On Thursday, the state of Ohio shut down its schools as a precautionary measure around the spread of Covid-19. Maryland, New Mexico, Michigan, and more soon followed, with more states to come, leaving millions of students home for the foreseeable future, and their parents and guardians scrambling to know what to do next.
From a public health standpoint, closing schools is a useful measure. From a parenting standpoint? It’s more likely to be incredibly stressful and logistically challenging.
But it doesn’t have to be. For the past 10 years, I’ve homeschooled my four children and understand how to survive several weeks at home with a houseful of kids — even if you have your own work to do.
Granted, getting through a school closure is not the same as choosing to homeschool your kid. But my experience, both as a doctor whose children attended a traditional school and now as a homeschooling mom running a growing business, means I am well aware of the underlying tensions of having children at home full time while also managing work responsibilities — not to mention the stress resulting from uncertainty about the future.
Here are five lessons I learned as a homeschooling parent that can make the time you spend with your children during school cancellations less stressful, more enjoyable, and maybe even educational.
Instead of trying to create “school at home,” readjust (and relish) the newfound freedom
Think of this time as an unanticipated staycation, where your family gets to spend time together and have some fun.
One amazing benefit of having children at home is that it eliminates the stress that comes with getting everyone out of the house each morning. Before I started homeschooling, we spent our mornings fighting about getting shoes on and not forgetting backpacks. Suddenly, mornings were peaceful, with children cozy on the couch in their pajamas for a few extra hours. (Your kids, like mine, may want to wear their PJs all day, and why not? Save yourself the power struggle.)
Start by having a family meeting. Let every family member talk about what they want to get out of this break. In my family, we do this for vacations and before we start a new school year. It creates buy-in from my kids and results in great ideas I wouldn’t have thought of. (In the past, my kids have wanted to play Apples to Apples, organize a chess tournament, and eat French toast.) If you’re not taking time off, use this meeting to establish that you’ll be working for part of the day, and that the kids need to make space for that.
Some children know exactly what they want to do during the time off. Other children are so used to having their days planned that it may take a while before they can answer the question, so let them know they can respond later.
Create a schedule for your day — but don’t put too much pressure on yourself to stick to it
When I first started homeschooling, I mapped out our days from 8 am until 4 pm by the quarter-hour. I figured that’s how it’s done in school, so that’s what we would do at home. But that level of detail applied to just a few kids at home (rather than hundreds in a school building) was too restrictive. We were all stressed out by it, transitions were a lot harder, and it kept me focused on the clock rather than on my family. After a lot of trial and error (including swinging the other way and having no schedule), I find the best schedule is one that is spacious and flexible, and builds in plenty of independent learning and play time for kids, and reliable break times for me. Here’s a sample:
Breakfast to 10 am: Play inside
10 am to noon: Group project
Art, cooking, jigsaw puzzle, work assigned by the school, multi-age learning kit
Depending on how self-sufficient the children are, this may be an opportunity to work part of the time, or it could be some designated face time with your kids so you can disappear behind your office door later in the day.
Noon to 12:30 pm: Lunch
12:30 to 2:30 pm: Alone time for everyone
Books, educational tablet time, coloring, crafts, infuriating Zoom call with Steve from accounting
2:30 to 4:30 pm: Outside play
Depending on the age of your kids, you can keep an eye on what’s happening but only get involved as needed
4:30 pm until dinner: Regroup time
TV, video games, books
Be responsive to your children’s ages
For K-5 kids, the transition to being at home is probably easiest. They may miss their friends and feel concerned about so many changes, but they will enjoy the novelty of the new routine.
Middle schoolers may resist being at home and away from friends. Your family meeting is an important opportunity for your middle schooler to brainstorm on how to stay connected with friends (the answer will probably be TikTok).
High schoolers are most likely to need to keep up with their schoolwork to complete the semester on time. Their schools should provide information on expected academic progress and what kind of support your kid will need to do it. So many high schoolers have such busy days that having a break in the pace may actually be welcome, and their independence means you should have more time on your own.
Having multiple children at different ages can be challenging. At one point, I was dealing with a toddler and children in third, eighth, and 10th grades, while also working 20 hours a week. I learned how to make the age range work to my advantage: Older children helped younger ones with their lessons, and the younger children prepared snacks for the family.
No matter the age, the whole day is much smoother for everyone when you connect deeply with each child at least once a day. Set up siblings with something that will occupy them so you can have uninterrupted one-on-one time.
Go off-book, especially if you need to get your own work done
Some schools may send home work or institute e-learning, but it’s unclear if that will fill all the hours of a traditional school day. Consider other ways to divert your curious kids’ attention that will be beneficial (and engaging) to them without you feeling like a substitute teacher.
In addition to some of the activities suggested above, take advantage of the many excellent online learning platforms, like outschool.com (which covers a wide range of topics), and brainpop.com (which focuses on the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and math). My kids especially liked the rancher who gave a lesson on horse husbandry and the beginner’s calligraphy class.
Use the time to train the kids on skills like cooking and laundry, and any other chores you can’t fit in during the busyness of the school year. While most children are no longer taking classes in home economics, such skills are still necessary — and can take chores off your plate.
When it’s time to work, make sure your kids know what to do in the meantime, preferably something they look forward to. I deliberately only let my kids play on my phone when I need to get work done.
Look on the bright side
Don’t forget: This is going to be a formative time for your child. What do you hope they’ll say when their grandkids ask them what they remember about the coronavirus outbreak of 2020? Make this time special. Do projects together such as filming a movie about your family or making cards for isolated elders in your area. Share stories about your childhood and teach them games you enjoyed as a kid.
In some families, the first days of being at home together may be the hardest. In others, the first days may be quite fun, but once the whole experience is no longer novel, it will become harder. Put in the time to figure out what works, because the return is more ease for everyone and more time to do your own projects (but try to make sure that some of those “projects” are things like a bath or a walk, and not just endless work).
Most of all, be compassionate — toward yourself and your children. We have never experienced anything like the current crisis, and all of us are pioneers.
Alexandra Stockwell is a physician turned relationship and intimacy expert and the author of Uncompromising Intimacy. She builds connected and happy families through facilitating healing and transformation for couples, teaching them how to bring pleasure and purpose into all aspects of life.