Tips for balancing being a parent, teacher and professional during the pandemic

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We got some advice from a clinical psychologist and education researcher for navigating the tricky balance between being a parent, teacher and professional during COVID-19 pandemic disruptions.

Episode Transcript

Lindsey Hendrix:

We bring you advice and compelling insight on the latest in health, medicine and scientific discovery. From tips for getting better sleep to discussions about major issues like health disparities in America, we’ll talk about it. You’re listening to Texas A&M Health Talk, part of the Texas A&M Podcast Network.

Hello, and welcome to Texas A&M Health Talk. I’m your host, Lindsey Hendrix. Today we’re going to talk about something that a lot of American families are facing right now during the pandemic, and that is balancing being a parent and helping support your children through virtual school. Some parents have decided to pull their kids out of school altogether and are homeschooling and balancing all of that with being a professional in their jobs and their careers.

We have a couple of excellent guests from Texas A&M today to talk about this. First up, we have Dr. Kelly Sopchak, who is a psychologist with the Telebehavioral Care program here at Texas A&M Health. She is the program manager of TCHATT, which stands for Texas Child Health Access Through Telemedicine. That’s a program that provides mental health services to school children through telehealth. Did I get that right, Dr. Sopchak?

Kelly Sopchak:

You did. Thanks for having me.

Lindsey Hendrix:

Thanks so much for being here. And also joining us is Dr. Karen Rambo-Hernandez. She’s an associate professor in the Department of Teaching, Learning and Culture at the College of Education and Human Development here at Texas A&M. Welcome, Dr. Rambo-Hernandez.

Karen Rambo-Hernandez:

Thank you so much, Lindsey.

Lindsey Hendrix:

Thanks for being here. So, we’ve got two experts on a couple different sides of the equation. We have our mental health professional, our psychologist, and we have the education professional. Dr. Rambo-Hernandez was also a teacher in the classroom for 10 years, and does some really cool research related to curriculum that is accessible to all children. Is that correct?

Karen Rambo-Hernandez:

Yes. That’s a good nugget of what I do.

Lindsey Hendrix:

Yeah. Just a little sliver. I’m going to start by just setting the stage. Dr. Sopchak, you are seeing parents and students in school right now that are dealing with this situation. What are some common trends that you’ve noticed? Do you see that the stress levels seem to be higher than normal?

Kelly Sopchak:

Absolutely. I was going to say the common trend is stress across the board. Our students are experiencing more stress because they’re dealing with learning in a new style. For a lot of our kids, even if they’re in school, they’re still learning on a laptop, and it’s still virtual. They’re just doing it in the classroom. Then for our parents, they’re having to juggle work, and teaching, and still being a parent, and still trying to have some fun family time when your day is booked from the beginning to the end because while you want your child’s education to be everything they need it to be, you’re also struggling with the, “I’ve got to get my work done. I’ve got to meet these deadlines. I want to keep my job, especially right now.”

Lindsey Hendrix:

Oh, yeah. People who have a job right now are pretty fortunate, in all honesty, because there are families that are balancing all of this and on the hunt for a job, right? Or have recently gotten laid off or are experiencing unemployment. So, I can just imagine the stress levels are crazy.

Kelly Sopchak:

And that stress level, it comes out in different ways. We’re seeing an increase in kids acting out, having behavioral issues. Then we’re also seeing an increase in family conflict because when people are stressed out, the littlest things irritate them or set them off. So, they’re really at the time in which some grace is needed, and letting yourself not be perfect with everything because we’re not perfect.

Lindsey Hendrix:

That’s right. That’s what makes us human, and I think it’s comforting, too, to know that we’re in this together. There are a lot of families, millions of families who are going through this. So, if you are listening right now and you are dealing with this in your day to day, know that you’re not alone. In fact, both of you both have children who are school-aged children, right? What does y’all’s situation look like at home right now?

Karen Rambo-Hernandez:

We did things a little bit unconventionally. I have a four-year-old who is in pre-K and a seven-year-old who is in second grade, and we actually opted out completely, and we are homeschooling our kids. I never thought I would be a homeschool mom, but here I am in the middle of a pandemic. But we changed things up a little bit, and I am writing lesson plans on the weekend, and we hired an education undergrad student to come in and work with our students during the week. So, I write the lesson plans, and then we have this undergrad student who delivers them with our kids Monday through Friday. I recognize that’s a very privileged position that we’re in, but it’s what we had to do to make this pandemic work for my husband and I because we’re both academics.

Lindsey Hendrix:

That’s awesome. I love that you can provide that for your kids, and I can imagine even though you have somebody who is working with your kids during the week that you’re still very much involved in the education of your children.

Karen Rambo-Hernandez:

Yeah. I’m actually more involved than I think I’ve ever been because I know what they’re doing. The dinner conversations look very different because I can ask them pointed questions about what they were supposed to be learning that particular day. The school day doesn’t just run from 8:00 to 3:00. We actually spend quite a bit of time after dinner working on games, and literacy activities, and math practice and things to try to reinforce those skills. So, the line between school and home is very blurred right now.

Lindsey Hendrix:

Right, and how about you, Dr. Sopchak? What are you doing right now with your kiddos?

Kelly Sopchak:

We have a four-year-old who would have been going to pre-school this year and a two-year-old who thinks she deserves to be in school, so she’s very disruptive to our school days. I work, as you can see, in my bedroom. I shut the door and lock it, and they know if Mommy comes in here, it’s not a time to disrupt. My husband runs their programming. We run pre-K programming with them, and sometimes I get to go out and assist because while I’m not an educator, I’m great with those behavioral disruptions. So, I peek out throughout the day, and then in the evenings, similarly, we go over what they’ve learned today.

We try to put it into play, whether it’s through games or activities, and then a lot of outside time when we can, when the weather permits, to try to get them engaged with nature, and learning about frogs, and dirt, and bacteria, and how that happens, which maybe not be pre-K, but we go through that. Then I end up making up for my workday at night. Once the kids go to bed, that’s when I’m back in doing my work, catching up on notes, catching up on paperwork, dealing with whatever writing and different aspects that I have at my job that have to get done. So, the day is much longer, but there’s a piece of it that I love because I see my kids during the day, and I’m more involved in their daily activity, and I don’t feel like I’m missing out on a lot. So, there is that.

Lindsey Hendrix:

Yeah. There are definitely silver linings in all of this, but like you said, I mean, we don’t know how long this is going to go on. Balancing all of this, almost trying to squeeze every minute out of every day, people are working from the moment they wake up in the morning until they go to bed at night. I can imagine that can have an impact on your mental health, and then also that of your children’s, too. If they’re used to going to school from 8:00 to 3:30 or 8:00 to 4:00, and now they’re extending their academic day into the evening and sometimes in some cases on the weekends as well, this is the tricky question, right? The key question is how can parents try to manage their own stress and anxiety level while also tending to the needs of their kids?

Kelly Sopchak:

Yeah. It’s a tricky balance. It really is, and one of the key things that I talk to my parents about and that we implement in our lives is schedule. There is an increased anxiety when we don’t know what to expect. There’s increased stress when we don’t know what’s coming, right? As humans, we like to be in control and we like to know what’s coming. It gives us a sense of safety and security, and a schedule is a great way to do that. You know when you’re going to get up. You stick to the schedule every day, and I think it’s been a little bit easier for kids coming back this year as opposed to when it got transitioned in the middle of the year.

Lindsey Hendrix:

Oh, that’s true.

Kelly Sopchak:

So, they’re a little bit more prepared, right? Being prepared, having a schedule, having a set agenda for today can be extremely helpful. Also, taking breaks throughout the day. When we’re working in an office or working on a job, you get breaks. There are natural breaks that occur. You talk to your coworkers. You go get coffee. You get up and get water. Whatever it be, you’re interacting with people and there’s natural breaks. Right now, we don’t have that and our kids don’t have it either.

For younger kids, maybe they work for 20 minutes, and then they have a 10-minute physical activity, watching a video on YouTube that’s dancing and exercise or going outside. Whatever it may be, getting them up, getting them moving, getting them back engaged. It decreases some of their misbehaviors, and it also gives us a break. I’ll go and dance with my girls for 10 minutes and have fun, and then get back into my work. So, having those natural breaks, and then doing things that are healthful for us. Eating healthy, exercising, going to bed on time and getting plenty of sleep can be beneficial, but also taking breaks to maybe do some deep breathing or guided meditation during the day, and having the kids do it with you. Right?

It’s okay to be open and honest with them about, “This is stressful. Mommy’s struggling. Mommy misses being with family, and friends, and doing different things. There’s a lot on our plate right now, and we’re going to handle it together, so let’s do this coping skill together.” It’s a great opportunity because we’re teaching the kids the coping skills that they may not have learned otherwise because most of the time we go through our day, and we have our things we do to make it through the day, but we don’t talk about it. Talking about it and teaching our kids that helps them to de-stress. It helps us de-stress, and it makes it a more cohesive group.

Lindsey Hendrix:

I love it. I love it, and then what if, say… and I don’t have kids in public school right now. My kids are five and three, and they’re both in a Montessori school environment, and they are fortunate to be able to attend face to face. I’m personally not dealing with this right now. I was when the pandemic first started and school was closed, right? So, there’s a struggle there. What can parents do to balance the roles of being a child’s parent and being a child’s educator?

Because those, although seem like they should go hand in hand, often don’t work out quite like we would hope. I can be my son’s parent all day long, but when it comes time to sit down and do some math homework, it can really be a struggle because he doesn’t want to listen to his mommy when it comes to school. He’s used to listening to his teachers when it comes to school. So, do you have any tricks up your sleeves, or strategies that you’ve implemented that seem to work?

Karen Rambo-Hernandez:

Yeah. I was a classroom teacher for 10 years, and I loved it. I had a ball with it. I have won awards for my teaching. I’m good at teaching, but when it comes to working with my own kids, it’s a totally different ballgame. So, I just want parents to know that you’re doing something really hard. It is a very different place to be from being the parent to being the teacher. One of the things that I have found to be really helpful is what was successful for me as a classroom teacher was really working on building relationships with my students, and if I focused on the relationship side, then they cared more about what they were learning, and they had a safe space if they made mistakes, and it wasn’t the end of the world.

I was a math teacher, and so there’s a lot of anxiety that goes around learning mathematics. I’ve had to remind myself when I am teaching my kids—we’ve had some disruptions in our care due to COVID exposures, and people getting COVID, and the whole thing so there have been times where I have been the full-on teacher—is that I need to also focus on the relationship side with my kids and not just on, “This is what we’re going to learn and this is how you’re going to do it.” But to keep in mind that they have needs, and they have a desire to connect with me in addition to just learning whatever it is that we need to learn for that day.

Lindsey Hendrix:

Yeah. I think it’s easy for us who are not professional teachers and aren’t in the classroom all the time or studying education to be really rigid in our approach to how we tackle problems, right? How I was taught to tackle a math problem, for instance, or a writing assignment. So, what are some ways that we can be a little bit more flexible and maybe get creative in our approaches with our kids as our students now, essentially?

Kelly Sopchak:

I cheat. While I’ve never been an educator, working in schools, I have been in so many classrooms doing observations. I see these amazing, wonderful, creative professionals doing awesome things. I struggle with my two, right? They’re managing like 26 of them.

Lindsey Hendrix:

Right.

Kelly Sopchak:

I’m like, “Oh.” But they have tricks and they have trades like, “One, two, three, eyes on me,” to get kids to pay attention. The teacher will say, “One, two, three, eyes on me.” The kids are like, “One, two, eyes on you.” It gets them back into the zone of attention. I’m like, “That’s amazing.” Right? There’s also behavior motivation, right? We’ll tell kids if they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do, “Clap your hands. Pat your head. What’s two plus two?” Right? Or, “Write your name.” You get them to do something that you know they’re going to do, and it activates it. It’s an activating technique to get them on task.

Also, giving them stickers, or check marks, or smiley faces like, “Oh, you completed this one. Good job. Let’s go on to this next step.” All of those things are really helpful, and it helps kids see that they’re achieving and they’re doing something, right? It’s also great to encourage them on the things that they’re good at. When they’re dealing with a difficult task, they’re going to be less likely to engage. Something that’s hard for them, it doesn’t feel good to struggle. It doesn’t feel good to not be successful, so encourage them.

I really like the way they’re doing math, right? They may be getting the answers wrong, “I really like the way you’re writing your numbers so neatly.” Right? It’s finding what they’re doing well, and supporting that, and then telling them, “It’s okay to struggle. That’s the point of it. When you make a bad grade on a test, sure. You want to make great grades all the time, but when you make a bad grade, that’s what tells us what you need to learn. I don’t want to just teach you stuff you already know. I need you to make mistakes so I know where you need to get help.”

Just coming at it from a positive mindset because, yes. They are going to behave worse for us than they do for their teachers. It’s the nature of the beast. They don’t have the peer expectations around them either, right? “I don’t want to get in trouble in class because Johnny’s going to see it.” They don’t have that at home. They can be their authentic selves, and so it makes it a little bit more difficult, but there’s tons of great websites that teachers use because they are super creative, and they come up with amazing ways to teach our kids. So, I would encourage parents to spend a little time online and find different resources that can be helpful.

Lindsey Hendrix:

I love it. I love it, and you brought up a really good point about that peer motivation that I hadn’t considered before, your behavior being reflected back to your friends and having almost that positive peer pressure to behave and perform. Right? Now, you were talking about potentially your kids not doing well on a math problem, but what can a parent do to check in and gage how their students are doing with the curriculum overall? Say a parent sees that their kid is consistently struggling with the curriculum or on the other end, they’re just breezing through it like it’s a piece of cake. It’s something that they’ve already mastered, right? Neither of those are optimal scenarios, so what can a parent do to work with the teacher to find that sweet middle ground?

Kelly Sopchak:

I encourage my parents to talk to the teachers. I mean, the more communication you have with them, the better it is. We know from research over the years that parent engagement is a factor of child achievement. The more engaged a parent is, generally the better the kid’s going to be doing in school. Your teachers have tons of knowledge in the area of education and getting learners engaged, so if your kid is struggling, reach out to them. A lot of my teachers have been absolutely thrilled to work with my parents to help teach them the concepts, right? Because if I go to teach fourth grade math right now, I’m going to fail at it.

Math was not the same for me when I was taught fourth grade math. It’s totally different now and I’m not going to be great at it, but the teachers are working with parents. I’ve got some of my teachers that they’re having after school tutorials with the parents to teach them how to teach the concept, which I think is amazing. They’re just complete rock stars, so reach out to them. If your kids needs harder curriculum, they’ve got it, and I’m sure they’re happy to share it because for a teacher, it’s so uplifting and revitalizing when your kids are doing well, right? You want them to learn and you want them to thrive, so they’re happy to help facilitate the learning to the child.

Karen Rambo-Hernandez:

I think part of what you can do also is realize that we’re all trying to figure this out at the same time. The teachers have not previously taught both in-person and online, and so they’re figuring things out the same time as we’re trying to figure things out as parents. As you approach the teacher, keep that attitude in mind that, “Hey, we’re in this together. We’re trying to figure this out.” When you are communicating with that teacher, ask questions. I know as a classroom teacher, I get excited when I get questions because it means that the person is engaged.

So, ask questions of the teacher. It’s okay to offer some ideas about some different things that you think might work better. I was teaching last night with one of my night classes, and one of my students said, “Hey, can I make a suggestion? I have something that I think would make the format a little bit better.” It was just about rearranging my screen so he could see my screen better on his laptop at home, and it was such a simple change, but it made such a huge difference for his ability to engage in the class. So, suggestions are welcome. Just frame them in a really positive and open way to the teacher whenever you engage with them.

Lindsey Hendrix:

Yes. I think that’s a really good point that we haven’t really brought up yet, is that teachers are also navigating this. In a lot of instances, teachers are also parents, right? Dealing with their own children’s education and trying to support them. I think my question, we’ve hinted at it, but say a student is in school and all of their education is happening virtually. They’re sitting in front of a computer during the day. Typically I think when I was in school, I would go to school during the day, and then I’d come home, and that was home time. Right? We maybe talked about what I had learned that day, and I would do my homework. Maybe my parents would help me with that, but should parents have more of an engaged role with their kids now? I know that’s beneficial all the time, but is it more important now than ever?

Kelly Sopchak:

Absolutely. I think whenever we’re struggling with something, whenever something is different or stressful, we have a tendency to isolate. Increasing that engagement we know will decrease stress. Engaging with them, whether it be during their school day, after school, making sure to make time for still just family because it can become, “It’s all about the education, right? We’ve got so much to do. You’ve got your education and I’ve got my work. We’ve got to get it all in in these hours.” But it’s important to have that boundary and still have the family time, still have the fun time.

Watching a movie with popcorn. Going on a walk, whatever it may be, and not talk about school. Talk about something else. Talk about their favorite video game, or their things that they’ve seen on YouTube, or how much they want to be with their friends because staying engaged, staying supportive, baking things together, whatever it may be. Having that family time will allow you to get some stress relief as the parent and also allow the kid.

Karen Rambo-Hernandez:

Yeah. We have been intentionally walking a lot more at night. The kids go on their… We call them their Wheely devices. They pick whatever Wheely device they want to take for the night, and we go around, and we take a walk. Then we’ll come back and we’ll continue having conversations. One thing that we did, and I don’t think we talked about this before, we actually have really restricted their tablet time unless it is specifically associated with school so that in the evenings, they are spending more time playing.

They’re engaged in more imaginative play. They’re learning how to interact with each other a little bit better. So, that has really lowered our stress level, which I did not expect. I thought taking away their tablets was going to be a punishment to me, but after we got through just a few days of saying, “We’re taking this away not because you were misbehaving, but because we want the time to really engage with you as people, and we have some things we want to work on with you,” they were like, “Oh, okay.” They just rolled with the flow, and that removing of the tablets has really been helpful outside of the school time.

Lindsey Hendrix:

That’s awesome. Really that almost tactical real-world education can be so beneficial for especially young kids, right? What are some strategies for recognizing our own needs as parents, as individuals, and then on the flip side recognizing your children’s needs and when to put one above the other? It sounds weird, I think, for a lot of parents to think that they could put their own needs ahead of that of their children’s, but I think sometimes it’s probably necessary, right?

Kelly Sopchak:

Yeah. It’s good to have the boundaries. When you notice that you’re struggling and you need a break, there are times during the day where I tell my husband, “Hey, I got no meeting here to here if you need to go walk around, if you need to go check on our neighbor, whatever. If you need a break, I can give it to you then,” because it’s working as a team to try to figure out what works best. Maybe that’s getting with friends who they’re struggling with the same thing, and letting the kids go on a walk, and have them up ahead, and you can talk about adult stuff.

Whatever it is for you, but there are definitely times when you need to take care of you. So, even going in a room. I am blessed that I can come in my room and lock the door, right? And have my space. So, setting that up, and kids are resilient. They can do things on their own, and you can give them activities that they enjoy that they don’t have to be monitored on so, “You know what? This is time to go in the playroom. Go to the playroom for a little bit. Mommy and Daddy need a break. We need grown-up time. We’re going to have a grown-up conversation. Y’all go to the playroom.”

That’s okay. It’s good for them because like you said, Dr. Hernandez, you get that imaginative play, right? You get that engagement and social engagement, and they behave completely differently when we’re not around, and that’s good for them. They’re learning it. Yeah. Taking care of yourself. You cannot… What is it? When you go on an airplane and they’re like, “You put the mask on yourself first, and then you put the mask on them.” They reiterate that with you because if you don’t take care of yourself, you’re not going to be able to take of them. Right? You have to care for yourself, do what you need to do so that you’re in a good place mentally so that then you can support them because if you have nothing to give, they get nothing.

Lindsey Hendrix:

Mm-hmm.

Karen Rambo-Hernandez:

Yeah. There’s a phrase that I’ve heard several times that more is caught than taught, and so our kids are watching us to see how we’re handling the stress, and what we’re doing to make sure that we maintain our sanity through this crazy pandemic. Just this week, one of my kids accidentally spilled all of the spaghetti noodles that we were going to have for dinner on the floor, and I had no backup spaghetti noodles. I got so frustrated that our spaghetti was all over the floor, and so I was pretty…

This little thing just really threw me through the roof, but I tried to model for my kids what I needed to do to calm back down and move forward with our dinner without our spaghetti noodles so they can see that, yes. I’m a real person. I get frustrated. They see the good, the bad, and the ugly, but there are some tactics that you can do to bring yourself back and not let it ruin your entire day.

Lindsey Hendrix:

I love it, and then also unfortunately kids can also pick up negative stress management and anxiety management skill… Well, I don’t know. Strategies or however some people do things in an unhealthy way, so I think it’s important to know that eyes are always on us even when we’re not aware of it, right? I mean, I think about my three-year-old picking up language I wouldn’t approve of him using, and I don’t recall using it around him, but they seem to hear everything you’re saying. So, just always being cognizant of that.

I think modeling is a good approach. Are there any other stress management strategies for kids in particular? I know it can be tricky to think about kids under 10 implementing stress management strategies on their own, so is there anything in particular that you can do as a parent to help support or introduce for them that could help them feel better?

Kelly Sopchak:

The easiest one to teach is going to be deep breathing or diaphragmatic breathing. On YouTube there’s one called Jelly Belly. I love using it with kids. It’s awesome. They have a aquarium, so they’re watching fish, and it’s telling them how to fill their jelly bellies because your belly is wiggly and it can go out really big and it can go in. It’s pretty cool. Another one that’s pretty easy is 5-4-3-2-1 where you have the kiddo list off five things that they see. So, five things around them they see.

Then they list off four things that they can feel, so I can feel the chair underneath me. I can feel my hair hanging down. Four things they can feel on their body, and then three things that they can hear. Maybe it’s the buzz of the computer, the air conditioner, and the birds outside. Then two things that they can smell, so paying attention to that sense, and then one thing they can taste. You go through that and it brings them back to the moment. Yes. There is all kinds of stuff going on in the world, and there is all kinds of stress surrounding us every single day, but 5-4-3-2-1 gets you back grounded into the place where you can be okay right now because we’re safe, and we’re all here, and it’s good. It’s a really useful technique for parents too.

Lindsey Hendrix:

I was going to say I think I could use that.

Kelly Sopchak:

You’d like it. You’d like it, and there’s some great visuals of it to where they can do it on their own, where even if your kiddo isn’t reading yet it’s like five and it’s the see, and four and it’s the feel. It guides them through it, and it’s a great thing to be able to do together and just discuss what it’s like being at home.

Karen Rambo-Hernandez:

Yeah. I would also add just moving, making sure that your kids are getting regular breaks to move around and wiggle. I taught my kids the wiggle water game where I say, “Wiggle water,” and they wiggle, wiggle, wiggle as much as they possibly can and run around. Then I yell, “Still water,” and they freeze in whatever position they’re in. So, just doing that for two to three minutes to get them physically moving around and not just sitting still all day.

Lindsey Hendrix:

Those sound like pretty good strategies, not just for little kids under 10, but pretty much all age groups, right? I could even see teenagers getting… Yeah, and me too. Yeah. Getting the opportunity to just act silly, right? To just de-stress a little bit.

Karen Rambo-Hernandez:

I used it with middle school students when I was a classroom teacher and they loved it.

Lindsey Hendrix:

Oh, I love that so much. In the same vein, what are some ways that we can help our kids develop that emotional intelligence? I know adults struggle with this. I struggle with this personally, recognizing why things make me feel the way that I am feeling, and then communicating that with people around me. What are some strategies to not only help ourselves do that, but also help support our kids?

Kelly Sopchak:

The easiest way is to see it in someone else first, right? When you’re working with kids on trying to gain that skill, reading stories and pausing and saying, “So, how do we think she feels right now, or he feels or how does the bear feel?” So that they can start putting names on it, and then naming it for them. Right? I have a two-year-old that will tell you, “I’m feeling very frustrated,” because Mommy says, “Oh, you seem like you’re frustrated. I see your hands are clenched or I see the facial expression that you’re hiding right now. What’s going on?”

When kids can’t name it yet, we name it for them. Then using different avenues. Maybe it’s a show that they like to watch, and pausing it and saying, “How is she feeling? What can she do? Why is she feeling like that?” And having the discussion around feelings. Having the discussion around it, and then checking in with them, right? So, “I know today has been a really hard day. How are you feeling? What’s going on? What are your thoughts about this assignment or this struggle that you’re having?” So that we can have those corrective moments because a lot of kids, when they’re struggling with something, their thoughts are going to be, “I’m stupid. I’m dumb. I’m not good enough.”

We don’t want them having those thoughts because, “No. You’re learning. You’re trying something hard, right? You’re enduring and you’re going to get there.” Right? It’s just a process. I think it’s great to have those conversations, and to teach our kids, and to work with them because, again, it’s a difficult time where our kids are feeling bigger emotions than they might have felt having not had COVID. They’re feeling more stress than they would have felt, and so there’s an added pressure to that need of helping them to identify what they’re going through.

Karen Rambo-Hernandez:

Yeah. I love Daniel Tiger. His whole show is about dealing with emotions. My kids are getting a little bit old for it and I’m kind of sad because I really like Daniel Tiger, but he also has a lot of songs that he uses to deal with different emotions. I have an app on my phone that has a bunch of Daniel Tiger songs. It’s the Daniel Tiger app. We can go in and play the different songs when there are different emotions that the kids are struggling with, or getting used to, and being able to name. So, I recommend Daniel Tiger.

Lindsey Hendrix:

I love it. I love it, and I feel like it’s really hard to get through the schooling and the academic part of it without addressing the emotional and mental part of it. I think that’s a good strategy for setting that foundation so the kids can then move on and excel academically. Now, I asked this question a little bit before, but say your kid is struggling through math, but they seem to be doing really well with, say, writing or something like that. Are there ways that you can leverage their strength to then bring up their weakness, so to speak?

Karen Rambo-Hernandez:

My son in particular, he loves math. He will do that all day long, but ask him to put pen to paper and do some writing, and it is just not what he enjoys doing. Yeah. He’s flying through his math homework and he is just struggling with his writing. One thing I have tried to do is to connect what he enjoys with his writing more and because I’m homeschooling, I have that flexibility. One of the things he was learning was about a particular fable, and so I had him write a script about that fable, and then he got to use his computer to video a little puppet show, but he had to use the script that he wrote. So, trying to find ways to connect what your student loves to do with the things that they may need a little more practice on so that it’s not quite such a drudgery to do it.

Lindsey Hendrix:

I love that creativity.

Kelly Sopchak:

You can tell you’re a teacher. You have the creative eye, but yeah. I think it’s important. Preferred task, right? You can use a preferred task to get them started and engaged, and then go to a more difficult task and, “You know what? When we get this done, we can do this other preferred task.” Yeah. It’s important. You meet them where they’re at. It’s that relationship piece, right? Parents know their kids. You get to learn your kids in a new way, and then now you can use that to help them learn because, yeah. Teachers are creative. They make it work, and they work it on the kid’s skills, and what the kid likes, and knowing their students.

It’s so much work, and they’re so amazing in so many ways, but it helps to know what your kid likes and to be able to work outside the box. If you’re struggling, reach out to the teacher and ask them like, “Hey, how can I do this?” If there is a difficulty to it, if you’ve come up with a solution, sharing that might also be helpful because your teacher can then use that with other kids that they’re working with because your kid’s not the only one struggling, right? A lot of our students are… We have straight-A students that are now Ds and Cs because they’re not used to learning virtually. It’s a very different type of learning style, so collaborate.

Lindsey Hendrix:

I love that. Collaboration, really communicating with the teachers, and the schools, and working together. I feel like maybe now we’re going to be doing that more than ever, even though I think ideally it should have always been happening all along. But I don’t quite understand how a teacher could really get to know their students this year if they’re seeing them on the screens and not getting to interact face to face. I feel like a parent almost needs to be that liaison so to speak with, “I understand my kid and here are some trends, or here’s what I understand about their personality, and their likes, and dislikes, and things like that.”

For parents who are worried that their kids are going to get really far behind this year, they’re going to be stressing about all of the standardized tests and all of the things that kids do to demonstrate their understanding and readiness to progress to the next grade level. Is there any research that shows that kids are resilient or that they can rebound from an interruption like this?

Karen Rambo-Hernandez:

Yeah. I was actually just looking at some recent research that came out of the Katrina hurricane, and what the research was showing is that there was this major disruption to the kids’ schooling, and they did eventually bounce back, but it took a couple of years. So, I think we just need to do the best we can, and keep moving our kids forward. Focus on growth and not on absolute achievement, but make sure they’re always making progress. Then the achievements, the absolute achievement will eventually come. It might be a year or two before we’re back to that homeostasis where we would have been and that’s okay, but focus more on the growth and less on the absolute measures of achievement.

Lindsey Hendrix:

Got it.

Kelly Sopchak:

Yeah. For a lot of the Katrina kids, I was at HIC at the time, and a lot of them came into HIC, and they came in without records, too. So, we didn’t know where they were academically. I think I’m hopeful that even in this situation, the kids will rebound a little bit faster than that because we have their information. We know where they are. They’re in our schools and we’re working with them, so hopefully they’ll rebound a little faster, but it’s the same as summer vacation. Kids come back from school and there’s a learning curve every year, right? But they catch up, and they get back on track, and they get back into it.

Our brains are extremely resilient, and they’re making new dendritic connections, and learning things, and storing things, and kiddos can catch up. Work hard, and I think you’re absolutely right. Go with the growth. Achievement testing is not always accurate anyways as far as our child’s ability to learn and grow. Whether it be the STAR test or GRE, it doesn’t tell you what they can do. It just tells you these concepts and have they been obtained or not? Kids can learn them. Whether it’s for this STAR test or the next one, they can learn them.

Lindsey Hendrix:

We talked about rebounding academically. What about socially? I mean, kids aren’t in classrooms together. They don’t get that time in between classes in the hallways to interact with their peers, or going to football games, or extracurricular activities and things like that. What are some strategies for helping our kids socially right now?

Karen Rambo-Hernandez:

We have another family that is pretty aggressively socially distancing as well, and so they’re our little pod. We get together every weekend and the kids play together. We do LEGO League with them so they have more of a structured environment, and then after that it’s always a play date. So, being really intentional to have those play dates, find the people that we feel comfortable being around at a more particular level of social distancing.

Kelly Sopchak:

Yeah. We do a similar thing, but online. We don’t have, I guess, the set social group in the area. We moved here a week before A&M shut down, but we do Zooms with… We connect the TV to the computer so it’s big, so the kids can see it. We have set times where their friends that are in Houston, “We’re going to play Play-Doh, or we’re going to do coloring, or we’re going to do this arts and craft thing.” We get it together so that then they can interact. My kids are running Zoom. It’s fantastic.

Karen Rambo-Hernandez:

That sounds better at Zoom than I am.

Lindsey Hendrix:

That’s awesome. I know. My kiddo found… Oh, I was setting up my home office when all this started, and I couldn’t get my computer to correctly hook up to my monitors. I would plug it in, and they wouldn’t work. My three-year-old, who was two and a half at the time, it’s already been six months, came to sit on my lap and work with me. He was fidgeting with buttons and stuff, and he somehow managed to get my monitors to work, and they’ve been working ever since. I’m like, “My little two-and-a-half-year-old IT tech.” It was amazing.

We talked a lot about some silver linings. I don’t think this is all gloom and doom. I think some good things will come from this. It sounds like families might get tighter. It sounds like we’re going to discover new coping mechanisms that we maybe didn’t have to tap into before that could benefit us from now and for the rest of our lives, and for our kids’ lives, too. Are y’all recognizing any other silver linings in this that we can end on a hopeful note?

Kelly Sopchak:

Well, we know whenever kids, or adults, or anyone goes through trauma, which this has been deemed as a long-term trauma, right?

Lindsey Hendrix:

Mm-hmm.

Kelly Sopchak:

Because it’s just a constant state of stress. We know the benefit to it is we get resiliency, right? We become able to handle little things so much better. Even when big things face our kids, first struggles that they’ll have as adolescents or as young adults, and facing rejection, and dealing with all the negative in life, we’re going to have a generation of kids that has higher resiliency than the one before, and higher skills, and higher ability to deal with that stuff. In the workforce, that’s an amazing thing. I would think this generation has the potential to really make some changes, to really make a difference in the world, and maybe we leave the rat race of America a little bit, right?

Because they’re going to see the importance of being with your family, the importance of spending time together, the importance of these things. So instead of going to school for seven hours, and coming home with homework, and being taught that, “Yes. You should take your work home every night, and you should continue to work even once you get home,” they’re going to learn a balance. They’re going to learn some boundaries, which I think could change the face of how we come to work and how we engage economically and educationally in our nation, which would be beneficial.

Karen Rambo-Hernandez:

Yeah. On a much smaller scale, I know I’m being much more intentional about the activities that I engage my kids in, the time that I spend with them, and I feel like I just know my kids better. I like that. I wish it didn’t take COVID for that to happen, but I think that the relationships that I have are stronger as a result.

Lindsey Hendrix:

Yeah, and maybe this is just the beginning. Hopefully we’ll get better at this as time passes. I know we’re a ways off probably from a vaccine, so this is kind of what our world looks like right now. Some people are rocking it. Others are struggling and dealing with additional traumas on top of just this crazy situation that we’re all in. I think for me, it just gets better with time and practice, and I think we’ll end up for the better on the other end for all of the reasons that y’all just stated. Well, thank you both so much for being here today. This was an awesome conversation. I learned a lot of cool new strategies that I’m going to start implementing with myself and my kids, so thank you for all of your knowledge, and good luck with everything as you’re both navigating this along with the rest of us.

Kelly Sopchak:

Thank you so much for addressing this topic and spreading information for people. This has been an absolute pleasure meeting with y’all today and talking with y’all.

Karen Rambo-Hernandez:

Yeah. Same here. It was really a joy to talk about what’s going well and what’s not going well, and hopefully provide a little bit of perspective to whoever’s listening that we’ll get out of this somehow.

Lindsey Hendrix:

Absolutely. Well, thank you both. Y’all have an awesome rest of your day.

Tim Schnettler:

Thank you for joining us on Texas A&M Health Talk, a product of the Texas A&M University Health Science Center. Visit us on the web at vitalrecord.tamhsc.edu where you’ll find answers to all of your health questions. Until next time, stay healthy.