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The Stress of Homeschooling in a Pandemic

From March to May 2020 school closures triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic affected about 55.1 million U.S. students in both public and private schools across all 50 states. The switch to online instruction and working from home caused many families to experience stress, which can lead to anxiety and depression. As schools and communities grapple with reopening in the fall, Professor Danielle Dallaire from the William & Mary Department of Psychological Sciences shares some insights from her recent surveys of parents of school-age children on how both parents and children coped with the stress of homeschooling during the school closures of the spring of 2020.

Question: What did parents and children find stressful about homeschooling during the spring of 2020?

Answer: Stress experienced by families can fall into 2 categories: Spillover and crossover.  Spillover is when stress in one domain, like work, impacts one's ability to perform in another, like caregiving.  Crossover refers to how stress experienced by one family member leads to increased stress by another family member. For example, a child frustrated because they cannot interact with their friends may be moody or act out and that can cause stress for the parent. 

Parents and children were dealing with many stresses during the spring. Parents reported being worried about finances, job security, possible infection, and trying to balance both work and children’s educational needs. Children also experienced stress with the loss of their usual extracurricular activities, adjusting to online learning, and the loss of contact with peers and friends. Research out of China by the China-European Paediatric Association–Union of National European Paediatric Societies and Associations also reported that media exposure and local infection rates contributed to children’s stress. Our survey with families in the U.S. replicates these findings. U.S. parents reported being most stressed about their work, their children’s education, and their children’s screen time usage. Children reported being worried about the infection and missed school, and missing their friends and activities. 

Question: What kinds of things help alleviate stress for parents and children?

Answer: Heather Prime from York University discusses several ways families can alleviate stress during this time, including establishing a “new normal” routine, getting outside and engaging in physical activity, and discussing fears and anxieties and ways to manage them.  In our survey, parents who stuck to a routine reported less anxiety, depression, and stress, and their children had fewer adjustment problems. Parents who reported that their children spent more time outside reported experiencing less anxiety, and children who engaged in rigorous physical activity experienced fewer adjustment problems. Lastly, parents who expressed confidence in being able to help their children meet their educational needs reported less stress, depression and anxiety, and fewer child difficulties. 

Question: What about families with children who have special educational needs?

Answer: Twenty eight percent of the parents who completed our survey indicated that their child had received special educational services through their school. Half of these parents reported that they stopped getting services due to the pandemic. Unfortunately, these children and families are in high need for continued services as they reported more total adjustment difficulties among children than families who were not receiving these services before the pandemic.

Question: As the pandemic continues into the fall and many families will return to distance learning, what advice can you offer them?

Answer: Our results would suggest that making and sticking to a “new normal” routine would alleviate stress for both parents and children.  A certain degree of predictability in this uncertain time will go a long way to contain some of the spillover and crossover stress many families experienced during the spring.  Our results would also suggest that children of all ages should get outside and be active.  Outdoor physical activity is an effective stress reliever for both children and parents. Last, we would suggest having open conversations about both parents and children’s fears, worries and expectations. These conversations can help parents and children identify negative emotions and find constructive ways to manage them. 

Question: What can schools do to help support children and parents?

Answer: It will be important for schools to help parents establish routines with clear expectations about educational time and activities. This will help reduce parents’ stress and children’s adjustment difficulties. Schools should also support parents in homeschooling and help build parents’ confidence that they can support their children and meet their educational needs. Lastly, we’d recommend finding ways to continue to offer support and services to at-risk children and those who need special educational services. 

Additional Reading and Resources:

Co-Space Study: Supporting Parents, Adolescents and Children during Epidemics

Jiao, W. Y., Wang, L. N., Liu, J., Fang, S. F., Jiao, F. Y., Pettoello-Mantovani, M., & Somekh, E. (2020). Behavioral and Emotional Disorders in Children during the COVID-19 Epidemic. The Journal of pediatrics, 221, 264–266.e1.

Prime, H., Wade, M., & Browne, D.T. (2020). Risk and Resilience in Family Well-being During the COVID-19 Pandemic. American Psychologist.