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By Michael Tedder
March 20, 2020
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As of Friday, March 20, the coronavirus pandemic has caused 45 states to close their schools, according to Education Week. Students from at least 114,000 public and private schools throughout the U.S. aren’t attending classes like usual — and their parents and other caregivers aren’t sure what to do with them.

Many school districts are scrambling to get their courses online so that students can continue their education without interruption. According to USA Today, some areas are better at this than others, as “districts and states vary wildly in their ability to deliver educational services at a time of social isolation.”

Schools and teachers are doing all they can (and we heartily thank you!). Even so, this week more responsibility for kids’ educations has suddenly fallen upon parents, many of whom feel forced to become quasi-home schoolers whether they like it or not.

Whether you are a parent whose job is letting you work remotely, or you’re missing work entirely and have to look after your kiddo, the coronavirus is likely disrupting your routine and leaving you with a young scholar to watch after and guide. Some kids would no doubt be more than happy to spend the entire day playing video games and watching TikTok dance challenges, and there’s something to be said for allowing kids (and parents) to goof off given the stressful times. We talked to experts about the best ways to keep your children’s minds stimulated, and how to keep everyone as sane and happy as possible, while schools are closed due to the coronavirus.

Talk to Kids About Coronavirus

The first step every parent needs to take is talk with kids about why schools are closed, and why self-isolation is so critical. It’s important to convey that the situation is serious, without invoking panic. Keep in mind that you never know what incorrect, and possibly alarmist, ideas about COVID-19 that your kids learned online or from friends.

According to the Florida-based Dr. Richard Horowitz, parenting coach and author of Family Centered Parenting, parents need to “factually explain, in age-appropriate language, what the virus is and its impact on children’s health,” he says. “Reassure them that their parents are doing everything to keep them safe and healthy without over-exaggerating that everything is all right.”

From there, Dr. Horowitz encourages parents to “control adult anxiety and model cautious, but not extreme, safety behaviors.” Your children are likely to be just as scared about all the known unknowns of the virus as you are, so regular check-ins should be a must. “Hold frequent family meetings to allow children to voice their fears and to discuss and create family rules and routines for safe practices.”

Home School Tips on Structure (and Flexibility)

In many cases, parents should simply be supporting the efforts of their child’s teachers. “If a child is staying connected with the public school during their time at home, the parent just needs to follow the school’s plan with regards to lessons and schoolwork,” says Mary Ann Kelley, founder of TheHomeSchoolMom.com, one of the oldest and most popular homeschooling websites.

If you feel the need to devise your own lesson plans, or just figure out what kids should do hour to hour, parents might not know where to start. “Parents in charge of setting up schedules for periods of schooling at home may wonder what a typical homeschool day looks like. The truth is that it varies from family to family, and the order in which the work is done is less important than the environment and method of implementing the schedule,” says Kelley.

While it’s a good idea to have some kind of structure, you can and should cater to what works best for your family. “Active kids may focus best if they are allowed to move while working. Some kids are most engaged when they are listening to music through headphones,” she says. “The optimum homeschool schedule is the one that keeps an individual child with his or her unique needs engaged.”

Kelley suggests planning work “in short snippets of time,” and change locations in the house or outdoors “to avoid boredom.” Make sure your kids get some physical activity in to substitute for missed PE classes; she has a list of homeschool exercise resources here.

Great Educational Websites

Home schoolers have been at this game a long time, and there are plenty of educational websites that serve as great teaching resources.

“Many profit-based learning companies are offering their resources for free during this time,” says Kelley. “We have a still-growing list of 50+ free educational resources that parents can use from all around the world. The online resources on the list include everything from a free ebook download made up of tools and ideas to inspire creative play to online science lessons to live Facebook broadcasts featuring sharks.”

For example, if you were never the greatest math student but want your kids to keep learning what decimals are, the Palo Alto-based company Happy Numbers is currently offering free online lessons for the rest of the year, which includes immediate feedback, so your students won’t lag behind.

Tend to Your Family’s Mental Health

While children are very resilient, it’s entirely possible your child is terrified by the idea of a virus that, frankly, has already killed thousands of people, and might have already impacted someone they know. If you think they need mental health help, don’t hesitate to act. One excellent resource for families is The Child Mind Institute, a national nonprofit organization, which has a stable of excellent clinical experts and has been hosting Facebook Live chats with clinicians. They have a number of resources for parents, including how to talk to your children about terrifying news and how to manage anxiety. Also, many therapists and counselors offer sessions via Skype, and Psychology Today has a search engine for finding mental health help in your community, if you or your family needs one-on-one time with an expert.

Travel The World From Home

So you’re stuck at home. But if try using your imagination, and the internet, you can still see the world. Laura Davis of the online service College Nannies, Sitters and Tutors recommends that parents keep their children’s minds stimulated by becoming virtual tourists.

“Even without traveling, you can still learn about different countries and cultures. Start out on Day One by having each kid make their own passport, and then learn about a new country each day throughout the week,” she says. “You can watch YouTube videos, check out audiobooks from your library while at home or even try cooking a recipe from that country. For example, if you’re learning about Germany, try making pretzels.”

Great Family Games to Play in Quarantine

There’s no better way to promote family bonding while stimulating your child’s mind than playing a game together as a family. Dr. Lee Scott, Chairwoman and Educational Advisory Board member at the early childhood development program The Goddard School, has some tips for what parents should keep in mind.

As far as puzzles go, “pick out ones that are appropriate for your child’s age and try a new one each day. For older children place a jigsaw puzzle on the table and challenge the family to finish it by the end of the day. Give out prizes at dinner (i.e., one for who finished the edges, who worked on it the longest).”

Board games are great too. “Dust off the ones you have and get playing. Extend the play by making your version of the game and change the rules,” she says. Or consider thinking games such as “I Spy or Charades. Easily done inside or outdoors. Try a new version each day. This allows children to use their imagination and boost brain stimulation.”

Scott also recommends parents “challenge your children to create a work of art or something useful out of the found materials,” she says, such as paper tubes and old boxes. “Teach them resourcefulness.”

Another project could be to work with your children to create “a family Memory Book. Put the smartphone or camera to work. Ask your children to take pictures throughout the day,” she says. “If you have a printer, you can print them out and glue in a journal or use apps and make a slideshow to share at the end of each day after dinner.”

When In Doubt, Read

Finally, as much as technology has changed the way children learn, you can never go wrong with giving your child a book and telling them to read, the way your parents (hopefully) did.

Brett Murphy Hunt teaches in the MBA program at Assumption College, as well as the CPS English Department at Northeastern University and is the owner of Brett E. Murphy Tutoring & Consulting, in Massachusetts. She says that “as a tutor for K-12 students and a college lecturer, the single most widespread issue facing students today is a lack of attention span. As such, this forced period of social distancing presents a rare time for students to practice a skill that is woefully lacking: reading. Calm, plain-old reading.”

Kids can benefit from all kinds of reading (short stories, graphic novels, magazines about sports or fashion, etc.), but right now may be a particularly good time for children (and adults) to crack open a great big book. “Whether from a tablet or a physical book, circling back to basics and refining the ability to read something long for a significant period of time will serve students through college and beyond,” she says. “It may take a little more patience to set kids up, but it will pay dividends for their education.”

If you need a book, you can probably borrow digital copies of thousands of books with your local library card account, or sign up for a free Hoopla account and check out books to your tablet or e-reader.

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