Blog series #4: Coping strategies of families during the COVID-19 pandemic

Dr. Friederike Blume, Dr. Andrea Schmidt and Dr. Andreas Neubauer are postdocs at DIPF – Leibniz Institute for Research and Information in Education. For a project on the psychological adjustment to the COVID-19 pandemic (PACO) of families, they are working closely together. In part four of our interview series, they show how a collaborative approach can successfully uncover psychological aspects of the pandemic.

Name / Institute:
Dr. Andrea Schmidt,
Dr. Andreas Neubauer and
Dr. Friederike Blume
DIPF – Leibniz Institute for Research and Information in Education Frankfurt/Main
Leibniz Section A

Research topic:
AS: social interactions, well-being, ambulatory assessment
AN: psychological needs, intensive longitudinal data
FB: self-regulation, instructional quality, ambulatory assessment, intensive longitudinal data

Main featured instrument or technique:
Daily diaries, online questionnaires

“We target what kind of everyday experiences help families and children cope with the pandemic.”

You have applied as a team for our interview series. How closely do you work together, and why?

Typically, we work on separate projects and collaborate on topics within the projects that benefit from each other’s expertise. The PACO project generated a very rich data set – so we joined forces to analyze these data from multiple perspectives.

What was your main research topic in the last 1-2 years before spring 2020?

FB: I studied students’ self-regulation, also in the context of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and how both clinical and classroom-based interventions may help students in overcoming academic underachievement. To this end, I used several methodological approaches, including neurobiological ones like electroencephalography (EEG), as well as virtual reality (VR) classrooms.

AN: I studied fluctuations and changes in humans’ well-being on various temporal time scales – from within-day, moment-to-moment fluctuations to long-term changes across the human life span. I was particularly interested in the use of ambulatory assessments, a method that allows to capture thoughts and experiences in peoples’ everyday lives.

AS: I studied peer interactions at school and how they are related to children’s well-being, especially in the context of the transition from primary to secondary school. We also used ambulatory assessment in our studies, so children responded to self-report items on research smartphones four times daily across four weeks.

What are the main findings of your work on COVID; and did the results surprise you?

AN: What we saw in the data was a large amount of inter-individual differences in how parents reported to respond to the pandemic in March / April 2020. On the one hand, some reported (as I would have expected) high stress level, uncertainty, and conflicts arising in the family. On the other hand, other parents reported the time in March / April 2020 as a quite positive experience with fewer obligations and more high-quality family time. Our findings also showed that everyday experiences made during this early phase of the pandemic (such as interaction between parents and their children) were related to how parents and family adjusted to the situation across the first couple of weeks of the pandemic.

Can you say a little bit more about what the factors are that are related to better adjustment to the situation? What do you think that families need in order to be better equipped against new global crises in the future?

AS: Better adjustment was linked to having and maintaining a positive parent-child relationship and positive family climate despite the crisis. Supporting children in their autonomy (e.g., giving children as much freedom as possible to decide for themselves what they want to do) can be one way to create a more positive family climate.

FB: On the end of learning and school related tasks, focusing on fostering strategies for self-regulated learning could be beneficial to support children and families not only during distance learning but also for in-person classes.

How has COVID affected your life?

FB: I joined my current team in April last year. As I did not meet most of my colleagues in person yet, it feels like I am still settling in. I also miss conferences and in-person meetings as the amazing feeling of being creative and productive together does not really evolve in virtual formats. Switching jobs also implied moving to a new city, Frankfurt. Luckily, I joined a handball team a few weeks after I had moved.

AN: I have not set foot into my office in over a year now. Not being able to interact directly with our team has really made life difficult – not so much on the level of productivity (we could move much of our research and communication to a virtual setting), but more on a personal level. In combination with many canceled in-person conferences, I feel that one of the things I enjoyed most in academia – the exchange of ideas in person, to spontaneously brainstorm about new ideas – has been missing.

AS: As most of my colleagues at the DIPF, I am working from home since March 2020. However, I am also working part-time in a psychiatric clinic, as I am studying to become a psychotherapist for children and adolescents. Despite wearing masks and trying to keep physical distance whenever possible, daily routines in the clinic haven’t changed that much during the pandemic. Although I am lucky to not be as deprived of in-person interactions as lots of other people working from home for more than a year now, I still miss having in-person contact with my colleagues at the DIPF, with other researchers, and – of course – with family and friends.

You have managed to hook your research into the incalculable emerging pandemic. What is your advice for postdocs that want to embrace such a challenging research topic?

AN: Research is evolving quickly, but it was my impression that this was tremendously accelerated for research connected to the pandemic. Also, public interest in my research before the pandemic was low, at best, but this changed when we launched our pandemic related projects. For me, this came with new challenges (communicating with media) that take up time and that you might need to get used to at first.

FB: Although I analysed data from the PACO project, I was not part of the team designing the study and collecting the data (I just joined the team in April 2020). Other than that, my research usually strongly relies on collecting data in schools (as I usually do not wish to draw conclusions on distance education settings only). As schools have been (partially) closed for a long time, my research projects have been on hold as well. I therefore have no brilliant advice of how to deal doing excellent research during pandemic.

AS: Nothing to add 🙂

What would be the one take-home message of your research?

AS: One of my key findings in examining how families experienced children’s distance learning (i.e., homeschooling) in Germany was substantial heterogeneity between families. Thus, distance learning did not appear as another daily stressor per se: In some families, distance learning was linked to more negative parent-child interactions and lower affective well-being of parents and children, while in other families, it was associated with less negative parent-child interactions and better affective well-being.

FB: My investigation was concerned with how task attributes of students’ daily learning tasks might support students’ daily self-regulation at home, while schools were closed. At its core, we showed that teachers should definitively consider how much fun students will have while working on the tasks and how difficult the tasks might be perceived to be. This will help students in learning more independently from their parents.

AN: The real interesting question is not so much “How has the pandemic affected people’s feelings and experience?” but rather “Who has been affected by the pandemic in which way – and why?”. People differ in how they were affected and we need to better understand how and why they differ, and understanding everyday experiences are key to address these questions.

How does your perfect day off work look like?

FB: My perfect day is definitively a day spent outdoors in the mountains with friends. Either with hiking, with alpine skiing, or cross-country skiing. Since I like good weather, I prefer the sun to shine. The day will end with a rustic dinner, a glass of good wine or a beer, and lots of laughter.

AN: I love traveling around “rough” landscapes (as in Scandinavia or Scotland) – on foot, by car, train or boat, just traveling around there is one of my favorite things. Top that off with a good dinner (something spicy like Mexican or Indian) and you have my perfect day.

AS: I totally agree with Andreas and Friederike in how their perfect day off work looks like: spending time outside and having a good dinner – just no spicy food for me 😉 Despite that, I love to do yoga as a counterbalance to the hectic daily life.

We would like to express our sincere thanks to Dr. Andrea Schmidt, Dr. Friederike Blume and Dr. Andreas Neubauer for supporting our new blog interview format with active participation.

Find out more about our interview partners and their work:

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