But last week his once-packed schedule suddenly became empty. His SAT, scheduled for last Saturday, was canceled and not available for rescheduling. His baseball season was postponed indefinitely. And on Friday, San Mateo County ordered all schools — including Woodside High School, where he attends — to be closed for at least three weeks. In the wake of all of this news, he says he slept for more than 15 hours Saturday night, likely a result of emotional and physical exhaustion.
As schools began canceling classes and activities because of concerns around the novel coronavirus, students around the country suddenly had a whole lot more time. No more commuting to school for early-morning classes or starting homework after a full slate of after-school activities. Their once overscheduled lives unexpectedly ground to a halt, and, while jarring, the break may be a good thing.
“I can sleep in, which is really great,” says Dahlia Lane, a sixth-grader from Brooklyn, whose school is closed at least through April 20. “I’ve had more time to watch cooking tutorials on YouTube, which I’ve loved, and I made cookies and cornbread yesterday."
Dahlia’s “maker” attitude is a great way to redirect time and energy, but many adults trying to navigate this new reality are a little out of sorts. It can be even more overwhelming for kids who are accustomed to a fairly rigid routine.
The example we set as adults matters. How can we treat this time not as a waiting room and instead as an opportunity for solitude, rest, reflection and creative exploration? I asked students and parents around the country how they are working through their newly empty calendars. Here are a few strategies to help you navigate the uncertainty.
Encourage sleep and rest. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, elementary school students need between nine and 12 hours of sleep daily, and middle school and high school students are encouraged to get between eight and 10 hours of sleep. But the reality is that many students struggle to get the recommended amounts during the school year. These days, our kids may be emotionally and physically exhausted from the recent upheaval and the upcoming uncertainty, so allowing extra time for rest and encouraging the use of a meditation app such as Calm or Ten Percent Happier can help them cope with anxiety and regroup from disappointment.
Acknowledge and validate the disappointment. “Obviously it was very upsetting when we found out the rest of the semester was canceled,” says Jordan O’Hare Gibson, a freshman at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who came home to Lexington, Mass., for spring break knowing he will complete the rest of the school year online. “I was enjoying my time.”
All the students with whom I spoke acknowledged their fortune relative to others who might be more vulnerable to the coronavirus, and several mentioned concerns about grandparents and other elderly relatives. But at the same time, students who were looking forward to being with friends at school, playing with teammates and performing in long-planned musicals are having to reset expectations after a lot of anticipation and hard work. Allowing them time to process and commiserate also gives them an opportunity to work through the disappointment. Often, they don’t want solutions, they simply want acknowledgment.
Collaborate to create a relaxed, flexible schedule. Routines and structure can alleviate anxiety, but unless a teen or young adult is willingly getting up at 6:30 or 7 a.m., it is probably not necessary right now. Allow for a few days of pajama-wearing, Netflix-bingeing and video game-playing. Students who have to complete schoolwork online will benefit from help establishing a schedule with daily blocks of time for schoolwork, movement and rest.
Within those blocks, break assignments and projects down as appropriate. Perhaps getting work done in the late morning is ideal, followed by movement and then downtime later in the afternoon. Do what works for your child. Students who have to get work done within a set schedule (attending live-streaming lectures at a certain time, for example) should build their schedule around that.
Use social media and technology for connection, and avoid information overload. Max Sternberg, a 20-year-old from Kentfield, Calif., and a sophomore on the swim team at Denison University, is home weeks before his swim team was supposed to participate in the now-canceled NCAA Division III swim championships. He plans to keep in touch with college friends through FaceTime, Skype and texting. Middle schoolers and high schoolers also will benefit from regular opportunities to feel connected, especially when they may feel otherwise isolated. Virtual check-ins with friends can be critical at an age when socialization feels developmentally paramount.
One caveat: Social media that feels draining or toxic should be avoided, and the 24/7 news cycle can potentially ramp up anxiety. Stay appropriately informed and use this pandemic as an opportunity to discuss social policy and current events, but create a cap or block it if it’s making you feel overwhelmed or anxious.
Use creative pursuits to relieve stress. Ethan Shaw, a high school senior from Long Grove, Ill., typically juggles daily schoolwork with late-evening a cappella group practice and private voice lessons, along with several hours a week practicing with his sports team. At first, he was a bit overwhelmed by the extra time, but he realized he would finally have time to take online ukulele classes. Dahlia Lane says she is writing a new song.
During a typical school year, many of my students say they don’t have time to read for pleasure, or to write, pursue a personal interest or hobby, play board games, or try something new. Have them use some of this downtime to reflect and reevaluate how they spent time before and think about what they might want to explore or learn more about.
Participate in functional exercise. Being outdoors can relieve stress, and taking time to move every day, either inside or outside, is key. Ethan Sternberg, a sophomore at Emory University and twin brother to Max, says that returning home and finishing the semester in Marin County, Calif., has a silver lining: He plans to spend time mountain biking and taking hikes with his family, including younger brother, Charlie, a high school senior.
If you can’t get outside, look for an online class to help you get moving. And simple things, such as walking the dog, shooting hoops or running on a nearby trail can help relieve stress as well.
Ana Homayoun is an author of three books, including “Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World.” Learn more about her at anahomayoun.com or follow her on Twitter at @anahomayoun.