5 Ways To Make ‘Zoom School’ Feel More Normal

From making your home into a classroom, to encouraging self care, a psychologist offers her expertise

Whether you’re a caretaker with a young school-aged child or a parent with a high schooler, you may be facing the stress of juggling homeschooling — along with everything else on your plate — right now. Enter Homeschool Hotline, a new series with our friends at Sleep Number

You’re in luck: Experts from the Child Mind Institute are answering your burning questions about how to make sure your kids aren’t missing out on important learning experiences while maintaining a healthy routine for the whole family. Dr. Julia Nunan-Saah, Clinical Neuropsychologist, Child Mind Institute, helps out a Wake-Up Caller who’s had a hard time establishing a school-day routine at home…

Our school days look very different now that we’re all at home. What steps can we take to establish some normalcy?  

School days for our children certainly look a lot different now than they did pre-coronavirus. With many students across the country learning from home, some or all of the time, there are a few ways parents can establish some normalcy.  

Establish a Routine for the School Day

Now more than ever, having a daily schedule is key to supporting children while they are learning from home. We have all heard this repeated more times than we would like during this pandemic, for good reason. Routines help kids feel more stabilized, grounded and in control. Posting the schedule in a visible spot helps kids know what they are supposed to be doing at any given time of day. A sample schedule may include sleep and wake times, meals, school time, homework time, an outdoor or physical activity, and quiet time for things like reading, crafts or puzzles.

When thinking about how to structure your child’s daily schedule, remember to stagger academic time with time for movement, fun and rest. When kids know that they will soon be rewarded with a fun or relaxing activity, it helps them maximize focus and engagement during learning times. Also, think about what each child can realistically accomplish in a day. It may be unreasonable to expect children to engage in a full day of virtual learning like they would in traditional school. Kids often respond better to knowing what they can do versus being told what they can’t do. For example, try giving your child times when they can come to you for help, to chat, or to play, instead of telling your child when they can’t bother you. 

Be flexible and open to adjusting the schedule if your initial approach didn’t work. It can be helpful to work collaboratively with kids and teenagers to develop their routine and add in special activities that they will enjoy. 

Structure the Home for Learning

To help kids get in the mindset of school, it can also be helpful to think about how to structure your home environment school and learning. Ideally, children and teens should have a designated desk area where they do their schoolwork. Make sure their desk is free from clutter and that they have easy access to materials they need for school. It’s helpful if kids work in a room that is relatively free from distractions; if this is not possible, use noise-cancelling headphones to help with focus. 

Encourage Self-Care Through Sleep Hygiene

A common complaint from parents during this time is that their kids’ sleep routines have been disrupted. Because kids are spending less time outside and engaging in fewer physical activities, while also spending more time on their screens, it can be hard for them to get a good night’s sleep. We know that sleep is important for kids to do their best in school and be able to effectively manage emotions. In thinking about a sleep routine, it is helpful for kids to wake up at about the same time on both school nights and non-school nights, to keep naps to 15–20 minutes long (depending on age of your child), to shut off electronic devices 30–60 minutes before bed, and to make sure their physical sleep environment is cool, dark and relaxing. 

DEEPER DIVE: Worried the increase in screen time with virtual learning is impacting your child’s sleep schedule? From gaming and staying connected on social media, to reading on an iPad, or completing homework on the computer, there’s more opportunity and temptation than ever before to spend our time engaging on different devices — all while in bed. Dr. Judith Owens* of Harvard University and the Sleep Number Scientific Advisory Board, says when this happens, the brain confuses the time spent in bed intended for being awake, versus being asleep. The blue light from our TV or computers suppresses the brain’s release of melatonin, a hormone that is instrumental in regulating our sleep patterns, and thus exposure to blue light during evening hours can interfere with our ability to fall asleep. The impact of blue light is most prominent in the evening, and can delay our natural circadian rhythms, making falling asleep more difficult. The cognitive and emotional stimulation that comes with watching videos, gaming, texting, etc. are directly counterproductive to the state of relaxation and calm needed to fall asleep.  It is very important to establish a regular bedtime routine that is calming and relaxing, and at an appropriate time for their child. Parents can help by being good role models regarding their own sleep habits and making sleep a priority in the household.

Emphasize Socialization

Big parts of “normal” school for kids are socialization and social-emotional learning. These opportunities are reduced with learning from home, and so it can be helpful to purposefully include socialization time in kids’ schedules. For example, kids can have virtual lunchtime with a few of their classmates, share/edit/review their work with one another virtually or have virtual homework parties. Kids’ relationships with their teachers are also important. Make sure they know the best way to get in touch with their teachers to ask questions or check in. 

Of course, when families are spending so much time at home, there is also a lot of social contact with other family members (maybe not all pleasant). Even if family members are getting on each other’s nerves, scheduling more purposeful activities for the family can be beneficial. For example, choose a recipe to cook together, take walks, have a board game night, or have dinner together. Building in positive family activities can do a lot to support good relationships among family members by giving kids positive attention and creating an opportunity for family members to be fully present with each other. 

Validate Kids’ Feelings and Promote Coping Skills

As important as it is to establish some sense of normalcy for kids, don’t forget to also make space to discuss the lack of normalcy. Your child might learn about a sick peer or teacher, have to switch mid-year from partial-remote to all-remote learning, or be confused by changing health and safety guidelines. When needed, create a space to actively listen to your child, empathize with and validate their feelings, and help them find productive ways to deal with their concerns.

Dr. Owens is one of the world’s leading authorities on connections between sleep and behavior in children and adolescents. Her work in the field of school start times has changed policies in school districts around the country. Dr. Owens and her colleagues designed the first and now most widely used sleep habits questionnaire for children, which has been translated into over a dozen languages and has been used in over 200 research projects worldwide.

Dr. Julia Nunan-Saah is a clinical neuropsychologist in the Learning and Development Center at the Child Mind Institute. She specializes in the neuropsychological evaluation of children, adolescents, and young adults with a wide range of challenges that affect learning, behavior, and social-emotional functioning.