School districts are scrambling to get students back in the classroom in an attempt to get back to as much normalcy as possible amidst an ongoing pandemic. In order to maintain social distancing and other safety protocols, many are turning to what’s called a hybrid schedule — a mix of online and in-classroom instruction.
What that looks like at each district, however, is different. Some districts are sending kids two days a week, while others are bringing kids on campus every other week. But as cases fluctuate within communities, school districts are being forced to constantly adapt accordingly.
So how can we as parents help our children plan for and manage an unpredictable school schedule? How can we help our kids remain calm, keep anxiety low and get organized for school in these uncertain times?
“I can only imagine what stress families are experiencing,” said Dr. Katrina Lindsay, PhD, a pediatric psychologist and director of Akron Children’s School Success Clinic. “Kids thrive on consistency and routine, and the current learning environment is anything but that. If parents can make some things predictable, even if it’s day to day, kids will have the most success, academically and personally.”
Set a written schedule
First and foremost, Dr. Katrina recommends parents set a schedule for each day that includes a set wakeup time, chores, school activities, outside time and more. Kids should go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, whether school’s at home or in the classroom. Sleep is the keystone for academic success.
Write out on a weekly or monthly calendar what each day or week will look like — even if one week is virtual and the other is in-person — for your child.
Make sure kids can write on and edit the calendar, and be sure to include things like when kids have to catch the bus, log on for the day and recess. Schedule your child’s log-on time the same time they’d catch the bus so kids start school the same time every day.
“Relying on an old-school calendar that is visual at all times helps to add some predictability in an unpredictable routine,” said Dr. Lindsay.
Ask your child to get dressed every day, and don’t allow pajamas on virtual days. If your child wears a uniform to school, have her wear it every day. It sets a predictable routine for kids — whether school is at home or in the classroom — and prepares them for a day of learning.
Create a workspace
In addition, create a space that is designated for learning only. Make sure it’s different than spaces that are designated for eating (kitchen table), playing (playroom) and sleeping (bedroom). You don’t want to add school stress to the bedroom or develop unhealthy snack behaviors from working in the kitchen.
“It’s important to create a school environment at home,” said Dr. Lindsay. “It’s tempting to do online school at the kitchen table, but I encourage families to let the child have their own corner of the world.”
Organize separate supplies for at home and in the classroom. It will be easier for kids — and lessen the chance for leaving supplies at home — than having to pack their backpacks every time they go to school.
If it’s helpful, use a color-coded process to help kids stay organized. For example, the green folder and green-labeled supplies go to school, while the yellow folder and yellow-labeled supplies stay home.
“It’s a good idea to get kids into the routine at the end of online school to set themselves up for success the next day,” said Dr. Lindsay. “End each school day by getting ready for the next day. Sort out papers, homework and supplies so you’re ready to go the next morning.”
Find ways to reduce your child’s stress and anxiety
With unpredictable schedules and so much uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, stress and anxiety is bound to build up.
If your child expresses anxiety, don’t dismiss her emotions by telling her not to worry. It’s natural to be sad her school year doesn’t look and feel the same way. Validate those feelings, talk about her specific concerns and what you as a family can do to address them.
Dr. Lindsay suggests scheduling a worry time. Schedule about 10 or 15 minutes at the same time each day to talk about your child’s frustrations and concerns. It helps kids validate their feelings without letting them consume their entire day.
In addition, you can incorporate a mindful minute each day. Help your child keep her thoughts in the room. What does she smell? Hear? What does the chair feel like under her? Instead of worrying about the future or the past, teach kids to practice mindfulness in the present.
“These worries can become worry monsters that can interrupt sleep, relationships and more,” said Dr. Lindsay. “By helping your child control her physical response, it can help her emotional response.”
You can also help release your child’s anxiety by squeezing in physical activity each day. Increasing physical activities, like walking the dog, going on a family hike or playing tag, lets out stress hormones and decreases aggression. You can’t change how your child feels, but you can help her change her behavior and response to it.
If your child is having a really tough time adjusting to an unpredictable school schedule, be sure to communicate that with her teacher. There may be changes everyone can make to help ease your child’s anxiety.
“We’re all learning this ‘new normal’ together,” said Dr. Lindsay. “The unpredictability that parents and kids are feeling is likely the same way teachers are feeling. Helping your child understand that they’re not alone and you and others are experiencing the same frustration could offer her a bit of solace.”
If your child seems to be struggling significantly, Akron Children’s Lois and John Orr Family Behavioral Health Center is offering mental health services via telehealth. Call 330-543-5015 to schedule an appointment. You can also contact our School Success Clinic at 330-543-8050.
Learn more about Akron Children’s COVID-19 response and resources available for families.