One of my clients, a mixed-race girl in a Catholic school in Manhattan, loves being home and online. She has decoding and fluency issues, but has worked hard on them over the last two years, though quite begrudging of our time together the first year. When New York went into lockdown in March, and after the initial anxiety about the change had subsided, she thrived on more sleep, time to do her work, outdoor sports, and a tranquil environment at home with her mother and brother. It was a more difficult time for him, and he was subject to panic attacks that centered around the divorce of his parents, but my client, who had spent the first two years we worked together feeling angry about the divorce and upset about the extra work I brought to her school life, came to greater peace of mind with the help of her therapist and had more energy to devote to her school work. Her anxiety about her place among her peers disappeared as her grades improved and then stayed very strong. I never thought the writing curriculum was interesting, focused as it was on state standardized tests, but over the summer, my student and I read and wrote about a book she cared deeply about. This was a breakthrough in her ability to understand the structure of an essay and appreciate its power to help her express her very deep feelings about the story. Now, she meets with me once a week to read and write and has been accepted to a competitive high school.
My adult NVLD clients are thriving online. The two-dimensional space seems to settle their focus on the task at hand while eliminating outside distractions. A simplified visual field on Jamboard or Zoom has helped them work through lessons in a productive way. The college aged people who have been diagnosed with NVLD or ADHD are improving their reading, memory, and executive functioning very nicely. My adult dyslexic student did beautifully from home.
Now, for the difficult part. I have fielded two calls in the last two weeks from parents whose children are diagnosed with ADHD, and who cannot learn online from home or from school where they are confined six hours within Plexiglas shields to work online and separated from each other. These children are young elementary and middle school boys whose parents wonder if they should pull them from school altogether and write off the year. These children miss their peers and have executive functioning challenges with anxiety that has spiked in the pandemic world. In fact, some children I work with online are refusing to work, ready to fight with their parents about it, or ready to give up. In my work with several kids like this, the hour session online is all the attention they can muster. I find myself wishing I could hug them, play a game in person, help them practice planner skills in the same space with them. I’ll never take small courtesies and pleasure like taking a cookie break together for granted again. I miss the self-regulation that my calm breathing and ready smile can induce in an anxious student during in-person sessions. I miss the table cloth I use at my work table, and the pretty light I can use to improve the mood in the room as we reach for a difficult new skill.
Other of my colleagues report that their students are skipping sessions, projecting their fear and anger onto their teachers, making excuses, and backsliding, as some of mine have.
What to do? With one lovely mother who understands her young child’s NVLD and current school refusal well, it may make sense to stop struggling to meet expectations in a way not designed to meet this child’s needs at all. I suggested a talk with the school to look into whether the family might homeschool him with an in-person tutor who is willing to take weekly virus testing. I also thought with her of ways we could lessen the expectations for accomplishment this year if no homeschool in-person teaching could be found. Would it be possible to say no to the stress and wait until next year to resume the expectations of his curriculum? Would it harm this child to withdraw from the spring semester while his anxiety is treated? Or would patient work and lowered expectations of achievement make any outcome for the school year worthwhile? Could a combination of medicine, therapy, and educational therapy be engaged that would nourish this child’s sense of safety so that he might find the energy to learn? Could an after-school activity like caring for an animal in need help him to see that many of us need help, and that responsibility for another being could be a balm to her anxieties. To be needed, to be responsible, to give care can be a wonderful way of finding resilience in difficult times. I certainly found it so when my father died around the same time I decided to give up my dream of being an actress. So much loss, and such questions, not unlike a middle schooler’s, about my place among my family and peers. What can we be good at in a time of loss? I found that my volunteer work led me to graduate school and to a career as an educational therapist.
This seems to me the question to ask: what can we do to connect with each other and to provide acts of care and service so that we might feel whole ourselves? We need to be able to impart a long view of hope to our clients and to nurture it in ourselves. Now that the vaccines have arrived and the roll out has begun, we can see hope that the world will resume a more normal state in the not-to-distant future. Since children live in the now, it is important to talk about the return to normal sessions and in-person education, so that we can smooth the transition when it finally happens. Meanwhile, we can embody the hope we feel as the country is gradually vaccinated. For children stuck in anxious worry that the present they are living will always be with us, speaking of the future in hopeful terms, and steady work toward goals that enable the child to work better independently may ease their fears. We can explain how anxiety makes new skills seem to disappear as it overwhelms the prefrontal cortex, and this explanation can help a child to localize rather than globalize the temporary fragmentation of functioning they may experience. If we reassure our students that these skills will be more available under pressure if we continue our steady practice, we may also help them become less frightened.
I’m longing to know what you see, readers, and what you have found to add warmth and fun to your online sessions with clients. Won’t you let me know? We are amassing a new body of knowledge, and it will be useful once the pandemic has passed. Our world is changing, and pandemic strategies may come in handy again. Working from home may change the face of education the way video games have changed entertainment. Drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org to tell me what you are learning.