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Meltdowns and Virtual School- How to Handle Them

More families than ever before have turned to virtual or homeschool this school year. Some by choice, some because the school systems gave them no other options. No matter how your family found its way into the world of school from home, if this is your first year the transition has probably been tough.

We're in our sixth year of virtual school now, and our family can't imagine doing things any other way. We have settled into a routine that works well for us. We can work extra to allow for days off in a given week without being penalized. We can take extra time to really master a skill if needed. We have the flexibility to make our own schedule and to do what works best for our family.

But it wasn't always this great. When we decided to pull our son out of his kindergarten class to begin virtual school, I wondered if I'd lost my mind. I took my strong-willed, stubborn little boy and decided I would be his full-time teacher. What was I thinking?! It took about two weeks, but we found a routine and things began to go smoother.

The next year we decided to pull our other two school-aged children out of the schools here and put them in the virtual program as well. They were going into ninth and fifth grades then. Trying to get used to having three instead of one doing school in the living room at the same time was nothing short of nightmarish. I heard, "Mama" about 487 times that first day, and by the end of it I really just wanted to cry.

Again though, after a couple of weeks we settled into the new routine, and even with two younger girls not in school hanging around with us, we were able to get through the days with relatively few tears. The next year saw our next girl start kindergarten and our youngest began kindergarten this year. Our oldest lives away from home, so I have four kids still here doing virtual school every day.

I get asked often how I do it. One of the things I have been asked to talk about is how I manage when one of them has a meltdown. Fortunately, most of ours are pretty good about not losing their tempers, but one of ours is akin to a ticking time bomb. He can get upset in the blink of an eye, and good luck getting him to calm down again.

Since this is his sixth school year in the virtual school program I have become very good at sensing a meltdown and averting the crisis. If I wait too long and he throws one of his fits, I have also gotten good at neutralizing the situation and helping him calm down to the point where he can get back to work.

If you need some help getting your child to stay calm, or at least calm down after the fact, you're in the right place. I'd love to share with you the things I've learned on our six-year journey thus far.


Try to stop a meltdown before it starts:

You've been raising your child his or her entire life. You know what makes them tick. You know their likes and dislikes, and you can probably sense when they're on the verge of a complete meltdown. If you start to see the classic signs, don't continue to push your child. Encourage them to take a short break or to work on a different subject for a while.

Music is a good choice. Music lessons always cheer our kids up if they get frustrated. Classical music helps soothe an angry child, and funny childhood songs help a child laugh and let go of what is bothering them.

Art is also a good choice. Allowing your child to express themselves by creating a project gives them something else to focus on for a little while. Unless an art lesson asks your child to draw something specific, you can suggest that they draw a picture of one of their favorite places or a place they'd really like to visit. This will bring back positive thoughts.

Usually, this works to improve our kids' moods and we are able to resume working on whatever caused the chaos to begin with. Since both art and music each take about half an hour, we're able to get back to the lesson in question in a decent amount of time.

Let them cry it out:

Didn't catch the meltdown in time to stop it? That's okay, it happens. In this case, I have found the best thing to do is just to let them sit in their room and cry it out. Don't let them throw or break things or anything else destructive, but sometimes letting the tears fall is the best way to relieve the frustration they're feeling.

Try to remember that they're usually most worried that they are disappointing you by not understanding something. We all know how it can hurt when you feel like you are letting down someone you love, especially a parent. Sometimes crying is the best therapy. I often feel better after a good cry. Once they've calmed down (and you have too if needed) go sit with them and try one or all of the approaches below.

  1. Ask them to explain what got them so upset. Sharing with you what it is that caused the meltdown accomplishes a couple of different things. First, it lets them work out the problem using their own words. They can fully explain and understand why they got upset. It's important for a child to work out their own emotions instead of having answers fed to them by a parent. As much as we might want to do that to "help" them, it only hinders their own problem-solving abilities. Second, if you're able to get a good idea of the trigger, you might be able to avoid it happening again.

  2. Remind them that we don't just know everything. Our son seems to think that he should just automatically "get" everything. When he doesn't understand something immediately he gets really frustrated and I can see that he's shutting down. Once he's gotten it in his head that he doesn't get something, it's nearly impossible to talk to him and make any progress. Reminding him that if we all just understood things the second we read them then we wouldn't need schools at all seems to help some

  3. Make sure your child knows that you're not angry or disappointed that they don't understand something. I tell my kids all the time that there is still so much I don't know, and that there always be things I don't know. Growing up doesn't mean you're done learning. I tell them that what matters to me is that they want to learn and that they are giving things their best effort. The rest will come in time. Kids need to know and believe that they have our full support as parents.

Change your schedule:

Have you noticed that most of your child's meltdowns occur around the same time of day or with a certain school subject? For our son it's math. If we're going to run into a major obstacle that throws a kink in our day, it's gonna be math. He used to want to do math first every day. If we ran into a "bad math day" that set a negative tone for the rest of the school day. It wasn't working.

I told him we were going to change the order of how we did things and that we'd do math last, that way if he had a hard time and it took a while, he could look forward to just being done for the day at the end of the lesson. That seemed to help. While it didn't stop him from having days where he got frustrated, knowing he could do what he wanted after we finished the lesson did keep it from progressing.

By simply keeping an eye on which things trigger strong reactions from your child and rearranging the schedule, you might be able to minimize those fits. This might require some trial and error and of course, only you will be able to pick up on those subtleties of your day-to-day routine.

Break up the day:

Maybe it's you that wants to just power through and get everything done at one time, or maybe it's your kid. That's not always the best idea. Even if your child is saying they want to finish everything before lunch so they can just go play, they probably still need a break. While the thought of getting up and hitting the books and finishing a full day's worth of school before noon sounds appealing, you won't feel so great about it if it ends in tears for both of you.

It's a good idea to take short breaks between lessons. Just long enough to stretch your legs and take your eyes off the computer screen will do. I like to have the kids get up and get some water and take a short break while I start a load of laundry or pull out meat to defrost for dinner. Sometimes we step outside for a few minutes. It doesn't take much more than five minutes, but it's the perfect amount of time. It is long enough that we don't feel that fatigue but not so long the kids are losing interest in their work.

Encouraging your kids to take short breaks between each lesson, or at least every other lesson, can help keep them from feeling tied to the computer screen and can help even out their mood. An even mood translates to fewer meltdowns.

Create a schedule, if that's your thing:

Or don't if it isn't. When we first started virtual school I was determined to adhere to a strict schedule. That was a mistake and it didn't last long. While I do wake the kids up by 8:00 every morning and start lessons or live classes by 8:30, I don't push a "schedule" anymore. But I have seen other learning coaches (what they call us parents who do the teaching) that say a strict schedule is their saving grace.

I do believe that having a schedule in the sense of having a starting time for each school day is a good idea. And obviously, you need to make sure your students are attending any live classes or testing at their specified times. Outside of that though you need to do what works best for your family.

With the exception of our son doing math last to avoid those meltdowns, I let the kids decide the order they want to do their lessons each day. I feel that it allows them to have some control over their own day, and I think that making those decisions is good for them.

In this case, no one knows your family better than you. You will need to analyze your needs and your kids' needs and decide if a strict schedule would be beneficial or detrimental and plan as you see fit.

Rewards system:

I'm not talking about anything major here. Something simple like a sticker chart could work well for a younger child. Use a calendar, or print out a blank calendar page, and have your child add a sticker for each day they make it through without having a meltdown. Once they have gone say, a full week without any temper tantrums, they can pick a small reward.

Maybe a trip to the park, a special snack or meal, or a movie night. It doesn't have to be anything you buy them. Anything that makes them understand that they accomplished something big and shows them how proud you are will work. Our children want to know we're proud of them, so this might be a great way to keep them calm and focused throughout the week.

The takeaway:

I've said it before, but it's worth repeating; no one knows your child better than you. You've got to do what you think is best for your family. By letting our children make as many decisions as they're capable of making at their ages, they feel like they have control over their day and they're happier and more productive. If you feel like your child will abuse that or that it might overwhelm them, that wouldn't be the right decision for your family.

I know it might seem like there is no light at the end of the virtual school tunnel, but I promise there is. Take cues from your child. Remember that sometimes you are both going to need a break, and that's completely okay. Maybe some days you decide the day is a bust and it would be better to just catch up tomorrow. Been there and done that!

No one goes into homeschooling or virtual schooling as a pro, so don't be so hard on yourself or your kids. By trying some of these tips and learning to take it one day at a time you'll become a pro in no time.

Do you have any tips to add to this list? I'd love to hear them!

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