The past two weeks have thrown all sense of normalcy out the window for the over 30 million schoolchildren whose districts were shut down—and their parents.
Parents all over the country were given the news overnight that their children would be staying home for an indefinite amount of time, and while most have access to e-learning materials, many do not. And all of these parents, many still going to work or attempting to work from home, are left wondering: how the hell am I going to teach my kids?
What I’ve noticed in the last week is the influx of information and materials being shared online. Resources, lesson plans, activities, schedules—all of these are wonderful in many ways, but also create additional unnecessary stress to many already overwhelmed parents. How am I supposed to do everything?
Even after teaching young children for so long, I spent most of this week crumbling under this exact same pressure. I was not ready for this, and my first thoughts snowballed into an anxiety-filled fest of I am failing, I can’t do this, I am not enough, and they deserve more than me.
After I nearly gave myself a mental breakdown, I started to see through the fog. And here’s what I remembered.
1. Don’t try to recreate school
Here’s the thing, moms: you are not your kid’s schoolteacher. Your home is not your kid’s school. Your living room or playroom, no matter how you reorganize, is not their classroom. These things are not the same; this is not a normal situation.
Trying to recreate a school experience for them is just going to leave everyone frustrated and overwhelmed. You were not prepared for this—no one was. Even teachers who are now home with their kids were not prepared for this. It is new for everyone. No one is expecting you to all-of-a-sudden take on the role of your child’s schoolteacher, including your child’s school. We’re all still figuring this out.
Go easy on yourself as you start to figure out what this is going to look like for your family. Start to notice the things that are important to your kids, to you, and that holds true to your family’s values. You’re their parent, and it is your responsibility to help them learn—but this was always the case, and chances are, you’ve been doing this all along. So, trust yourself and recognize that what learning looks like at home is going to be very different than what it looks like at school. This is OK.
2. Let go of the schedule and create a loose routine instead
We’ve all seen those perfect self-isolation schedules floating around social media, and while these may work for some people, what they more often serve to do is create a higher set of expectations for already-struggling mothers.
Whether you’re working from home or not, setting up a highly-detailed schedule is just not going to work (at least for an extended period of time), nor is it necessary. You don’t need to pack an entire school day’s worth of activities in at home in order to create a functional learning experience. In fact, for most typical homeschool curriculums, formal instruction only accounts for an average of 3-4 hours per day (much less for younger students).
Children do appreciate and, many times, need structure and predictability (so do many parents), so setting up a loose routine for your days can help shape how the time flows. Always leave room for flexibility and spontaneity—with kids, you never quite know what will come up.
Let go of the idea that if you don’t do the maximum amount of structured education every day, your kids are going to fall behind. That’s not true. Schools will open again in time. What they, and you, are gaining now is a life experience.
3. Prioritize two things: free play and reading aloud
Most early childhood teachers will tell you that these two things—playing and reading—are the true work of childhood. The benefits of both of these things are endless and trump nearly every educational, parent-led activity you can find.
Free, open-ended play allows your child’s brain to be stimulated and allows vital neural connections to develop—this lets important processes and structures to form in your child’s mind. Play also creates optimal situations to learn social-emotional skills, like coping and cooperation, while also allowing an outlet for emotions. Play is how our kids begin to process the world around them, and especially in times of confusion like now, it’s a necessary release from a weight they may not even understand they are carrying.
So, build with blocks. Play pretend. Make a race track. Dress up. Camp under the dining table. Build a fort. Create a make-believe world. And recognize your kids are learning through all of it.
Reading functions similar to play. Research has repeatedly shown that infants and children who have been talked to, read to, and generally engaged with in verbal communication and interaction show more advanced language skills. Since language is fundamental to other cognitive development, talking, singing, and reading to your kids can make the most of these brain-building years. Reading together also promotes closeness, connection, communication, and curiosity—all of which can support an entire family through a strenuous time. Reading to them is not just for them, it’s for you too.
Books provide opportunities for discussion and questions and for exposure to worlds outside of our own—when we’re all sitting in our own houses, this is integral and cannot be lost. So if you do these two things each day, if even for 10 minutes, consider it a win. You’re doing great, and your kids are going to thrive.
4. Take movement breaks often
Movement is essential for young minds and older minds alike, so joining your kids in these breaks is a great idea. Make time at least once per hour to stretch, do a quick kid workout video, have a dance break, run around in the basements, or play a game of charades. It doesn’t matter what the activity is, it just matters that you are up and moving.
If you’re able to, get outside at least once a day. Practice social distancing and avoid playgrounds, but romping around the neighborhood otherwise is always a good idea—and our natural world offers more hands-on learning opportunities than anything inside.
5. Connect before you correct
This idea is useful across the parenting and teaching realm: before you correct your child, take a minute to connect with them. It offers parents and teachers a way to be kind and firm, which usually results in more cooperative kids and parents who are not drowning in guilt over snapping at their kids once again (we’ve all been there).
Here’s how it can help. Say my child is enthralled in his play and doesn’t want to stop to do his e-learning. Chances are, if I try to call him to come do his work (and then yell for him to come do his work), he’ll just resist more and get frustrated. But if I join him where he is, get down on his level, and ask genuine questions about what he’s doing and what his plans are for his building, he’ll be more likely to separate or respond to my request in the minutes that follow.
This is not giving in or babying, it’s building the trust needed for a healthy rapport between two people. And while we’re all stuck under the same roof for some time, this idea will help keep the peace.
6. Find learning in ordinary things
Here’s a secret: learning happens all the time.
You do not need to be sitting at the table with a pile of work in order for your kids to be learning. Cooking and baking is math and science and reading. Cutting fruits and vegetables (and cake!) is fractions. Board games, like Zingo! and Clue and Monopoly, are reading, cooperation, and logical thinking. Building with blocks is physics and geometry. Mixing random things like baking soda and vinegar, cornstarch and water, or oil and water, is science and chemical reactions. Looking aimlessly out the window is a lesson in natural process, prey and predator relationships, and the circle of life. Cutting up a magazine and gluing it on a piece of paper is fine motor skills, patience, and an exercise in self-expression.
When you take a moment to think and be present, learning is in everything we do. So, we can take off the pressure of creating perfectly curated Pinterest activities if that’s not our thing. We can let go of the worksheets and workbooks if we don’t have the time or mental energy to police them getting done. We can just be … and talk about what we’re learning.
8. Lower the bar
This is not school. This is not even school vacation. This is not working from home. This is not working from home with kids. Let’s be real: this is pandemic. This is shelter-in-place. This is the unknown.
This is an entirely new situation. It’s serious. It’s confusing. It’s scary.
Give yourself grace. And give yourself space. Let the kids get bored. Let them play aimlessly. Let them watch TV and play tablet games more than you usually do. All the rules are out the window right now, and that’s OK. This is not normal.
So, keep it simple. Just read, play, and breathe.