The Lesson Plan That Kids Need in a Pandemic is “Love + Family”

Images credit: Vanessa Christina Photography

If all my kid learns from social distancing is to be a good person, we’ll be fine.

It’s been quite a season. You know, since I welcomed my daughter six years ago. I’ve totally meant to call you back, to read literature nightly to my child and bake together. It’s just that I’ve been so busy. You know how life is.

That is, we know how life was – until it stopped in its tracks a few days ago.

No more school, no more soccer, no more book club, yoga classes, offices or even church to be at, and no certain timeframe of when this situation will end. Before I was even done with my preparations to ensure our basic needs would be met during this season, I started receiving diagrams and flowcharts intended to help me fill this bizarre increase of time in the home.

As we all felt solidarity in our collective energy to make plans and make some sense of our situation, I wasn’t sure if the micro-organization of our newfound time together (or a collection of work and tasks for children to do at home) was where I wanted to put my attention.

For years, I’ve read social media captions about our collective “much-needed vacations” and “much deserved date nights.” The cost of our generation’s comfortable incomes and braggable accomplishments has continuously seemed to be that we run seriously short on time. Who hasn’t wanted to “get away from it all?”

YOUR OWN DESERT ISLAND (IN THE MIDDLE OF CIVILIZATION)

Here we are – which made me ask myself if our digital lesson plans and streaming classes were popping up everywhere so we could feel better or to just maintain a pace where we didn’t have to feel.

On paper, it’s what we’ve all been asking for: dedicated time to stay home and love our family. It’s just that I’m under a lot of stress. When it comes to living through a quarantine with no definitive end in sight, I’ve never done this before. It’s emotional and intense. The same is true for my husband and certainly my child. I’m not positive that the attention, love and emotional support that I need to give my family and myself during the unfolding of an international crisis can be time-slotted and color-coded.

PsychCentral suggests using clinical psychologist Andrea Bonior, Ph.D.’s questions to assess the choices we make with our time as productive or numbing, “Does your busyness feel like you’re running away from something (versus running toward it)? Do you feel anxious or uncomfortable when there isn’t a task immediately in front of you? When you end up unexpectedly having a few unstructured hours or alone time, do you automatically try to fill it with distractions (such as social media)?”

Our desire to have a plan comes from an intention to help and create stability for our children. Yet all of the workbooks, remote school set ups and transfer of state education requirements onto parents feels more and more like an attempt for us to not have to all pull a seat up to the kitchen table, sit down and ask ourselves the big question of, “Are we ok?”

I want ourselves and our children to feel “normal,” but has normal really served us? We will need structure, but has the amount of structure we’ve lived in (and become used to) been healthy for our children?

In 2015, a national WebMD survey found data pointing to 72% of American children exhibiting negative behaviors linked to stress and 62% exhibiting physical symptoms such as chronic headaches and stomachaches. At the same time, the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey reported findings of high school children stress levels topping adults.

Boston University School of Medicine reported in 2015 that the average American kindergartener does 25 minutes of homework a night on top of a full school day, three times over the recommendation of the National Education Association. The University of Virginia found that time spent on early literacy in Kindergarten has increased 25% since 1998 while time on art, music and physical education has dropped “dramatically.”

LESS STRESS IS BEST

This stress was before children were in the throws of an international crisis and started being kept in the home with parents facing the same uncertainties and confusion for the first time themselves. Life as we know it is changing, for the short term at minimum. The way through (and then forward) will likely include finding completely new ways of running day-to-day life for corporations, social connection and raising our children. As intimidating as this can sound, I’m choosing it as an opportunity to set my boundary around what I will take with me into our new normal from the recent past.

Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier and More Secure Kids author Dr. Kim John Payne first worked in war zones as a child therapist where he learned about the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in children. His work took a turn when he returned home to the safety of the U.K. and discovered children in urban environments of perceived safety exhibiting the same PTSD traits from what he refers to as “the war on childhood.” These include childhood stress in the form of lack of unstructured time and healthy rituals in the home, inability to focus and work through the barrage of media and sensory options and too much focus on achievement in child development.

For social distancing and quarantine arrangements stemming from the Coronavirus, Payne suggests on his online podcasts creating a predictable environment children can relax into. With time merging together, Payne suggests blend your weekday and weekend rhythms so days are mapped out but consistently relaxed and have focus on activities and movement for children. He calls parents to pay attention to mealtime and bedtime rhythms, calling this the “perfect opportunity” to focus on these moments that often fall victim to our commitments outside of the home and are grounding to children (and from personal experience, adults). He also suggests only putting small amounts of any academic work in the mornings with afternoons left open for discovery and play.

Payne explains that these daily certainties of family time, working together prepping meals and choosing calming activities for bedtime tell the nervous system that, despite stories we can form to prove otherwise, the important things in life are going on in an orderly way (and panic and stress are not needed).

With my mental load as a mother only increasing while I try to keep my business going, keep my house clean and running and keep myself breathing through intense change, I’m focusing more on home-cooked meals instead of homework. When I want to tell my child to “just do the worksheet,” I’ll consider the stress I’m feeling myself and then imagine the same storyline as a little, vulnerable person completely dependent on the adults around me for basic needs and emotional support. And we’ll probably go for a walk instead.

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A NEW NORMAL TO THRIVE IN

I very strongly believe my child will learn from this experience whether she completes a single online module or not. I believe this is the moment in history when her rising generation will begin to identify with either fixed or growth mindsets, with storylines of either abundance and love or scarcity and fear. These identities will come from the imprinting of this experience. Was it pressured, uncertain and fearful? Or – somehow – calming, rhythmic and wondrous?

And here’s the good news: a report from the U.K.’s The Sutton Trust noted that the development of life skills – lessons such as financial literacy, cooking and even floral design that aren’t typically integrated into school lesson plans – directly correlate to students achieving “higher attainment outcomes.”

Meanwhile, in CBS News’ article “Over-scheduling Kids May be Detrimental to Their Development,” Yuko Munakata (a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado, Boulder) found data correlating that the more time children spent in structured activity, the less able they were able to use executive functions like planning, problem-solving and regulating thoughts and actions. However, according to an article published by Forbes titled “5 Ways Play is a Critical Factor in the Future of Entrepreneurship”, fewer blocks of structured time and more imaginative play and free time allow children to learn about the world and how it works in a way that fits best with their development.

Fewer places to be and more time to explore may be just what the doctor ordered for our kids, and I don’t want to get in its way.

Education for a while might mean putting the stack of state curriculum to the side and going from our guts. What are the values you want to instill in your children? How are they best modeled and put into action? What childhood book changed your life? What recipe did you love to bake with your grandmother growing up? What do your kids need to know and learn from you? More and more, I’m closing the frustrating math workbook and finally balancing my checkbook, narrating my process as my daughter tucks in next to me.

We’ve put our lives on an assembly line that’s outsourced the schedules, education and development of our children to match our busy pace. If it’s never felt quite right to you, I’m with ya. I encourage you to allow yourself this time to gently take the reins back and step into your authority. We were given these children because we are meant to raise them and are capable of such. You are the grown-up, the educator and the leader your child is looking for to anchor this storm. Don’t let the common core academic model tell you otherwise. And you’ve got this.

This post comes from the TODAY Parenting Team community, where all members are welcome to post and discuss parenting solutions. Learn more and join us! Because we’re all in this together.

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