As a parent of a child with a social, emotional, behavioral, or mental health challenge you know just how essential routine is to your child's life. Once you get your child into a routine that allows them to thrive it is difficult when something interferes with it. The past couple of months have been nonstop interferences, and what makes it even worse is the mystery surrounding when things will get back to "normal," what normal even means anymore, and what will be done in the meantime to keep children on an educational trajectory that is beneficial to them. As if an interruption to your routine was not tricky enough to navigate you also have to actively check-in with yourself, your children, and your loved one's mental health because of isolation, depression, and anxiety.
We at PA Parent and Family Alliance want to continue to share the thoughts and feelings that our families are experiencing. We sat down with a nanny from Chester county, Jen King, to hear her first-hand perspective on how the children she cares for have adjusted to remote learning, and how their family is handling everything. Things are vastly different for people across the state. What school district you are in, whether or not you or your child's other guardian is an essential worker, and how this pandemic has impacted your family financially all have massive impacts on what you hope the fall looks like for your child. Not every family has the ability to access childcare or can hire a nanny. To get a broader look at how families are doing, and what they need we sent out a survey that has been filled out by 97 parents from across the state. This survey touched on everything from telehealth to your school's past communication and some of those results will be shared below.
"The children I care for are 9, 6, and 1. Both of the parents have been able to switch to working at home. It was obviously much easier for them to adjust because they had me to help. They were able to focus on work while I oversaw remote learning and watched the baby," said King. Thinking back to remote learning she mentioned the children had much different experiences. "The 9-year-old girl adjusted well to it. She was able to handle it by herself and took calls with her teacher in her room. I would help her with any of her bigger projects but for the most part, she worked by herself," said King. "The 6-year-old boy was a completely different story. He had a very hard time staying focused and had his fair share of meltdowns during the whole process. From early March to April he had nothing but packets to work on until he started to have calls of his own. Even with the calls he had a difficult time focusing, it was challenging keeping him on task," said King.
Remote learning was tricky for the family but those challenges did not end when the school year did. Summertime brought its own issues that had to be creatively solved by both the parents and King. "It has been a hard summer for everyone. It feels like every day is the same and they are getting bored. Every day (weather permitting) I make it a point for us to get outside and enjoy nature. That helps but they really miss their friends." While it has seemed like a monotonous summer for all involved it is coming to an end. Although things are quickly changing, it has recently been announced by their district that the children are going back to school for 1/2 the day. "I think it could be good for the boy I care for to get out of the house and back into some type of school environment. I guess we will see how the year goes for all of us," said King.
King and the parents she works for recognize how privileged the family is to be able to afford full-time in-home childcare. It has alleviated a lot of the stress that many people have experienced when switching to a working-from-home structure. They also feel very lucky that they both have been able to keep their jobs during all of this. This has not been the case for many families as unemployment rates soar throughout the nation and the upcoming school year brings anxiety. Some families are anxious about their children's health if their school districts do decide to go back, and others are anxious about finding childcare if they do not.
One recommendation we've gotten from families is to see if you can partner with an older child, perhaps a responsible high school student, who is willing to come to your house a few days a week who can be in the same room with your children so everyone can do their on-line learning together. This learning partner can model staying on task and allow your child to not feel so alone. Of course, your family would have to make an agreement to create a "pod" with the older child's family but creating unique partnerships families can support one another during this challenging time.
Our survey gave us a much better view of how families are feeling across the entire state. This survey was filled out exclusively by parents who are raising a child with a social, emotional, behavioral, or mental health challenge. While all families are anxious right now these families have an added layer of not only ensuring that their children resume education in a way that is safe but also making sure that the services that they fought hard to gain are protected.
First, we wanted to get a feel for the logistics that our families were enduring. In the King family, they have two parents in the house and they both have jobs that could be switched to remote working. We have seen as a nation that while many jobs can be done from home, there is a group of jobs deemed as essential who have been out in the workforce this whole time. These heroic individuals from medical professionals, to grocery store staff, have risked their health to go to work, and on top of that may struggle to find childcare.
A challenge specific to parents of children with social, emotional, behavioral, or mental health challenges is understanding how to effectively use telehealth. This is a whole new way of receiving services for many people and it has created a learning curve for a number of our families. The survey showed that experiences with telehealth varied greatly. Some explained that their child has never felt so comfortable in a therapy session, while others stated that their child was getting absolutely nothing out of it because they were not able to focus on the screen. To show just how different these experiences were we have two quotes from our parents below.
"Definitely convenient and my kiddo was more comfortable in his comfortable clothes at home on the couch as opposed to traveling and waiting in waiting rooms. Much more efficient! Would appreciate it being continued. I don't know what would make it better because our experiences have been going so smoothly."
"Our son that needed his therapy the most would not participate in telehealth with his therapist. He has a significant speech delay and most of his therapy involved drawing to help bridge the speech issue. I can see telehealth being kept as an option but in our case it did not work."
One of the main concerns our families expressed was if and how their school would communicate with them. We all know that things are changing by the minute and we can't expect a school to have all of the answers the minute we want them. However, we should be able to rely on our schools to have a communication pathway that keeps everyone "in the know" and informs people in a timely manner of any change that may affect them. Unfortunately, the lack of timely and appropriate communication from school administrators and teachers this past spring was the #1 complaint parents reported. In this uncertain time, parents need reliable information about what is going on at school and what changes should be expected.
Parents have many needs in order to make sure their family is running smoothly. We wanted to dig a little deeper past education and see whether or not our families are getting their basic needs met, and if not see what we can do to help. Out of the families that took completed our survey, the top 3 critical concerns were finding food, affording their children's prescription medication, and finding reliable childcare. Back in March, we started our #HomeTogether page that compiled a list of services from online educational tools, to local food banks from all across PA. This list has been updated throughout the entire pandemic and it has since been renamed; Moving Forward Together. If you or someone you know are in need of critical services and resources click here to check it out.
As we mentioned in the first paragraph, a lot of us are struggling with our mental health right now. This includes both adults and children. This chart shows how the mental health of our families' children have changed since the pandemic began. Out of those children, 42.6% of them are experiencing a decline in their mental health. Perhaps isolation, not seeing friends or extended family, sadness from missing out on school events, or overall anxiety is taking a toll on your child's mental health. If your child does not already have a therapist and you feel like their mental health has declined or you want to ensure their mental health stays intact, check out our Find a Service Provider page. If you have a provider that you and your child love add them to the list so other families can benefit from their services.
Finally, we wanted to check in with the parents/caregivers themselves. We know just how overwhelming it can be to be a parent and we want to make sure you are actively checking in on yourself too. Consider printing out our Emotional Safety Plan and getting a plan together for when you are stressed out. The second major concern families shared was having someone to talk with about their concerns with their child and family challenges. If you relate to this give our Family Support Partners a call (888-273-2361) or reach us online. This free and confidential service can give you an ally, someone to help you gather your thoughts and concerns before addressing your child's school challenges, or simply a nonjudgemental ear to listen to you. They have been where you are and are trained to help.
The challenges that COVID brings are not easily solved but we're here with you every step of the way.