In a recent Zoom interview with psychologist and author Dr. Dan Peters, I had the chance to ask him for some of his valuable input on a big difficulty facing parents and children these days—adapting to distance or virtual learning. For over 20 years, Dr. Dan has been passionate about helping parents to parent their children with purpose and intention. His goal is to guide them in reaching their potential while their children are also reaching their own. Today I wanted to share his response to my questions about the challenges many children face with distance learning, especially kids with dyslexia, and how parents can help their children with meeting the psychological challenges of distance learning.
You can watch the full interview below or on my Don Winn YouTube channel.
Psychological Challenges of Distance Learning for Dyslexics
Don: Dr. Dan, what observations have you made about the challenges facing students who are engaged in distance learning for the first time?
Dr. Dan: There’s a host of them. I think that the backdrop to all this, with the pandemic and distance learning, everyone is having to do so many things that are new. Parents are having to do more teaching and supporting than maybe they have in the past, even for parents of dyslexic students and other neurodiverse learners. Teachers are having to do something they’ve never had to do before and engage kids in virtual stream learning. And so there’s a lot of overwhelm, is what we’re seeing, a lot of overwhelm at a lot of levels. So for a child, and particularly a young child, we’ve been for years trying to get our kids to be off screens, right? Less screens. We know that kids love screens, and now they’re needing to be on screens, and they’re needing to be on screens often in ways that they don’t want to be on screens.
So a few things with the screens—one is, we know that dyslexics, in particular, are very hands-on learners, right, very kinesthetic hands-on learners. Well, it’s hard to do hands-on learning when you have a talking head, a teacher having to deliver the curriculum. The other thing that’s happening is a lot of schools and teachers are requiring the video to be on, which is really uncomfortable for a lot of kids, and also they then get distracted by having to see their face, other people’s faces, and then it’s hard to take in the curriculum. We know that a lot of kids with dyslexia have auditory processing issues as well, and so now you’re having to really rely on listening to a lot of information, and hopefully, the teachers are using visuals as well, capitalizing on the visual/spatial learning strength of a dyslexic, but all teachers are doing it differently.
And then of course, you have parents, many of whom are needing to work as well, are having to be responsible for keeping their child engaged in something that might not be engaging for their child or might be very difficult for their child, or their child is just bouncing around, opening tabs, scrolling around, looking out the window… So there are just multiple levels of added stress and complexity with our current learning situation.
Balancing Academics and Well-Being: A Key to Handling the Psychological Challenges of Distance Learning
Don: Yes, in my wife’s office environment, a lot of the secretarial staff have to bring their kids to work with them. It hasn’t worked out very well. The kids are stressed, the parents are stressed, there’s a lot of shouting, and I hear that in a lot of cases, the teachers are just assigning them a couple of chapters to read and then having them write a five-hundred word essay on what they read. I know speaking for myself, for a dyslexic, that just doesn’t work. And so it’s been nothing but a nightmare for the parents and the kids. So my question—some parents are having difficulty helping their children to find a balance between academic needs and their mental health needs during these unprecedented times. So what should parents’ priority be and why? How can they help their kids deal with the psychological challenges of distance learning?
Dr. Dan: I just want to capitalize on something you just said, which is really important, and that is, in a lot of these learning situations, either (a) because the schools are wanting kids to not be on screens all day long, or (b) they’re just not set up to deliver the curriculum, kids are being assigned more work. And so we know as dyslexics, as a fellow dyslexic, like you, this would be my worst nightmare. The amount of reading and writing I had to do alone in regular school was difficult. To have to do it in this way, it just increases the anxiety and the intensity, and for many families the meltdowns and the avoidance.
So what I’m suggesting daily in my role is we need to focus on mental health. We need to focus on health and wellness over the worry about academic output, academic proficiency, and even the concern about our child getting behind. Now we know that we’re often concerned in a regular school environment with our dyslexic kids getting behind, and yes, it’s a concern, especially in this environment. However, that does not overshadow the importance of mental health and well-being. We have to remember that this is a temporary situation we are in. I know we don’t know when this thing is going to end, but this is not going to be virtual learning forever. We also have to remember that much of the United States is in a similar situation, and a lot of kids are not in an optimal learning environment.
We have to try to put down the worry about whether kids will get behind, and really focus on both their mental health and your mental health as a parent. How much can kids handle? Are they getting to move around? Are they getting to be outside? Are they getting to do things that they like? Are you able to reduce the conflict over schoolwork?
And then for yourself, what can you carve out for yourself in this very stressful time? Because from what we know, from all of the brain-based research, the great books of Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, is that we have to help our kids regulate. Our job is to help give them safety and security so they can have a positive attachment to themselves and to others. To do that, we parents have to be regulated ourselves, and this is a crazy stressful time for parents. And so, we really have to focus on ways that we can practice self-care so we can go into these situations—not with that elevated energy, with that elevated emotion, because our kids pick up on that intensity as well. So to answer your question simply, mental health and wellness are what we have to prioritize right now.
When Parents Should Put Themselves First
Don: Yes, excellent points, especially the fact that part of the solution in handling the psychological challenges of distance learning is that parents need to be caring for themselves at this time. So what suggestions would you offer to help the parents meet these challenges?
Dr. Dan: Well, first of all, I’m taking a deep breath. We do have to have some time to breathe. So everyone has their own self-care strategy. The first thing that we need to do, because awareness is key, is we need to be aware, take inventory of what are the things that fill me up? What do I need to increase my energy when I’m feeling depleted? It could be anything from alone time, meditation, yoga, journaling, talking with a friend, going for a walk, going for a hike, going for a run, going for a bike ride.
Now there are many people saying, I don’t have time to do this, and that may be true. Even if you can find the smallest amount of time for yourself—sometimes it’s waking up earlier, sometimes it’s waking up later, sometimes it’s working with another parent (someone who’s in your pod) to say, “Hey, I’ll take your child for a couple of hours or an hour a day, let’s trade off,”—any way you can do something for yourself.
What a lot of parents feel is that “I come last.” It’s true. Parents—especially good parents—parents who are trying to be really good parents, put themselves last. What I am strongly suggesting is that you put yourself first for at least a small part of the day, because not only do you need that, your child needs you to have that space, that rejuvenation. And I even recommend to parents to tell your kids why you’re doing it, because you’re modeling coping and resilience, which is what we’re wanting to raise our kids to have as well.
The Psychological Challenges of Distance Learning: How to Cope with Homework Horrors
Don: Excellent suggestions. And I know just from what my wife observed—I’m not in an office environment—but she’s observed this a lot, when both the child is stressed and the parent is stressed, unless the parent takes control and puts the brakes on, that’s when tempers flare and things just get worse after that. When the parent finds themselves getting upset or getting distressed by a situation, what would you suggest they do at that moment, to put the brakes on and help everyone deal with the psychological challenges of distance learning?
Dr. Dan: You’re going to hear me say the a-word again—aware. If you could become aware that you’re starting to escalate, that’s huge. That’s huge. Because a lot of us just go from zero to whatever very quickly, particularly in stressful situations, and we’re sleep-deprived.
So just start cultivating awareness of when you’re starting to feel frustrated and to escalate—notice that. Then in the moment, decide whether you can take a deep breath and shift your energy in that situation or take a little break. Just take a little time-out. There is no crisis or urgency in that school assignment. Right? That’s the other thing. It seems like it’s so important, but there’s no worksheet, there’s no essay that has to be done right in that moment. Take a break, walk away, tell your child, “You know what? I just need to take a break right now.”
Sometimes it’s good to let them know you’re just taking care of yourself, other times you just need to distract your child, like, “Hey, why don’t you go do that and I’m going to take a break.” We don’t want our kids feeling bad, we don’t want our kids feeling shame, and again, we’re talking about a lot of dyslexic kids, who automatically feel bad and feel shame just when they have to engage in schoolwork when it’s so difficult for them. So it’s really about noticing it, Don, and doing something when you notice it.
Helping Kids Deal with Anxiety
Don: Excellent. And so that awareness is something that a parent needs to be thinking about before they begin to talk to their child about any situation that comes up. Tell us a little bit about the Summit Center and your work there and also your wonderful books, Make Your Worrier a Warrior.
Dr. Dan: We have a center where we have psychologists, therapists, and educational therapists, and our goal is to help people of all ages realize what we call their developmental potential, or realize who they can become. We’re fortunate to work with wonderfully neurodiverse people who are bright, they are creative, and they learn differently. They might have dyslexia, they might have ADHD, they might experience anxiety, depression, other processing issues. Through a variety of ways, whether it’s assessment to understand their profile, counseling, consultation, or educational therapy, our goal is to focus on their strengths and help them understand their overall profile while working on shoring up some of the developmental challenges which are causing them stress in any of those areas.
I’m fortunate to work with a wonderful, collaborative team, and really collaborate with the parents, who are of course partners and know their kids better than anyone. So that’s our center.
The books, the Worrier to Warrior series came out of my work with anxiety and talks over the years. Like so many books happen, people would say after a talk, “Hey, where can we get your book?” As someone who is dyslexic and dysgraphic, I never would have wanted to or even thought I would write a book, and then lo and behold, I wrote some books. They’re really all based on the biopsychosocial model, which is knowing about how our brain works, our biology, our fight or flight response. They focus on learning about different ways of overcoming anxiety, both through cognitive behavioral methods and mindfulness-based ways and a narrative approach, which is the worry monster—like how do we gang up on the worry monster? There are three different books—one’s for parents and teachers, one’s for kids and teenagers, and there’s a workbook for younger kids. It’s all about how to learn more about how we work as humans, to squelch the worry monster which often gets the best of us.
Don: Yes, I highly recommend the books. I have a worry monster myself. I always have, so I understand the importance of putting that worry monster back under the bed where it belongs. So thank you very much, Dr. Dan, for taking the time to talk with us today.
Dr. Dan Peters, licensed psychologist, is the co-founder and executive director of The Summit Center, specializing in the assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and families with special emphasis on gifted, talented, and creative individuals and families. Dr. Dan speaks regularly at state and national conferences on a variety of topics including parenting, gifted children, twice-exceptionality, anxiety, and dyslexia. He also writes for Huffington Post and Psychology Today. Dr. Dan is author of Make Your Worrier a Warrior: A Guide to Conquering Your Child’s Fears, and its companion book, From Worrier to Warrior: A Guide to Conquering Your Fears. He is co-author of The Warrior Workbook: A Guide for Conquering Your Worry Monster, as well as co-author of Raising Creative Kids. Dr. Dan is also a co-founder of ParentFootprint.com, an online interactive parent-training program, and Camp Summit, a sleep-over summer camp for gifted and 2E youth. He is the host of the Parent Footprint Podcast with Dr. Dan.
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