Many children tend to thrive on routines. It’s why schools have structures that repeat themselves day after day, such as how the kids are expected to line up for lunch and clean up their trays afterwards, or take out last night’s homework as soon as they sit down for a class.
But now that many schools are working virtually—with no clear end date in sight—your kids might be more restless, anxious, and unfocused than usual. They’re dealing with the confusing nature of the pandemic, while also struggling to find their footing when so much of their usual structure is gone.
“Maintaining a normal routine for your child during the quarantine is really essential,” says Susan Samuels, MD, psychiatrist at NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine. “We want to do the best we can to maintain things that are sort of familiar to them, and that will help them cope with things that are unfamiliar that are going on around them.”
1. Begin and end the day at the same time
“Most routines have a similar time to start, [and] a similar time to end the day,” says Dr. Samuels.
2. Schedule activities in 30- to 40-minute intervals
Schools use structured periods for a reason: It works with the attention span of kids. As kids get older, they can handle longer periods of time focused on one thing. Instead of getting frustrated that your child is losing interest in something, try to work their attention spans into their schedule.
“Classes or periods at school might be 30, 40, 60 minutes, and keeping that general rule of thumb can be really helpful,” says Dr. Samuels.
Whether you’re “home-schooling” or just providing play activities, consider grouping them into intervals to chunk out the day. You could even write out a schedule with them so that they have a visual to remind them where they are in the day, and what comes next.
3. Enjoy mealtimes together
Before the pandemic, it might have been hard to sit down for a family dinner together. One kid had soccer practice, one kid was at a friend’s house, and you had to work late at the office. Stay-at-home orders have really changed that and brought the family together.
“We have a little bit more of an opportunity to have time together as a family, and mealtimes can be a perfect time for that to happen,” says Dr. Samuels.
Build family mealtimes into the routine. That doesn’t mean you have to stress yourself out with an elaborate hot breakfast: Cereal will do. The important thing is sitting down together to eat. Not only does this create more structure, but it builds more human connection into your day.
Bonus: This can also provide opportunities to talk to children about the pandemic. Remind them to wash their hands before eating and why it’s important, and let them know you’re available to listen or to answer questions.
4. Get good quality sleep
Continue to help your kids stick to their usual bedtime, and try “quiet hours” to help kids wind down and relax before bed. “Stay away from your screens 30 minutes before bedtime [or] an hour before bedtime,” says Dr. Samuels. “Have something else that the kids might enjoy doing.”
For example, maybe every night before bed, you and your five-year-old could sit down to read books together, or your 12 year old could do some coloring—anything to help relax and get ready for sleep.
Need more tips for helping your kids deal with COVID-19 stress?