Care and Feeding

Our Preschool Teacher Wants Us to Keep our Kids on Their Regular School Schedule

Do we have to?

A small child writes on notebook paper.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Nattakorn Maneerat/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

My school asked my children, ages 3 and 4, to keep them on the same schedule that they have at school while the school is closed due to COVID-19. How big of a deal is it for us to do that? It’s not easy with two parents working from home.

—Can I Let It Go?

Dear Let It Go,

I feel your pain—this odd period in our history has not been easy for anyone. Not for parents, not for teachers, and most definitely not for kids. I’m not saying it’s not worth it—anything we can do to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is absolutely worth it. But I want you to know that your teacher is asking this knowing full well how hard these times are for you, because they’re hard on all of us.

So, to answer your question: How important is it that your kids keep the same routine? It’s actually surprisingly important—it affects your kids’ most basic functioning. By “keeping the same schedule,” your teacher means that your kids should get up, eat, and go to bed at roughly the same time each day, at a minimum. We recommend this for kids’ basic physical health—they will sleep better if their sleep routine is not disrupted, and that includes what time they settle down and what time they get up. They will eat better if their food schedule is not disrupted. You know this—remember those days back before you had kids when you could sleep in until 11, didn’t have breakfast until 12? Did you eat well on those days, at regular intervals? I’m guessing not. Those little changes throw off a routine, and with kids, routine is the name of the game.

That’s the minimum of what your teachers are asking. As for the other schedule stuff—when to do a craft, when to go outside—no one is asking you to run a preschool program while working from home. That’s not fair to you, and all their teachers know that. My classroom is sending out two to three activities per day parents can try to do. Some are more involved, like a basic science experiment, or an art project, and some are as simple as “go outside with your kids and try to find as many flowers as you can in half an hour” (not today—we’re still waiting for the snow from Sunday to melt!). In a school day, we do easily 12 such activities, but these are not normal school days. Still, if you can spare an hour to do one or two of these activities, the disruption to your kids’ routine will be lessened.

“Why are you harping on routine, Cassy?” you might ask. It’s really quite simple: All of us, especially children, thrive on routine. Every work-from-home guide I see shared on Facebook or Twitter has the same message for adults—try to keep approximately the same eating and sleeping and working schedules as you had before in order to stave off the existential dread. Get out of bed at your normal time and get dressed even if you don’t have any video calls that day, etc. Your kids need the same things, and possibly more. If you let their days fall into an unscheduled chaos, their behavior will likely change to match their environment—that is, chaotic. They will likely fight more with each other; they will likely start “acting out” or “misbehaving” because they don’t understand what’s happening, and at that age, the idea of rules is still forming in their little heads. They are only just learning self-control, and if you stray too far from the routines, you’re asking them to maintain that self-control without offering the scaffolds they’re used to.

Again, it’s not necessarily about recreating their entire school schedule while working from home. That’s unreasonable. But approximating a familiar-ish schedule, especially with respect to eating, sleeping, etc., goes a long way toward maintaining what little normalcy your children can have right now. No one is expecting you to be perfect (see Paragraph 1), but try.

—Ms. Sarnell (preschool special education, New York)

It’s looking more and more like my niece’s high school will be canceling her graduation ceremony. They have already canceled prom and other activities, as they should. She is feeling very down about missing all of these “last” high school activities, and I don’t blame her. Our family would like to do something special for her graduation. It is a big deal, a rite of passage she and many others will be missing. What can we do, not to make up for these events, but to give her something meaningful?

—It’s Not fair

Dear It’s Not Fair,

How disappointing! It is normal for students to grieve canceled events like graduation. You said that you “don’t blame her,” so you probably do not need this particular piece of advice, but the first thing I’d like to say to our general reading audience: Let the kids be sad. Don’t tell them to “look on the bright side” or start sentences with “at least,” as in “at least you don’t have to take finals.” Just listen and be sympathetic.

Since you cannot physically be together, find a way to celebrate her achievements from a distance. The U.S. mail is still operating—everyone could write her a letter or card with a reason they are proud of her, or a special memory from her high school years. The more specific you are, the more meaningful this will be. You could schedule a “Virtual Graduation Party” through Zoom and read these memories aloud to her.

At my graduation party, my mom made a scrapbook about me for guests to look at (in truth, she paid my sister to make the scrapbook—no shame if you do something similar). In many video conferencing apps like Zoom, you can share your screen. Someone could make a Google Slides presentation with pictures of her as part of the celebration.

Thank you for thinking of your niece during this time. While she cannot have the celebration she was expecting, it is important for her family to find a way to honor her accomplishments.

Take care,

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

My daughter turned 5 in September, and she attends a private pre-K program that she attends four days a week from 9 to 1, and one day a week from 9 to 3 (our town does not have a public pre-K program). She is extremely happy at her school and thriving. We were expecting her to attend kindergarten in public school next year.

My husband is a stay-at-home dad, and we also have a younger child with special needs. We were pretty dismayed to learn recently that our public, half-day kindergarten program only runs for two hours and 45 minutes each day. This is so much less school time than she currently has, and we are worried that she will be bored when she is home for so long, especially given the fact that we are a bit limited in what we can do for her given the needs of her younger brother. We also worry that she will lose some of the learning she is gaining right now.

We’d really like to sign her up for full-day kindergarten at a nearby private school, which lasts for six hours each day. However, it costs more than $3,000, and we can’t really afford it. We could probably scrape it together, but it would be a hardship for us.

What are your thoughts on such short kindergarten days? Do you think it would be valuable for us to spend the money for the full-day program?

I really value your advice and look forward to your thoughts.

—Is It Worth It?

Dear Is It Worth It?

That’s definitely a tricky situation. I am often reluctant to advise folks to put their families into financial hardship unless it’s absolutely necessary for the child’s development. Unfortunately, this seems like it could be one of those cases. In Washington state, we enjoy all-day kindergarten for every public school student, though families are not legally required to send their child to school until they are 8. That said, as a second grade teacher, I can really tell if a child has had a robust kindergarten experience or not.

And to be honest, it makes a big difference not only academically but developmentally. For example, kids who attend all-day kindergarten build academic stamina much earlier, which pays off exceptionally well as they move into first and even second grade. If a child is able to maintain their focus for longer, they’ll process and retain information more easily. Children who had all-day kindergarten also often come in knowing many more high-frequency words, which often translates to higher reading levels at this age.

Your daughter seems to have had a pretty rigorous preschool experience, so I do think she would ultimately be OK in the half-day program. That said, given your situation at home, and the probable benefits she’d reap from a full-day program, I would take a serious look at your finances and see if the all-day program is something you could realistically afford.

—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)

My daughter is in second grade, but she reads at a fourth grade reading level. She willingly devours chapter books and reads about 40 minutes a day. The reading specialist at her old school last year said my daughter could easily read any book I felt she was mature enough for.

Our new school this year uses a program where students read 18 pre-selected books per reading level and then answer questions about those books. They’ve set the whole class at the same reading level, which is a reading level she was at last November, and she’s getting increasingly frustrated as the year goes on. Can we just not do it? Why would I have my kid slog through these books on a computer instead of just going to the library for a few new books every week? How do you suggest I handle this?

—Voracious Reader

Dear Voracious,

You have every right to expect that your child will be taught at her instruction level. In education lingo, this is known as your child’s “zone of proximal learning,” meaning that in order for progress to be made, your child must be working with material that is slightly above her current level, otherwise she will be spinning her wheels.

For that reason, your child’s teacher should be regularly assessing your child’s reading level to determine that proper zone and differentiating instruction when needed. You should ask the teacher when she last assessed your daughter’s reading level, what assessment or assessments were used to determine it, and what her reading level is. This will typically be a number or letter that corresponds to a grade level. This information should give you a good sense of what your child should be reading.

While I don’t doubt that your child can read material well above her reading level, I will add that students can often read text well and even comprehend its meaning, but they may not be able to do some of the other, more complex skills required of students. Comprehension involves not only understanding and retelling the story but also manipulating the information for a variety of purposes, responding appropriately to the text, analyzing elements and features of the text, and much more, so there is a chance that your child’s reading level may not be as high as you might think.

But it all starts with ongoing assessment. Find out everything you can about when and how your child is being assessed, and how the material that she is reading in class corresponds to her abilities and reading level. If it turns out what she reads in class doesn’t match her abilities, you’ll need to demand that something be done.

Good luck.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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