National and state emergency declarations because of COVID-19 have left millions of working parents and their children struggling with a new normal. An analysis by Education Week estimates that public and private schools in at least 46 states are closed, affecting at least 54.5 million school students. An increasing number of states, including California, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois, have directed all people who can work at home to do so. As a result, many working parents are struggling with a new normal: families living, working, and going to school under one roof.
“If things seem totally overwhelming, I would remind parents that the first week, and few weeks, of any time transition, kids are the hardest. After that a routine comes,” says Cindy Hemming, an elementary school teacher who writes Living for the Sunshine, a blog about pregnancy and parenthood. Hemming has two children, ages 5 and 2.
The first few weeks of any transition can be challenging, but there are some tips that education professionals and working parents have found that can help ease the transition for everyone:
When it seems as if there is, collectively, an impossible amount to get done, break the list down to the essentials, says Chaya Gutnick, founder of Control My Chaos, an operational efficiency consultancy, who has a degree in early childhood education, with two children, ages 2 and 4.
“You’re likely not going to get as much work done as you would regularly,” she says, especially at first. So, look at each day and determine what the most important items are. Ditch extraneous tasks, meetings, and expectations. Realize this is new and that you’re going to have to figure out a system that works best for your family and you, she says. Control what you can and try to be flexible and patient with what you cannot control, she says. Taking time in the evening to plan the next day can help you get off on the right foot, too, she says.
Create a schedule
Despite the memes mocking schedules for schooling from home, having a framework for your day is essential, says Amanda Holdsworth, a marketing professional with a doctorate in education who writes the Comms Mom blog. She also works at home and has two young children, ages 5 and 8. She found enlisting the help of her 8-year-old daughter to help her review priorities and create a schedule helped her daughter feel more in control and created buy-in, meaning she was more apt to follow it.
Some children, especially older ones, may need more flexibility in their day, Holdsworth says. It’s generally a good idea to start with a routine—get up, get dressed, eat breakfast, etc.—and then front-load the day with the most essential tasks. If your children’s teachers have hours when they’re available for help and questions, be sure that schoolwork scheduling overlaps with that time to ensure your children have help when they need it.
If possible, follow the school-day schedule they already have to create a sense of familiarity. For older children, take advantage of online tools available that help you monitor progress and track grades. That way, you can speak to your child’s teacher if you see problems emerging, she says.
Younger children generally need routine and shorter windows of focus—perhaps a half-hour at a time, Hemming adds. Older children may be able to focus for longer periods. Adults typically max out their focus at the 90-minute mark. So, plan breaks throughout the day. But you know your child best, so adapt accordingly, she adds.
Claim your own time
Gutnick likes to wake early so she has time for exercise and coffee before the rest of her house wakes. She and her husband take responsibility for the children’s schedule in roughly two-hour shifts, each tending to their own work and scheduling calls when the other is “on duty.”
For single parents who don’t have that option, the answer may lie in rotating the types of schoolwork, depending on how much supervision your children need, working while they are reading or working on an art project, she says. If you can group your schedule into windows where you spend 30 minutes with your children and then work for 90 minutes, you’ll give them the contact they crave throughout the day, which may be helpful in giving you fewer interruptions during your work time so you can focus, she says.
Kelley Lawton, program management office director at online education company Continued, works full time at home and now has two children, ages 10 and 13, on home instruction as well. She knows that while they’re working on language arts or practicing their musical instruments, she’ll have some time in her home office to tend to her work in roughly 45-minute to hour-long blocks. Her children are old enough for her to leave them to work for periods of time and to understand the need for quiet when she’s on a call or needs to do focused work. And there’s no shame in allowing the children some screen time periodically so you can get things done.
FlexJobs’ Sarah Sutton recently wrote for Fast Company about working from home with kids and included some age-appropriate activities that don’t require as much close supervision, such as:
- Naps, swings, bouncy chairs
- Shows or videos such as Baby Einstein or whatever you trust
- Listen to musical songs
Toddlers through elementary:
- Favorite shows and/or related online games. PBS has many options.
- Educational games and apps
- Reading, writing stories
- Educational, positive, or inspirational shows or movies: Nature, America’s Got Talent, funniest home videos, etc.
- School platforms
- Minecraft or activities that keep them socializing online with their friends
Look for resources
This is a tough time for everyone, Hemming says. In addition to missing their friends, teachers, and the structure of school, children may also be sensing their parents’ anxiety, which can exacerbate their own. And some families may not find relief in solutions that work for others. If you’re struggling, keep in touch with your child’s teachers and watch correspondence from the school to see if there are other resources being offered, Hemming suggests. For example, some schools are offering remote counseling from school guidance counselors and mental health professionals.
In addition, keep in touch with your supervisor and company to take advantage of any assistance offered there, ranging from mental health counseling to granting additional flexibility in your work hours, Gutnick says. And relief may also be coming from government entities. On Friday, March 20, the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced additional support for small and midsize businesses to offer sick and childcare leave to their employees for COVID-19. More federal aid announcements are expected in the coming weeks.
Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for every family, Gutnick says. “Give yourself grace, and realize the beginning is going to be tougher while you get into a rhythm,” she says. Use the resources available to you and try different approaches and solutions until you find the best mix for your family.