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With schools and offices closed across the country because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it started to sink in this week after spring break: To varying degrees, we are all homeschoolers now. And many of us are also trying to work from home at the same time.
As millions learn to adjust to a new normal, we went to the experts: the moms and dads who have been working on this balance for years, and sometimes getting grief for it. The homeschoolers have kindly overlooked the cheap jokes of the past and were eager to offer their advice, tips and hundreds of helpful links.
We also talked to Dr. Jennifer Katzenstein, director of psychology and neuropsychology at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, who offered practical advice on what to say and do now that schooling is at home. She laid out what signs to look for that stress is rising — in both kids and adults.
Katzenstein conducted the interview while sitting in her car.
“In full disclosure I’m sitting in the garage to make sure it’s as quiet as possible without my child. I totally get it,” she said.
The strongest advice from both the doctor and the other parents is that keeping your kids on a schedule can help your child cope with the changes and will invariably make it easier to complete your own work.
This isn’t school
Don’t feel like you have to have a seven-hour day planned. It’s also not homeschooling, as the veteran homeschoolers point out.
“Kids are now doing forced remote learning at home and that is a huge difference,” said Pam Settle of Oldsmar who has been homeschooling her son Jackson for two years.
Parents might want to take advantage of this time to explore making their kids’ day better-tailored to their attention spans and interests. Most people who go into homeschooling take some time to make the decision. They started thinking about it a year or two in advance. The fact that this came quickly should give parents permission to relax and take some time to figure things out. Even the homeschoolers are in new waters.
“My homeschooled kids are going bonkers too,” said Katie Nicole Stahl-Kovell in a Facebook post. “They miss museums, horseback riding, play dates, painting classes and the number of other out-of-home activities.”
But remember, your home has already been a school.
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“Whether you know it or not, parents are teachers,” said Dr. GG Weisenfeld of the National Institute for Early Education Research at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education in an interview released this week. “Everything you do sets an example for your child.”
Make a schedule
Dr. Katzenstein recommends taping a schedule to the refrigerator. There have been some schedule templates going viral this week as people share one idea after another on how to prepare. You can make a morning start time, school time and exercise time. Let them know when to expect breakfast and lunch, how much time they are expected to focus on school and when they will be free to play on their own. Setting clear times for waking up and breaks is important, Katzenstein said.
“It gives us an opportunity for those of us parents working from home to give a visual of the times when we are busy. But it also tells kids when they are going to be doing their work and defines outdoor and screen time,” she said. “Be really clear about that."
If set schedules aren’t your style, you can have a little more of a slack version of general routines. And be prepared to change it.
“Keep it simple," said Lisa Dunne of Tampa, who runs a homeschool consulting and evaluation firm. “We tend to over-plan in the beginning, as parents who want the very best for our children. We also think that school needs to look like public school at home, when in reality that does not always work. ... Teaching from a place of peace is where the most authentic learning occurs. Start simply with reading great literature and doing math. You can then move to child-led interests. All the rest will fall into place as you go along.”
How to design a schedule
Sit down as a family and talk about what needs to get done and how much time it should take. It may not require as much time per day as you think. Regular breaks are recommended every 30-45 minutes, just like in a bricks and mortar school. And homeschool families say you might be surprised at how quickly your kids can get their work done when motivated. Many successful kids only spend a few hours a day on actual school work.
“Much of the time in a classroom is spent not on direct instruction and learning, but on the logistics of managing so many children at once," Jamie Martin of the Simple Home School website wrote this week. She suggested that parents try a simple three-hour homeschool solution to plan the day.
A written plan should be made with sticky notes that can be moved around so the family can adjust, said Kendra O’Connor, 52, of St. Petersburg. She’s a longtime educator who homeschooled all four of her kids, including her daughter, a 24-year-old artist in North Carolina, and a son, a 23-year-old engineer in Orlando. Both graduated from high school with Associate of Arts degrees, she said. She’s now homeschooling her son, 15, and 12-year-old daughter. She also consults with other homeschoolers, does private tutoring and conducts testing diagnostics.
“Kids will transition and you should expect a transition,” O’Connor said. “The first year can be rough when people first start doing this and are used to a different structure. Some need it more than others. Different things will pop up, so be prepared to make adjustments."
The flexibility pays off. O’Connor has found that a middle schooler can be done by noon if motivated, “but I have one that struggles with time management so that means he just takes breaks more often.”
Watch for signs of stress
Add things like deep breathing, family yoga or stretching to the day’s schedule, Katzenstein said, “because everybody in the house is going to need some stress reduction, and we want to get ahead of it.”
Have open conversations with your kids, she said, but ask them questions first about what they already know or what are thinking about, “so you aren’t planting ideas in their head.”
One thing she is hearing a lot about lately in her therapy practice is changes in sleep. She’s seeing a lot of nighttime wakings, especially in younger kids, which is a sign of stress.
Changes in sleep or eating habits, and changes in self care, Katzenstein said, are classic signals.
Younger kids are quite likely going to act out and seek more attention in an anxiety-prone situation, she said.
“It really is worth spending that extra positive time with our kids, that extra quality time, so that we can prevent some of those behavior problems,” Katzenstein said. "The more positive attention we can give before the acting out happens, the less likely we are going to see the acting out.”
If things seem to be escalating, she recommended reaching out to your pediatrician or trusted mental health professional.
Adults will also find themselves eating too much or too little, increasing alcohol or substance abuse and just being more on edge and irritable. She had the same advice: Reach out to your doctor.
One pre-emptive solution, is to plan some stress relieving activities in the day, O’Connor said.
“Your kids are going to need activity because they have energy to burn and are going to have to rethink socialization,” O’Connor said. “I recommend sunshine. If we are sitting inside our boxes all day long we are going to deal with emotional issues ourselves.”
Make some memories
With no end in sight, this can be a fine time to embrace what homeschoolers most love about their world: The freedom to explore what interests you.
Think of cooking as a way to learn math and fractions. Take advantage of all the free online courses being offered in languages and instruments, history and museums. Teach the kids to sew a button, plan a dinner, balance a budget, grow a garden, properly clean and wax a car or get out the old supplies and make some crafts.
“What will we say we gained from this time?” O’Connor said. “What do I want to have learned about myself and my family? Most people, barring nothing catastrophic will say, ‘Wow we really learned that we all sometimes get stressed. But we also like to play Uno and get pretty into it.’ We are forced to slow down, so this is a good time for goal setting.”
“I don’t know that I could still do long division,” Katzenstein said. Teachers have to Google things too, so if you are not sure how to do something:
- Your home school district will be putting a tremendous amount of resources online for students.
- YouTube is your friend for any topic you don’t understand.
- Andrew Pudewa and Julie Walker of the Institute for Excellence in Writing, one of the more popular resources for homeschoolers, created a webinar this week called A Crash Course for Accidental Homeschooling. They attempt to shed light on how teachers and parents can facilitate learning in the new, exclusively at-home learning environment. iew.com.
- Khan Academy is a highly regarded online set of free self-paced tutoring sessions that range from age 2 to college courses. khanacademy.org.
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