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Not Your Typical Back-to-School:
Tips for Supporting Children and Parents

It’s back-to-school time, but for many families, it may not feel like it. In place of the usual trip to buy school supplies and new sneakers, parents are spending time processing what school will look like—in-person or virtual—and how they will adapt their work and personal lives. This blog focuses on how parents can start the school year with a plan and shares ways employers can best support their working parents.

Parents: Make a Plan for Children.

Whether you’re facing a fall of virtual or even hybrid learning for your children, it’s critical to have a game plan before the school year starts. This won’t only help set a schedule, but it could also support the well-being of both you and your children. A good plan will factor in what we know about children and their attention spans, need for physical activity, and social and emotional growth.

Re-establish routines.

Children need structure to feel safe and secure, so if the summer threw the typical routine off, it’s time to get back on track. This includes a regular bedtime, mealtimes, playtime, and other consistent habits. A good sleep routine is especially important so that children get the rest they need to grow and process all the information they learn throughout the day. Consider writing the daily schedule on a whiteboard to set expectations for how the day will flow, similar to what they might see in the classroom.

Engineer a mental shift to get into the “school zone.”

Once school starts again, getting dressed and having a consistent spot for schoolwork—even if it’s the kitchen table—can be a helpful mental shift that allows your child to get into the school zone. A friend of mine would “leave” with her kids for school out the back door and walk “in” to school through the front door each morning. You can also use a favorite jacket, pair of shoes, backpack, water bottle, or really anything that creates an association with school time.

Make time for exercise and play.

Taking the time to go outside to play together creates positive memories, provides a change of scenery, and burns off some energy. If the weather is bad or you live in an area where getting outside isn’t easy, try turning on some music and having a 10-minute dance party.

Schedule social time.

Playdates may be more difficult, and many kids are missing their friends and struggling to feel connected. Schedule times when kids can socialize so they still feel that sense of companionship. Video chats with friends and family members are a great way to help them stay in touch with their loved ones. Instead of letting it be a free chat, try playing a card game, board game you both have, or even take turns telling jokes.

Try something new.

Once a week, do something new together. Planning new activities can help give your children—and yourself—something to look forward to and get excited about each week. It could be a new recipe or fun dessert, a new game, a different book to read—really anything that mixes it up. This might also be the time to take advantage of virtual extra-curricular activities you just couldn’t fit in before, such as dance, art, music, or even cooking classes.

Reward good behavior.

If your child is in elementary school, you could keep a prize box and let them earn points toward choosing a prize. This is a common practice in many elementary school classes and creates positive reinforcement for the behaviors you’d like to see.

Don’t forget about teens.

Teens will mostly be able to navigate virtual school on their own, but it’s still important to check in. Some may be feeling anxiety about the virus and the constant news cycle, or struggling to keep pace with online assignments. Others may be mourning the loss of typical teenage activities like football games and dances. If you’re comfortable, your teen might be able to engage in safe, socially distant activities like a hike or picnic. The best thing to do is to check in regularly, asking, “How are you doing?” Many health plans are waiving copays for mental health visits, so if warranted, teens may benefit from professional help during this time.

Check in with yourself, too.

All these tips can help remind us to support our own well-being, as well. As you plan your children’s schedule, make sure you’re also making time to care for your own mental health, physical health, social health, and other wellness needs.

Employers: Make a Plan for Employees

In the face of unprecedented disruption to normal work routines, now is the time for employers to challenge what works and what doesn’t. We’ve all been working under conditions that we would have thought previously impossible, yet here we are getting the work done.

Allow flexible work hours during the day.

Many working parents are splitting the day with their partner or other caregivers, and need options that allow them to be there for their kids and also get their work done. Others need to work when they are most productive—which might mean early morning hours or late at night.

Adjust work hours or full workdays.

Some parents are forming “pods” with 3-4 kids that will take turns rotating through the homes like a childcare co-op. If this is something that shows up in your employee group, you may need to allow for adjustments to work hours or even full workdays, if possible.

Communicate leave options.

For some employees, flexing hours just won’t cut it, and they may decide to take leave. Make sure employees know their options about federal leave programs, state-level leave, company personal time leave policies, and at the very least, paid time off choices. Post this information to chat, email, and intranet sites. Take the burden off your employees to find these programs and actively let them know what’s available.

Remind employees about mental health services.

This isn’t easy on anyone, so send regular reminders through chat, email, town hall meetings, and other communication channels about the Employee Assistance Plan (EAP) and any mental health services available through the company. Many of these programs are offering COVID-19-specific services as well.

Find ways to incorporate kids into the workplace.

Before the pandemic, a kid interrupting a work call was a big no-no. Fortunately, this has changed in most work circles where the occasional kid interruption is no big deal. But it could be helpful to intentionally include children in work, taking the stress off employees who are overwhelmed by the merging of work and life responsibilities. Some ideas include:

  • “Bring your kid to the video” work meetings.
  • Summer photo contest where employees and their families submit photos of them out and about in company swag.
  • A virtual art gallery that highlights art submitted by the employee or their family members. We recently did this at WebMD Health Services and had a wide variety of amazing submissions. We organized a virtual museum tour to showcase all the submissions over the course of a month. It was a wonderful way to create a family-inclusive event.

Being a working parent has never been easy, but adding a pandemic and working from home with kids—that’s extra-hard. With good structure and creativity on the part of parents, and flexibility and support from employers, we can get through this. Employees will eventually remember less about the day-to-day during this time, but never forget how much their employer supported their flexibility and family needs.

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