Nora Painten worked for years as a preschool teacher, but for some reason, teaching her own kids feels impossible. Her younger son, a kindergartener, had been struggling to learn to read when the pandemic forced schools in New York State to shutter last March. As Painten joined millions of other parents in the daunting task of supervising her kids’ education from home, she was frustrated to find that every time she and her son picked up a new book, it felt like starting from scratch. Despite the countless flashcards and literacy exercises they went through together, her son didn’t seem to be improving. “It was becoming a really negative experience for both of us,” said Painten.
Normally even-tempered, Painten found herself raising her voice and getting frustrated more easily. “In my regular classroom if someone interrupted me, I would be very calm and positive — explaining the rules firmly, but also with an eye towards building rapport,” she adds. “But with my own kids, I’m just like: are you kidding me? What the hell, dude? ”
Teachers undergo years of education to do their jobs, and it’s obvious that kids are going to suffer without in-person instruction from trained educators. But even for those like Painten who have teaching degrees under their belts, the transition to home-learning has presented unexpected challenges. While an estimated 1.7 million kids were being homeschooled in the U.S. as of 2016, homeschooling experts emphasize that suddenly being thrust into distance learning is a much different situation. “Homeschooling is hard enough to do when you’re totally committed to it,” says Dr Robert Kunzman, the managing director of the International Center for Home Education Research and a professor at Indiana University.
The child psychologists I spoke to widely agreed that the intimate relationship between parent and child can create a challenging educational environment. “There’s just so much more emotional weight that goes into teaching your own kids,” says Dr. Vasco Lopes, a school psychologist and Columbia professor. One of the biggest challenges for parents is managing their own anxiety, and the tendency to wrap up their childrens’ accomplishments and failures with their own self-worth. “If you’re noticing your kids struggling with something, Parents start to think, Oh my god, are they not able to do math, are they going to get C’s and D’s in math class and then struggle to get into a good college? They take it to an emotional level where they catastrophize what it means.”
Kids are also more likely to take criticisms from their parents as personal slights. “If your parent is telling you no, you’re doing this wrong, kids can take it in an overly emotional way as well, where they’re interpreting it as not just that they’re struggling with this particular assignment, but that their parent is disappointed or unhappy with them,” says Lopes.
Even for kids and parents who generally have healthy communication styles, adding six hours of schoolwork into the equation can exacerbate stress, which numerous studies have shown is a hindrance to effective learning. “In stressful situations, the information can bypass the learning centers in your brain and go straight to an emotional response, of feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, giving up,” says Dr. Jennifer Cruz, the clinical director of the pediatric psychiatry program at New York Presbyterian.
Cruz acknowledges that some children may be thriving at home — particularly those with family resources to be able to dedicate time and attention to education. But it’s been well documented that remote learning presents a particular challenge to families from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, where money is a struggle and resources and physical space are limited, as well as for parents of children with disabilities. “If your child has a learning disability, they really do need that expert assistance. And that can really lead to a lot of stress,” she says.
Dr. Richard Gallagher, Associate Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU, says that in most cases, children with behavioral issues tend to act out more at home, in the absence of the social pressures of school. “They know what to do to get their parents to be sympathetic. They know what to do to get their parents frustrated. They also kind of know what their parents will do if they misbehave. But when they’re in school, they don’t necessarily know exactly what a teacher would do, and there’s also a whole structure of authority,” he says.
Especially nowadays, as more permissive parenting styles tend to be the norm, it can be harder for parents to set limits for their kids, and for kids to respect them. “We’re trying to listen to their point of view and not be so authoritative,” says Allison Hinojosa, a teacher in Austin, Texas who has been helping her 11-year-old son Victor with distance-learning. Hinojosa struggled to learn her way around the digital technology Victor used to complete his classroom assignments, which often left him impatient. “He got frustrated having to show me what it is they do every day. He would say: I don’t want to have to explain it to you.”
“Somehow, when I teach my students they just receive the information easier,” she adds. “It’s like they accept that I’m a role model or an authority figure. Whereas with my own child who’s very strong willed, we can butt heads very quickly,” she adds.
“Since I’ve known her my whole life, it’s kind of hard,” adds Victor.
The child psychologists I spoke to emphasized the importance of patience and structure. But some of them are also encouraging parents to cut themselves some slack and prioritize the relationship. “We have these sort of artificial benchmarks of where we think children should be academically, and I’m not sure that those are really going to apply in the next year or so,” says Kathleen Minke, director of the National Association of School Psychologists. “Maintaining positive, productive relationships within the family is really important, and that that should precede any worry about whether or not you’re doing X number of hours of schooling every day.”
Still, many parents may feel like it’s an impossible choice: research suggests that missing out on fundamental concepts could have lasting ramifications for kids’ academic achievement and career prospects, and threatens to increase future high-school dropout rates. Black and Hispanic students and those from low-income backgrounds are likely to struggle the most; a study out of Brown and Harvard found that from March through late April, students in low-income zip codes saw a 50 percent decrease in progress in their math learning, while those in high-income zip codes saw none.
Painten, for her part, has given up on trying to teach her younger son reading this school year. She and her husband are encouraging their kids to spend time together outside, and to take on self-directed projects that appeal to their interests. Her older son wanted to get into whittling, so they bought him some softwood and knives to work with.
She says that if schools remain closed for in-person learning in the fall, they’re planning to get some animals for their property — chickens and ducks and goats and dogs — and let the boys be in charge of caring for them, instead of plugging ahead with the math and reading curriculum. “It’s gonna be sort of like a farm school situation,” she laughs.
“But,” she adds, “this is all wishful thinking. I hope they have school.”