Learning to Homeschool in the Time of COVID-19
So, you’re a Pandemic Homeschooler, now! Look at you!
Except you’re not–not really–as a friend of mine recently pointed out on Facebook. You didn’t get to pick the curriculum, you’re not doing the grading, but you do suddenly have a kid or kids learning at home, so you’re some weird hybrid of a homeschooler and jail warden–neither of which you signed up for–and maybe you’re struggling, a little. That would be totally normal. I am here to tell you that it’s okay and you and your kids will survive this.
I am here to tell you that it’s okay and you and your kids will survive this.
Maybe you’ll even end up liking it. (I know, crazy talk! But as someone who never considered homeschooling and ended up doing it for a while anyway, I promise there is yet untold frustration and triumph waiting for you.)
There is no one way to successfully homeschool, just as there is no one way to successfully teach a whole classroom of kids from diverse backgrounds and with different skillsets. There is no master schedule that’s going to magically make it all easy. What there is right now are you and your kids, and work that has to be done, and a whole lot of anxiety, most likely. Time to get yourself comfortable with being Good Enough.
Here is some been-there-done-that advice from a once-accidental homeschooler:
1. Set boundaries but don’t dictate everything.
You’ve already got one boundary: a certain amount of work that needs to be done each week, or each day. Assuming that’s a reasonable amount (and if it’s not, please speak with your kid’s teacher, because I promise you they are also hiking blind through unfamiliar territory right now), the boundary is “get this work done in the time allotted.”
The younger your kids, the more (and more specific) boundaries you’ll have to provide on their time, maybe going so far as to set a daily schedule where 11-12 is Time For Math or whatever. But with older kids you can set fewer of these sorts of boundaries, assuming they’re relatively cooperative and will do what needs to be done even without that structure. Try it.
If it doesn’t work, next week you make more rules. I promise the world will not end if the first week not all the work gets done. Similarly, maybe you know your kid won’t work unless they’re showered and dressed, but maybe… it doesn’t matter. Maybe you need to set a wake-up time, maybe they’re better off if you let them sleep. Maybe sometimes they don’t get dressed. Adjust to your family’s needs and set just enough rules to keep the train running, but don’t feel like it has to maintain its former schedule or the sky will fall. It won’t.
2. Build in a lot of breaks, either by design or as needed.
There is this very American notion of work being something you do in a sustained manner for a long time, and one of the first things I learned during our homeschooling time was that this concept is, for a lot of people (and especially kids), untenable. (I also learned that other homeschoolers didn’t look at me quite so oddly if I called it “untenable” instead of “BS.”)
If your kid can sit still for a whole hour and finish a packet of work, good on ’em. But if they can’t, that’s okay. Lots and lots of people need breaks, and we as adults have (mostly) learned to self-regulate by stopping to check our mail, grab a refill on coffee, etc. Why do we tend not to let kids have the same leeway? I think we assume they’ll get fully distracted and wander away completely, and that’s a reasonable concern for a small person with a still-forming brain, so make timers your friend.
If a kid needs a break, grab a kitchen timer, if you have one, or the timer on your phone, and set it for 5 minutes. Let them grab a snack, do some jumping jacks, cuddle with the family dog, whatever they need to reset. If this is a kid who will want to take those 5-minute breaks constantly, set the same timer to 10 minutes once they’re back in front of work, and have them work for 10 minutes to get another 5-minute break. But I would also suggest…
3. … mini-breaks should be technology-free
I’m the last person to say kids shouldn’t get to play video games or veg in front of the television, but those sorts of activities definitely do suck people into a time warp where a lot of minutes can turn into hours if you’re not careful.
During what is designated as work time, no gaming. No viewing. Those are poor choices for small breaks, and should be saved for other parts of the day (either before or after work time, or during a larger chunk in-between designated work times, whatever). There are plenty of move-your-body, refresh-your-mind options for short breaks that don’t involve screens, no matter what your kids try to tell you. Save the screens for the end of a given task, because they’re the holy grail to most kids, anyway.
4. Get some fresh air, fresh air, fresh air.
My family is not particularly outdoorsy, and the biggest gift homeschooling gave us was an appreciation of the importance of time outside. There are scientific reasons explaining why it’s functionally different, but from my perspective, I focused most on the end product, which was this: kids think differently, learn differently, and move differently in nature than they do in a classroom (or, in this case, in your kitchen or dining room or whatever).
Get them outside every day, weather permitting, for at least a little while. (Make sure they understand relevant social distancing measures first, of course.) I realize this is hard with little kids who need supervision when you have your own work to do, and hard with bigger kids who see no point, but as much as can be managed, do it anyway. And it’s good for adults, too, so give yourself the kindness of joining them if you can. If you have balls and frisbees and action figures to take out there, great. If not, get ready to discover what your kid will do with sticks and pinecones, left to their own devices. It’s all good. Even a brisk walk to the bodega, if you live in the city (and social distancing and safety measures can be maintained!), is better than staying in all day.
5. Give them more chores.
Structure and responsibility breeds more structure and responsibility. And quite frankly, sometimes a hatred of math turns out to be a little less than hatred of doing the dishes. Who knows?
You’re all home, there are more dishes and probably more things that need cleaning more often, and everyone pitches in because everyone is part of the family. It’s good for the house, it’s good for the kids’ sense of importance, and it provides a good counterpoint to schoolwork and maybe even fills some of those mini-breaks we talked about earlier.
6. Give them cooperative tasks.
If you have more than one child, encourage them to work together on… anything. Let older kids help younger kids with places they get stuck on their work or assign chores where they’ll have to work together. Put out a big jigsaw for everyone to do together or order some games off of Amazon which hinge on a level of cooperation. This will have to be adapted to age levels, of course, but I promise there are ways to do it even for the smallest kids.
If you have an only child, ask for help while you cook a meal or perform your own chores. It’s easy to become isolated together; make sure there’s a level of encouragement to truly be with one another even while everyone is wishing they could just be alone for a minute, already. (I could write an entire series of posts on games and activities with cooperative components varying by age, but I promise you they’re out there. If you have kids 10+, we recently discovered Mysterium, a tabletop game wherein everyone wins or everyone loses, which I think is really brilliant.)
7. At the same time, give them more downtime.
That might sound weird, but if the rule used to be 2 hours of screen time on a school day, but school takes less time now (or you have more time because there’s no commuting), bend the rule and let them have 4. If they’re old enough, toss the rule and let them do whatever they like once they’ve finished their work and chores (though do try to lure them into interacting with others sometimes, too).
This is all new and stressful and there’s no Right Way to shelter in place you should magically already know. If work is getting done, is everyone is fed and healthy and basically behaving, it’s okay to throw out Normal for a while, because none of this is normal right now.
You can be a good enough homeschooler, I promise. Now go wash your hands and have a snack. You earned it.
And, you’re not alone. Parents across America and the world are going through the same challenges. Just watch this Israeli mom of four share her exaggerated-for-humor complaints on Day 2 of their Stay at Home orders. It’s so funny because it rings true for many right now!