By Dr. Sabrina Stutz, a pediatric psychologist at CHOC
As summer break comes to an end, kids and parents alike are faced with an uncertain transition back to school. While many children are starting the school year in a distance learning model, no one knows for sure what kinds of changes might take place in the future. We know that children and families alike can feel frustrated or scared about the transition and the uncertainty of this time. Here are 10 tips to help kids transition back to virtual school and prepare for the uncertainty of the future.
Create a routine
In times of uncertainty, kids have a sense of safety and predictability in structure and routines.
- Start by making clear bedtimes and wake times that will allow your child to get enough sleep – 9 to 12 hours, depending on their age.
- Build a morning routine that is similar to the one they were used to with in-person Have your child wake up, eat breakfast, brush their teeth, put on clothes, and do any morning chores needed, such as feeding a pet. This will make sure your child is awake and alert in the mornings and ready for the school day. It also gives you valuable quality time with your child in the morning in which everyone is likely to be in a better mood. By following a morning routine, you are not only setting your child up for school success, but you are also modelling how to build and follow structure in a day.
- Using your child’s school learning schedule as a guide, schedule out your child’s learning time, brain breaks, lunch, recess and homework time.
- Schedule home and family time, dinner, active time, relaxation time and a bedtime routine. Be flexible with finding a routine that works for your family in these new circumstances.
- If following routines is difficult for your child, consider adding in incentives to help them get used to them. For younger kids, a sticker chart and praise for following each step of the routine can be helpful. For older kids, points to earn screen time or allowance for following a new routine can also help motivate them.
- If your child is distracted by other screens or devices, consider restricting device access until after the school day and homework are complete. In addition, for kids who will already have several hours of screen time during the day for school, support them in finding activities without a screen for their free time, such as playing outside, reading a book or cooking.
- Build in fun activities into the routine as well, such as family walks or new weekend traditions. These traditions could be getting take-out from your favorite restaurant, playing outdoor games, cooking a new recipe together, or building something like a birdhouse.
Designate a learning space
When home and school occur in the same place, it can be easy for kids to get distracted by their favorite toys and activities, wanting to take a nap in their bed, seeing the TV screen, or wanting a snack from the kitchen. By finding and preparing a dedicated learning space for your child, it will help them stay focused on their school work and allow them to experience the separation between learning with play and relaxation time that they had when they were going to school in-person.
- Locate a quiet space in your home with minimal distractions, good lighting, and sturdy seating. For kids who have a shorter attention span, scope out multiple potential appropriate spaces so that your child has different workstations to associate with different subjects. For example, a seated location for writing, a comfortable space for reading or a higher countertop for standing while working.
- Partner with your child to find comfortable positions that support their bodies. Put boxes under a tall chair to provide a footrest for a child whose feet do not hit the ground. If your child has a Zoom call, you can stack books under the laptop to bring the screen to eye level, avoiding neck strain. Just like at work, consider what will make a child’s body the most comfortable, without any strain.
- If space is a concern in your home, be creative with different workspace solutions. For example, consider a foldable lap desk for couch sitting, or allow your child to kneel on the floor using an ottoman as a desk. Consider using low shelves or folding tables as workstations.
- It is recommended to avoid bedrooms or lounge areas as learning spaces. Especially avoid having your child work on their bed, as this can disrupt a child’s association with their bed as a place for sleep and rest.
Pre-plan organizational support
At school, teachers can monitor notebooks, desks, backpacks, planners and other things kids use to stay organized. In distance learning, parents can support children by ensuring they stay well-organized throughout the week.
- If your teacher has recommended an organizational structure, help your child get whatever materials they need such as folders, school supplies or pencil cases. Low-cost alternatives to some popular organizational supplies could include plastic food storage containers or reusing and decorating cardboard boxes.
- If your teacher has not recommended an organizational structure, build one together with your child. Help them have a separate space to put their work for each subject, divided into completed work versus work that still needs to be done. For typed work, you can also help model for a child how to have different folders on their laptop for each subject.
- Become familiar with your child’s virtual learning platform and support them in understanding how to integrate that platform with the physical organizational structure they have at home.
- At the end of each school day, review with your child what they completed and what they still have left to do. Help them set up their workspace for the following day so that they can start the next day with success.
Test-drive the technology and review online safety
With more education occurring online, kids are using the internet more often to find resources for assignments, or to pass the time if distracted during the school day. Now is a great time to ensure you are familiar with the technology they are using and review internet safety.
- Test out your child’s technology and see if they can maintain a good connection on their platforms in a variety of likely scenarios — another child in the home also has a Zoom call, or a parent needs to give a work presentation while the kids are engaged in distance learning.
- Review your house rules on internet use and consequences for breaking those rules. Revisit your parental controls for screen time use and content.
- Have a conversation with your child about common pitfalls of internet use including clicking on spam links, downloading content, cyberbullying and predators, and social media sharing.
- Keep computers and laptops in common areas of the house so adults can monitor internet use.
Partner with your child’s teachers
While this transition to distance learning is an adjustment for families, it is also a major change for teachers! By collaborating and partnering with your child’s teacher, you can find creative ways to engage your child in learning and communicate successes and areas for problem solving.
- Become familiar with the teacher’s expectations for your child’s progress and learning. Since children learn at different paces, it can be helpful to consult your teacher regarding options for additional enrichment or modifications that can support children with learning disabilities.
- If you are concerned your child is spending all their free time on homework, having difficulty tolerating extended screen time, or struggling to understand the concepts provided, contact your teacher to see what suggestions they have.
- If your child has a 504 plan or Individualized Education Program (IEP), stay connected to their special education teacher or case manager to help problem-solve how to make material more accessible for your child’s ability level in a distance learning format.
Make flexible back-up plans
Be prepared for something to go wrong in your distance learning plans, and stay flexible with changing the plan if it is not working for your family.
- Create a plan with your family about what to do if technology fails, such as a power outage or device running out of battery . Will the child try to log back in on a different device? Or call in, instead? Who will communicate with the teacher to find the information the child needs to catch up?
- Talk about plans for a child missing a live class. Decide how the child will find out the necessary information for the class they missed, by contacting a friend for notes, emailing the teacher, asking for extra credit, or another way. Consider consequences for older children who miss live classes and help them problem-solve how to ensure attendance in the future.
- Consider alternative childcare arrangements if a parent is unexpectedly called in to work on-site or needs to tend to another family member.
Find ways to enrich learning
Kids learn best through using a variety of learning approaches. Look for opportunities to enrich their learning at home and in your community.
- Some kids benefit from hands-on learning. Get creative and partner with your teacher to find ways to use common household objects to help support your kid’s learning. This could look like breaking up crackers to teach fractions, using ice cube trays for sorting or teaching measurement through baking.
- Find documentaries or educational programming that elaborate on what your child is learning about in school, or what they are interested in learning about.
- Consider what kinds of physically distanced field trips you can incorporate into a child’s curriculum to help make their education come alive. Some ideas are: bringing art supplies to a local park and painting the clouds, collecting leaves or going to a local farm to pick fruit. You can also take virtual field trips to places like aquariums, zoos and planetariums.
Be creative about maintaining social connection
One of the aspects of in-person school that parents can supplement in distance learning is social connection and skills development.
- Encourage regular virtual contact with other youth that the child knows from school or the neighborhood. Some children, even middle schoolers, are not yet experts in starting social relationships and may need their parents’ help with organizing virtual playdates or online communications.
- Consider building social encounters that would normally happen in person into your child’s virtual schedule. Some teens might enjoy doing homework after school while on a video call with a friend.
- Look for online groups or clubs put on by the school or community centers to capitalize on your child’s passions.
- Although physical activities are still important, limit in-person time with other children and connect virtually if possible. Before engaging in any physically distant activities, ensure your child is up-to-date on well-child visits and immunizations. Parents should follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding potential in-person playdates.
Teach kids to cope with uncertainty
Many families do not know how long distance learning will be in place. Parents can support their children in developing resiliency to be able to tolerate unknowns about the future by focusing on the here and now.
- Praise your child for all the bravery they are showing by trying a new way of schooling, for communicating their concerns to you, for problem-solving in a less-than-ideal situation, and for trying hard to adjust to distance learning. The more parents let kids know they are proud of them, the more the child will persevere and keep trying different solutions to find balance in theirs and their family’s lives.
- Periodically, check in on your child’s mental health by asking how they feel and monitoring their sleep, appetite, motivation, and school performance. If you have concerns about your child’s mental wellbeing, contact your pediatrician or some of the resources listed below.
- Here are additional tips from CHOC pediatric psychologists on:
Ask for help
No one was given a manual on how to help their children cope with a global pandemic, all while coping with it themselves, managing their own work or finances, and supporting their kids’ education at home! It takes a village, and it is OK to ask for help or tap other resources to support you and your family through this time.
- Reach out to your child’s teacher or school counselor if they are not adjusting well to distance learning or are struggling to keep up. To your comfort level, share with them any additional factors that might be contributing to your child’s needs – these could be family separations or disruptions in custody agreements, financial problems, an ill family member, lack of school supplies, a sibling who is distracting in the home. They may be able to help find creative solutions.
- Be realistic about what kind of support you can or cannot provide during work hours. If you are concerned about engaging your child in distance-learning, consult your child’s teacher about schedules and other support. In pre-COVID times, grandparents or nannies were often a source of support to children while spending periods of time at home. The nature of the COVID-19 pandemic has made mixing households risky, and families may want to re-consider their typical avenues of support.
- If you become concerned about your child’s mental health, contact your primary care physician. You can also call your insurance company for a list of in-network mental health professionals or search online. You can also contact any of the resources below.
- CHOC’s mental health toolkit has resources for parents, kids and teens, and schools.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) Disaster Distress Helpline
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
- Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741-741
- Orange County Crisis Assessment Team: 866-830-6011
- Helpful apps
- Woebot: a cognitive behavior therapy-based artificial intelligence self-care app designed by psychologists at Stanford University.
- Headspace: A mindfulness app for everyday life
- Calm: A sleep, meditation and relaxation app
Get more expert health advice delivered to your inbox monthly by subscribing to the KidsHealth newsletter here.
The mental health team at CHOC curated the following resources on mental health topics common to kids and teens, such as depression, anxiety, suicide prevention and more.