Occupational Therapist; Real-life Skills Program Manager and Coach
This past March, families were thrown into the world of remote learning, Zoom classrooms, digital assignments and school at home. With little to no time to prepare, teachers and parents alike have worked tirelessly to provide a sense of routine and academic focus, while handling the social and emotional fallout of the COVID19 pandemic. As schools start to wrap up their years and families start to look ahead at what is sure to be a notably unique summer, there is a bit more time to plan, think proactively and chart a positive course for our children.
As summer camps, childcare options, volunteer opportunities, and internships are either cancelled, transitioning to an online format, or significantly limiting capacity, the need for children to manage and plan self-directed activities is becoming more and more apparent. With such an extended period of time ahead of us, let’s highlight some ways that we can create environments that allow our children autonomy while building important skills and leavings lots of room for fun.
Set Firm Boundaries
There is evidence that tells us our children most successfully build and demonstrate their executive function skills when they are allowed freedom and opportunities to make their own choices, within boundaries and limits set by their parents (Schroeder & Kelley, 2010). Consider what aspects of summer life are non-negotiable for your family. This may be a certain limit on hours of screen time per day, a time that all children are expected to be up and out of bed, or chores and expectations that they must meet as a part of the family unit. Make sure that these are clearly communicated and agreed upon by everyone in the home.
Helping children set and work on completing goals can provide a concrete representation of the accomplishments that they have achieved over the summer. There are many ways to organize and format this process, but one consistent theme should be creating goals that are measurable, achievable and specific. Consider the SMART goal format as a template. One way to help children to choose their goals is to have them focus on three categories: personal, family and community. Some examples are:
- Personal Goals – Develop a consistent exercise routine; try out a new form of exercise, such as running, yoga or Pilates; incorporate a mindfulness meditation into a weekly schedule; consistently wake up independently with an alarm; or drink the recommended amount of water per day for their age, etc.
- Goal to Benefit the Family – Cook dinner for the family once a week; commit to weeding a family garden; deep clean one room per week; learn which cleaning supplies are used for the bathroom and for the kitchen; add a new chore each week; or teach a grandparent or family friend how to use a new technology, etc.
- Goal to Benefit the Community – Collect box-tops from all of the food items in the home to give to their school once it’s back in session; take a walk and pick up trash on a road or beach; do a food drive for a local pantry; mow the lawn for a neighbor; or reach out to vulnerable people in the community and ask if they can do anything to help, etc.
Create an Activity Bank
Pediatric Neuropsychologist Dr. Angela Currie of NESCA recently explained why telling kids to simply, “find something to do,” rarely leads to positive results (Currie, 2020). One suggestion that Dr. Currie gives is to create an activity bank or “menu.” It is often difficult to come up with suggestions in the moment when a child mentions that they are bored or feel there is little to do. Take the proactive step of creating a list of activities that your child can go to when they are having a hard time deciding how to fill their time. This makes it easy to prompt them to independently choose something to do. The response, “Why don’t you go take a look at the activities bank and see if there is something that would be a great choice for today?” gives a child a concrete first step. Some families have used creative ways to help children decide between options, such as an activity dice, an activity grab-bag or a personal activity “menu” with specific options for each child.
Encourage Independent Learning
The old adage states that anyone can be an expert at something, if they spend 10,000 hours practicing. Teach this theory to your children and ask them what truly makes them feel excited and curious. What would they like to explore? Children are used to viewing themselves through the lens of a student; however, they rarely make decisions about exactly what they would like to learn. Help your child explore their personal interests and choose something they would like to learn about over the course of the summer. This could look like a 1st grader collecting sea shells at the beach and bringing them home to draw; a 5th grader spending a couple of hours a week researching underwater caves; an 8th grader learning how to keep a sourdough starter alive and bake bread; or a junior in high school doing a deep dive into the current cultural shift developing in the United States. The topic should be completely chosen by the child, with suggestions and support facilitated by their parents.
Currie, A. (2020). Why “find something to do” doesn’t work – Teaching independent play skills during quarantine, NESCA Notes. Retrieved from https://nesca-newton.com/why-find-something-to-do-doesnt-work-teaching-independent-play-skills-during-quarantine/
Schroeder, V. & Kelley, M. (2010) Family environment and parent‐child relationships as related to executive functioning in children, Early Child Development and Care, 180:10, 1285-1298, DOI: 10.1080/03004430902981512
About the Author
Dr. Sophie Bellenis is a Licensed Occupational Therapist in Massachusetts, specializing in educational OT and functional life skills development. Dr. Bellenis joined NESCA in the fall of 2017 to offer community-based skills coaching services as a part of the Real-life Skills Program within NESCA’s Transition Services team. Dr. Bellenis graduated from the MGH Institute of Health Professions with a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy, with a focus on pediatrics and international program evaluation. She is a member of the American Occupational Therapy Association, as well as the World Federation of Occupational Therapists. Having spent years delivering direct services at the elementary, middle school and high school levels, Dr. Bellenis has extensive background with school-based occupational therapy services. She believes that individual sensory needs and visual skills must be taken into account to create comprehensive educational programming.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.