One of the aspects of online schooling is that educators are getting a front row seat on what the inside of households look like. Those views are raising questions and judgments on the part of educators.

The key issue here is not whether the couch is absent, holey, or faded. If there are 10 people living in a small space, it will be messy, difficult to keep clean, and often chaotic. The key issue is not whether there is one parent or two, or whether there are two families in the household. These issues are related to family structure—the configuration of the relationships in the family and household (single parent, blended household, two parents, etc.). The key issue is not family structure, it is family function and stability.

The most important things to consider are family function and stability

Family function is defined in the research as the extent to which a child (birth to 18) can get these needs met: material necessity, self-respect, learning, peer relationships, and harmony and stability. Stability is the extent to which one has safety, belonging, and predictability of sufficient resources for survival.

The research is clear—two things interfere with family function and stability: low income and high conflict. If you have high income and high conflict, there is still an issue with family function. If you have low income and low conflict, then there tends to be more stability.

Right now, in the middle of COVID-19, domestic violence calls are up by 35%. High conflict is now a part of many households.

What should you be looking for when you are online and assessing family function?

It’s not the furniture. It’s not the cleanliness. It’s not the noise. What should be assessed is the CHILD/STUDENT and the extent to which there is function.

I have been in developing countries. I helped to fund a middle school in Mussoorie, India. When I visited to see the school, it was a cement building with a bare floor and desks. Some of the students walked nearly three hours that morning (one way) to have a ceremony even though the temperature was barely above freezing. They had family function and stability; their households supported their education. The building simply kept the rain and snow off of them.

I have been inside homes in developing countries. (I lived in Haiti for several months.) It is not the building or its appearance that is the issue. The key issue is the students—their stability and the amount of family function that is present.

What should you look for, and what questions can you ask?

  1. Look at their eyes. If their eyes are always down—if they do not look up at you ever—they may be depressed. When eyes are down, individuals are neurologically processing emotion or touch. Male students do not like to look you in the eyes if you are asking personal questions, and in some cultures it is disrespectful to look an adult in the eyes. You can ask them to look up at the ceiling or at where the wall meets the ceiling, and their brain is then processing visually. Are they able to do that? How does their expression change when they do that?
  2. How much self-soothing do they do? When a person gets upset, one of the first things the body does is start to self-sooth. It is the body’s attempt to calm itself down. For example, they will touch their throat where it meets the collarbone. They will rub their hands on their legs, or they will touch their face, which are other signs of anxiety and discomfort.
  3. If there is violence in the household, there is a tendency to sit with your back against the wall. There is a level of hypervigilance in the nonverbals. They will wear clothes that cover their arms and throat, even when the temperature is high, to hide the marks.

You can ask these questions to determine the level of stability and function:

  1. Where is your favorite place to study? (You are trying to figure out if there is enough space/stability to have a place to study.)
  2. For many people right now, getting food is not easy. How is your household getting food? (You are trying to find out if there is sufficient food.)
  3. What kinds of food do you like to cook/make? Are you a good cook/baker? (You are trying to find out if there is enough food.)
  4. Some people are morning people. They like to wake up early. Some people are night owls. They like to go to sleep late. Which one are you? Do you like to take a nap? Where is your favorite place to sleep? (Sleep is key in mental health. What you are trying to figure out is if there is a place to sleep and if they are getting sleep. Teenagers have a different circadian clock in the research. They need more sleep and tend to sleep in later.)
  5. For people to live together, everyone has to pitch in and help. How are you helping to keep your household running? (You are trying to find out if they are responsible for other people.)
  6. Who do you care the most about, and who cares the most about you? (You are trying to find out if there is a significant, caring relationship with an adult. If they do not have a caring relationship with an adult, they are significantly at risk.)
  7. Where is your favorite place to play? (Listen for opportunity to move around—a key in mental health.)
  8. You can start your lesson with a page of emojis and ask the students to identify three faces that most indicate how they feel that day. One or two days in a row is not an indicator of overall emotional well-being. But if the emojis constantly being selected are sad or angry, that merits further research. (Male brains have more of a tendency to identify anger when depressed, and female brains tend to identify sadness more often.)
  9. Use invitational language. Stay away from the “why” question. Instead, invite information. Here are some phrases you can use. “I wonder…” “I noticed…” “If you were ruler of the universe, what would you do right now?” “What can I do for you now?” “If you had a fairy godmother and could have one wish granted, what would it be?” “Please help me understand…”

What do you do when you are concerned about the well-being of the child?

Please contact the administrator and have a conversation about the situation. Remember that right now, in the middle of COVID-19, the child probably will not be removed from the home. The system does not have that capacity unless the child’s very life is in danger. (According to news reports, in some of the major cities, public safety visits to the emergency room with children have quadrupled.) The bigger question is this: How do we provide support in this situation so the damage to the child is minimized? Are there social service supports, church supports, etc. that can bring a few more resources to this household? Is there someone who can contact the child daily?

Please remember: You cannot save the world. Make circles of concern. Your first circle is your family and loved ones. The next circle is your colleagues/staff. How are you supporting each other? If you are unsupported, you cannot support students. The next circle is students. Triage those students. For whom are you most concerned?

Right now, almost all of us are in the world of survival. The hidden rules of poverty are in action. Survival can be brutal and unforgiving. The losses always come before the gains. Will we come out stronger on the other side, or will we allow it to destroy us?

As a profession, I believe we will come out stronger. It will be our faith, our commitment, and our future story that gets us to the other side.