Guest blog by Nicole Vidiri Silva

As we are all too well aware, we are facing an unprecedented challenge as global and local communities react to the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to concerns for the health and welfare of ourselves, our families, our friends and our communities, many of us are facing extreme disruptions to “normal” life, including school closings that may last for weeks or more. We are under quite a bit of collective stress in this evolving emergency situation, as schools work furiously to make learning accessible to all, businesses face major losses, and families scramble to arrange childcare. In the midst of all of this, many parents are questioning how to best deal with this significant change in routine, and how to support their children through this process. A variety of educators and individuals have offered suggestions on how to best structure days during school closure and how to talk to children about anxiety that may arise from this situation. The goal of this article is to compile some of that information, share available resources, and provide tips for parents during this unique and challenging time.

General Advice

Tip #1: Allow children to share their fears about coronavirus and have open, age-appropriate discussions about the situation.

  • Maintain a calm demeanor when talking to children to project a reassuring environment
  • Encourage children to ask questions, which may help dispel any rumors they have heard or misunderstandings they have acquired
  • Give developmentally appropriate and accurate information (rather than opting for mistruths or averting conversations to try to quell anxiety)

Tip #2:  Limit exposure to media regarding coronavirus through television, radio, and social media.

  • Be very aware of the media that adults are consuming and how listening to or viewing this information might affect children and increase anxiety (and how it will also increase anxiety among adults, which makes it harder to maintain the calm and reassuring presence that our children need right now)
  • Carefully monitor the media consumption of children and teenagers; speak to your children about how information presented via social media may be inaccurate, and not to believe every meme or post they encounter
  • Give age-appropriate, factual information about the disease to combat what they may be reading or seeing elsewhere

Tip #3:  Be generally mindful of screen time among children and teenagers (and adults).

  • In addition to concerns about media exposure and anxiety, increased rates of screen time have been shown to make children more irritable and disconnected, which is the last thing we want to be seeing at this time
  • Keep in mind that allowing students to spend copious amounts of time on technology over the next few weeks may be tempting for parent sanity, but will set us all (parents and educators alike) up for a great challenge in weaning students off of this when things return to a sense of normalcy
  • Try to integrate educational technology to satisfy the need to be on devices while still incorporating learning (have students research topics of interest, play learning games, work on coding, do digital art projects – many educational and arts organizations are now offering free resources online to assist parents with this)
  • Allow children established times (with set limits) to use technology for social purposes; shut downs will be disruptive to all of our social relationships and the need for connection; where possible, encourage kids to use video messaging (such as FaceTime) to connect with friends and family during this time (this will prove more beneficial than social media posts or messaging, as it will promote a version of “face to face” contact)

Tips for Families During Extended School Closures

Tip #1:  Start off by making a family agreement about how to proceed, plan, and cooperate.

  • For many families, this “new normal” of children being home while schools are closed (and public gatherings are discouraged) will be decidedly uncharted territory; start out by talking to children about school closures in a calm, factual manner; invite children and teens to collaborate with parents on how to approach days home moving forward.
  • Establish a schedule (albeit with some flexibility) regarding how to structure “school days”; agree on general guidelines for time to devote to certain endeavors: reading, math, science, art, etc.
  • Invite children to collaboratively reach an agreement on setting limits for screen time and device use; when discussions are open and children feel included/considered, they are more likely to buy in to limits and cooperate.
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Tip #2:  Approach this new situation with an air of excitement/positivity and help children to see it as an opportunity and not just a disruption.

  • Encourage children to start brainstorming ideas for fun activities to do during their extended time at home (e.g. puzzles, board games, science experiments, research projects, creating books, gardening, cooking, art projects)
  • Have them write out a list of their ideas or make a decorated poster to hang in the house to help everyone think of something to do when boredom hits (and with that, you will have supported your children in a writing and/or art “assignment”)
  • Despite all the understandable stress and real challenges surrounding these changes, parents can try to reframe this experience as an opportunity for increased family time and connection (something that our busy lives do not often allow)

Tip #3:  Incorporate wellness every day.

  • As part of your new routine, be sure to add opportunities for movement, physical activity, and wellness every day (this can be as simple as kicking or throwing a ball, doing jumping jacks, etc.)
  • Start each morning with mindfulness or meditation, yoga or stretching; there are plenty of resources online to help families try these activities together
  • Use this as an opportunity to talk more about (and practice!) good nutrition and healthy eating, which will have the added bonus of boosting immune systems during this time; to make this more interesting for kids, integrate cooking into this learning process – for example, make a challenge to come up with healthy snacks that everyone can sample
  • Make time for play – play is the work of children and encouraging them to play (and participating in it!) will promote feelings of well-being and connection

Tip #4:  Get creative (and capitalize on family strengths).

  • Incorporate music and the arts into your day every day
  • Come up with ideas for hands on learning (such as science experiments, art projects, building activities, cooking/baking)
  • Play music and encourage singing and dance parties
  • Think about skills and talents family members have, and use them to plan activities and opportunities for learning (e.g. playing an instrument, drawing/painting, woodworking)
  • Encourage students to go “old school” and take up a pen pal during this time (pictures of letters and drawings can still be sent electronically if there are concerns about virus transmission); this will get them writing and keep them connected to others
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Tip #5:  Get outside as much as possible.

  • While quarantines may restrict public gatherings, it is imperative to get kids out in nature as much as possible (and the vitamin D won’t hurt, either)
  • If available, spend time in a backyard or sparsely populated outdoor area (hiking, open fields, beach time, etc.)
  • Encourage kids to dig in the dirt, race each other, build, and use their imagination

Tip #6:  Help children to help others.

  • In times of uncertainty, human beings (adults and children alike) find solace and comfort in taking action to help others
  • Ask children for their ideas on how they can help others during this time; examples include collecting and bagging food to drop off to food pantries or making cards and drawings for elderly individuals who are self-quarantined; kids are kind, and doing things for others will help them feel productive and settled

Above all, practice self-care as much as possible: when you take care of your own mental health, you are much more available to support your child through a challenging time. Be prepared, and be well.

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This guest blog was by Nicole Vidiri Silva. She is a bilingual school social worker that has recently transitioned into the role of Dean of Students and Social Emotional Learning at an elementary school in New York. Follow her on Twitter @nsilvalmsw.