1. Organize. The current crisis tends to exacerbate or lay bare pre-existing problems, inequities, and frustrations—yet many people conversely present it as an opportunity, a time to do X project or take up X hobby that your normal routine doesn’t allow for. For those juggling the usual demands of life on top of handling newly quarantined young children, this advice can feel frustrating. One of the best antidotes to becoming overwhelmed is organization: Set aside time and mental space to create schedules, checklists, and plans of action, both in terms of your child’s remote learning schedule and in terms of your day-to-day existence on the whole. This can feel challenging if you’re already emotionally wrung out, but the benefits will ultimately be worth it.
2. Craft a learning schedule to create structure in the (remote) school day. You can use the below as a general guide, but feel free to adjust up or down depending on your child’s level of maturity and experiences in school so far. Katharine also advocates having to-do lists for your child, either based on school requirements or put together by the family. Having kids take that list and prioritize it offers them a chance to participate in structuring their days, develops their executive function skills, and increases motivation and independence.
3. Build in breaks. Breaks are a crucial part of the daily schedule, as the home environment has less stimulation than school and it’s easier to get burned out. Set aside time to come together as a family and make a list of agreed-upon break activities for your child to refer to throughout the day.
Ideally, the activities will involve engaging with something physical and energizing—taking a walk around the block, doing a short workout, playing with a pet, or enjoying a crunchy fruit or vegetable snack are all excellent break ideas. Reading a graphic novel, playing with toys, making a craft, and resting are all good too, but avoid activities like video games and YouTube videos that immediately segue into more, creating a distraction spiral.
4. Recognize whether your child may have too much or too little work. If they’re overwhelmed by the volume of schoolwork, they may need help paring down; real talk about their work pacing, which may be different than at school; a visible timer, completion goals, and more frequent breaks; or specific encouragement.
Those who are restless due to a lower volume of work may need open-ended projects; the chance to learn a new skill, language, or craft; or simply more work!
In all cases, consider whether your child might benefit from having more responsibility. Kids get positive feelings of autonomy and self-efficacy from doing chores or planning out their own schedules, boosting their confidence and making them more willing to engage in work.
5. Find strategies that work for you. Here are a few to consider:
—> If you co-parent, discuss workloads, and continue to re-negotiate them so that neither of you feels unfairly put-upon by the household division of labor.
—> Practice self-compassion. The mantra “This doesn’t have to be perfect to be good” applies to remote learning and to pretty much every aspect of life in the current crisis. Even in a less-than-ideal situation, kids can get a lot out of this time and find their learning to be meaningful. Remind yourself that your standards can and should be adjustable; we’re doing our best, and that’s enough.
—> Reach out to older family members and friends to help out by hosting read-alouds, teaching online, or telling stories.
—> If finances allow, consider an online sitter or tutor.
—> Present each week as a fresh start with updated rules and goals. We learn and make changes and evolve, and that’s completely acceptable (and even helpful modeling for kids). You’re allowed to have better and worse days, both in terms of remote learning and in general. Learn from them and isolate a few manageable goals you would like to meet or things you would like to change in the coming days.
6. Find supplemental activities that meet your and your child’s needs. There are seemingly endless amounts of resources floating around right now, and sifting through them can get overwhelming. Keep a short list, or set up an email label and comb through it weekly.
If you’re concerned about academics, focus on adding activities that your child might not get at school, such as handwriting or geography, or try out new approaches to subjects like math that aren’t always presented in the most kid-friendly way.
If you’re really just trying to stay sane, try sorting activities by positive attributes, like “very quiet” or “independent—1+ hour.” Designate times of the day that you need to set aside for parent sanity or work availability, and then find activities that will fill those slots.
7. Roll with the resistance. Handling a restless kid who’s resistant to doing their schoolwork can be frustrating, but it helps to understand where they’re coming from. Learning and other novel situations are in fact inherently uncomfortable for the brain, so if kids are avoidant, it’s because their minds are being stretched. As learning continues, the brain develops neural pathways that allow for easier information retrieval—but this process is tiring for kids, so structure is crucial in helping them focus their energy on learning.
In order to build that structure, try breaking activities down into steps for your child; for instance, have them cover part of the page and only reveal the section that they’re currently working on so that they’re not overwhelmed by the influx of information. Communicate through questions to encourage autonomy—for instance, “What does your schedule say you’re meant to be doing now?”
Lastly, once you’ve explained a task, don’t feel you need to stick around and watch them complete it; rather, physically absent yourself from the situation. If you keep standing over your child, they may assume that you’re going to continue walking them through the task, but if you leave, they will be encouraged to work more independently since there’s a physical barrier (getting up and finding you) to asking for help.
8. Create variety. There’s no one right answer for the ideal balance of online and offline learning, but it’s best to inject variety and have them take breaks between each type of content. It’s important for kids to feel connected to their classroom community and their teachers, but it can be difficult for them to work on academics when they’re trying to be social, and vice versa. If you can, encourage bifurcation between academic activities and those meant for social connection.
Final thoughts: This will pass, your kids will go back to school, and life will return to its normal routine. Until then—stay strong, stay self-compassionate, and let us know how we can help.
Katharine Hill, M.S., M.A.T., is a 5th–8th grade learning specialist at Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn, and a 2nd–12th grade (and adult!) learning specialist and parent educator in private practice. Here is a link to the slides from this presentation and some resources she recommends: https://www.upnext.nyc/resources.