Of all the things that are causing parents stress during this pandemic, how to structure the days with their kids now that everything is closed (including school) seems to be at the top of everyone’s list. For the first time ever, many parents are finding themselves stuck at home with their children indefinitely, and depending on everyone’s personalities and unique family dynamics, a well-structured day may or may not be a good idea.
The most important thing to keep in mind when considering what structure, if any, you should be implementing is this: The number one priority is to help our children feel safe. No one said you had to turn yourself into the world’s greatest teacher or daycare worker overnight. Go easy on yourself—and your kids—and eventually your family will settle into a rhythm that works for everyone, says Tania Paredes, Ph.D., a Miami-based family therapist. It may require some trial and error, but with patience and a sense of humor, we’ll all get through this.
Here’s a look at three basic ways parents are structuring their days, now that kids are home from school and most of us are quarantining. Find the one that describes your family best for some great tips from experts and parents who’ve been there.
“We’re Pretty Structured”
Best For: Working parents with jobs that require a lot of concentration or interaction with colleagues, as well as families with more than two kids or those with special needs children. Your mantra: “The fewer surprises, the better.”
Whether your kids are in school or they’re still too young for even the ABC’s, some families simply need to establish their version of law and order or things go haywire fast.
If your kids are school age, make them part of the conversation regarding how to structure your days. If they’re involved in some of the decision-making, they’ll be more likely to cooperate. When it comes to assignments, most teachers are providing plenty of learning opportunities. But they’re also largely being pretty flexible right now, trying not to overburden kids and their families with too much work, given the current situation. It’s a good idea to follow their lead.
If your kids are too young for schoolwork, this is a great time to explore preschool learning apps and websites and fold them into your day, so you can free yourself to work, cook, clean, make a phone call, or just take a breather. One of the few upsides to this experience is the number of quality sources that have stepped up to offer their services for free during this time, providing parents with more options than ever.
While it’s OK to keep the day structured, keeping it balanced is just as important. That means including plenty of free time, outdoor exercise, and physical engagement with others within your household in the schedule. Bear in mind that the order in which things are done is often less important than the environment and ways we implement schedules, recommends Mary Ann Kelley, founder of TheHomeSchoolMom.com.
Whatever you do, don’t obsess about screen time right now. This is a unique, temporary situation, not what their entire childhood will be like, so cut yourself—and them—some slack. The most important thing is to look for age-appropriate content that has a beginning and end point, so you can more easily work it into your day and ensure one activity doesn’t become an all-day thing, Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, told The Hechinger Report, a non-profit dedicated to covering innovation and inequality in education. “That is going to be better for kids than You Tube, for instance, which never ends,” Golin said.
Just remember, try not to overdo it, as that will only wear out your kids (and you). Maybe not right away, but eventually—and since no one knows for sure how long this will last, you’ll want to save as much of your mental energy as you can.
“We Prefer A Flexible Structure”
Best For: Working parents who don’t have a ton of conference calls or Zoom meetings to worry about, as well as those who don’t work or have full control of their daily schedules. Your mantra: “Organized chaos is my jam.”
Most parents fall into this group, especially if they have more than one child. One mom told us via our Facebook group that she splits the day into five parts, all of which had to be completed each day but at the time of each child’s choosing. These include learning time, chore time, outside play, project time (for cooking, baking, art, or building things) and online time with friends. She made the timing of things flexible to accommodate each of their personalities, weather disruptions, and when their friends might be online. As a result, one child tends to wrap up all his work in the morning—sometimes for multiple days at once—while the other takes his time and is known to do much more goofing around first. The point is, by the end of the day all the goals are accomplished.
If you have young children who don’t have schoolwork to do, Susan Friedman, the senior director of publishing and professional learning at the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), says there’s no need to overthink how you structure their day. As long as kids are getting some physical exercise (dancing counts!), playing, and having conversations with others at different points throughout the day, it’s OK to let them play on their own for a while. That’s really all they need to continue to thrive while feeling safe and secure.
Regardless of their age, no one knows how much your kids can handle on their own better than you. Keeping in mind that sometimes what works for one child may not bode well for another makes for a more flexible existence, and for many parents, that may be the best way to get through this with the best results.
“Structure? What Structure?”
Best For: Parents with kids who are self-motivated and require minimal supervision when it comes to homework, chores, and general behavior (we’ve love to meet you, by the way), and for parents who don’t seem to rattle as easily if things get off track. Your mantra (insert Bob Marley’s voice here): “Every little thing is going to be alright.”
As long as parents set the groundwork, there are experts who believe children can learn to take care of their responsibilities—even school—themselves. Some even see it as an opportunity to help kids become more self-regulated, Michael Rich, M.D., director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Harvard Medical School, told The New York Times. However, “it’s important kids don’t see this as an indefinite snow day.”
To be honest, sometimes a free-for-all is all you can handle, and that’s OK. (They’re called mental health days for a reason.) And families with any type of structure can benefit from loosening the rules enough to enjoy the occasional bowl of cereal for dinner or day-long movie marathon. As long as everyone is healthy, safe, and taking steps, however small, towards keeping schoolwork and other important activities in check, that’s all that matters.
Just make sure you’re not letting go because the stress has gotten to you, but rather because it seems to be the best approach for your family—and that goes for all of these plans. As one mom reminded us, if kids see you anxious over these recent changes and the unknown, just imagine how they’re likely to feel.