Stick to a routine. That’s the theme that runs through advice from Yale Child Study Center experts when it comes to a struggle many families are now facing: working at home alongside children who are out of school or daycare because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is really hard, and parents are rightfully concerned about trying to balance their responsibilities as working adults with this complete upheaval in the lives of their children,” says Leah Booth, MA, a speech-language pathologist at the Yale Child Study Center.
Although there is no “magic bullet” to balancing everything, Booth suggests replicating the structure and predictability that your child would experience at school as much as possible. “You want to give them a routine, as well as clear, predictable expectations that will offer them a sense of control and comfort,” she says.
Eli Lebowitz, PhD, director of the Child Study Center’s Program for Anxiety Disorders, agrees.
“The disruption of routines and schedules can be stress-inducing to children,” says Lebowitz, adding that sticking to healthy habits is also important. “You don’t want to sleep until 'whenever,' not get dressed, or eat in an unregulated way,” he says. “This isn’t one big vacation, because that would make returning to regular life eventually all the more difficult.”
Child Study Center experts offered the following tips for establishing routines and healthy habits—and advice for how to talk to your children about COVID-19.
1. Create a schedule
Sit down with your child/children each morning and make a schedule of what the day is going to look like, Booth advises. “If your child is young, it can be a pictorial sequence you can draw and put on the fridge. This works for children preschool through high school,” she says. “It can be that breakfast is at 7:30 a.m. followed by clean-up time from 8:05 to 8:10 a.m. I would get specific, especially for littler kids.”
The goal is not to re-create the school day exactly, as that is impossible, but to build a new routine for doing schoolwork at home. “You want to collaborate with your kids as you make a schedule. Maybe it’s first we do breakfast, then LEGOs, and ask them how long they need for that,” she says.
For most ages, 30-minute blocks are best for specific academic tasks. “You want to get out on a high note, and move on to the next thing,” Booth says.
Parents, of course, will want to make sure their child’s schedule matches what they need to do that day. “If you have a conference call at 10 a.m., maybe that is when the hour of PBS Kids happens,” Booth says.
The goals, Lebowitz explains, are to avoid a “vacuum of time” and also to reduce conflict by coming up with a schedule and displaying it in a prominent place where everyone sees it and you and your kids can refer to it throughout the day.
“Parents and children could plan that routine together, and perhaps that will allow everyone to feel a bit of control over a challenging situation,” adds Nancy Close, PhD, clinical director of the Child Study Center’s Parent and Family Development Program.
2. Get up and move
“It’s helpful to mix in gross motor movement and quiet time. Maybe it’s an hour of PBS Kids from 8 to 9 a.m., then 30 minutes of dancing to Alexa, followed by an hour of enrichment activities,” Booth says. "This could be items your child’s school provided or online activities about writing, multiplication, or other topics."
For gross motor activities—if going outside is not an option—Booth suggests fort-building, indoor hopscotch, or using hula hoops.
3. Schedule time to be with your kids
Even if the family is in the same house together all day, that doesn’t mean kids are getting the level of interaction they crave from adults.
“Schedule time for when kids know they have access to mom or dad. Maybe that’s preparing lunch together. That way you can point them to the schedule, and say, ‘We are going to hang out in 15 minutes,’” Booth says.
4. Embrace technology
Kids, Booth points out, are social creatures, and there are many technological tools that allow people to stay in touch today, from FaceTime to playing games together online. “You can call upon grandma to spend 30 minutes reading a book to your son on FaceTime or have Aunt Sue do math facts from her home in Toledo,” she says. “You can include online interactions with friends and family into your schedule. Make a digital village.”
Naturally, parents will want to keep some limits on screen time, but now is also the time to cut yourself a little slack—in general—in these extenuating circumstances, Lebowitz says. “It’s important to acknowledge that even if your child doesn’t do 100% of what you were looking for, if they did their best, that’s OK,” he says.
5. If your child has special needs, reach out to their school
Children with special needs, particularly a disability like autism, will especially benefit from predictability at home, Booth says. “Special education in the schools provides a level of structure that helps kids on the spectrum thrive, so it would behoove parents to consult with those special education specialists to ask for strategies that could be adapted at home,” she says.
6. Be mindful of how you talk to kids about COVID-19
If talking to your kids about COVID-19 in a way that is not scary—yet communicates the seriousness of the situation—is daunting, Lebowitz has advice.
“Number one, I think that how you say things is just as important as the actual words you use,” he says. “Kids will respond to your nonverbal language just as much. Before you start talking, take a deep breath and calm down. You want to talk in a way that is factual and not panicky.”
Also, remember that children are listening even when you are not talking to them. In other words, don’t tell them everything is fine, but then have a conversation with a friend or your spouse they can hear in which you discuss worrying news developments.
In general, provide clear information that is age-appropriate. “Don’t use euphemisms. Start with asking your child what they understand about what is happening,” Lebowitz says. “Their answers can help guide you in the terms they use. Maybe there is misleading information you can correct.”
It’s also wise to give kids context when talking about the virus, he adds. “They are familiar with the idea that people get sick. You can tell them this is a lot like having the flu, and it may be helpful for them to know that not many kids get very ill from this,” he says. “Plus, you should monitor what they are exposed to in terms of TV and the computer when it comes to news. Point them toward more reliable information and be honest about what you know and don’t know. Tell them grownups are working very hard right now to keep us safe.”
7. Be on the lookout for anxiety
If your child is acting out, know that many of these behaviors could be related to anxiety over the current situation, Lebowitz says.
“They may be more whiny or irritable or have more temper tantrums. But instead of getting angry, upset, or annoyed with them, take a breath and ask what is on their mind,” he says.
8. Look for silver linings
Although it may seem difficult to see the benefits of social distancing and such disruption to everyday lives—at least right now—there are some.
“Families are spending more time together and, eventually, I think we will look back on this time and know that we got through something difficult,” Lebowitz says.
The experience can also teach children how to deal with disappointment and be more flexible, which is a vital life skill and one that parents can model as they work to get through this, too.
Lauren Perry contributed to this article.