While the COVID-19 pandemic’s “new normal” is fraught with challenges to everyone’s physical and emotional well-being, families of school-aged children are particularly hard-pressed to navigate those challenges as their students return to school online.
Joelle Wysoski, a pediatric nurse practitioner with Cigna Medical Group, said via telephone Wednesday, Aug. 19 that parents of her patients at Cigna’s Westridge Health Center in Phoenix ask her daily how they can help their children remain healthy through challenges that include extended time at home, limited face-to-face interaction with people outside their immediate families and long hours at the computer for remote learning until it’s safe to return to the physical classroom.
Ms. Wysoski shared the following advice:
Keep children up to date on vaccines, including flu shots. “This year, the flu shot will be more important than ever,” Ms. Wysoski said, recommending that families schedule their flu shots as soon as they become available, which should be in mid-September.
Families that are uninsured or whose insurance plans don’t cover vaccines do not have to go without, she said.
Children 18 and younger qualify for free vaccinations under the federal Vaccines for Children Program if they meet any one of the following criteria: They are Medicaid-eligible, uninsured, underinsured, an American Indian or an Alaska native, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services website.
For more information on immunizations and Arizona’s VFC program, visit azdhs.gov and pull down the Topics menu to Immunizations, then click the Vaccines for Children tab.
Don’t skip your child’s annual well-check visit. “Well-check visits are down right now,” Ms. Wysoski said. “These well-checks are so important.”
Well-check visits generally include a physical exam and discussion of the child’s general health, development and behavior. If tests are needed, they can be ordered during the visit, and if a child needs vaccinations, they can be administered or scheduled. The annual visit is a great time for parents to ask questions, Ms. Wysoski said.
Establish a routine to create a predictable pattern and maintain structure. “It’s most important right now, especially with online schooling,” Ms. Wysoski said of making a routine and sticking to it. She recommends that families do what they would normally do if everyone was leaving the house for work or school every morning. “Get up at the usual time, get dressed,” she said. “After finishing school, shut off the computer, shut off the electronics for a couple of hours.”
Making sure children follow a routine “will help them learn better, and stay mentally healthy,” Ms. Wysoski said.
Maintain a regular bedtime. Now that the academic year has begun, making sure everyone gets enough sleep is critical for navigating the challenges of new ways of teaching and learning, Ms. Wysoski said. The American Academy of Pedriatics recommends that children ages 6 to 12 get between nine and 12 hours of sleep each night, and children ages 13 to 18 get between eight and 10 hours each night, she said.
Make sure everyone gets enough physical activity each day. Ms. Wysoski said she recommends that children engage in at least an hour of physical activity each day.
“In Arizona, it’s really challenging this time of year,” she said, recommending walking, hiking or playing basketball and other games early in the morning before it gets too hot.
“Many patients use their lunch breaks to eat and exercise,” Ms. Wysoski said, noting that her families who have pools often swim at lunch. Those whose schools give breaks during the day can use that time to walk around the house, go up and down stairs, dance or do things like jumping jacks and stretching exercises.
Minimize distractions during the school day. “Set up an area for school work only” if possible, and use headphones if needed to help drown out noise from other family members who may not be on the same schedule, Ms. Wysoski advised. “Once they’re done with school, have them leave that area.”
If it’s possible to keep school work spaces out of children’s bedrooms, it’s best to do so, she said. If not, she recommends setting up a work space in a corner of the bedroom and having the child leave it when they’re done with school for the day.
No one in the family should work from their bed, Ms. Wysoski added, noting that the bed should be associated with sleeping or rest only.
Monitor screen time to help create a meaningful balance for learning and social connection. “It’s very challenging with online schooling,” Ms. Wysoski said, noting the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting a child’s recreational screen time to two hours a day.
While social interaction with family and friends through social media and video chats is important, Ms. Wysoski said parents should keep in mind the amount of time children are online for school, and make sure they take a break from their computers before jumping back online after class is over.
She also advises limiting online activity during the weekend.
“That’s our time to really shut down,” she said. “Hike, spend time with family.”
For those who choose to spend time with others outside their immediate family, Ms. Wysoski recommends following COVID-19 safety measures including social distancing, wearing masks, and frequently washing or sanitizing hands.
Prepare healthy meals together. “It’s a great way to stay connected and healthy,” Ms. Wysoski said.
Meals don’t have to be elaborate, and there are ways for every member of the family to participate, she said. Younger children can help pour ingredients into a bowl and stir them, while older children can prepare ingredients and even cook. The whole family can discuss menus and prepare shopping lists.
Maintaining a stash of healthy snacks is important, too, Ms. Wysoski advised.
“I know when you’re just down the hall, it’s easy to snack all day long. Limit junk food, and have fruits and vegetables on hand,” she said. Ms. Wysoski also advises parents to limit the number of sodas, teas and sugary drinks children consume, and ensure they drink plenty of water, especially when it’s so hot.
Connect and talk with your children daily; ask how they are doing and what’s on their mind. “Right now, mental health is at the forefront, especially with older kids,” Ms. Wysoski said, noting that talking to children about how they’re feeling can relieve a child’s emotional stress, and foster a good relationship between parent and child.
To make children comfortable talking and sharing feelings, she recommends finding a common interest to break the ice. If it’s music, parents can listen to an artist their child likes and talk about a song with them, or they can share a story from their childhood related to the child’s interest.
Take care of yourself. “It’s probably the most challenging thing for parents,” Ms. Wysoski said. “Take some time for yourself. Even a 30-minute walk at night helps.”
She advised saving difficult conversations about things like finances or childcare for the end of the day when children are asleep, so they don’t become anxious about things they cannot control.
“Children are really cognizant of what’s going on,” she said. “Children pay attention to what we do as much as what we say and will model healthy habits.”
Finally, Ms. Wysoski said parents shouldn’t feel like they must implement all of her recommendations at once, nor should they feel badly if they don’t achieve their parenting goals immediately.
“I typically recommend for parents to start with small changes that are simple and are not too time-consuming,” she said. “Now, more than ever, parents need to give themselves grace in regard to parenting. I tell my patients to do the best they can and to remain hopeful that even small changes can have a very positive impact on their child’s mental and physical health.”
Kelly O’Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or 760-963-1697. For up-to-date local reporting on all things COVID-19, Independent Newsmedia has created a webpage dedicated to coverage of the novel coronavirus: #AZNEWSMEDIA