By Danielle Schultz
Unstructured time can make some children (and adults) feel anxious. Here are tips to help ease stress and anxiety by adding some structure to otherwise unstructured time, whether that’s due to COVID-19 or summer break.
Create a Daily Schedule
Creating a daily schedule can ease children’s anxiety and help them know what to expect each day. It is not too late to create a schedule, even if you haven’t been following one up to this point.
Here are some examples of daily schedules that can be adapted to fit families’ needs:
- “Realistic Daily Schedule During COVID-19” by Busy Toddler
- “How to Keep Your Kid on a Schedule During Coronavirus School Closings,” New York Post
- “At-Home Learning Schedule” by School with Jules
If scheduling to the minute stresses you out, create a list of things you hope to accomplish each day and a rough plan of when you will do them. Even a loose schedule can help children have some predictability in their day. Divide the day into morning tasks/activities, afternoon tasks/activities, and evening tasks/activities. For example, a few tasks and activities you might want to plan in the evening include dinner, bath time, brushing teeth, and storytime.
For children who are too young to read or understand a written schedule, you can create a visual schedule using pictures for each item. There are many free visual schedules available online that you can use to create your own. Here are two visual schedules you can purchase or use as a model:
When following a schedule, be willing to adapt or change it if necessary. Be aware of children’s needs and adjust the day accordingly. If you have to make a change, communicate the change to children so they know what to expect.
Give Children Choices
Giving children choices can help them feel in control, especially in uncertain times. Provide opportunities throughout the day for children to voice their opinions or make a choice. Here are some simple ways to give children choices:
- Allow children to choose which movie the family will watch for movie night. Either give them the choice between two options or have them help come up with a list of suggestions that the family will vote on together.
- Give them choices for meals. For example, ask, “Which fruit would you like to eat with lunch today—apples or grapes?”
- Ask children to assist with meal planning and/or creating a grocery list. Providing input and making choices will give them something to look forward to and may result in less stress at mealtime. For example, you can ask, “Which vegetables should we add to our shopping list this week?” Or say, “I’m planning the meals we will cook this week. Are there any dinners you are craving?”
- Let children pick when certain things will occur in the schedule. For example, “Would you like to get a bath before or after dinner today?”
- Permit children to make choices for personal items like attire, bedding, hairstyles, and so on. For example, “Would you like to wear dinosaur pajamas or striped pajamas tonight?” Or, “Do you want me to fix your hair in a braid or in pigtails?”
When giving choices, limit options to two or three, especially with younger children. Providing too many options or asking open-ended questions can sometimes be overwhelming for kids. The goal in giving choices is to help children feel in control and reduce anxiety.
Take Time to Connect
Throughout the day, plan or schedule opportunities to connect with children. Having some time to connect with you each day allows children the opportunity to ask questions and feel safe. Some ways you can connect during the day include:
- Eating meals together as a family
- Taking a walk together
- Playing a game
- Reading a book together
- Watching a movie as a family
- Gardening together
In addition to the suggestions above, making some time to talk with children is beneficial. Ask open-ended questions that encourage conversation, such as:
- We saw a lot of things on our walk today. What was your favorite thing you saw?
- We did some fun things today. What are you looking forward to doing tomorrow?
- Wow that is a big castle you built! Tell me about it.
We are living during a stressful time with lots of uncertainty. Providing structure, choices, and connection can ease children’s anxiety and help them feel in control.
What tips and strategies are you using?
Danielle Schultz (schcounselor.com) is a middle school counselor in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She enjoys connecting and collaborating with other school counselors and educators. Danielle can be found on Twitter @sch_counselor and Instagram @sch_counselor.
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