Dr. Catherine Ohmstede

We’d all hoped for a “normal” back-to-school year after COVID-19 roared in this spring. And now we find ourselves a long, long way from that. What follows are some guidelines and advice for parents to keep chaos at bay, kids in a good place, and families on the same page.

Bottom line: Set clear expectations about what the virtual school day will look like. Make school a priority. Although children will still be at home, virtual school is not a vacation. At the same time, cut everyone a little slack when you can. With a little thought, clear communication and flexibility we can all get through this. I’m learning this firsthand as a working mother with kids in middle school.

1. Create the right work environment: Set up a quiet, clutter-free space away from where children usually play video games or watch TV. Limit the use of devices that might distract them from schoolwork.

2. Work with your kids to set up a schedule and be prepared to flex. Young children tend to focus better in the morning, so plan learning early in the day. Middle schoolers and high schoolers may learn better in the late afternoon or evening, so work with them to come up with the most effective schedule. Important: Decide ahead of time when children will be allowed to watch TV, play video games or visit social media.

3. Maintain a daily planner to keep up with school schedules, due dates and other activities. Some parts of the routine should be fixed (wake-up time, morning exercise, class start time, family dinner), but others can flex (what time you do math versus reading). Break assignments and tasks into the smallest parts. For example: make flash cards, review flash cards instead of “study for quiz.” Make a checklist of tasks for each day. Include chores and the four pillars of wellness on the checklist. Color code your planner to help children organize their tasks and time.

4. Provide positive feedback (praise, reward, a sticker, a star or check mark) when your child completes a small task. Plan a bigger reward (a family bike ride or a movie, but be cautious about including high-sugar, high-fat food treats) after completion of bigger tasks. Lots of encouragement and positive feedback are important here.

5. Exercise.Exercise helps problem-solving, memory and attention. It also reduces stress and helps manage anxiety and depression. Children are calmer and more focused after exercise, so start the day with 15 minutes of physical activity. Plan digital breaks throughout the day and set alarms to remind children to stand up, go outside, get some fresh air, have a healthy snack, and get some physical activity like they would at school.

If you’re working remotely, model good habits by joining your children for breaks. All children benefit from physical activity, and some find it difficult to sit still for long periods of time. Consider putting their computer on a raised surface to allow them to stand while working.

6. Eat right. I have seen an alarming uptick of overweight and obesity in my practice since COVID-19 began, and this is in children who have always been at a healthy weight. Too much downtime at home with not enough to do and free access to snacks has led to boredom and habit eating. We need to create some rules around how we eat at home to prevent this trend from worsening.

For starters: Set scheduled times for meals and snacks to avoid eating out of stress or boredom. Avoid mindless snacking. Eat in a dining area, away from any screens or devices. If we look at a computer or TV while we eat, we tend to keep eating after we are full. Avoid packaged snacks. Each snack should include a fruit or vegetable to fill you up and a protein to keep you from getting hungry again soon. An example would be carrots and hummus, an apple with peanut butter, or a pear with a small piece of cheese. If you won’t be available at snack time, plan snacks ahead of time and give your children a list of healthy snack options that you have on hand. If your children can’t read, print a picture of the snacks they can choose from.

7. Prioritize family dinners to reconnect, swap stories from the day, and reflect on what each family member did to find balance – mind/body/spirit/social. Discussing what the child learned that day will reinforce the lessons.

If you are working virtually

8. Set up “office hours” to ask school-related questions, and let them know when you are not available for schoolwork and other routine questions. If your child encounters a difficult assignment while you are unavailable, encourage them to switch to an easier assignment and keep working until you can help them. Let your teacher know if your child is struggling. If you are only able to help your child with studies during evenings and weekends, let your teacher know.

9. Encourage children to read as much as possible. If they can’t read, read to them. If you can’t read to them, play audiobooks. Reading encourages brain development better than anything.

10. Ask teachers for resources for supplemental learning, and use any that are offered: virtual field trips, educational videos and online games can complement your child’s learning.

11. Manage stress: Parents need to manage their own stress away from children to maintain a calm supportive presence. Have fun with your family every day: Go for a walk, play a game, tell stories.You can literally feel better in 15 seconds with simple breathing and yoga techniques.

12. Connect and reach out for support. Ask your teacher and other parents for guidance if you are struggling. Ask older children to help teach younger children. Form a study group with other children who can meet virtually or outside to quiz each other with flash cards or discuss challenging homework problems. This will help keep children socially connected as well.

13. Show empathy whenever possible. Give kids a break if they are tired, anxious or distracted. Give yourself a break if you are tired, anxious or distracted. Let’s be realistic: This is a tough situation and we are all going to have to be flexible.

14. And finally, have some grace for yourself, your children and their teachers as we all do the best we can, given the circumstances.

Dr. Catherine Ohmstede is a leader at Novant Health and practices at Dilworth Pediatrics.

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