Ask the Expert

Dr. Amanda Gulsrud

Dr. Amanda Gulsrud answers a few of your questions and shares some tips about how to handle COVID-19 topics with your child.

Question: How can I talk about COVID-19 with my child without increasing their anxiety?

Answer: The best way to talk to your child about COVID-19 without increasing anxiety is to use language that is easy to understand and focus the conversation on the ways that your family can stay safe. You might start by briefly explaining that there is a new sickness called Coronavirus and it’s making a lot of people sick right now. Then focus the conversation on all the ways that your family can stay safe and avoid getting sick. You can talk about wearing a mask when you’re around other people to stay safe, staying 6 feet apart from other people, and washing your hands regularly. Ultimately, it’s important to use calm language and emphasize all the ways that the family can stay safe to help an anxious child feel a sense of control and not feel overwhelmed.

Question: What should I tell my children if their school or extracurricular activity has been shut down or switched to a remote format?

Answer: Start by explaining a little bit about coronavirus to your child in simple and calm terms. For example, you might say “Right now, there is a new kind of sickness called the Coronavirus. The germs of this virus are making a lot of people sick. If you catch these germs, you could get sick too.” Then explain that their school (or whoever runs their extracurricular activity) is just trying to keep them safe. You can say something like “The best way to make sure that we don’t get sick is to make sure we aren’t around too many people. There are too many people in the building at school and we don’t want to spread the Coronavirus germs. The safest thing to do is stay at home and do our schoolwork from home.” Most importantly, remind them this isn’t forever – they'll be able to go back to school or their extracurricular activity once coronavirus stops making so many people sick.

Question: What are some tips for building a semi-consistent schedule/routine in these ever-changing times?

Answer: As schools begin to re-open and we transition to in-person or hybrid learning, it is important to help keep your children’s routine as consistent as possible. It’s good to try to keep the same general pattern throughout the week, whether your child is learning from home or in-person. Using a visual schedule is a good way to keep your child on track and focused with schoolwork and activities. Have them wake up at the same time every day and schedule schoolwork, family activities, and free time into their day. You can also use visual aids to help break down daily routines into steps or to cue your child to a change in their schedule. Breaking the schedule down step-by-step can make it easier to understand and stick to throughout the day.

Question: How can parents ensure their children are attending their remote classes while also managing other children, job responsibilities, etc.?

Answer: There are some general strategies to help your child be more focused in their classes while learning from home. Creating a clean, clutter-free workspace for your child can help keep them focused and productive. Checklists can help you and your child keep track of their work and manage their time. Additionally, scheduling in breaks for your child to move and stretch their body throughout the day can help the child focus more easily when in class. Adequate sleep and food are also essential for your child to be able to concentrate. Try to set a bedtime that allows for 8-10 hours of sleep per night, and make sure they have something to eat before class.

Some children will still get distracted on their computers. There are some great, free ways to block distracting websites and apps on the computer. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Stay Focused: A Google Chrome extension that blocks websites according to the time limits, time periods, and blacklists that you set.
  • Cold Turkey: A desktop app that allows you to block websites and applications for specific hours, days, or periods or your choice.
  • Mindful Browsing: A Google Chrome extension that gives you custom prompts to remind you to use your time more wisely when on sites that decrease your productivity (social media, games, etc.).

Question: Should I allow my child to have more screen time while learning remotely? How can parents help manage screen time while learning from home?

Answer: Ultimately the amount of screen time a child receives is up to each parent and what they feel is best for their child and family overall. However, since learning from home means that children spend most of their days on the computer, it is helpful to limit time on screens when you can. I suggest that families schedule outdoor and family activities after school. For example, replace a child’s video game time with a trip to the park or doing a puzzle/playing board games as a family. This will help get your child off the computer and help keep them physically active! There are also some apps that can help reduce the time children spend on their phones throughout the day. The app Forest can help kids (and parents) quit their phone addiction – you get credits for not using your cell phone and then those credits are used to plant real trees all around the world. The app Moment is a more traditional way of managing screen time – it tracks how much time you spend on your phone daily and you can set limits for being on the device. When you go over the limit, you can choose to either be notified or forced off the phone.

Question: What advice do you have for trainees entering this field?

Answer: One of the exciting areas of autism research is the number of amazing trainees involved in our center. Our field is interdisciplinary, and trainees have the opportunity to learn from many different fields that address issues related to autism. Our center provides opportunities to learn from the world’s experts in autism research, as well as to engage in the many clinical opportunities at UCLA and in the community. I would encourage trainees to take advantage of these opportunities!

Question: How important is it for parents and children to aim for a consistent daily schedule?

Answer: A consistent daily schedule is very helpful in keeping a child on track and focused while learning from home. Knowing what to expect from the day and the order of their routine can help your child feel in control and minimize distractions throughout the day. However, it is also important to remember that it’s okay not to be perfect! Remember that as parents, your routines have also been turned upside-down. A consistent daily schedule is something to strive for, but some days it just isn’t possible. Try to keep things in perspective and remember that you’re doing the best that you can.

Question: What are some tips for preparing my child for going back to school in-person?

Answer: Have an open conversation with your child to help them prepare to go back to school in-person. Talk with them about distance learning, which parts worked for them and which parts were hard. You can then talk to them about what going back to school in-person will be like. Ask them what they want to learn, what they’re excited for, and what they’re nervous for. You should also talk to them about the things that might be different when they return to school. For example, talk about how kids will need to wear masks in class or how the desks might be farther apart than they remember. Prepare them for the “new normal” and what that schedule will look like. You can use visual schedules and step-by-step guides to help prepare them for what their routine will look like when they return to school.

Dr. Amanda Gulsrud is HS Associate Professor in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in autism and the development of early interventions. She is the clinical director of the multidisciplinary UCLA Child and Adult Neurodevelopmental Clinic, which focuses on the evaluation and treatment of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) across the lifespan. Dr. Gulsrud’s primary research and clinical efforts focus on the early identification and treatment of infants and toddlers with ASD and related neurodevelopmental disorders utilizing the JASPER intervention, a naturalistic developmental behavioral approach developed at UCLA.