Last week, President Trump declared that public schools must fully reopen in the fall, threatening to withhold federal funding if they fail to do so. But neither he nor the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has offered guidance on how schools can safely resume classroom teaching during the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, some of the largest school districts in the country, including Los Angeles and San Diego, have announced that they will only hold classes online, while New York City and other districts are planning on partial reopenings.
I recently spoke by phone with Elena Hontoria Tuerk, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia who specializes in child and family therapy. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the biggest threats to the psychological health of young children, how teachers will have to adjust to instructing kids during a pandemic, and the ways in which parental stress can affect kids’ growth.
I just want to stipulate for readers that we are talking about the effects of no schooling or less schooling on children, which does not mean we are in favor of just sending kids to school even if it is unsafe. The virus is extremely serious, but I don’t want you to feel like you have to make that clear with every answer.
Sure. Totally understood.
What will be your biggest fear if we end up missing an entire school year, and how does it change when we are talking about younger kids versus high-schoolers?
I think of things in terms of the systems that children are involved in—so not just children but the effects on their peer dynamics and, particularly, parents. So my concerns for children mostly have to do with increased parenting stress, and the types of choices parents are having to make when their children are home full time. That is one area of major concern. And that has significant effects on children’s functioning.
Could you describe what parenting stress often entails and leads to?
Sure. Parents are not able to access their support systems—the traditional support systems for families, which are grandparents or other supports—and all those things really help parents act in their roles more effectively. They get breaks from their children and are able to access resources and receive reinforcement. So all of those things missing from their lives makes it not ideal for them to do their best parenting and respond in effective ways, and ways that indicate reduced emotionality.
What other concerns do you have?
For younger children in particular, the opportunity to develop peer-negotiation skills, problem-solving skills, the social skills we want them to grow into in those early elementary years—the lack of those opportunities is unfortunate. And it is not to say that those skills cannot be recovered later, but they are a big part of why kids develop into healthy social beings. Also, all of this home life is not ideal for kids facing anxiety, because they are not having opportunities to challenge themselves or do things that might be intimidating. Kids who are more socially anxious are able to really avoid peer interactions right now or really just engage electronically with peers.
And what about older kids?
Speaking to older kids, the opportunities they are missing are really more about differentiation from family life, and having more opportunities to be out of the home, and having more opportunities to be around same-aged peers, and do that healthy exploration and risk-taking that we want them to do as they launch into adulthood. Being home all the time is not ideal for an adolescent. [Laughs.]
Having you been talking to kids for the past few months, and what have those experiences been like?
Yes, I have been talking to adolescents, and then I supervise cases that the students are seeing. And I think, again, among many kids, the ones who are anxious are feeling great because they are avoiding the things that make them anxious. You are seeing these memes about it being an introvert’s dream, and for some of these kids, it is actually harder to do clinical work with them because generating exposures for anxiety-producing events is harder right now. So rather than go up to a kid and talk to them at recess, it’s FaceTime a kid you sort of know and have a FaceTime conversation. But this isn’t a natural experiment. This isn’t what kids would normally be doing to face social anxiety.
And then, with other kids, we see it from a parenting perspective, in terms of the amount of stress it puts on working families. It might be financial stress, or that they don’t have their child-care needs met. It is much harder for families to maintain routine and effective strategies, so that they aren’t using very punitive approaches to manage children’s behavior.
Are you talking to parents, too?
We work with kids with anxiety, but when it comes to behavior management it’s almost always parent-directed treatment to help them respond to all sorts of behaviors.
Are parents aware that their parenting is suffering? You read about these experiments where tired people perform worse on tests but don’t realize it. Is it like that?
Oh, no. Parents are stressed and they are trying to manage multiple roles. So they are now in the role of teacher, camp counsellor, employee for their job, house cleaner, and parent, and this is a level of engagement with their kids that they are not used to or haven’t been used to in many years. So they are very aware they are stressed. And what they have been really wanting from the clinicians is help creating structure and ideas about what life can look like right now to make everyone function relatively well.
You could probably tell I don’t have kids from that dumb question. But tell me, what can clinicians do, given that the virus is what it is?
I don’t know that you are asking this question, but I have been thinking about it a lot from a policy perspective, because I think those are the real needs we have. One of the things I have been arguing for as part of the next stimulus package is an increase in allocations for the child-care-subsidy program. The federal government provides funds to states. So one thing that I think needs to happen right now, because I doubt schools will reopen, is expanding these child-care subsidies so that we can use them for home-based care, because group child-care setting are not very practical for families right now, and parents are afraid for both their own children but also for beloved staff. And we can’t use grandparents, so we don’t have the natural ecology we would normally have to lean on in a crisis. So really what parents need in order to be able to function financially, and emotionally, probably, is child care in the home. So people who can act as providers and caregivers and basically act as tutors.
So this child-care-subsidy program could be expanded. States already have the infrastructure for this, and the training materials for people who want to be registered as providers, and a way to disburse these funds. So what we really need is to expand the eligibility criteria so that families can identify a provider that they want to be in the home, and then that person can act in this role.