Editor’s note: The interviews with parents and children in this story were recorded at Cherokee Park in Louisville on Monday, March 23, one day before playgrounds were ordered closed.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a challenging time for pretty much everyone, especially for families with children. Closures of schools and businesses due to the coronavirus have upended schedules, forced friends and family members apart, and many parents have lost their jobs. And on top of all of it, parents are trying to keep their children engaged in learning.
Psychologist Judith Danovitch has some advice for parents on how to cope.
“The Days Feel Long”
Most schools in Kentucky have been closed for more than a week, and if there was any sense of adventure or novelty in the beginning, it’s starting to wear off.
“It’s not like Christmas break, or spring break or summer break even,” Louisville mom Kristen Hayden said.
She and her 6-year-old daughter Charlee were at Cherokee Park recently. Hayden teaches at Second Presbyterian Weekday School – the same preschool her daughter attends. With school closed, she spends the whole day one-on-one with her daughter, trying to come up with new things to do.
“The days feel long,” Hayden said. “You know it’s like, ‘what can we do next? Alright, what are we gonna do now?’ I’m always trying to come up with ideas. And I’m a preschool teacher! I have lots of ideas!”
This week the sun finally came out, so Hayden brought Charlee to the park for a play date with her friend Elsa. Elsa’s mom, Meredith Beavans helps the girls map out a race course around the picnic area.
“We try to do a lesson in the morning. Thankfully her teacher sent home some paperwork,” Beavans said.
Beavans and her husband both still work. Beavans changed her schedule so she can watch Elsa during the day, and then trade off with her husband so she can work part-time during the evening. It’s going OK, but it’s sometimes hard to get Elsa to focus on school work.
“Once she gets into it she normally does OK. Do you like doing your lessons?,” she asked Elsa.
“No,” Elsa said. “I don’t.”
Structure Is Key
With the huge changes to daily life families are dealing with, psychologists say creating a predictable structure to the day can be a powerful coping mechanism.
“This is important for kids of all ages,” University of Louisville psychology and brain science professor Judith Danovitch said. “It’s important for kids to have a sense their days are going to be predictable and they can know what to expect.”
As much as possible, Danovitch said, try to get up at the same time, eat meals at the same time and plan some kind of educational activity for the same time every day. It’s also important to build in breaks and play time. If children are old enough, Danovitch recommends including them in the process of creating a schedule.
Danovitch said scheduled day promotes learning, and reduces stress and anxiety during a really scary time.
“We might not know on a global scale what’s going to happen,” Danovitch said. “But you can know in your what’s going to happen in your house.”
“Be Kind To Yourself”
Some households are going through more stress than others right now. Bobbi Jo Kingery heads up the PTA for an area in Louisville’s South End. She said many parents she’s in touch with have lost jobs because of business closures. Others have lost work because of school and child care center closings.
“A lot of people are having to quit their jobs…and be that stay at home parent, because there is no other option,” Kingery said.
Kingery is a stay at-home-mom with a disability that prevents her from being able to work outside the home. Her husband, an electrician, still has work, for now. But they’re worried it might not last. They’re keeping their 13-year-old daughter on a schedule, making sure she spends time doing school work each day. But the stress for Kingery and many in her community is intense.
“Every aspect of life builds in on that stress, on top of you having to teach your child, and be here for your child and reassure your child that everything is going to be OK,” she said. “You have to be the ‘everything’ at this moment. And it’s hard to be that way,” she said.
It is hard. That’s why Danovitch said one of the most important things for parents to do right now, is be kind to themselves.
“Be kind to your child, but also be kind to yourself,” she said. “You’re not going to suddenly turn into a well-trained teacher.”
Even if you are a teacher, she said, you shouldn’t expect to be able to deliver instruction at home under these circumstances in the same way you would at school.
She said parents shouldn’t worry if the schedule they plan doesn’t pan out, or if they struggle to explain a concept.
“It’s not going to be perfect,” she said.
And that’s OK.
You can find resources for families online at kycovid19.ky.gov., and lots of free educational resources at wonderopolis.org You can also call Jefferson County Public Schools for guidance at 3-1-3-HELP.