Working, Studying, and Teaching from Home: Tips for Parents

Balancing work, school, and family life has never been easy. But then along came COVID-19, shuttering schools and workplaces and throwing most families’ lives into chaos. The good news is this isn’t forever: life will go back to normal at some point, schools will reopen, and heading into your office will feel like an absolute luxury. But until then, you have to keep moving forward while trying to study, teach, and work from home. That’s a tall order, but it’s one you can manage with some creativity and planning. Here are some strategizes that might help.

1.   Set House Rules

Whether you’ve got preschoolers or teenagers, sit down as a family to draft a set of ground rules. Ask the kids for input and discuss everything from snacks to screen time. When and where will you and your children work? What supplies are needed? Can older kids help with their younger siblings when adults have meetings or deadlines? How will your children know when it’s ok to interrupt and when you’re busy working? Ask one child write the rules down and another to post them in several locations throughout your home. If your kids are too young to read or write, ask them to decorate the list you create and review the rules with them often. Setting rules and clear expectations won’t eliminate every future squabble or snafu, but it will definitely make things easier.

2.   Create a Family Command Center

Display your family’s schedule in a central location that’s easy for everyone to see. Some families use a white board, others like wall calendars. From sticky notes to dry erase boards on the refrigerator, find a simple system that will function as command central for your entire family. In school, kids know what comes after morning meeting and when to expect a break or snack. Use that same level of structure at home, even if you can’t always stick to it. It will help everyone at home feel better if they’re not always wondering what’s next or who’s doing what.

3.   Post Individual Schedules

From your family calendar, help kids create their own daily schedule. Knowing when they have to sign on for class in the morning and what assignments are due will help everyone in the family feel more in control. Even kids who can’t read benefit from understanding what’s coming next in their day; make simple ordered drawings on sticky notes for younger kids so they have a visual of everything they’ll need to accomplish. Post older kids’ schedules next to their workspace, and make sure everyone can see a schedule of your day as well.

4.   Divide and Conquer

Communication is important, but it’s especially important when you’re trying to shoehorn a bunch of new activities into an already jam-packed day. If you have a partner, make time to talk about your schedules and to-do lists. Record everything, maybe on a spreadsheet or in a notebook dedicated to planning your family’s time. Then decide how you’ll divide and conquer. Can one of you work in the morning while the other handles the kids, switching off after lunch? If large blocks of time don’t feel realistic, try switching parenting duties every hour. If one partner is busiest on Mondays, can you switch off days of the week, with one of you working more over the weekend? Figure out what works best for your family and commit to balancing when and how you get everything done.

If you don’t have a partner, handing duties off to another adult can sound like an impossible luxury. But even if you’re parenting solo, you shouldn’t have to shoulder the entire burden of work, school, and your children’s education. Now’s a great time to show your children exactly how much you do in a day and to ask for their help. Write simple household chores on popsicle sticks and let your kids know they’ll need to complete three per day. Older kids can clean, prepare meals, and take responsibility for their schoolwork. But even younger children can pick up toys, make simple snacks, and feed the family pet. Helping out a busy parent is a great way for children to learn and develop skills they’ll need in adulthood. Brainstorm how your kids can contribute to the family and make those tasks a non-negotiable part of their day.

5.   Don’t Worry Too Much About Screen Time

Most parents worry about how much time their kids spend on phones, tablets, and computers, and rightly so. Study after study shows that too much screen time negatively affects kids’ behavior, learning, and emotional development. However, it’s important to remember we’re learning and working during an unprecedented time. Nothing is ideal right now, including the amount of time your kids have to spend entertaining themselves. So, if you’re usually more structured when it comes to screen limits, now might be a good time to relax your standards a bit. Sometimes, letting your kids watch a little extra YouTube or play Minecraft for an extra hour can make the difference between you meeting an important work deadline or taking an online exam in peace. They won’t stop learning or growing if they’re on your tablet while you’re talking to your boss or watching a movie while you get some studying done, even if that’s a little more screen time than you’d typically allow.

6.   Get Creative

Don’t let the suggestion to get creative strike fear in your heart: this isn’t a call for parents to recreate a medieval village or build a historically accurate model of the Hoover Dam. Most of the time, it won’t even require a trip to the craft store. Kids can rest and reset their minds with simple, creative breaks that keep them busy, sometimes happily creating for hours at a time, all without too much parent involvement or expense.

For younger kids, make a racetrack underneath the kitchen table with masking tape and give them boxes from your recycling for a garage.  Ask older kids to spell out their name on construction paper with staples. Teenagers can make a collage from magazines and junk mail. Put together a creativity kit your kids can grab when they need a break from school (and you need a few more minutes to concentrate); crayons, tape, and scissors are plenty, but if you want to get fancy, throw in some playdough, beads, pipe cleaner, and construction paper. You’d be surprised how much fun toddlers can have “painting” rocks with water, or how engrossed a teenager can get designing the cover of their notebooks with stickers. There are many excellent websites with easy, inexpensive, and creative ideas for all ages; check them out when you have time and keep a stash of activities tailored to your children and their interests at the ready.

7.   Get Moving

Working and learning from home can be exhausting, and a surefire way for both kids and parents to de-stress and refocus is to get moving. Experts suggest movement helps people of all ages complete tasks and use their brains more effectively. Whether that’s going for a walk around the block after lunch, doing some planks and jumping jacks before your next conference call, or playing indoor basketball with a laundry basket and beachball, taking a few minutes to move your body will help everyone in the house. If you have a fenced in back yard or other safe play area, schedule time for your kids to play outside while you get some work done. Later, when the kids are finished with learning and you’re ready for a break, do some yoga in the living room or head out for a jog. Consistently moving your body will make everything on your to-do list just a little bit easier.

8.   Use Educational Technology

Giving kids a little extra screen time is one obvious way to get a few more minutes of peace when you really need to get some work done. But tablets, smart phones, and computers are good for more than zoning out watching television; they can actually contribute to your child’s education and help expand their minds. Schedule time for kids to watch documentaries during the school day when you know you’ll still be working and they’ll need a mental break. Encourage them to listen to an educational podcast, or assign online educational resource videos for those extra tough math concepts. Using technology doesn't have to mean your children aren’t using their brains.

9.   Rewards

Some parents hesitate to use rewards for completing chores or schoolwork because they’re afraid their kids won’t be motivated to do what’s right unless they’re promised a treat. That’s a fair concern, because developing intrinsic motivation is a vital part of raising a healthy child. But when you and your family are all stuck home trying to work and learn during a pandemic, it isn’t the time to be a purist. Rewards aren’t inherently bad, especially if they’re not overused to the point they turn into bribes. Smart rewards can encourage behavior you want to see repeated, like finishing homework or doing chores. When your kids do a great job listening and following directions, let them use a special set of magic markers. If you catch your children picking up their toys without being asked, or signing on to do their schoolwork without being reminded, put a cotton ball in a jar; when  the jar is full, the whole family gets to do something fun like baking cookies or playing a board game. Stickers, small prizes, and special privileges can help kids find enthusiasm for tasks that might not come naturally, like sharing or going to bed when they’re told, and that’s a huge plus for parents trying to juggle work, school, and their children’s remote learning at the same time. 

10.   Ease Up

So, you’re letting your kids spend more time than you’d like playing video games and you’ve instituted a robust reward chart. You’ve scheduled a weekly family meeting, sat down with your partner to create a fair division of labor, and talked openly and honestly with your boss about what you can and can’t accomplish. Good for you. But guess what? All the time and effort you’ve put into making this parent and work from home situation happen smoothly simply can’t prevent the inevitable: some days are going to stink. When your kids are fighting, you lose the presentation you’ve been working on for a week, the dog gets sick, and your kitchen sink clogs, remember: You’re doing your best. Go sit yourself on the couch with a tall glass of something good and pat yourself on the back. After all, you’re working, parenting, and studying during a pandemic, and that makes you a superstar.

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