Drawing the Line: Keystone Counselors on Managing Mindsets During Online Learning

By Muen Zheng & Andy Peñafuerte III

The recent coronavirus outbreaks in China have once more changed the so-called new normal—or our way of living in the pandemic-era world. For instance, most students and teachers are already familiar with distance learning and teaching, but they still feel stressed out upon returning to such a phase in a short time. Likewise, it is challenging for parents as they face enormous pressure from taking care of their families and paying attention to their children’s learning and emotional needs.

In situations like this, the Keystone Academy Center for Student Development (CSD) encourages parents to adjust their mindsets and attitudes to help not only their children but also themselves. Four educators from the CSD join us in this Keystone Roundtable to share some tips on practicing self-management and psychological adjustment.


Roundtable Panelists

Keystone Academy Center for Student Development

Bella Li – Counselor (Primary School)

Vickey Zhu – Counselor (Primary School)

Hanbo Wang – Learning Support Specialist

Lilly Zhong – Learning Support Specialist



Understanding Emotions: The first step in dealing with emotional problems

Why do people have different emotions? How to manage your negative emotions?

Vickey Zhu (VZ): The pandemic is still here, so the return to a work-from-home scheme or online classes has disrupted our daily rhythm, thus making us feel anxious and uncertain. When this happens, our brains secrete a hormone called cortisol. A rise in cortisol levels is linked to feelings of disappointment, irritability, anger, and other emotions, as the hormone shuts down part of the function of the brain’s prefrontal lobe. At this time, a child may show bad mood, or refuse to join online classes or do homework. Worse, the child may even do nothing.

But whenever we approach something with a positive attitude, our brains secrete dopamine, which we can consider the opposite of cortisol. Dopamine makes us feel happy and satisfied as it activates the prefrontal lobe, thus improving our cognitive ability, concentration, problem-solving, and conflict resolution. This results in positive emotions such as calmness and confidence.

In other words, the different ways of viewing and recognizing problems can directly cause the brain to secrete hormones that affect our mood and function. The good thing is we can consciously choose our attitudes. Now that we are back to online learning and teaching, we can look at the situation from a positive perspective. Isn’t it great that we can save our daily commute time? And what’s nice is we have the time to do our tasks at our own pace, plus we can talk to our family members often.

A key takeaway here is we can train our brains to cultivate positivity and optimism. When we look at it scientifically, this attitude improves the synapses of our brain’s neurons, thus we facilitate psychological connections, and it also helps us regulate our emotions and better cope with pressure.

Bella Li (BL): Obviously, our cognition profoundly affects our emotions. Most of the time, we resist or want to eliminate negative emotions. But in fact, emotion itself is neutral and has certain functions in our lives, one of which is a “reminder” for us to explore our inner needs constantly. For example, negative emotions may remind us that something unfortunate happened, but they can also encourage us to find solutions, reflect on how we handled the situation, and lead us to growth moments.

In other words, adjusting our view of emotions also releases us from the ill effects of remaining stuck in emotions such as anger or frustration. In this way, we can better embrace each emotion of ourselves and our children.

During online classes and work-from-home schemes, parents may also face pressure which can inadvertently affect how they communicate with their children. How should parents deal with issues arising from this situation?

BL: We recommend that parents do more “subtraction” when interacting with children at home. In other words, parents must attend to their needs first before helping their children. Being aware of changes in their emotion is key since anxiety or irritability may lead parents to utter hurtful words to their children. Try to calm down, breathe, and step back before communicating.

But how can parents become aware of their emotions? One specific way is to pay attention to how our bodies communicate with us through symptoms and physical reactions. Sometimes, anxiety may cause a person to feel stomach pain, akin to a nervous person sweating profusely. In addition to body signals, our body movements, expressions, attitude, and tone also change along with emotions.

Being consciously aware of these physical signals can help us manage and channel our emotions more purposefully. Give yourself a break. Exercise to relax your body. Take a hot bath if it enables you to calm down. Meditate for a few minutes to clear your mind. Read a book to briefly get out of your difficult situation. It helps you find an outlet to release emotions, relieve anxiety and tension, and take your attention away from matters that weigh you down.

We have to remember that emotion is part of our human make-up, and thus it happens naturally. However, the way we express and manage our emotions is our choice. It is a skill that can be acquired if we base it on the ideas of social learning theory. Adults optimize these skills through awareness and adjustment, while for children, this learning comes more from observing and imitating the practices of family members and peers.

When parents perceive and manage their emotions, they also demonstrate specific emotion management strategies to their children. At the same time, they are conveying to children an important underlying message that emotions are neutral.

Children from various age groups face different emotional problems, especially now that they do online classes at home every day. How can parents help their children deal with emotions?

Vickey Zhu (VZ): Parents can help children calm down by identifying and accepting emotions such as frustration, sadness, and anger as they continue learning online, and then analyze the causes of these emotions. For example, we can ask: “You look a bit angry. Do you feel disappointed and sad about not being able to meet up with your best friend while taking online classes at home? Can you talk about your mood?” In this case, children can analyze the situation to relieve their emotions.

It also helps children to allow them to express their emotions. Young people are often unaware of expressing their feelings, so parents can initiate a discussion. For example, they can talk about what has happened today and what kind of emotions they have felt. Showing that you are actually listening and responding to your child will help them open up more willingly and talk about what made them feel happy or sad today.

Acceptance is also key. The generation of emotions is a physiological response, and we cannot control and decide the moment when it comes. But as parents and adults, we can help build a sense of security in children by embracing their emotions. Doing so will help build their confidence to independently explore their emotions and needs. We also need to let children understand that although anger is normal, the response to anger can be chosen wisely. We see some children being overly physical when they feel angry. But parents can guide children to much wiser and healthier ways of venting out when they calm down. Here are some ideas.

  • Discuss with your child that when anger may lead people to behave differently, sometimes violently. Tell them that there are acceptable behaviors in different situations, and they need to be aware that other people have emotions.
  • Suggest to children some possible ways to express anger artistically. If they want to yell, why not ask them to write their emotions down? Painting also works. They can also express their inner anger on their pillow or a stuffed toy. This is a process of experimenting with the child, so they can find out methods to vent out.
  • Repair and reconnect with children after they have calmed down and reasonably released their emotions.

No matter how busy you are, spending time with children is always a must. Whether it is a simple chat or playing some games, companionship is crucial to children's growth. As we interact with children, we should listen more and evaluate less so they can feel more secure. Harsh comments intimidate children, diminish their confidence, and make them feel afraid to try and take risks. But when a child feels safe, they will become more courageous to take on challenges.

But some parents feel they are not good at dealing with children. In this case, they can turn to their own interests and try to encourage their children to do their hobbies. Or better yet, they can observe their children and “enter” their world so they can build connections. For example, if the child likes superheroes, the parent can join the child in activities like watching superhero films, dressing up as superheroes, or reading comic books.

I recommend the Positive Discipline book series by Jane Nelsen, which has a lot of targeted parenting tips and guidance. Parents can also consider reading How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber.


Supporting Online Learning at Home: Tips for parents and children

The boundary between home and learning has become blurred because of sudden changes due to the pandemic. In this case, each home should have a suitable learning environment so children can still develop good study habits. What tips can you give parents to support their children during online learning better?

Lily Zhong (LZ): Here are five points on how parents can support their children in better online learning at home.

1.     Establish reasonable and practical routines and discuss how to operate flexibly.

Students need a clear timetable to ensure they can complete assignments without sacrificing their time for recreation. Parents should allot time for online learning, rest, and entertainment according to the timeline designated by teachers, so their children can maintain self-discipline and good study habits.

Elementary students will need a consistent timetable with clear expectations. Parents need to build a regular schedule around online classes, including break times, and post it in a prominent place to remind their children. Parents should wake up their children earlier than scheduled to prepare and become more alert. Avoid doing online classes in bed.

Middle school students need to pay attention to rising and making their beds, washing up, and getting ready for study within a reasonable timeframe. Maintain regular bedtime habits, including limits on electronics use. Don’t assume that staying up late and sleeping in late are routine operations just because you are at home.

Parents should be flexible in arranging their children’s time outside the online class. They should also encourage children to participate in discussions about time arrangement, its advantages and disadvantages, and how to improve it. In this way, children can feel respect from their parents. They will be more motivated and responsible for their own learning.

2.    Create a learning atmosphere to improve concentration

Concentration is a crucial skill for online learning. To minimize distraction, we can take the following steps.

  • Designate a study area. An independent, quiet, and well-lit learning environment effectively helps children concentrate. A tidy room with desks and chairs of the right height and a full range of learning materials creates a good learning atmosphere.
  • Ask your child about how they are feeling. Distractions can come from the external environment or from internal stress. As parents, we can help children identify their feelings and discuss solutions.

3.    Cultivate organization and improve learning efficiency

Online learning requires students to be more organized and planned than traditional classrooms. The sequence, time allocation, necessary tools, and other issues in completing learning tasks must be considered carefully and arranged reasonably. Here are some questions to consider.

  • How are assignments recorded? Is it handwritten on paper or using computer software?
  • Do the study materials and task lists for each subject need to be printed and divided into different folders, or should they be stored in a unified computer folder?
  • Have you prepared school supplies before class, opened various learning software in advance, and completed login steps?

Children in the lower primary school, in particular, still need their parents to help them with the technical aspects of online learning, such as remembering login names and passwords and making sure the computer’s camera is pointed at them.

These necessary checks and reminders effectively organize things for children and improve their learning efficiency. As the child completes an assignment, parents should check if they have followed a systematic process. Try to let your child observe and even articulate how you complete a task so they can understand the idea and logic behind what you do.

4.    Identify barriers and develop study habits

Parents need to identify the source of children’s difficulties in online learning. Is it because of the child’s emotions or the external environment? Is it a problem caused by a lack of focus or initiative? Have they slept well? Do they feel something else? Do they find it difficult to understand the knowledge points of the online course?

If the child’s situation causes problems, especially when they say, “I don’t understand”, help them analyze the concept that they do not understand. Is it a particular word or sentence? Or some knowledge points? Some tasks? The end of an online course does not mean that the child has truly mastered and absorbed all knowledge points in the class.

Next, help the child analyze the cause of the problem. Has the child done pre-class preparation? Have knowledge connections been made? Are the class notes complete? Are there screenshots of the teacher’s presentation? Have you set aside time for review and consolidation after class? Parents can encourage their children to participate in the analysis and discuss solutions together, which will help them develop and maintain good study habits.

Parents can also share their own ways of coping with difficulties with their children. You can even try to demonstrate this method repeatedly before your child. We want them to know how to ask for help and learn strategies to deal with learning difficulties.

Support for children of different ages will be different as well. Parents need to adapt to the changes in the learning style and responses of their growing children and be flexible in adjusting support methods and strategies. In this way, they can grow together with their children.

5.     Pay attention to how you think, not just what you think

For middle school students, the major shift to online learning means they are primarily on their own. Some of them will need to ask more questions and gain more self-awareness in the process. At this time, parents need to focus on how their children think and not just their specific thoughts. For example, ask them how much they know about the course material and whether they should review what they have learned before learning something new. They can also discuss the plan to proceed and connect knowledge with the world around them. It is also essential to remind them to seek help when encountering difficulties.

Parents can start from their own experiences and share their mental journeys in the face of new environments, tasks, and challenges. This gives their middle school-aged children a guide to reflect on their own learning process and pay attention to their own way of thinking, and not just about the specific content of thinking. Learn to use new ways of thinking to adapt to new situations. This will improve children’s independence and drive.

Aside from parent support, what other efficient learning methods can students try to establish good study habits and time management skills by themselves?

Hanbo Wang (HW): Students have more time for independent learning in the current distance learning phase. How to make better use of this time is also an excellent opportunity for children to practice time management.

When children lack time management skills, parents may see the following:

  • The child may start doing a week-long homework on the day before the deadline.
  • The child may want to make a homework plan but does not know how to make schedules.
  • The child finds it almost impossible to complete a piece of homework even if there is already a step-by-step plan to help them.

These problems usually arise because an assignment can take several days to be completed. Students should learn the content knowledge of various subjects and need good time management and task organization skills.

I want to introduce the Pomodoro Technique, a learning method especially suitable for middle and high school students who need to complete long-term projects or assignments. With the help of parents, primary school students can also learn and understand this helpful tool.

The Pomodoro Technique was developed by Francesco Cirillo in 1992 as a method of planning study time. Here’s how you do it:

List an assignment or task on paper, then set 25 minutes as a “Pomodoro” and set the clock. Focus on the chosen task during this Pomodoro until the clock rings. Then mark the task to show that you have completed one Pomodoro. Then take a 5-minute break and move on to the next Pomodoro, so on and so forth, until the task is completed. You need to rest for 25-30 minutes after every four pieces of Pomodoro.

It should be noted that before starting the first Pomodoro, all preparations need to be made. First, identify the tasks to be completed. You have to locate and open the working document and ensure your computer has enough power (for 25 minutes). Go to the toilet or pick up a glass of water and everything else you need. These are meant to minimize the possibility of external interruptions during a Pomodoro. The most important preparation is to set a timer for 25 minutes before getting started. You can use your phone timer or search “Pomodoro timer” on the App Store or online. Feel free to choose the one that suits you.

After the preparation, you can start the first Pomodoro. Try to stay focused once you start learning and concentrate only on the selected tasks. If it happens that new ideas arrive, but they are unrelated to your current task, write them down and get yourself back on track. When you first start practicing, you may not be able to concentrate for 25 minutes. It is fine to be distracted. The key here is to not give up and retain your focus on the task for as long as possible and complete the 25 minutes cycle.

The Pomodoro Technique is a skill that takes some practice to master. It also brings many benefits to students in terms of self-management. It improves students' ability to reduce internal and external distractions for a given period and guides them to focus and divide a large project into many short study periods.

By consistently applying the Pomodoro Technique and recording your progress over time, you will have a rough idea of how much work you have achieved in each subject. This helps you better anticipate and plan your assignments and manage time wisely.


Working and studying at home every day have broken our daily life plans, and we inevitably experience anxiety and frustration. But as Keystone CSD specialists remind us: life doesn’t always go according to plan, and we need to face life’s changes with the right attitude and a degree of flexibility. It is most helpful to see things from a different perspective because we may find that our current situations are not as difficult and bad as we imagined.

We cannot change reality, but we can change our attitudes and actions. Treat every experience as an opportunity to grow, and you may gain another landscape.