Expert advice for parents and students coping with stress of COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the mental health of children and teens, and remote learning adds additional challenges. Abby Freireich and Brian Platzer, co-authors of "Taking The Stress Out Of Homework," spoke to CBSN's Tanya Rivero about how parents can help reduce their child's stress as well as their own.

Video Transcript

TANYA RIVERO: Thousands of students are nearing the end of another semester of school during the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 has taken a toll on the mental health of students. According to the CDC, more than 40% of college students say they have experienced a mental health crisis related to COVID. Teachers say younger students are having difficulty focusing in the classroom, both online and in-person.

In their book, "Taking the Stress Out of Homework," two educators offer insight into making school more manageable for students of all ages. The book also outlines how to approach homework without adding more stress for kids. Abby Freireich and Brian Platzer are the authors of that book, and they join me now live. Abby and Brian are also teachers.

Welcome to both of you. So nice to have you with us. Abby, let me start with you. What have been the most common problems you've seen among students since COVID-19 began?

ABBY FREIREICH: Sure, Tanya. It's exactly what you were describing, the sense of being completely overwhelmed, a lot of disengagement when kids have been on screens all day, the fact that work time and playtime after school are impossible to disentangle from one another. So kids are Zooming all day, feeling overwhelmed, burnt out, and disengaged. And then the same way that they're-- the same means through which they are learning academically is the way that they are socializing with their friends, so the amount of screen time that kids have nowadays is really astonishing. And they are having more trouble focusing in school and feel more isolated from their peers as a result.

TANYA RIVERO: And Brian, what role does homework play in the development of a child? And has this drastic change in the way children are learning impacted that developmental process, for instance, they're Zooming all day in class, and then they have to stay in front of their computer to do their homework via Google Classroom or whatever even after the school day is over? There are days when I look over and I feel like my son has been in front of a computer the entire day. So are there any-- do you have any suggestions on how to tackle that more successfully?

BRIAN PLATZER: Absolutely, Tanya. It's a great point and something so many of us are dealing with that typically, or ideally, the job of homework is to let students become more independent and create a series of steps that they can follow on their own to become autonomous learners. The problem that so many of us are facing today is that it's so difficult to differentiate between the school work that they're doing at home and what used to be called homework, it is now sometimes called asynchronous work.

What we recommend is setting as many rules ahead of time and establishing boundaries ahead of time so students don't have one sort of blend into the other, that perhaps students finish their day and then know that that's the time for them to take a half an hour or an hour break away from the screen and then figure out with their caretakers what's best for them moving forward.

Perhaps that's creating a list of the assignments they have to do, starting with the most difficult task, building in breaks, et cetera. But it's very important for students one, to be able to differentiate between the end of the school day and when their homework begins. And two, to feel like they are in control of that time in the afternoon, because so much of their time is spent staring into screens, whether it's for schoolwork or homework.

TANYA RIVERO: And Abby, getting back to this concept of the increased stress that both students and parents are feeling, how can you tackle that when it comes to homework? Because we know that beyond the classroom right now, beyond the school work, there's a lot of just life stress because of the situations that we're all in. So how do you take that into account when a child is also having a hard time tackling the material, whatever it may be?

ABBY FREIREICH: It's such an important question, Tanya, because students now, like, their parents are feeling completely overwhelmed. One of the things that we recommend doing is to have a whiteboard in a place where the whole family can see it and to make a list of tasks. The students should figure out what he or she has to do on a given night.

Start, as Brian was saying earlier, with the hardest assignments so that the student can accomplish it when he or she has the most energy, because kids tend to want to procrastinate and do whatever is easiest first, like many adults as well. And then to build in breaks. So when they're done with the school day, they should take a break before starting their homework. They should, if at all possible get outside. And then figure out what blocks of time or how long they think the homework assignment will take approximately, then take a break, and then continue.

But really back plan the evening so that they know what to expect of those on a daily basis and for long-term assignments. And we find that just that planning and that sense of structure is really comforting to kids. Especially now when the ground beneath them has really dramatically shifted, having this sense of structure and knowing what to expect really gives them both agency and a sense of knowing what to expect.

TANYA RIVERO: And Brian, in your research into how children are responding to this online learning environment, did you also look into the way a lack of-- or a different type of physical activity factors into it? Because we know if they get up and move from their bed to their desk and they're online all day and then their homework is online and they don't get out of the house much, we know that they're not getting as much physical activity as they used to, at least some of them, unless parents are really making a concerted effort to figure out a way to fit that into their day. Is that affecting the way they're absorbing academic information?

BRIAN PLATZER: Well, absolutely, because that sense of isolation and loneliness has been leading increasingly to depression and the feeling that students don't have control over their own academic life, their own social life, or, really, any aspect of their existence. So whereas if you go to school not only do you have to get up out of your bedroom and home and go physically to school, but there are scheduled recesses and physical education classes to get the blood pumping and to get you out of that passive mindset. And that's really something that Abby I see frequently.

Students, people talk about them in terms of being sedentary or being isolated, but also, students are taking an increasingly passive role in the classroom. So what we recommend is try to turn that passive role into an active one as much as possible. So that means maybe physically getting up during the class. It means actively taking notes and trying to ask themselves or the teachers questions.

It means at the end of a class perhaps going to another room or talking to somebody else who's in the house or next door about what they've learned. But adding that-- you know, that physical component and also that sort of change of focus is incredibly key in keeping students' attention. Because when students are sitting at their desks or lying in bed and everything is passive, they check out socially, emotionally, and academically.

TANYA RIVERO: And Abby, as you know, a lot of parents have had to take on extra-- an extra role in helping to educate their children when their children are doing school at home online, especially if they're younger children. So I'm wondering number one, if you have some tips on how to deal with that? And number two, if you have some advice for those families that simply aren't in the position where a parent can really be home monitoring their children's school day because both parents have to be out working? I wonder if you have tips for those families as well?

ABBY FREIREICH: Such an important question, Tanya. So for younger students what we find is so hard is knowing A, how to focus, and B, the most important thing, really, is to help them figure out what the expectations are ahead of time. Kids-- all kids thrive in routine, and this is especially true of younger students.

So what we find really helpful is to, even if you have a kindergartener or a first grader, have them sit down with you and say, here's what's going to happen tomorrow and to plan. So as-- as a parent, if you are working at home and you're trying to monitor your child's remote learning as well, just say, OK, here's going to-- here's the time when mom or dad is going to be on a work call, so to have that built-in snack that's right next to them, or to say, we know that this is a tricky time for you to be sitting on your own, so we're going to write down for you or even draw a picture of here's when you can take a little break and just walk around or do jumping jacks. So just giving them a routine and knowing what to plan is really important.

In terms of how to support parents who aren't there during the day as they're trying to support their kids, it's really hard. The most important thing is to reach out as parents to the classroom teachers and to let them know what your family is going through, because teachers are all overwhelmed right now, and it's hard to have the same amount of insight into what each individual family is going through that teachers might have in an ordinary year. So I think describing some of the challenges that your children are having at home and seeing how you can work in partnership with your child's teacher is really the most important way that you can be proactive.

TANYA RIVERO: Such great advice. Abby Freireich and Brian Platzer, thanks to both of you for joining us. Really great insight and advice for parents. We appreciate it.