For parents with school-aged children, the past week was arduous. Just as we were trying to navigate work schedules sans childcare, we were also being thrust into the role of homeschool teacher. Many of us received lesson plans and assignments, while some of us received nothing – and both levels of "support" come with their own stressors, from "I need an advanced education degree to keep up with this curriculum!" to "where do I f*cking begin?!"
And as many schools are extending their closures, with some predicting to remain closed through the end of the academic year, parents are wondering how sustainable homeschooling really is. Do we really need to keep this up?
According to social media, the answer seems to be no. In a post that has been liked more than 400,000 times, a school principal is quoted as saying: "My advice for any parents wanting to homeschool during the school shutdown: don't. Arguing with your kids to do work is not what anyone needs right now."
I admit, when I read the post – which made the point that "your kids won't learn much if they are feeling stressed" – I felt a flood of relief, like I was let off the hook. Instead of worksheets, the principal suggested we "cuddle up together" and "do a puzzle, build a fort, bake, [and] watch TV together."
That sounded fine by me, but was it really the right call? Was it really OK for us working parents to phone it in on homeschooling and just let our kids relax? I reached out to a handful of teachers and educational experts to find out.
Address Your Child's Immediate Needs First
Experts certainly agree that unmitigated anxiety is bad for families and needs to be addressed.
"This is a stressful, uncertain time," Oona Hanson, an educator and parenting coach offering one-on-one workshops, told POPSUGAR. "The last thing parents need is added worry about trying to deliver a prescribed curriculum. Our No. 1 priority is the health of our family. And since it's nearly impossible to learn anything when you feel under threat, easing our kids' fears has to come first even if at-home schooling is a focus. Some families do find that devoting time to a learning activity can be really comforting, but for others, the sight of 'homework' just ramps up anxiety."
If that's the case, she suggests first listening to your child and to your own instincts.
"Our kids need us now more than ever to mobilize and act quickly and positively."
"Talk about it as a family," she said. "It's OK to acknowledge that things are going to feel different for a while. And we will make mistakes or lose our tempers sometimes – we're all doing the best we can. We have an incredible opportunity to model grace under pressure."
We also have an opportunity – as Katie Simon, the dean of curriculum at a charter management organisation in New York City, pointed out – to not let these uncertain times keep us from doing what we need to do.
"Saying 'don't stress' is unrealistic and ignores our current reality," she told POPSUGAR of the messageing that parents can stop homeschooling if it's too overwhelming. "It removes responsibility and ownership, which feels unjust and inequitable to kids, who thrive off consistency and clear expectations. I of course don't want any families feeling unnecessary stress . . . Let's name that the stress is real, but it won't go away without a clear action plan. Our kids need us now more than ever to mobilize and act quickly and positively."
Do Not Opt Out Because You Don't Think You Can Do It
Although most parents feel profoundly unprepared for the obligations of homeschooling, Simon assures us that "no one is expecting you to magically have a masters in education overnight" and that "so many elements of a successful at-home learning experience require skills you already have as a parent."
Beyond that, both Simon and Taylor Masin, a New York-based licenced social worker, empathized with those families at a greater disadvantage during this time period — either because of the complexities of maintaining full-time remote jobs or because of a lack of resources.
"Not all parents are able to cuddle with their kids all day, and it's frankly a very privileged way to look at things," said Masin, who recognised that for many children, the ability to commit to distance learning is circumstantial, like whether they have books or other basic supplies at their disposal. "The circumstance may be the amount of devices a family has at home, access to internet, how many children are in the home, if there's a parent in the home throughout the day."
Simon advised parents to press on: "However, we cannot let these become excuses to 'opt out' of providing academic engagement in the home."
The silver lining? "The amount of business supporting academic initiatives – Zoom extended its free subscription options, Spectrum is offering free wifi to certain areas – and families should reach out to teachers to actively communicate about any barriers they're facing. We're all in this together and as a nation it is imperative we support all kids accessing a great education at this time."
And for those parents simply dismissing school guidelines or refusing to comply with teacher assignments, Simon has little patience. "Are they ignoring guidelines? Are they refusing to communicate with teachers? Are they letting their kids make their own schedules and do whatever they want?" This, she said, is unacceptable.
Masin agreed. "The reality is that many children will sit home playing video games and watching endless hours of television if they're not given guidance," Masin told POPSUGAR. "Yes, children are scared right now and feeling very unsettled, so a routine would help them to have some sense of control over their lives right now."
Create a Routine For This "New Normal"
Establishing that routine is the most important thing parents should do now, particularly because, as Hanson warned, "We don't know yet how long schools will be closed, so it may be months rather than weeks that we have our kids at home."
To that end, Simon advised that parents should worry less about their ability — or inability — to support the actual content of their child's schooling right now and instead spend these first days or weeks creating systems and sticking to them with fidelity.
"Families would be remiss to not take time now to set up routines. They'll see a large payout when in two weeks from now, those routines become their child's new 'normal.'"
"Families would be remiss to not take time now to set up systems, routines, and procedures to support remote learning," Simon noted. "They'll see a large payout when in two weeks from now, those routines become their child's new 'normal.'"
Hanson suggested a rough daily schedule – it doesn't need to be printed on a Pinterest-worthy calendar or be divided down to the minute. "Kids feel safest when they have structure," she said. "So even though you may not be getting up to go to work and school, it's important to maintain a consistent sleep schedule and do your best to keep bedtime routines sacred." This is the time, she said, that parents could try to provide those extra snuggles.
"Keeping your familiar routines going can be really good for kids," Hanson told POPSUGAR. "For instance, if your child normally takes a hip hop class on Tuesdays, look for an online class or just have a little dance party in your kitchen that day. If Grandpa usually comes to dinner on Friday nights, try to connect during dinner over FaceTime."
Set Up a Daily Schedule Based on Your Child's Age and Goals
Ibrahim Firat, the founder and chief educational consultant at Firat Education, insisted that parents stick to the homeschool schedule given to them by their schools. But if one wasn't provided, he noted that — on average — instruction time at school is between four to five hours per day. "Given the individual nature of homeschooling, two to four hours of total time per day spent on homeschool activities is considered effective," he said. Because this time frame varies depending on grade level, parents of preschool and kindergarten students should expect to chop those averages in half.
The schedule Simon recommends to her students is one that includes a morning hour of a "brain warmup," which could in the form of an online quiz or a guided meditation, and two separate blocks of academic time, each at least one hour in length. These periods can be used to complete assigned work or to practice reading, working on puzzles, studying flash cards, or helping a younger sibling learn. Finally, an hour of creative time can be used to play with Legos, draw, call loved ones, help a parent cook, or to practice a new skill.
Strive to Make Learning More Organic
Having a blocked schedule doesn't mean parents should feel responsible for recreating the traditional classroom experience at home. In fact, child development experts have long expressed concern over how we front-load school with test-based academics at too young of ages versus taking a more play-based, individualized approach to learning.
What's more, Deepanshu Pandita – the CEO of Kido, an early education platform – suggested that parents rethink the way we expect our kids to learn in this new scenario – that we shouldn't make a distinction between what is work, or "school," and what is play.
"Explore what it is we want the kids to learn in the foreseeable future that is in line with their specific skills and interests, and find projects, games, and activities that achieve that goal as a byproduct," he recommended to POPSUGAR. "Learning goals should be met through designing activities that require those skills. The structure should come from projects that are broken down into tasks with a relaxed attitude towards how long it takes for them to accomplish each one. The emphasis should be on sticking with the goal over periods of time – distractions and detours are fine. Basically, the learning comes during the journey and the destination is incidental. There are clearly learning objectives here, but we are just wrapping them in an enjoyable setting that is also more like real life."
When In Doubt, Read To Your Kids
Still, Hanson noted that "many kids really miss school and are hungry to keep learning in certain academic areas." To that end, she and Simon both put a premium on reading.
"I cannot overstate the importance of focusing on reading," Simon said. "Without literacy, kids won't be able to access any other content or subjects independently."
For those still not reading on their own, audiobooks, story-telling apps, and YouTube celebrity "read-alouds" are great ways to supplement parent-child reading time. "Let your kids take the lead in choosing books or topics to explore," Hanson added. "And don't be surprised if they want to return to some comforting old favourites you thought they had outgrown."
Try Not to Take Maths So Seriously
But what about . . . maths?
"Unless you love exploring maths with your kids, go easy on yourself with this one," Hanson said. "And since most parents are unfamiliar with — and even afraid or suspicious of — the current approaches to maths, you're really off the hook here."
She instead recommends "low-stakes, joyful approaches" to the subject matter. "If you're doing a lot more baking than usual, include the kids. It's a chance for some hands-on learning about many maths concepts."
Hold Your Kids Accountable
Even if parents don't shirk their homeschooling responsibilities, how are they equipped to measure its success? Or, more anxiety-inducing, to know when their child is lagging.
"The [common] question being asked here isn't really about learning or education, which are unfortunately often independent of formal schooling, but whether kids would get left behind in their preparation along some academic dimension because they aren't sitting in class," Pandita said. "Formal schooling is important for its own sake, but those who stress the academic benefits of it as opposed to the social, emotional, and societal benefits are missing the forest for the trees."
"Formal schooling is important for its own sake, but those who stress the academic benefits of it as opposed to the social, emotional, and societal benefits are missing the forest for the trees."
However, Simon assured that setting high expectations for your child is "crucial" during this time.
"This is a great opportunity to teach your children crucial life skills such as independence and time management," she said, suggesting parents incorporate those values into their rationale when communicating with their kids. For example, she offered this script for a first-grader: "Tim, this can be challenging without your teacher helping, that's normal! But in second grade, your teacher is going to expect you work independently for 25 minutes and this is an awesome time to practice that. Let's set a timer for 15 minutes, take 10 jumping jacks, and then start the next 15 minutes of work." She also suggests using small verbal shifts when offering incentives. "The language for rewards should be 'when you accomplish . . .," not "If you complete . . ."
Hanson reiterated that it is normal for parents to worry about their kids falling behind. "But remember that everyone is in the same boat right now," she said. "Even more important, it's normal for kids to develop at their own pace, even those receiving identical instruction in the same environment. This is the perfect moment to practice letting go of social comparisons and feeling like success is a zero-sum game."
Firat echoed these sentiments, noting that parents "ought to do their part" even though they have not been trained for it. "That 'part' I'm referring to is mainly about keeping a consistent schedule with routine and deadlines and keeping track with benchmarks," he said. "This is what parents already do with things that are non-school."