This year, back-to-school looks different for many children due to the COVID-19 pandemic — especially for remote students.

Coronavirus Updates, Child Health, Primary Care | 3 months ago

Back-to-School Virtually in the Era of COVID-19: Tips for Parents

This year, back-to-school looks different for many children due to the COVID-19 pandemic — especially for remote students. As children return to online learning, here are some ways parents can help keep kids engaged, safe, focused, and healthy – mentally and physically.

Usually, parents and kids have their rituals when it comes to back to school: a new backpack, a brand-new pencil case, maybe some new clothes. This year, because of COVID-19, back to school looks different than usual for just about everyone. In North Carolina, Governor Roy Cooper has issued an executive order that gives school districts the option to implement in-person or remote learning for K-12 public schools. Some private schools may remain open or offer a hybrid model of in-person and remote learning. But no matter what, parents, kids, and teachers will all have to adapt.  

Adjusting to “the new normal”

When it comes to adjusting to this new learning environment, Dr. Martha Edwards , a pediatrician with Atrium Health Levine Children's Rock Hill Pediatric Associates, says  there’s no one “right answer” – it depends on your family. Every child is different – some children might do well in a distance learning environment, while other children may be at higher risk of regressing educationally and socially if they aren’t able to benefit from school services in the usual way. “You have to think about what feels right for your child,” advises Edwards. “And when in doubt, check with your pediatrician.” It’s important to keep an open dialogue with teachers, even if teaching isn’t happening in person. Parents can also help children stay on task and make sure they feel safe and secure during this uncertain time.

Dr. Rhonda Patt, a pediatrician with Atrium Health Levine Children's Charlotte Pediatric Clinic and assistant specialty medical director for pediatrics (and mother of three children), says that we simply don’t know yet what the long-term effects of virtual learning are since it’s never before been attempted on such a large scale. In the short term, though, it’s possible for children to experience increased anxiety.  “Social interaction and human touch are an important part of development and emotional health for kids,” says Patt. “Some children need more physical activity and interaction than others. Children are very resilient, though, and they’ll adapt to this and bounce back – usually faster than adults.”

Managing anxieties and fears

Dr. Cheryl Dodds is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and medical director of Atrium Health Behavioral Health - Davidson. Dodds advises giving children a safe space to talk about their feelings about school, COVID-19, and whatever else is on their minds. One practical tip is to do an activity with them while having difficult conversations.

“Sometimes kids will open up while they’re doing something like cooking, walking, or playing a game,” says Dodds.

She also recommends minimizing the amount of news that kids consume, as it can make them more anxious. The constant news cycle also tends to repeat information, which can make it seem like more things are going on than actually are. You can also cultivate family folklore of ways the family has come together to deal with challenging times. Remind children that even though times are difficult, it’s possible to accomplish difficult things and get through them.

Mental health is important for parents as well as kids

Parents model behavior for their kids – and if parents are feeling stressed or anxious, their children will pick up on it.

“It’s normal to be anxious now and feeling some grief,” says Edwards. “Normalize that for your child. You can check in with your child about how they’re feeling. Tell them there are no bad feelings. Feelings can sometimes feel bad but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong.”

Adults should not hesitate to seek help for themselves if they’re feeling overwhelmed.

If you have a child who already experiences mental illness and is on medication, now is not the time to go off the medication, advises Dodds.

Keep routines in place

No matter how old your child is, a consistent bedtime is a good idea – and a way for parents and children to connect.

“You can put your child to bed, rather than just sending them to bed,” Edwards explains.

Parents and children can talk about the day, process anything that happened, list things they’re grateful for, or read together. Turn off electronics before bedtime, and make sure children and teens are getting enough sleep for their age.

Dodds also stresses the importance of ritual and routine during this time.

“Create structure at home,” she advises parents. “Have regular wake-up times, bedtimes, and mealtimes, as well as times for completing schoolwork and exercising.”

She also says parents can give kids their own space to do work – helping them to keep it organized. Parents can help their children break down school into concrete tasks and make sure children stay on track for completing them, even using rewards or sticker charts to reinforce positive behaviors like completing schoolwork.

It’s also a good idea to minimize distractions during the school day when school is online.

“Block access to other parts of the Internet so kids aren’t doing things other than schoolwork,” says Dodds.

If you’re working from home, Patt advises letting kids know when you will and won’t be available, building check-ins into the day in a structured way. You might huddle together at breakfast, have a mid-morning check-in, have lunch together, and then have a break in the afternoon. For parents who work outside the home and need to send kids to daycare or other childcare services, she reminds parents that places have developed policies and procedures to keep kids safe and engaged.

Look for warning signs of stress or anxiety in children

Most parents can recognize the warning signs of stress or anxiety in themselves, but in kids the signs can be different.

“Children might have greater irritability, more explosive behavior, and they might act out more,” says Edwards. Changes in behavior – like changed attachment to parents, or sleeping more or less than usual, can also occur.

“Children might not be able to get work done, or they might have more temper tantrums or arguments,” says Dodds. “They might get frustrated by things not going the way they expect.”

For children experiencing acute stress or anxiety, a visit with a pediatrician and/or a psychiatrist can help – even if those visits are done remotely by telehealth. By now, many children have adjusted to interacting with peers and teachers online, so an online doctor visit won’t seem all that different.

Get Moving

If there’s one thing all the experts agree on, it’s the importance of making sure children get plenty of exercise during the school year.

“Incorporate physical activity or outdoor play time into the day,” says Patt. “Try to aim for 60-90 minutes of physical activity a day.”

This can be in the form of walking, hiking, online workout videos, or even dance parties at home. 

Socialization in the time of COVID-19

Even for children who are learning in a fully remote environment, socialization with peers is still possible. Older children are probably already used to interacting with friends through phones and video chats; parents can set up “virtual playdates” for younger children and help them to have video chats with friends or grandparents.

Patt recommends identifying a small number of other kids or families that a child can have some in-person social interaction with in a safe way.

“Have children wash their hands, wear a mask, and keep a distance. They can play outdoors – riding bikes, going hiking, or maybe meeting up for an ice cream outside,” she says.

Patt likens this moderate risk to riding in a car – although there’s an inherent risk to taking a car ride, we minimize the risk by doing things like wearing a seatbelt, obeying the speed limit, and complying with traffic laws. “It’s not zero risk, but you can reduce risks for your child and family when interacting with others,” Patt says.

Build in relaxation and breaks

Parents can help kids stay relaxed at home by teaching them skills like meditation, yoga, or breathing exercises – even using simple tools like blowing bubbles or blowing into a pinwheel. Dodds likes to use a technique she calls “mindful popsicle eating.” “Eat a popsicle, focusing all your attention on it,” she explains. “As your thoughts drift, bring them back to the popsicle. Relax and take deep breaths as you eat it.”

While it’s important to keep kids focused on schoolwork during the school day, it’s also good to let them take breaks. “Let them take a ‘brain break’ by playing a game for a few minutes or going outside for five minutes. You can give them task-oriented things, like ‘Run three laps around the house’,” says Edwards.

And don’t forget, as parents, to take breaks and care for yourself as well. 

If you have questions or concerns related to back to school this year, contact your pediatrician for additional guidance and resources. Need a pediatrician? Find one here.