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How to keep your child's education and mental health on track during the COVID-19 outbreak

kid on a laptop
There's new stress for parents as kids try to keep up with school and friends while everyone's stuck at home during the COVID-19 outbreak.

In Michigan, parents of school-aged children are now in the third consecutive week with their kids out of school. For many, there's a daily mish-mash of video calls with teachers or friends, homemade lesson plans, and a touch of cabin fever ... all while trying to work from home.

For tips on helping your family navigate all of that, we turned to Dr. Jenny Radesky. She's a developmental behavioral pediatrician, researcher, and professor at the University of Michigan. 

Radesky spoke to Michigan Radio Morning Edition host Doug Tribou. You can hear the complete conversation at the top of this page. 

Don't try to out-school school

"There is no how-to guide for this," Radesky says. "Don't think you need to totally recreate your child's school experience. Build a routine. Build a sense of safety and predictability through what's going to be a pretty stressful time for lots of us."

Encourage your kids to be helpers 

For parents with more than one child and kids who are in different grades, trying to keep up with multiple school and social schedules, can be stressful. When your home feels like a one-room schoolhouse, Radesky suggests checking in on school work in the morning and then opening things up for more unstructured play and activities later in the day. 

She says making your kids part of the solution is key.

"There's so much logistical planning that all of us are suddenly doing. Figuring out, 'Which platform is it, Zoom or Google Hangouts?' My number one recommendation is getting your kids into a mindset of 'Life is stressful right now. We're dealing with big changes. How are we all going to be helpers?' 

"Don't think you need to totally recreate your child's school experience. Build a routine. Build a sense of safety and predictability."

"We're helping around the house because we're stuck here and we're stuck with each other. We're helpers when it comes to helping someone who might be having really big feelings about what's going on. They're frustrated they can't see their friends." 

Prioritize things that are important to you

COVID-19 news coverage isn't just a single story with a warning that you can turn off for a few minutes so your kids don't have to hear it. There's a daily flow of information and that can be stressful for adults and kids. Radesky says it helps to find other things that can hold your attention.

"Really think about what matters to your family when all of this noise and stress settles down. What are the things that you can really tap into that give you a sense of meaning? A lot of meaning comes from just working with our bodies," Radesky says.

"Are we dancing? Are we using our hands to make things? Are we cooking? Can we touch and snuggle each other a little bit in our own homes? And nature is just a huge calming effect. These are really important life skills about resilience and we can take advantage of this moment to teach children."

If your child has special needs, reach out for help

"I'd recommend parents be in touch virtually. You can let the therapist observe your child's behavior through the video call and give you some tips on how they would have handled it in the school setting," Radesky says.

"You can also get an idea of what sort of words do [specialists] use, what sort of activities might they have done to work on certain fine motor skills or speech and language skills, and also get an idea of what motivates the child [in that setting]."

By the way, parents have work to do, too

For parents who are now working remotely having kids at the home office is a challenge.

"This feels like an impossible task for parents," Radesky says.

"I recommend having some sort of activities that your child can do independently. If they're a reader, reading chapter books is a great way to do this. They can really get their nose in a book for a solid hour. If they aren't a reader yet, you can get some audio books. That's another way to keep them intellectually engaged, but not necessarily just playing games on an iPad.

"Look at some of the resources that have been put together by groups such as PBS Kids right now. And this is actually a really good challenge for parents: finding really positive technology content that's going to help them in the stressful place they are in their lives, rather than just create a battle when they have to take that tablet away." 

For more resources to help parents through the coronavirus outbreak, Radesky recommends these pages: 

Editor's note: Excerpted answers have been edited for length. To hear the full interview, go to the top of this page.

Want to support reporting like this? Consider making a gift to Michigan Radio today.

Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Public staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
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