we do about that? How do we want the future to look?

Many people, myself included, believe that the education system needs an overhaul. In its current form, it no longer meets the needs of a large number of kids, and in fact traumatizes some kids despite the best efforts of many skilled and caring teachers and staff within the system. The system itself is constraining.

I don’t think that we need to take on the overwhelming job of coming up with a new idea for the whole education system while we’re under this stress. Just spend time connecting with your children and putting connection before learning. If there’s an “aha” moment to be gained about what your child needs, you’ll recognize it, and you can decide how to help them get their needs met later.

For those parents whose kids are a good fit for the current school system, but you’re worried that your kids will be “behind” at the beginning of the next school year, I’ll leave you with these thoughts:

  • Your child won’t be the only one. There are thousands of kids whose home situation is currently too stressful to learn. Teachers will have to modify learning goals to some extent when your children return, and that’s okay. This is a pandemic. The teachers have the skills to do that. It will be okay.
  • But more importantly, your child can learn quickly and easily when they return to school– if they’re connected to themselves and able to engage.
  • Children become connected to themselves and engaged through feeling safe, secure and connected with you now at home.

Creating safety and connection need to be the central focus right now, regardless of your situation. And being fully present and real with your family as each of you navigates a wide range of emotions and challenges is the way to “mine” the experience for the learning “gold”.

[1] A small disclaimer for homeschooling parents:  I realize that home schooling takes many forms on a spectrum—in which parents at one end of the spectrum provide a lot more structure, and parents at the other end who are unschooling providing much less structure—and that I haven’t explained all of the difference nuances of home schooling philosophies and practices here. My point here is that pandemic schooling is NOT home schooling—there is likely very little, if anything, about this situation of transferring the school learning into the home that matches what you home schoolers have already been doing.

[2] Dr. Bruce Perry. The Three R’s: Reaching the Learning Brain.

[3] For more on this, see my previous blog post from 2018 here: