As with so many families across the country, the coronavirus pandemic has turned my household a bit upside down. As a longtime work-from-home freelance writer, I’d grown accustomed to a quiet house, hours of uninterrupted work time and the freedom to take a break whenever I pleased. But with a moment’s notice, my husband begin working from home and our daughters’ school closed.
Suddenly, we had a full house.
Transitioning to home schooling has been rough. The challenges were many — as I was writing this, I could hear my daughters arguing upstairs — but we’ve found a routine for getting through the day as successfully as we can. If you’re still struggling in the home stretch of this school year, here are some tips to make home schooling easier during the pandemic.
LET THE KIDS MAKE THEIR OWN SCHEDULE
Our third and fourth graders begin each week of distance learning with a calendar of expectations for each subject area. When we first started home schooling, we tried following the suggested schedule — only to be met with resistance and meltdowns from our kids.
So we switched gears: The girls now decide for themselves how their days are structured. Some days, my older daughter tackles math first. On one day, my younger daughter was excited to jump into an art project after breakfast. At 8 and 10, they know what they have to get done each day — but how they do it is up to them.
“The more agency you can give children, the more they’re going to buy into the schedule and the routine, and you can reassess every day or week to see what’s working for everybody,” says veteran home-schooler Joanna Allen Lodin, founder of Fearless Homeschooling, which offers workshops on home schooling in New York City. “But the more they can get invested in having control over their time, within the expectations of the parent and the schoolwork, the easier the day will go.”
We keep it pretty simple and print out each child’s weekly schedule every Monday. The girls set alarms for their virtual live lessons and then move through their days on their own time.
TAKE FREQUENT BREAKS
As a former teacher, I know young kids can’t be expected to pay attention for hours on end. One study found that on-task behavior usually starts declining after 10 minutes of instruction. We allow our girls to take breaks whenever they need them.
“Movement is absolutely essential for focus,” Lodin says. “Some children can sit for long periods of time and be completely focused, while others need to move. It’s just how they learn.”
In fact, children who are more physically active at school perform better in math and reading, according to a Pediatrics study. We “get the wiggles out” in lots of different ways, from impromptu dance parties to 15-minute bike rides around the neighborhood.
We’ve also greatly loosened our restrictions on screen time. With playdates and after-school activities cancelled for the foreseeable future, video chatting and gaming with their friends is how they’re socializing and staying connected to their peers.
“It’s offering them a state of grace,” Lodin says. “These are unusual times, and the message they’re getting from that is that you see how important it is and you respect that.”
BE HONEST WITH THE TEACHERS
Students aren’t the only ones navigating distance learning. Teachers are also in uncharted territory, and trial-and-error seems to be the norm. For example, my fourth grader’s workload feels unusually high — so much so that my daughter has been experiencing significant anxiety around “getting it all done.”
So I had an open conversation with her teacher, who was more than happy to explore ways to reasonably reduce her assignments while still meeting the class expectations. A friend of mine had a similar experience with her second grader.
“Don’t try to re-create school at home — it doesn’t work because we don’t have the same systems, and the expectations are completely different,” Lodin says. “Any flexibility that allows everybody to thrive and be happy is worth trying. And if school is getting in the way of your relationship with your child because of conflict, it’s time to have a conversation with the teacher.”
CREATE BOUNDARIES SO YOU CAN WORK
Some days working from home while also home schooling our kids feels seamless; other days, I’m in tears. The most effective change I’ve made is letting my children know that when I’m working on a deadline, I can’t be interrupted unless it’s an emergency. If they need help with something for school, they put a pin in it and we revisit it together once I’m finished.
Lodin suggests that parents and kids create a signal together. This can be as simple as a sign next to your workspace. When they see it go up, they know they need to tiptoe out because mom or dad is working. This goes hand-in-hand with prioritizing your own mental health.
“Parents control the weather in the house,” Lodin says. “If you start to lose it and get cranky because you’re tired and frustrated, that’s the moment when you need to take five minutes for yourself.”