It's clear many children have slipped academically as a result of the pandemic, and parents are quite worried about the learning loss. In this episode of Parenting the Mental Health Generation, Amy O. (aka "the mom") and Dr. Lisa (aka "the psychologist ") talk with Becky Parkinson, a school social worker, about how to get our kids on track and what really matters when it comes to education.
This is the conversation you aren’t having with your kid’s doctors and teachers because time doesn’t allow it. Or, with your friends, because they just don’t get it. So put in your earbuds,
take this 30 minutes for you, and join our conversation because mental health matters.
Becky Parkinson grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago. She earned both a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in social work from Loyola University Chicago. Becky also earned a master’s degree in teaching from National Louis University. She worked as a school social worker and 3rd grade teacher for a combined 9 years in Northbrook public schools before joining St. Andrew School in 2019. In her free time, Becky enjoys running along the Chicago lakefront path.
Amy O. is the founder and Dr. Lisa is an active board member of CATCH, Community Action Together for Children's Health, a 501c3 organization based along the north shore of Chicago. CATCH's mission is to empower families to foster resilience and prioritize mental health and emotional wellness in their children through educational programming, access to resources, and peer support.
To find all of the resources CATCH provides to caregivers of young people struggling with their mental health, go to www.catchiscommunity.org or follow us on social media @catchiscommunity.
CATCH, Community Action Together for Children's Health, is a 501(c)3 that provides support and education for families around mental health topics. Original content and materials from CATCH and its collaborators are for informational purposes only. They are provided as a general resource and are not specific to any person or circumstance.
© CATCH 2022
Amy O. (00:00):
It feels intuitive sometimes that if the learning feels a little bit behind, then the way to compensate for that is to increase the academic supports. Let's get them additional tutors and coaches, and let's do repetition and practice when they get home from school. But that really, um, can backfire very quickly.
Amy O. (00:20):
We know parents are very worried about their children falling behind academically, due to the disruptions and challenges of the pandemic. We will take a real and honest look at why these concerns are valid and what we can do to help our kids get back on track. So learning is once again, viable. Welcome. I'm Amy O., the Founder and Executive Director of CATCH Community Action together for Children's Health based in Chicago's northern suburbs.
Amy O. (00:46):
And I'm Dr. Lisa, I'm a licensed clinical psychologist. And as a CATCH board member, I am the liaison between CATCH and the mental health providers in our community together.
New Speaker (00:56):
We are the hosts of Parenting the Mental Health Generation, a place where we discuss the topics that concern us as loved ones of young people, struggling with their mental health. Today, we're speaking with Becky Parkinson, who's a licensed social worker currently working at St. Andrews School in Chicago after spending nine years in the Northbrook public schools as a teacher and a social worker.
Amy O. (01:17):
So put in your earbuds, take this half an hour for you and join our conversation with Becky.
Amy O. (01:24):
Thank you so much for joining us today, Becky, I know we're talking about a very popular subject, academic regression and learning loss and what that means for our kids. And we're really excited to have somebody with boots on the ground, sharing your, your thoughts and your observations with us. I know as a neuropsychologist in private practice, this is a question that is coming up a ton for me right now with parents and families. I'm very concerned about what the past two years has done to their kids in terms of their reading development and math development skills that maybe they should have at this grade level that they don't have yet. I'm wondering if you're seeing parents concerned with the same thing.
Becky Parkinson (02:03):
I am. So the population I work with is, um, preschool through eighth grade and they, you know, I think across the board, parents are feeling concerned and they're feeling stressed and it's been really hard for the last two years. I think there's kind of this tendency to think about what expectations were before. That is what we know that's what we're comfortable with. And now maybe we're not meeting those expectations, but also that like world we knew before doesn't really exist. And I, I know that's hard to come to terms with, and that's an a grieving process. So yes, I think parents are, are stressed about it and worried about what happens next and how their kids are doing
Amy O. (02:43):
The tricky part about that is even when we can get to a point where we say, okay, uh, the expectations we had two years ago, maybe don't hold anymore. It's hard to figure out what are the new expectations that we should have and how much should we be focusing on academics and how much does that not really matter right now anymore. And it's hard to find a, a new ground to stand on there.
Becky Parkinson (03:07):
And I see that a lot, you know, working in a school also with teachers and administrators too, I think we're kind of all in it together that we're all trying to figure out what are those new expectations? And I think everyone's just trying to take it a day at a time and, you know, celebrate the successes and the learning that is happening as we try to figure out kind of what this new normal is and, um, what the new goals and expectations are for students.
Amy O. (03:34):
I spent some years in the first grade classroom, and I'm also a parent of a couple kids and the isolation and the challenges of learning during a pandemic came on the heels of what has been sort of an increase in expectation academically anyway, in our classroom, you know, the common core curriculum, et cetera, has pushed our kids beyond their developmental abilities already in many cases. And do you think that what we're worrying about as parents now is magnified by the fact that we were already kind of, you know, trying to keep up developmentally with what we're expected of our kids? Does that make sense?
Becky Parkinson (04:14):
Yeah, I think it does. And I think, and this is coming from someone that is not a parent yet. Parenting is hard and scary. And I think, you know, you're always kind of stressed and trying to figure out what is the new initiative or what's the new approach or where do we go next
Amy O. (04:29):
Or what my kid is supposed to be doing this week next month today there's been so much focus on it. Whereas when my kids were in school 20 years ago in elementary school, we just didn't have those expectations academically, that common core push wasn't there mm-hmm, <affirmative> not only that, but there were actually things demanded of us during the pandemic that we could say definitively are not developmentally appropriate. Like having a young child sit in front of a screen for hours on end independently learning. We know for fact that that's not developmentally appropriate. And yet suddenly that became a new expectation. And then we find ourselves worrying when our children can't meet that expectation that should never have been set for them in the first place. So it's an easy way to spiral out quickly seeing things that, that we think suddenly are non-normative when we know that we, we just shouldn't have expected them to start with well, and you know, the other piece that I've heard from parents at CATCH is they are actually watching their children learn for the first time and learn poorly in many ways, you know, or learn with a lot of what you just described, like fidgeting and inability to sit and concentrate.
Amy O. (05:47):
But they've never seen that because they're never at school.
Becky Parkinson (05:50):
And it manifests differently in school too. Right. So like to be fidget as much while you're at school on the computer, that's not actually an accurate glimpse into what your child is like at school. Exactly. So then it's raising their, their anxiety over it. When really that's
Amy O. (06:04):
Becky Parkinson (06:04):
Amy O. (06:05):
I've heard a lot of questions from parents around is this what the teachers have seen for years? And if so, why has nobody told me and what should I be doing about it? It's actually become one of the most essential parts of my evaluation process so that we can find out if we are talking about some of these behaviors in attention and distractability and fidgeting and poor concentration, is that a newer problem or is that something that has been present over time while before COVID and perhaps is exacerbated by the current situations? Think about whether something is truly a neurodevelopmental issue or whether it's something that is more related to the demands that are currently being placed on them. Are you seeing a big demand in families who want neuro diagnostics? Yes, absolutely. Yeah,
Becky Parkinson (06:55):
But I know they're coming to you <laugh>
Amy O. (06:57):
They are, we have, we have not seen numbers like this. I mean, genuinely ever before. And I saw somebody, um, posted something recently about how Google searches for, does my child have an attention disorder or do I, as an adult, have ADHD have gone up 50% in the past year or two since the pandemic started because these behaviors, these characteristics, these concerns are now pretty much global, I think were all experiencing a degree of mental fogginess and difficulty concentrating and not being able to manage our time effectively. And it can certainly feel and quickly feel like there is something wrong with us when it might actually be a really natural reaction to all the things we're having to do with right now. Becky, what about the students who were just cruising along typical learners? What are you seeing a, in those kinds of students in your setting and what kinds of things can we as educators, you as a social worker, we, as parents do to assure ourselves and assure our kids that they're gonna be able to get back on track academically.
Becky Parkinson (08:12):
What I'm seeing is students are happy to be at school and be with their peers and see their teacher. And, you know, while school looks different now than it did pre pandemic, I, I think they are there and available and ready to learn. Um, parents, I think what would help them is to know that their student needs to be in a place where they are emotionally available and, um, feeling calm and ready to learn. So if they can put some things in place outside of the school day to help them to feel calm as they arrive at school, then they'll be there to accept the learning.
Amy O. (08:53):
And I think it, it feels intuitive sometimes that if the learning feels a little bit behind, then the way to compensate for that is to increase the academic supports. Let's get them additional tutors and coaches, and let's do repetition and practice when they get home from school. But to your exact point there, Becky that really, um, can backfire very quickly. It has that opposite effect where we are not helping them feel calm and comfortable and have that safe space. We're not helping them recoup and re-energize and fill their battery. We are instead potentially draining them further or stressing them out, which is going to then have that opposite effect when they get back into the classroom the next day. And it's gonna have them feel shut down or overly exhausted and less available for the learning that's then being offered to them. So that begs the question.
Amy O. (09:45):
Is it important in this conversation to distinguish between a student who may have been a typical learner before the challenges, the pandemic, and a student who would've needed additional structures an IEP a 504 more scaffolding at school, it seems like it would be important to distinguish between those kinds of students when we move forward and how we can help them be good learners. Again, I think it is essential in this conversation. I think we're gonna be largely talking about that group of students who prior to COVID didn't really have any specific learning or attention needs that were going to make learning harder for them. And for those students, there is so much just about cognitive availability for learning that is all that they're going to need in order to catch up and recoup and be successful. There is a segment of the population and of students in our schools who think differently, learn differently, process information differently.
Amy O. (10:48):
And that was the case prior to COVID. And then with the gaps in, you know, being able to be available for in-school learning and receiving pullout supports and other things that they would've needed, that gap has for some widen. And we know that they are gonna require more direct instruction and more specific evidence based programs in order to help recoup their learning. So parents are concerned about their typical learners and their learning loss over this pandemic. What has gotten us to this point? Like what about the way education has been during the pandemic has caused our kids to be unavailable for appropriate learning and what can we do about those things and why is it that a kid has to be so emotionally stable in order to be ready to learn Becky? How did we get here in the last two years?
Becky Parkinson (11:40):
I will say being in a school, I've seen a huge increase in the number of students that seek out working with me or coming to see me, parents sending me emails. And it's majority just feeling anxious, all this anxiety. I think students, no matter what, the grade level they're in, they're feeling the stress. That's just, everyone is impacted by right now in the world, right? So even if the news isn't on in their home, like everyone feels it we've changed over the last two years collectively. And there's this collective stress and this collective trauma that we're, we're still navigating and figuring out together. And so I think students are feeling the anxiety that their parents have, the worries that they have at home, um, coming to school and schools does still look different and there's so much uncertainty and so much change. You know, they may be back on their basketball team or doing the activities that they enjoy, but it's different than it was two years ago.
Becky Parkinson (12:35):
Or maybe now they have to stay home for 10 days. You know, there just is this constant change in flux. You know, that my teacher is absent now for the next two weeks and I have a substitute, you know, we're very short staffed. So while I know that students are happy to be back and there, there are lots of wonderful things happening. There's just constant change going on. And I think for everyone, no matter how old you are, if you're an adult or a child, you feel that, and it's distracting and you're not in that place, always where you're ready to hear new material or to be challenged intellectually because you're concerned or confused the routine is off. Um, and you, you don't feel necessarily safe in that moment to, to be challenged academically.
Amy O. (13:22):
How do we help our kids feel confident? How do we help them act resiliently, um, come to school in a place where learning can be number one again, instead of I have a stomach ache, I can't sit here anymore. This is scary. I can't see your face, all the things that you're describing, what can we, as parents do starting now and over the course of tomorrow's to come to help our kids. Mm-hmm <affirmative>, I mean, it is scary. It's scary for me too, you know, get back to a place of feeling like it's okay.
Becky Parkinson (14:03):
Amy O. (14:04):
You know, we talked right at the beginning about this idea of shifting our expectations. And I think that's a huge piece for helping our kids be available for learning too. Even when we are shifting our expectations. I don't think we always remember to pass that message along to them when maybe they're the ones that need to hear it the most. And so, you know, the idea of emphasizing effort over outcome and saying to them, I don't care what grade you get on the test or what your GPA is, or how many AP classes you're signing up for next year. I want you to, to try hard and do your best and find things you love to do as well, and make sure you're balancing what we're talking about at school, with what we're talking about out of school, all the things that we are are starting to hopefully move to, to shift. We need to tell them that too, and really give them the, okay. I'm not just saying this. I actually mean it.
Becky Parkinson (15:02):
I think the biggest thing is modeling for your child, how you're navigating it, you know, taking those moments as hard as it is, you know, kids need us to be strong, but they also need us to be soft. And I think to be vulnerable and, and share those moments where maybe you are feeling frustrated and give it a name and acknowledge it and then show what you're doing to kind of cope and, and manage that. I think kids are constantly looking to us and learning from us. So I think that's a huge start and a huge first step, obviously talking about it and being open, you know, that helps your child to feel seen and heard to just sit with them and ask them how their day is going and what it is that they're feeling frustrated about to just allow that space, to be together, really making a plan.
Becky Parkinson (15:49):
I think in the moments where your child is feeling calm and regulated, to come up with a plan of what can we do in those moments where you're feeling really anxious. You know, maybe the plan at home looks like different than the plan at school, but in that moment where they're feeling good, that you can come up with, what is that plan? What will you have nearby? What's a tool that you need or a strategy that you can use and then checking in with them, you know, maybe after school, that day to see if that helped. And if that worked for them and obviously communicating with the school too, you know, there are lots of people within the building that are there to support your child.
Amy O. (16:23):
Sometimes I think it's counterintuitive for parents to sort of admit their imperfections, to admit their vulnerabilities because they feel as though they need to be strong and I've got you. But what you're suggesting is that it's okay to say, yeah, I've been scared and nervous too. And we can get through this by doing these things, or we can get through this because we're strong and mighty and or whatever we say, is that what you're suggesting?
Becky Parkinson (16:50):
Yeah, absolutely. I think first you need to really like validate it with your child and sit there with them with it. And then yeah. Know that you're a team and you're gonna work on it together and, you know, have that element of hope and a plan there.
Amy O. (17:04):
Amy, I think what you're describing is necessary. I think we have to be vulnerable at times in front of our children because otherwise, what a, what precedent are we setting? But I mean, imagine the, the stress of feeling like my parent is perfect. And so I have to be perfect just like my parent. I mean, we want to show them our imperfections too, for exactly that reason and that relieves them of guilt or shame when they make their own mistakes and allows them to understand that that is just part of being human.
Becky Parkinson (17:39):
I've recently been reading a lot about, you know, just kind of that idea of like self-compassion and really practicing that with myself and with students too. Just that idea of really talking to yourself the way you would, someone that you love and know that just like you said, Lisa, that, you know, we're all human and we all make mistakes and there, there isn't any perfection. And to just, you know, talk to yourself, um, with a calm kind tone and to just be gentle with ourselves and realize that, you know, we're all navigating and figuring this out together.
Amy O. (18:10):
You know, one of the things I miss most about being in the classroom is coming home to the dinner table and telling all the funny stories of things that first grader said or conversations that we had, or, and I'm wondering, is there joy in the classroom now? Is there joy in learning? Is it hard for kids to when they can't see their teacher's face when they can't see their friends' faces? How do we get back to that? School can be really fun and funny and learning can be incredibly exciting. How do we get back there? Even when we're in such a scary and uncomfortable time?
Becky Parkinson (18:48):
Luckily, I think we are still in that place and we still have those moments, because kids are hilarious, right? Like every moment they just <laugh>, they do say the darnest things and the funniest things happen. I'll be very honest. I also think kids are really like making fun of like wearing masks. Like there's a lot of humorous situations that happen with that, you know, they're like sneezing and then it's, they need a new mask. And I can't actually tell, I didn't know that was you because I didn't recognize you. So I think there are definitely still those moments because that's just who kids are. And I think schools are still very joyful. It just looks a little bit different, right? That the, the punchline of the joke is now centered around something else. But I think there still are those moments with kids.
Dr. Lisa (19:35):
I'm glad to hear that. And I was just talking to a school administrator who was talking to a parent who was concerned that their child was potentially sitting alone at the lunchroom and the school administrator just had to laugh and say, all the kids are sitting alone at the lunchroom. They are literally six feet apart from each other in these wide ridiculous tables. And nobody has a friend like you, you're not allowed to have a friend sitting next to you while you eat anymore. I mean, you, you have to laugh. I also am maintaining a lot of hope that when we get to a place where we can safely and comfortably let down some of our, our guards from a, a genuine safety standpoint, a lot of that will start to return on its own. I also know one thing for me, that's been really helpful to keep my ability to be resilient and positive is getting enough sleep. And I feel as though maybe if we encourage parents to make sure that even though routines are different, our kids gotta come to school well rested with the intention of learning, even when it's different silver linings of challenge of over the last couple years, can we spend a minute or two sharing? What is hopeful and what our parents and kids might carry forward from this, even though it might be muddled right now.
Becky Parkinson (20:52):
Yeah, I think of, you know, over the last two years, I've definitely found some silver linings in it and seen, you know, opportunities where students that maybe wouldn't have connected with each other actually did. They were more comfortable in the virtual format when they had that option. I definitely saw students explore like passions and interests that maybe they didn't have the time to dedicate to before whether it was with their family when they were at home doing some remote learning or if it was just with the classroom having to really show creativity, to do lessons in a, a different format due to remote learning. As I think a huge silver lining is just that there's less stigma around talking about mental health and, you know, I see the great work you're doing with CATCH. And I think collectively people are more open to talking about it because we're all going through it together. And that has been huge and has led to more empathy, more understanding, you know, I'm hopeful. People are giving each other more grace. So I think that's a huge silver lining as well.
Dr. Lisa (21:59):
And I think the other one that I would add is what I'm starting to see is a shift and, and such a necessary one in what we are emphasizing as being most important for our kids. And, you know, no doubt we are raising children in high pressure, high achieving communities with very competitive schools. And there has been just this drive for success for so long that continues to perpetuate. And I think we're redefining success. And I have heard parents say to me, I never would've thought that these types of words are coming out of my mouth, but I don't care what their grades are. I saw them laugh with their friends today, or I don't care exactly which, you know, courses they sign up for next year. My kid got to school this morning without having a meltdown. And we are just starting to move the needle a little bit.
Dr. Lisa (23:05):
I think in understanding that there is so much more to raising these successful children than what it looks like from an academic standpoint.
Amy O. (23:14):
I like ending on that note. I like challenging us all to think about how we can come out the other side of this and help our kids understand that yeah, academics is important and learning is important, but what's really most important is getting through the other side whole and confident and ready to go. And I think we've gotten some good tips here today about how we as parents and educators in the community can help our kids do that. So thank you, Becky and Lisa for this conversation.
Dr. Lisa (23:43):
Okay. Becky following in the footsteps of some of the other podcasters, we listen to like Brene brown. We like to CATCH up with our guests by asking, what do you do to calm yourself when feeling escalated?
Becky Parkinson (23:56):
I go for a drive in complete silence,
Amy O. (24:00):
No music blasting.
Becky Parkinson (24:01):
No, that's when that's, when I'm getting pumped up and feeling good about something. But when I just need to relax, it's no music.
Amy O. (24:08):
What is the one message Becky you want everyone to know about mental health?
Becky Parkinson (24:15):
I think I'm going to answer this thinking through the lens of like being at a school and, you know, I started as a classroom teacher and then made the switch to social work and seeing the social, emotional learning, the SEL lessons that are happening in schools. I remember when that really first started taking off, you know, there was that feeling of, it's just another thing on the plate. And I've really learned now by being in this social work world, that it actually is the plate. And so that's just kind of how I look at mental health in general, that to me, you know, it's the plate, it's the foundation and we need to dedicate some time to taking care of it.
Dr. Lisa (24:55):
I love that so much.
Amy O. (24:57):
I, you too. I was fist bumping here and nobody could see it.
Dr. Lisa (25:01):
Becky, thank you so much for your time and your ongoing commitment to our community's mental health. We so appreciate having you here.
Becky Parkinson (25:08):
Thank you, both.
Amy O. (25:10):
We at CATCH our all parents and we too worry about the academic hits. Our children have taken as a result of the pandemic and it's required pivots and ongoing challenges. We hope this discussion helped you to understand where we are collectively and what we can do to help our kids find their emotional footing. So that learning and joy at school is once again, viable.
Dr. Lisa (25:34):
Rebuilding our kids' emotional foundation is absolutely the first step to helping them CATCH up academically. We need them to feel calm and comfortable and confident. That is what we know is the only conducive way for their learning and their social, emotional success. We also want them to develop the positive growth oriented mindset that they need in order to take risks, accept that they're gonna make mistakes and continue to try hard things.
Amy O. (25:59):
Thanks for joining us for another episode of Parenting the Mental Health Generation.
Dr. Lisa (26:05):
Stay, current on all CATCH programming by liking us on Facebook @CATCHiscommunity or by visiting our website CATCHiscommunity.org.
Amy O. (26:15):
If you don't have your mental health, you don't have anything. There is a community of people out there that understands find it.