A Calendar, a Plan and Friends Can Make Unexpected School Closures Rewarding and Productive for Your Kids

Mar 12, 2020 12:00:00 AM


This piece was originally published on November 12, 2019. It has been updated in light of the recent response to COVID-19.

Although only a handful of schools and districts have so far closed in the U.S. due to COVID-19, other countries—like Ireland and El Salvador—have closed their entire national school systems in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. If more states and districts here take that step, how can parents manage?

Recently, Gil Gibori, founder of The House Tutoring Lounge in metro Chicago, offered some advice to parents suddenly finding themselves having to manage their children’s schedules and learning in ways they didn’t expect.

Recently, Gibori spoke with Education Post about how parents can handle unexpected time off from school. As of today, 2100 U.S. schools have closed or are scheduled to close, affecting more than 1.3 million students, and parents around the country are increasingly finding themselves suddenly managing their children’s care and learning in ways they didn’t expect.

“I find myself gearing my company to these questions I have as a parent,” Gibori says. While The House brings together a cadre of expert tutors, even parents without support like that at their fingertips can help their students find resources to make unexpected time off school more productive than they might have imagined. 

Balance Extra Shuteye with Structure

Gibori notes that most U.S. kids–especially teens–are sleep-deprived. “Let your kids sleep, but not go crazy,” he advises. “An extra hour or so is OK, but if they’re waking up at 11 a.m., you want to walk that back.” 

Once the novelty wears off, it’s time to move beyond binge-watching favorite shows into a relaxed version of normal routine.

Just like adults who work from home, kids should get up, get breakfast and get dressed rather than lounge in PJ’s all day. When planning a schedule, ask yourself: Are your kids old enough to manage independently all day? Can you work a half day and supervise them more closely the other half to ensure they learn and stay productive?

 “I have kids in elementary school,” Gibori says. “I can tell them they have to read, but they won’t read for more than half an hour a day.” 

For kids that age, playdates and time with friends would ideally take up a fair amount of the time usually spent in school. 

For middle and high schoolers, you can break the day into chunks. Here’s how to get homework done, he says: smart scheduling. As he puts it, “You want outcome…reward.” 

For example, you and your older child can create a two to three-hour block of time and set an outcome like read three chapters, or complete a college essay draft. While they do their work, you can do yours. “The goal is for you to have free time to work,” he acknowledges.

What happens when parents and teens butt heads over scheduling time to do homework? 

“To get out of the struggle, you’ve got to make it their time, their space,” Gibori advises. He suggests sending them to the library or a cafe, ideally with friends who are also setting a goal and want to work in the same period of time. “Fill that space with friends.” Once they complete their goal, they can socialize with friends.

Gibori recommends a defined lunchtime that includes socializing. Teens can go out to the library in the morning and bring friends home for lunch, or work at home first thing and then meet friends for a social lunch outside the house. 

In the afternoon, it could be time for art, music, physical activity or home organizing. If unexpected downtime gives your teen a chance to tackle a messy room, approach it with tact, Gibori advises. 

“Don’t make it the 1950s vocabulary: Clean your room!” he warns. Instead, try asking, “How can we better organize your space?”

Give Tweens and Teens Autonomy Over Their Learning

While Gibori insists his experience focuses on kids in grades 6-12, as a father of four, he has insight into managing younger kids, too. 

For early elementary kids facing multiple days off school due to a teacher strike, he recommends parents decide whether to focus on child care or invest in enrichment activities with trained professionals. 

“If you want an enriching experience for younger children, you need to start with people who know how to teach,” he says.

But by sixth grade and beyond, kids can take more control over their own learning. “If your kids are older–middle and high school–the whole world opens up for them,” he observes. “If you want it to be productive, you’ve got to get out of the way.”

This may seem counterintuitive to parents (like me) who are used to nagging reluctant kids into doing chores, homework, etc. But an unexpected time like this can be an opportunity to break out of those patterns.

And, at whatever hour the regular school day ends, so do your efforts to inspire productivity. 

“Whatever time school is over, let them have their routine,” he says. To the extent possible, let them spend time just as they would after school on a school day. 

But with school-based extracurriculars off the table, late afternoon and early evening can also become bonus family time. 

“Take a walk. Have dinner at home. Watch TV together,” Gibori suggests. 

When The Lounge opened, one parent teared up when she and her daughter could enjoy each other’s time in the evening. With her daughter’s homework out of the way, they gave each other makeovers.

Whatever Structure You Create, Put It in Writing

Kids of all ages thrive on daily and weekly structure. And the younger kids are, the more they need to know what’s coming, Gibori observes. “The thing your kids get most from school is structure. They rely on it.”

When facing an uncertain end to surprise time off, Gibori advises, “Work out your coverage schedule for the week.” 

Use this week’s schedule and activities to create next week’s Plan B schedule if the disruption continues. 

I talked with Gibori about parents I know who juggled caregivers and planned who was in charge hour-by-hour during the Chicago teachers strike. To the extent possible, Gibori warns against that. 

“The younger kids are, the shorter their sense of time, meaning, they can’t conceptualize far into the future. It’s like they’re walking into a dark room. The older they get, the farther in the light goes.”

To help your kids, especially if they are younger, write out their weekly calendar and post it where it’s easy to see. 

“[pullquote]Keep them sharp, keep them on a schedule and make sure they know what to expect every day[/pullquote],” Gibori advises. “If you’re working with spouses or grandparents, have a shared calendar for the time. Whoever’s caring for your kids, get them all on the same page.”

For older kids, more than a day or two off from school might be time to look for short-term volunteer opportunities. “If you pick the right place, there’s no way they aren’t coming home feeling at least a little bit good,” he says.

Every Minute Off the Couch Is a Win

While setting realistic expectations for your kids, make sure to treat yourself kindly, too. 

“All great plans get disrupted,” Gibori says. “We all want to be 100% proactive, and it’s usually 10%–20% if you’re really good at this.”

But as long as you put in the effort to help them “stay off the couch,” it’s a win, he points out. 

“It doesn’t have to be a high pressure week…just keep them productive, keep their brains going.”

And when school is back in session, your kids will make the transition much easier than if they spent that time staying up all night playing video games. That’s the key to surviving unexpected days off.

“At the end of the day teachers and students will have to come back,” says Gibori. “Everyone will have to kick back into gear.”

An original version of this piece appeared on Chicago Unheard as "A Parent’s Guide to Surviving the Strike."
Photo courtesy of Gil Gibori.

Maureen Kelleher

Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Director at Future Ed. She was formerly Editorial Partner at Ed Post and is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to magazine covering Chicago’s public schools. There, her reporting won awards from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the International Reading Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

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