COVID-19-induced school closures pushed parents to engage in their child’s education in unprecedented ways. Regardless of how in-person or virtual classrooms continue to change, kids—especially kids with learning and thinking differences, like ADHD and dyslexia—will benefit from an emotionally healthy learning environment (EHLE) now and for years to come.
What an emotionally healthy learning environment looks like:
Creating a healthy learning environment isn’t just about supporting a child academically. The key is to provide an environment that encourages them to build self-awareness, engage in how they are feeling, and feel comfortable enough to ask for help.
EHLEs are spaces that provide the child with an organized and consistent place to work. These spaces should allow the child to sit, stand, or move around to honor their body’s needs. Their space should be well lit and provide storage for their work in folders or organizing trays that allow them to track completed tasks and work in progress, which is crucial for managing assignments. For children who learn and think differently, visual schedules, task rubrics, and workflow diagrams can help them organize what would otherwise feel chaotic or overwhelming. Structured workspaces and procedures can increase focus, support organization/executive functioning, and significantly reduce anxiety about schoolwork.
It’s also important to consider language in an EHLE. Children often communicate their emotions via their actions—like throwing down the book or walking away from the table. Giving your child the language to advocate for themselves (e.g., “I feel confused” or “I feel frustrated”) will help them develop independence while fostering the learning experience.
How social-emotional learning fosters an emotionally healthy learning environment:
Social-emotional learning (SEL) is the development of a broad set of lifelong skills such as self-management, social awareness, and responsible decision-making—a crucial factor for success. A common misconception is that SEL is less important than basic education pillars, like math, reading, and writing. However, children who cannot manage their emotions in difficult situations or quit tasks due to frustration are less likely to show their potential. Children who can communicate about the sources of their frustration and advocate for themselves are far more likely to be collaborators in their learning. SEL can provide the foundational skills that create EHLEs and allow for healthy problem-solving in home and school settings.
Those who can see a problem through to the end often work well with others are more likely to receive support and create opportunities for themselves in school and beyond. According to a Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) study by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), 92% of surveyed workplace executives say skills such as problem-solving and effective communication are equally or more important than technical skills. Intelligence is a raw material for success, but social-emotional learning transforms intelligence into success.
Roadmap: How you can build an emotionally healthy learning environment for your child:
Step 1: Check-in.
Practice checking in with your child before they complete daily tasks, and make any necessary adjustments to help them focus. By asking your child how they are feeling and having them use feeling words, you foster self-awareness. If your child is younger than eight, or can’t utilize that vocabulary, ask how they feel physically. For example, you can ask, “Are your shoulders up and tight? Is your heart beating fast?”
Step 2: Prepare for the day ahead.
Help your child create a comfortable and safe place for work or learning tasks. If they aren’t ready to begin working or learning, try mindfulness approaches like deep breathing exercises or movement-based activities, which can help them calm their bodies and become more open to how they feel and the task before them. With mindfulness comes a greater awareness and better self-management—two core factors for social and emotional learning. First, ask your child, “Are you ready to work?” If not, help them scan their body from head to toe, checking for signs of tension, pain, or discomfort. Practicing mindfulness approaches like deep breathing, stretching, or yoga can help them prepare their bodies for learning tasks. Encourage your child to revisit their attempt at the work task and repeat strategies as needed.
Step 3: Prepare for roadblocks.
Roadblocks will happen. Common roadblocks can include missing school/homework materials, responding to body needs (like being hungry, using the bathroom, etc.), task anxiety, or limited knowledge of the task at hand. If your child hits barriers with homework or tasks around the house, create a list of ways your child can navigate those moments and post them somewhere easily accessible and visible. This list can include asking for directions, trying a different approach, or taking a “brain break.”
The best way to manage roadblocks is to plan ahead. Here are five strategies to navigate these challenges:
Take snack and bathroom breaks before each task interval.
Practice self-regulating activities before starting daily tasks/chores (deep breathing, stretching, etc.).
Make a materials list for each task and collect necessary items before starting the activity.
Post step-by-step directions for common chores, math procedures, or writing rubrics in their work environment for current and future reference.
Keep an alternative task on hand if they cannot do what is asked.
Step 4: Stay positive
Maintain a positive attitude and language with your child about the activity at hand. Admittedly, sometimes “being positive” is more complicated than it looks, and parents will have to “fake it till they make it.” It’s easy to become frustrated with a child when they are avoidant or struggle to engage, but adding negative emotions to the mix will only result in a worsening outcome. Given this, it’s essential to set expectations for what your child can do and verbalize it. As a parent, remain focused on the child’s efforts and attempts towards the task rather than completion or perfection. Modeling self-calming strategies and having a plan to manage your child’s task roadblocks can make a major difference in their efforts to remain positive and calm. Share positive observations of the effort your child is applying and make it clear that you have noticed. Moreover, make reflective statements so your child can learn to self-praise, too (e.g., “You must be really proud of yourself!”). A positive mindset goes a long way.
Creating an EHLE for your child can positively impact how they think and act throughout their life. Children empowered to take academic risks, persevere through difficult tasks, and communicate what they need are far more prepared for successful careers and healthy adult relationships. The development of social-emotional skills in childhood and the practice of these approaches in an EHLE provides the foundation for a lifetime of health and happiness.