Structure and Consistency in Daily Routines Good for our Kids, Even in Summer

Author: Cindy Greenberg, MD, Pediatric Medicine, MarinHealth Medical Network

Last year at this time, students all over the country were celebrating the beginning of summer, freedom from teachers and books, and the chance to spend long, unstructured days filled with fun and friends.

Summer vacation is here again but under far different circumstances. A global pandemic, Coronavirus (COVID-19), has resulted in school closures worldwide, causing a sudden, unprecedented disruption in the educations of from one to five billion young people. For students in elementary school, high school, even college, their homes have been their schoolrooms; in person contact with teachers and friends has become rare if non-existent; and for many, parents are now an essential part of the school day.

How will our children fare with the major disruption to the structure and routine of their lives this pandemic has caused? I for one believe children are resilient and will learn ways to grow and adapt especially when they have the help and support of parents and other loved ones.

Academically, we can probably expect some lost retention around certain skills which can usually be regained with frequent reviews and practice. Healthy habits such as exercise, sleep and good nutrition, which may lapse in the summer, will rebound as they do when school begins in the fall.

It will be a while before we have data providing a full analysis of the effects of these school closures on our children. Reports show that 20 to 30 percent of children in earlier pandemics and more recently in Wuhan China experience anxiety, depression, even PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

This may be the extreme, but the length of time our country has been under shelter-in-place and the major disruptions it has caused will likely have some kind of effect on all of us. For example, children now at home all day, still needing to be educated, have presented a huge challenge, especially to parents who must work from home and teach at the same time.

One key to making it work according to several families I’ve talked with, seems to be to build as much structure and consistency into days at home as possible, replicating at least in part the predictability and comfort of the school day.

Some of tips include:

  • Creating a daily schedule with specific times for breakfast and lunch, schoolwork, exercise, fun and play.
  • Scheduling regular movement breaks—15 minutes after 45 minutes of sitting for elementary school children, 10 minutes after 50 minutes for older students.
  • Watching Sesame Street again; studies have shown that children who watch Sesame Street even in elementary school are likely to show improved academic performance.
  • Taking advantage of other online resources such as Zoom, YouTube, online classes and tours, to supplement the day’s lessons.
  • Including hands on activities such as solving puzzles together, getting the family involved in cooking meals, starting a new hobby such as collecting insects or growing vegetables from seed.

Even though school is out for the summer, restrictions on travel and socializing are still in place and likely to be for a while longer. Keep the structure and consistency you’ve established over the past three months, but incorporate activities that will still give you and your children the carefree feeling of summer vacation. Make a summer schedule that includes fun and creative activities but still allows time for daydreaming. Enjoy outdoor games—croquet, badminton, bean bag toss. Take bicycle rides or hikes on the many pathways our county has to offer.

Despite our best efforts during this time, any one of us may resort on occasion to uncharacteristic behaviors such as yelling, having tantrums, becoming frustrated or moody. We may feel anxious or depressed, find it hard to concentrate, sleep too little or too much.

When behaviors or symptoms such as this escalate or are continuous, lasting several days in a row in spite of calming efforts, a call to your doctor or pediatrician is warranted. In this time of staying at home, video visits can be arranged and have been very helpful in helping patients and families through stressful times.

The pandemic has given us an all-too-rare opportunity to decompose, to achieve a little relief from the pressure to keep up with the regular hectic pace we have become accustomed to. Being quarantined at home with our families is a chance to reevaluate what and who in our lives is most important.

How often have we wished for more time to spend with family? Although we wouldn’t wish for a pandemic to give us that, now we have that time. Hopefully we can make the best of it.