man playing guitar with granddaughter

School's out for COVID

April 06, 2020 | UCI Health
children doing homework

School shutdowns and stay-at-home orders due to the novel coronavirus outbreak are leaving adults and kids alike stressed and overwhelmed. It’s taking a toll on our daily work, school and home routines.

But it’s also a rare opportunity to strengthen relationships with children and teenagers at a time of crisis, says UCI Health child psychiatrist Dr. Anju Hurria.

The World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also offer useful tips for one-on-one parenting to help tackle the disruption of routines and the boredom of being housebound.

It’s all about routine

Children thrive on routine. It is now more important than ever to provide a structured day for your child, especially if you are trying to work at home.

“Having a schedule makes all kids feel more safe and secure,” Hurria says.

Without the normal routine of a structured school day, you will need to create a home schedule for:

  • Schoolwork
  • Eating meals and snacks
  • Screen time
  • Reading books
  • Physical activity to burn off that unused energy
  • Bedtime

You may also want to set aside a time for activities to do together during the week so your child looks forward to that special one-on-one time.

Releasing physical energy

Regular breaks for physical activity are extremely important, Hurria advises. She recommends two 15-minute blocks of intense movement each day, preferably a fun activity.

“Taking time to do this every day will lower the overall intensity of the whole household,” she says. “We are all getting much less movement being at home and having restrictions on our normal routines, so this can be a great way for everyone to de-stress.”

Activities could include:

  • Jumping rope
  • Tossing a ball back and forth
  • Sprinting back and forth across the yard
  • A basketball dribbling contest
  • Playing hopscotch
  • Hold a 15-minute dance party with fun music

“Scheduled physical activity every day lowers the stress of the household and can improve everyone’s mood,” Hurria says.

Keeping up with lessons

Many schools are providing online lessons, connecting children and teachers through apps and other means to keep students on track.

Help your child establish a regular routine for reviewing assignments and completing lessons. It’s also important to find a quiet setting for your children to do their school work.

Make sure they are able to take regular breaks and work in a little play between lessons.

And let the teacher or school know when you run into a connectivity issue and if you and your child are struggling with an assignment.

Working from home

Many parents are working at home at the same time they are expected to help their children keep up with schoolwork.

It’s important that your child knows that you, too, have a work schedule. Start by creating a space just for you to do your work, Hurria says. Having cues for your little ones will help.

“The more you can put all the things you need for productive work in that area, the better,” she says. And to help your child understand when you are working, create signs to let them know what you are doing.”

It could be a sign with “Stop” on one side and “Go” on the other, or a white board letting them know you are on a call for an hour.

If both parents are working at home, Hurria suggests staggering schedules, so one person takes the breakfast routine while the other works and the other parent takes over lunch and so on.

It won’t be easy, she acknowledges. “It’s so important to have self compassion during this time. Realize you won’t be able to be as efficient as you normally are, but that’s to be expected!”

Regular bedtimes

One of the first things that can get out of whack are sleep schedules.

“With everyone at home, it’s easy to stay up later and not follow sleep routines, but this is one of the most important of all,” Hurria says.

“I recommend staying strict about bedtimes because everyone still needs good rest, and parents need a break in the evenings.”

Model positive behavior

Children are much more likely to do what we ask if we give them positive instructions and lots of praise for what they do right.

They may not show it, but they are reassured when you notice and care. For negative behavior, encourage your child to express themselves verbally, and have patience when they do.

Remind your children that the need to stay home is temporary. Be sensitive to their concerns because they may not understand the magnitude of the situation.

Offer age-appropriate information

Your children may be overwhelmed by the changes happening around them. News about the COVID-19 can result in anxiety, uncertainty and fear for young and old.

 “I would limit the conversation, as well as TV and media coverage about coronavirus in front of kids,” Hurria says. “Of course they need to understand social distancing, good hygiene habits and what’s happening. But the endless news coverage and discussion makes kids feel unsafe and scared.”

Be honest with your children about what is happening, but try to instill hope and confidence. Teach them strategies to help prevent the disease, such as handwashing and social distancing. Encourage them to ask questions and provide age-appropriate answers.

Have fun together

Explore such hands-on activities as:

  • Painting, puzzles and crafts
  • Building a fort (for young kids)
  • Singing songs and making music, using items at hand such as pots and spoon or real instruments

If your children are older, encourage them to:

  • Document this time in a journal to express what they’re feeling
  • Opt for an audiobook, instead of screen time
  • Sign up for live live-streamed reading events at the local library or other institutions
  • Use social media and FaceTime to connect with friends

No matter what age your child is, asking them what they want to do helps to build self-confidence.

You can also include them in your chores, take walks and cook together, even exercise with them while listening to their favorite music.

Think of a 20-second song you can sing together while washing hands and give children points and praise for doing it regularly. Or you can reward them for those who touch their face the fewest times.

When you set aside time for these interactions, listen and look at your children. They need your full attention.

Challenges for divorced parents

Many divorced parents are wondering how to abide by their co-parenting and custody agreements. For the most part, many jurisdictions hold standing orders that if schools are closed, custody agreements should remain in force as though school were still in session.

Try to be understanding with one another and seek compromise that helps the children cope best.

Many parents are working extra hours to help deal with the COVID-19 crisis. Others may be out-of-work or working reduced hours. Encourage closeness with the parent who doesn’t have primary custody through shared books, movies, games and social media sharing time. Work together to focus on what is best for the kids.

This pandemic may leave your children with vivid memories. It’s important that they remember that both parents did everything they could to explain what was happening and to keep them safe.

Stay in touch with family and friends

Involving grandparents and other relatives into a child’s weekly schedule can help you and your child, Hurria suggests.

While you are working, you can schedule face-time or a phone call with a grandparent or other relative each day,” she says.

This not only gives you a break, it also allows your child and your relative to build a relationship.

“The beauty of the coronavirus outbreak,” Hurria says, “is that this is a time to create deeper human connection and bonds with those around us.

Take 'me' time

As parents, we all need a break. When your child goes to sleep, it’s natural to feel the need to catch up on housework or get more work done remotely.

Yet it’s very important to take time to do something fun or relaxing for yourself, whether it’s:

  • Reading
  • Painting
  • Listening to your favorite music
  • Taking a bubble bath

Better yet, make a list of relaxing activities that you like to do, then do them!

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