The Parent’s Guide To Unexpected School Closings

Kids enjoy unexpected time off from school: less homework, more screen time, and snacks! For a few days, this seems like an okay idea, and then all heck breaks loose. This week parents are scrambling to manage a different kind of life. Meanwhile, the kids are soaking up the freedom at home, hunkering down with sugar and screens, and staying up late. The meltdowns and freakouts will likely follow if they haven’t already. Just like summer and holiday breaks, providing structure to children during these uncertain days will help regulate their mood and preserve everyone’s sanity. 

Kids NEED a schedule. It will be difficult at first (resistance, complaining) then it will work.

  • A few basics to include in your schedule: bedtime and wake-up, shower and dress, outdoor walk/exercise video, reading, creative time or a project, chores, screen time. Decide an order or a timeline. Kids will be more compliant if they’re involved in creating the schedule. 
  • If there is school work, get it done before 3:30, with something they really enjoy scheduled immediately afterward. 
  • Try this: FUN SANDWICH. Sandwich something less enjoyable between two activities kids really like (e.g., art-chores-screen time). 
  • Don’t put screen time before something like chores or homework, the transition will be too difficult. If you are not monitoring screen time, consider tech breaks, another way to reduce use (see my article on Tech Breaks below). 
  • Now is a good time to clean up poor sleep hygiene. Don’t allow kids to bring phones to bed, or fall asleep watching YouTube, updating social media all night. 

Your child may exhibit reduced frustration tolerance and increased irritability as a result of changes/uncertainty unfolding with the COVID-19 response. 

  • Whatever is normally your child’s emotional weakness/struggle may get worse now. Remind yourself that the arguing, debating, bickering is a response to underlying anxiety/stress, lack of structure, and loss of their activities at school and with friends. 
  • Resist joining your child’s emotional roller coasters as they go up and down. Instead, imagine you are The Lazy River- reliable, even, calm. If you’re not feeling so certain or calm-, it’s ok to tell them that you are not sure what will happen, but we are a family and we will figure it out and take care of one another. 
  • Create a “no bicker zone” at home. Define an area in the house, ideally the kitchen/living space, as a “no bicker zone”. The idea is, hey, you’re welcome to bicker, but not here. Invite the bickering duo to leave the “no bicker zone” and carry on elsewhere. Bickering is a bad habit when we’re stressed or emotionally drained. Usually, it’s not even worth leaving the room to continue the bickering. Kids love when parents are included in the deal- they like to point out that you should bicker elsewhere! This offers some peace and levity for a family sharing space. 

Establish boundaries at home – physical and interpersonal

  • Be purposeful about when you discuss items from the parental to-do list. While you need to find out if kids did their tasks for the day, they will be more receptive when you aren’t constantly firing questions. They consider this nagging, even if you are trying to get things done on their behalf. Suggestion: enjoy dinner conversation without reviewing the to-do list. Instead, ask/tell them when is a good time each day to check-in about tasks and projects. This will save you from feeling like a broken record asking them all day what they have and haven’t done. 
  • Consider establishing specific spaces in the house where kids read or enjoy screens, work on creative projects, or eat. The idea is not to be controlling, but to keep their body moving and put them in different environments. This will help them feel less confined and vary their sensory experience. 
  • Remember, kids’ beds are for sleeping and reading. If your child spends all day in bed hanging out, they will struggle to fall asleep. Their brain won’t know it’s bedtime. 
  • Consider what conversational topics are appropriate for your child. Save them the pressure of learning about your long-term financial concerns of job loss, a massive recession, etc. I’m not suggesting that you don’t teach them about the world, but be aware of what level of detail and stress is developmentally appropriate for them. 
  • Are you working, or not? It’s confusing when you’re physically present but emotionally absent (working from home, but sitting on your computer at the kitchen island). Instead, tell them you are working and go to another location in the house. That way the delineation is clear- I’m working, or I’m off. This also helps adults feel that they aren’t working 24/7.

Kids’ concerns may not mirror yours right now

  • Kids are focused on what they’re missing- prom, or a sports season, or Spring Break trip. These events may feel less consequential through the lens of adult eyes than other concerns right now. Keep in mind that social activities with peers are a key component, maybe THE key component, of your child’s emotional and social connection to people (especially during adolescence). Try to avoid minimizing their sadness and loss, or frustration about these cancellations. Suggestion: Ask them what they were most looking forward to, what they were most excited about, what was their vision of that event or day, what will they miss the most. 
  • Try not to point out that you know it’s sad that they won’t have a trip BUT we should instead think about the losses of small business owners or worry about Grandparents’ health. They can do both- be disappointed about their losses and learn to be aware and caring about their community-but they’ll be more receptive if it’s not an either/or situation