Learning Challenges

Building Sandcastles In a Tsunami: How to Support Your Child Amid Whirling School Changes

“When we model for our children how to assess a situation, name their feelings, and develop a menu of coping strategies, we give them the long-term gift of problem-solving. Here’s a few practical suggestions for building resilience during school changes.”

Built House sand castle on the south shore of the sandy beach blue sea
Built House sand castle on the south shore of the sandy beach blue sea

I brace myself to open the email from our school district superintendent. I already know it’s going to announce yet another change in the school plan. What is it this time? Another distance learning teacher change? A new hybrid learning schedule? Another “We were going to return to full-time, in-person school but that’s not the plan anymore” email?

The ever-changing landscape of the pandemic — its peaks and valleys — has wreaked havoc on predictability, routine, and the universal understanding of what “school” looks like. From full distance, to hybrid, to full-time on site, back to hybrid, fluid and frustrating school changes make it hard for parents to constantly shift gears and support their children in all the chaos.

It’s no wonder that parents of children with ADHD — who frequently struggle with transitions, managing big feelings, and regulating their behavior in new situations — are reporting more frequent and more intense behavioral and emotional challenges.

It’s important to remember that kids look to their parents to make sense of these changes and struggles. Just like when your little one skins their knee and looks to your face to figure out how bad it is before reacting, they are looking to us during the era of constant school transitions as if to say, “Wait, is this change bad? How should I react?”

How we, as parents, respond to changes in school schedules influences our kids’ responses. Calm is contagious, so when we have a positive attitude about the changes, it helps our kids. Here are three ways you can cultivate calm and support your child through multiple transitions and changes in school schedules.

[Additional Reading: Change Is Hard. Confronting an Unknown Future is Harder.]

Remember: Where There is Crisis, There is Opportunity

When a child builds a sandcastle on the beach, how they react to a sudden, destructive wave is illustrative of how they cope with change and adversity. Some kids are disappointed, feel it, acknowledge it, and then quickly rebuild — maybe farther back. Others have big reactions, feel defeated, and have a hard time moving forward.

These school changes are like waves wiping out our precious and delicate sandcastles. However, each change presents an opportunity to teach often-lagging skills for children with ADHD: flexibility and emotional self-regulation.

When we model for our children how to assess a situation, name their feelings, and develop a menu of coping strategies, we give them the long-term gift of problem-solving. Here’s a few practical suggestions for building resilience during school changes:

  • Reframe transitions from “bad” to “an opportunity” to stretch and grow our flexibility muscles.
  • Perform a “Control Audit” with your child. Develop a list or draw the things that are in their control — and the things that are not. From the former, focus on problem-solving and making the best of anything that CAN be changed.
  • Instead of excessive reassurance (e.g. “Don’t worry. You’ll be fine going back on campus”), remind your child of their previous successes in transitioning and ask them what they did to make that transition successful.

[Remote School Round 2: How to Improve Distance Learning for Students with ADHD]

Reframe Behavior as Communication

For all children, and especially those with ADHD, stress responses and behavioral challenges may be magnified right now. And that’s normal.

But when we see our kids digging in, acting out, or having big emotional reactions to change, it can trigger stress in even the most Zen-like parent!

The problem is this: When both parent and child’s brains are in a place of stress, problem-solving goes offline.

Parents can easily slide down that slippery slope of focusing on “defiant” behaviors and forgetting that their child’s behavior is communicating an unmet need or lagging skill. When kids act out, they are “telling” us (in the only way they know how in that stressful moment) that they need support.

As a parent, it makes sense that you want to troubleshoot, problem-solve, and correct misbehavior you may be seeing in response to changes in routines. If your child has a big blow up when you’re trying to get them in the car for school, or they’re putting their head down and refusing to log into Zoom, you might be tempted to hop into problem-solving mode.

But the greatest gift you can give your child right in that moment isn’t discipline or problem-solving. It’s empathy. Empathy can ultimately be the very thing they need to get their brains back online for learning and for problem-solving!

In many ways, our kids are having normal reactions to abnormal times. Instead of pathologizing their stress responses, what if we really leaned in with empathy?

There is so much power and healing that can happen when we harness our internal parental “pause button” and respond to behavior with empathy. Here’s a few strategies:

  • Remember your child isn’t giving you a hard time; they are having a hard time.
  • Saying things to your child like, “It makes sense you feel this way. It has been a frustrating year,” can go a long way to bringing down the stress level.
  • Try the “One for me, one for you” exercise. In a moment of struggle, take a deep breath for yourself and give yourself compassion (this is hard for me), then take a deep breath for your child and give them compassion too (this is hard for you).

When in Doubt, Choose Connection

The greatest gift we can give kids is connection. In times of stress, connection has been shown to be a powerful protective factor. As a school psychologist and mama of two girls, I have leaned on this phrase as a daily pandemic reminder of what is important: In times of stress, connection is protection.

In moments of stress, connection is the “North Star intention” to which we can return, no matter what new flavor of challenge we experience in the most disruptive and ever-evolving school year ever.

You may feel just as stressed as your child does each time your “sandcastle” plans get swept away. You may have the same big feelings your child is experiencing — ranging from grief to anger to overwhelm.

But what if we all just paused for a moment and empathized with our children, who are going through so much? What if we transformed this moment of challenge into an opportunity for imperfect but important growth and connection?

It’s true: We can’t stop the waves that wash away our kids’ beautiful, precarious sandcastle plans, but we can join with our children to rebuild… together.

School Changes: Next Steps


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Updated on April 8, 2021

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