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Feature Article

Providing Structure Helps Kids to Thrive in Uncertain Times

By Lindsey Felix, PhD

We are all facing challenges in these unprecedented times, as we navigate the world of supporting children’s learning, keeping them entertained and stimulated, all while working from home and managing daily responsibilities. Many parents, grandparents or other caregivers are struggling to adapt to this “new normal” and establish routines that’ll work for their children.

Children thrive in structure and predictability, especially during uncertain times such as these.

Build Structure & Predictability into the Day

  1. Use a visual schedule, detailing the activities for the day. This is best done with color coded sticky notes or pens. For example, red could represent reading, green could represent science, etc. Frequently remind children where they are in the schedule. It may help to cross off or remove post-it notes as the day progresses.
  2. Try to follow a consistent routine as much as possible (i.e., schoolwork begins at the same time each day, lunch and recess occur at the same times).
  3. Make sure to designate breaks throughout the day. Make it clear what your child can do on breaks by giving them a few, not several, choices (for example, coloring, jumping jacks, puzzles, but no screen time).
  4. Work in chunks of time, rather than until an assignment or task is complete.
  5. Praise your child for their effort on tasks and not whether their performance was accurate. For example, have your child work for 5-10 minutes before taking a stretching or snack break.
  6. Use visual timers, such as an hourglass timer or timer on the microwave or oven. If your child cannot tell time, there are apps available that use visual cues (rather than numbers).
  7. Create a visual tracker for progress made on tasks. You could use an outline of a thermometer and color it in as your child makes progress. For example, if they have to write a 5-paragraph essay and have finished one paragraph, 20% of the thermometer should be shaded.
  8. Front-load your child’s schedule, with most of the academic work completed earlier in the day. Children are fresher in the morning. If possible, avoid screens before academic work begins, as it can be difficult to transition from screens to schoolwork.
  9. Reserve screen time and highly preferred activities to be used when you or other adults need to get work done undisturbed. Schedule a break after that time. Identify both on your visual schedule. Make it clear to your child that you need that time to work. You will be available to play after you are done.
  10. Incorporate learning into everyday activities. For example, cooking and baking allow for practical application of math and fractions (i.e., 1/3 cup of sugar, 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder). Observing and identifying bugs, leaves, trees and animals outside allows for later research (i.e., a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, how certain trees appear at different times of the year, types of clouds, starting a garden, etc.).
  11. Be flexible. It is best to have a plan for the week beginning Monday morning, but adjust as the week progresses. Your child may enjoy creating the schedule together. Your child may do better doing math in the morning and English in the afternoon.
  12. Schedule virtual play dates for your child. Even if the children do not talk much, they can show one another their toys, what they did that day, etc.
  13. Be patient with yourself and your child. If a day does not go well, try to determine where/why/how it was derailed and adjust the next day (i.e., too few breaks, material was very challenging, adults needed time to work, children were fighting).
  14. Adjust your expectations of yourself and your child. Most parents are not teachers and children are not used to interacting with their parents as teachers. Your child may take longer to grasp new concepts than they typically do. They will benefit from practice and seeing the information many times (i.e., flashcards).

Signs of Struggle

As an aside, this is a stressful time for both parents and children. Even young children are aware that something is amiss, even if it is simply that their schedule and normal activities are different or forbidden. Your child may be struggling if they are exhibiting the following signs:

  1. Regression in skills (i.e., bed-wetting, tying shoes, etc.).
  2. New sleep problems (i.e., difficulty falling or staying asleep, nightmares).
  3. Signs of worry or anxiety, such as separation anxiety/clinginess, reassurance seeking, stomachaches, nervousness, etc.
  4. New physical irritability, stomachaches or headaches, could be a sign of emotional distress.
  5. Frequent tearfulness, withdrawal or loss of interest in normal activities.
  6. New behavioral problems, such as outbursts, aggression, etc.

Be sure to talk to your child about how they are feeling and provide ways they can cope (i.e., deep breathing, distraction such as music and playing with pets, calling a friend, etc.). If you and/or your child are really struggling during this time, please call Samaritan Neuropsychology – Albany at 541-812-5760.