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Jonathan Mitchell, MA, LPC | Clinical Therapist | Adolescent Boys

September 8th, 2020

Back to School, Pt. 1: Navigating Virtual School with your Adolescent Child

Jonathan Mitchell, MA, LPC | Clinical Therapist | Adolescent Boys

It’s that time of year. School has started up again…but with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the start of the school year is anything but typical. With many schools moving to virtual school, parents are grappling with how to set their kids up for success: academically, socially, emotionally, and physically. In part 1 of our “Back to School” series, Clinical Therapist Jonathan Mitchell shares tips for parents seeking to create a supportive and structured environment for their child attending school, virtually.


Q: How do I help structure my child’s day?

A: An important thing to consider is how to mimic the structure of a typical school day while creating flexibility within that structure. I recommend scheduling very defined times when students are “attending” class, with specific guidelines for what that means. For example, it could mean designating a specific area or room for school with a “no phone or social media zone” during school. Defining the space and the ground rules for virtual school will help your child drop into the structure and routine of the school day.

It’s helpful to limit distractions in the physical environment as much as possible for short periods of time. You want to set your child up for success. Depending on their class schedule and attention span, set chunks of focus/class time that are reasonable and attainable. So, perhaps for 50 minutes at a time, they are engaging in class. Then they have 15 minutes to text, watch YouTube, and go on social media.

Periodically, between the structured class time, allow some flexibility. When the class ends, have them shut the computer and wind down for a few minutes. Have them get outside, do some sort of exercise, connect with family, eat a nourishing snack, and then be able to return recharged for the next segment of class.


Q: Why is structure important?

A: In my experience working with adolescents, I’ve found that the secret to a child’s success is that kids internalize the external environment. That’s the key. So, by creating and upholding an external structure for our kids, they will internalize that structure, and eventually will have less need for the external structure. When I’ve worked with teenagers who have not had a structured life, their mental, relational, and academic worlds become chaotic.

In the case of wilderness therapy, students will no longer need wilderness because they have internalized the external aspects of the program: the ability to share their feelings, a degree of responsibility and discipline, assertive communication, healthy diet and sleep, etc.

In childhood and adolescence, this structure on the outside is critical such that it can go from the outside in. Once that structure is rooted inside a person, they have the ability to create structure for themselves as adults. That’s the hope—that when they leave the home or treatment someday and launch into adulthood, they are able to create that structure from the inside out.

Structure also has an impact on the brain. It creates a level of discipline and encourages the brain to focus on one thing at a time, complete tasks, and move on to the next thing. This will be crucial for getting the full benefits out of online classes.

Create a structured environment for your child's virtual school, including some time for flexibility.


Q: How can we balance out all of the screen time my child will have?

A: Of course, the obvious choice is to get kids out of the house, interacting with friends (while properly social distancing), connecting with family, and pursuing other interests.

I would also encourage parents to accept that the child will be required to be in front of a lot of screens. That doesn’t necessarily mean their screen time needs to be severely limited outside of school. It isn’t a “punishment,” and allowing some time for recreational screen use may be appropriate at sanctioned times during the day. Certainly, continue to implement limits you would otherwise: at the dinner table, when conversing with family, and when they are supposed to be outside or studying, for example.

This all goes back to what I said about internalizing the external structure. Social media, digital technology, and screen use is not going anywhere. If kids learn to use digital technology and social media within a clear structure, they will be better able to uphold a sense of structure around it on their own in the future.

Keep in mind, kids doing online school have fewer opportunities during the day and in extracurricular activities to connect with friends. Allowing them to connect via texting, social media — for finite periods of time and at appropriate times in the day—may be beneficial in this sense.


Q: How can I get my child to “buy in” to this structure and schedule for online school?

A: Give your child the opportunity to help create the structure for online school. A friend of mine was recently sharing with me that she was having a hard time implementing an at-home routine with school, screens, and other activity. It’s partly because she was the one setting the terms of the agreement and the structure. A great way she could improve the situation would be to involve the child. Be transparent and invite your child to work with you.

For example, you could say: “because you’re on screens all day and not taking P.E. during the week, I want to figure out a way to include some outside activity throughout the week. Let’s find a way to incorporate this that makes sense to you.” Then, have them come to you with a proposal, laying out the time and structure they feel is appropriate, given the guidelines you went over.

Now, that doesn’t mean you will rubber-stamp whatever they say, but it gets them to critically think. It puts them in a unique position to feel empowered and have some say in their day. It encourages creativity in coming up with a routine. It also gets them to think about negotiations. They’ll learn very quickly that they can’t just do whatever they want; it won’t necessarily be passed. Another pro tip! As the parent, be ready to make a concession with your child. This helps them feel even more heard and empowered and sends the message that you’re willing to be flexible. (Note: that might mean starting slightly more rigid in the negotiation process that you would otherwise, and then becoming more flexible during the process, giving the child more of a sense of empowerment.) These are all really useful tools for your child as they develop and eventually face negotiations in other areas of life.

Don’t shy away from external incentives, especially when starting a new routine or pattern that they don’t feel inspired to follow. We do this in the field—the incentives are called “posicons,” or, positive consequences. When students work hard for a finite, pre-determined period of time, they get a certain reward. For instance, when we began instituting new safety protocols for COVID-19, we implemented posicons when they were successful in carrying out the protocols after certain chunks of time.

Some ideas for these external incentives at home would include doing something fun and out of the ordinary. Go camping for the weekend, give them a ride to spend time with friends (with masks and proper distancing), cook their favorite meal, or have a movie night with their favorite treats.

Role model emotional openness with your child for overall health during virtual school.


Q: How can I encourage emotional health for my child during this time?

A: A common oversight as parents is to think you’re creating an emotionally safe environment for your kids simply by asking them how they’re doing. While that is one element of it, the larger element is to lead by example. Role model what it is to be open and share your feelings with your child, with your partner, and in other relationships. Talk about and take ownership of the challenges you face. Foster an environment of emotional openness in the family. Speak up about the difficulties, frustrations, and the loneliness of these times.

Your child will feel safer and more comfortable in opening up emotionally if you are doing the same. Lead by example; demonstrate what it is to be mature, to be vulnerable, to be accountable for your emotional experiences. By making the “how are you?” or “how was your day?” conversations one-sided, you’re making the child responsible for leading the conversation and emotional sharing. Start out with how you are feeling; describe what happened for you today. And then ask your child.


Q: Without extracurriculars, how can I help my child stay active and well-rounded, exploring their other interests?

A: Think creatively about ways to incorporate their interests in other ways outside of virtual school. Encourage virtual engagement, gather peers who are interested in those areas to meet up regularly (in COVID-appropriate ways), or find a tutor or coach that is able to work with them on certain skills.

Do some research on how kids can pursue their interests via digital platforms. For example, if your child was in a band or is interested in music, find an online tutorial for them to learn how to use Garage Band to record and produce music. Or, if they’re interested in sports, find a YouTube account that teaches them the fundamentals of the sport.

Now, some teenagers don’t have the inner discipline or drive to create structure around their own interests. As the parent, you may know the benefit it has in their life. You see the way they feel better, are more energized, or are more stimulated when participating in certain extracurriculars. Again, provide the external structure while supporting their independence within a certain interest. For example, “I really want you to keep playing your instrument because you’ve told me and shown that it is your passion. You always feel better after playing.  What can we do to help you pursue that?” Then, they feel the freedom to choose what they want within the “container” you’re giving them. Whether it’s a tutor, some software, meeting up with someone who’s doing what they love…you’re helping them feel empowered to design a plan to pursue their interests.

Encourage your child's extracurricular interests outside of virtual school.


Q: What is your encouragement and hope for parents and students during this time?

A: What I am already seeing is that kids are becoming more flexible and resilient as people through all of this. When parents handle situations with grace and flexibility, it trickles down isomorphically to their kids. When parents role model what it is to be patient, understanding, and compassionate toward family, co-workers, teachers, strangers in the grocery line, and humanity in general, the result is more tolerance and resilience in kids. My hope is that even though youth may be struggling more during these times, they will step into becoming leaders in the world with a higher degree of tolerance, flexibility, and resilience.


Is your child struggling behaviorally or academically, feeling unmotivated, or engaging in power struggles with you over attending school? Don’t miss Jonathan’s next installment of the 2-part Back to School series! Whether your child is attending school online or in-person, Jonathan will provide helpful tips and strategies to further support academic success.

Jonathan Mitchell, MA, LPC | Clinical Therapist | Adolescent Boys

September 8th, 2020

Jonathan Mitchell, MA, LPC | Clinical Therapist | Adolescent Boys