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A Guide for Parents Teaching at Home

parents teaching
(Image credit: iStock/Kerkez)

I have spent more than 21 years in education. I have two different degrees in the field. I’m a former 1st and 5th grade teacher. 

All of this went out the window a few weeks ago when I was thrown into the world of home-schooling my three girls. Despite my experience, the transition from parent to at-home teacher has not been as easy as it might seem. 

I’ve seen multiple memes and posts about the struggles of parents during the uncertain time of COVID-19. We are all dealing with stress, our own work, where to find toilet paper, and many other unexpected challenges in our households. This can make for a chaotic environment that isn’t exactly conducive to high-quality learning. Most people do not have degrees in education or the time to debate pedagogical philosophies. They are just trying to get through the day with some sanity and hope that their kid learns something. 

I also know that every household is different. You might be a single parent with multiple kids. You might have a single child who has no one to collaborate or play with. You might be sharing your home or apartment with extended family and the opportunities or space for “quiet time” don’t really exist. 

This guide is not going to solve all your problems, but my hope is that you will pick up one or two tips to make your new daily role as teacher go a little more smoothly. 

Assigning roles

Understanding that every household is different and may not have two parents, those that do should assign roles. When my wife and I started out a few weeks ago, we tried to be “co-teachers.” We sat together for a couple of hours looking through the kids’ work, and after a week of struggle, reached a conclusion: We couldn’t both be lead teachers. 

My wife decided to take the lead in terms of managing the kids and keeping them on task, while I became the role of IT support, instructional coach, 5th-grade math tutor, and, in cases of behavioral problems, the counselor. It’s helped both us and our kids to have a consistent “point person” to go to for specific issues, particularly since I’m working remotely throughout the day and can’t give them my full attention.

With these shifts in roles, the kids needed to play a part, too. With mom and dad either teaching or working, some of the household chores and cooking started to fall to them. Our kids are elementary aged (grades 1, 2, and 5), so cooking for the house doesn’t come intuitively. Those of you with older kids might already have them helping with certain chores throughout the day.

Having these roles and a shared workload is one of the first steps to reducing the stress and pressure you might have on yourself. Also, if your child is falling behind, don’t be afraid to hold an occasional parent-teacher conference with yourself from time to time.

What type of learning is happening in your school?

School leaders across the country have been scrambling to provide resources and content to their students remotely. Their strategies for deploying resources might be having students connect with their teachers via video in a synchronous method or assigning a series of tasks to have students complete in a more asynchronous approach. In many situations, it is a mix of both synchronous and asynchronous teaching and learning. 

Synchronous Approach

Some schools are opting to maintain some semblance of a schedule by providing remote teaching via video conference. Synchronous learning is meant to mimic the actual classroom experience and can provide some relief for the parent-turned-teacher. 

In this scenario, the teacher leads the class in both instruction and expectations. They assign work, set deadlines, and provide assistance or clarify questions. Parents take on a more familiar role of assisting with homework and projects. 

This approach offers certain advantages:

  • Good for virtual support/office hours for the student 
  • Keeps students on a consistent schedule 
  • Helps continue the “classroom community” atmosphere, albeit virtually 
  • Provides just-in-time support and feedback 
  • Takes pressure off of the parents to be the “lead teacher” at home 

The disadvantages of this approach include: 

  • Reliant on good internet access 
  • Video conference tools can be intimidating 
  • Assumes all students have access to a device with a camera
  • Can result in increased screen time  

Schools that use the synchronous approach often have provided devices for students and helped with internet access for those families in need. As a parent, your role is to make sure your child logs on and is able to capture learning as it happens in real-time. 

Some schools that use synchronous methods do provide recordings of presentations for families who might have access issues, which then shifts this to more of an asynchronous method of remote learning.

Asynchronous Approach

This approach seems to be the one used by a majority of schools across the country. The method of asynchronous learning ranges widely, however, from teacher-led instructions via video to a packet of worksheets handed out every week. More pressure is placed on the parent to be the task-master and make sure that their kids are completing their work every week. 

This method offers certain advantages:

  • Flexible time to process and complete assignments 
  • Allows time for reflection 
  • Doesn’t require high bandwidth or access
  • Students set their own pace  

The disadvantages of this approach include: 

  • Losing the sense of schedule and community that comes from being in a physical classroom 
  • Feedback and troubleshooting are not happening in real-time over video, which could lead to delays in students completing their work 
  • Parents are forced to put on their “teacher hats” and understand what their children are learning to help them through the teaching process 

Regardless of which approach your child’s school uses, the following tips can help. 

Create a cheat sheet of websites and logins 

As our kids started receiving their first week’s assignments, we noticed much of it involved interacting with various websites and apps. Tools such as Seesaw that we had experienced from a teacher/parent side now looked different as we’ve never seen the student interface. Some websites had generic school logins while others involved our kids’ own usernames and passwords. Needless to say, it was a lot to manage. 

Luckily for us, one of our daughters’ teachers sent home a single page cheat sheet that contained all the usernames and websites our child would need to access. We immediately printed and placed it in her school work folder. 

Some schools utilize software that creates a log-in portal for students to access all their approved tools with a single-sign-on (SSO). 

Having a cheat sheet or bookmarking a student portal can remove the stress and effort of trying to search through hundreds of emails for the one from a teacher that might have the login. 

Schedule

Kids do well with schedules. The challenge is coming up with a learning schedule that also provides some flexibility for teachable moments and any other work-related issues that might pop-up for mom and dad. As I’m writing this, I’ve been taking pauses helping my 2nd grader with her science project and my 5th grader with her Civil War studies. We all need to have some flexibility during these times.

That said, creating a schedule as a framework for the day can help keep things moving forward and provide some sense of normalcy in your household when it comes to learning. No matter their ages, give your kids some ownership over the schedule you create as a family. 

Some items to consider: 

Try to avoid long stretches of academic time. Make sure that academic work time does not exceed three continuous hours. If possible, divide the day into “morning” and “afternoon” periods. This will help your kids by breaking up the learning into chunks and smaller steps that they can accomplish in a single sitting. 

Be flexible. If you are in an asynchronous learning environment, take advantage of the flexibility. Your child’s school may have had 90 minutes of math every morning, but you can tweak that and have your child do a majority of their math work in one or two days if they are motivated. Certain subjects (such as reading and writing) should be done every day, but other subjects can be addressed on a single weekday if you feel as if they have momentum in that particular area.

Monday-Friday weeks are “old school.” The work world may still rely on the Monday through Friday work week, but school doesn’t have to follow suit unless you have synchronous classes that your child has to attend at certain times. After the first week of remote learning in our household, my wife and I made the executive decision to take off Wednesdays. While it condensed the work into two-day chunks, it allowed for all of us in the family to take a breath and explore more creative pursuits. As long as the teacher allows it, the kids have some work spill into Saturday. 

Build in time for creativity, fun, and “alone time.” As you build the framework of your family schedule, be sure to include time for more than just the academic day. Having time to play and be creative is good for every human, young and old. Just as importantly, everyone needs time to reflect. After being confined to the house for a few weeks, the importance of alone time cannot be understated, both for the kids and the adults.

Physical movement and brain breaks. Even within the longer daily academic periods, be sure that your kids take small breaks. The average minutes of attention that a child can muster for a certain task is approximately the same as their age. In other words, if you have a 5-year old at home, expect them to be able to focus on one assignment or task for about 5 minutes. (For what it’s worth, the average adult can only focus on a task for 18 to 20 minutes.) Knowing this, have tools that encourage physical movement, such as GoNoodle.com, or strategies, such as impromptu dance parties, in your back pocket. If you notice your child’s motivation to do the work waning, get them up and moving to reinvigorate their brain. 

Focus and motivation

Creating a schedule, building in breaks, and having a cheat sheet are all great structures to put in place, but what happens when the actual teaching and learning begins? Kids of all ages struggle with focus and motivation on a daily basis. Now we’ve just taken away their education routine and started their summer vacation early, so getting excited about remote learning might not come naturally to most kids. 

If you find yourself in a constant struggle getting your child to complete their assignments, here are a few tips that I’ve curated from parents of kids of every age:

Create a task sheet for the week. Some schools are sending a weekly “choice sheet” or “task sheet.” If yours is not, you may want to spend some time with your child on Monday going through the items that they will have to accomplish each day. (While I’m a big fan of keeping everything digital, for our younger two children, we print these task sheets out on Monday morning and then put it in the front of their assignment folders.) For younger kids, meeting with them daily and outlining the things they will need to accomplish each day and providing them a checklist helps them not feel overwhelmed.  For older students, they may want to look at the week as a whole and then identify the harder projects and assignments to knock out sooner rather than later.

Break learning into small chunks. Even with identifying their daily and weekly goals, kids can struggle to stay on track. If they have some larger projects to work on that may take several hours, divide it into smaller chunks. Set timers for 20 or 30 minutes and have them focus on their activity for that time, and then give them 10 to 15 minutes to play, relax, go outside, etc. For younger kids, you might have to break it down into even smaller chunks of time. Your child’s teacher may have already done this for you, but you are the best judge of your child and their attention span. 

Have some other activities ready. If you have multiple children (as I do), it’s likely that their amount of work will vary greatly based on their age. When one completes their work for the day or week, have some other choices for them to fill in the time. For example, this is a good time to supplement with art or music, reteach with a math app, or have a supplemental worksheet. One other strategy to have in your back pocket is to have each of your kids choose a topic for an ongoing research report. Each of our kids has an animal studies project they are doing in Book Creator as research--when one finishes their work early, they are excited to look up more information on their animal, post pictures and facts, and create a fictional story with their animal as the main character. Their interests deeply drive their engagement and motivation.

Extrinsic rewards. Ideally each kid is motivated intrinsically to complete their work in a timely fashion without much harassment. However, we don’t live in an ideal world. The reality is kids will need more reasons to complete their learning assignments than mom or dad saying, “Because I said so!” Collaborate with your child on a list of things they would like for a reward. Try to avoid monetary rewards if possible. Some reward ideas for younger kids could be stickers, stamps, playing a game, a quick bike ride, solving a puzzle, or coloring/drawing in their favorite art book. For older kids, it could involve some extra time on a video game, time to chat with friends, eliminating one of their chores for the week, choosing a meal for the week, or earning points toward something they want to buy (new skateboard, a book, movie, game, etc). 

The “Bed Time Bonus” reward is another strategy that we use and might work well, especially with younger kids. Here’s how it works: Our kids’ normal bedtime is 8 pm (although this rarely happens, it’s what we strive for), however, if they can accomplish their daily goals without fighting with one another (or their parents), they get a bonus hour before they have to go to bed. As a family, we try and reward that bonus time by doing something together as a family like play a board game or binge-watching past seasons of Survivor

Identifying motivations and helping your child or children focus is a daily endeavor. Some days will go extremely well and others will not. While we try to avoid consequences, there are days where you might have to levy a punishment for not getting their work completed or for arguing with their home teacher (you). They might struggle and complain, but know that real learning can be difficult and some conflict can be a good thing. 

Remember, if you can, that a frustrated teacher/parent can make a hard situation even worse. No matter the reasons, be sure to give yourself some grace and have patience. You are not alone!

Asking for professional help

This is a confusing time for parents, students, and teachers. If you are having a hard time with your child’s learning, don’t be afraid to ask for help. You may not be aware of it, but your child’s teacher likely has some “just-in-time” strategies they deploy in the classroom when kids are struggling. Ask for tips or ideas when you see your child hitting a roadblock. 

As teachers scramble to put assignments on Google docs or an LMS and share those with their students, there might be some confusion with what has to be accomplished. The use of recorded video instructions or synchronous video chats can help clarify the learning objectives for students, but not all teachers or schools have access to this method to communicate what work needs to be done. Encourage your child to follow up with their teacher (remember the goal for autonomy) to clarify any instructions that might be confusing. 

Also remember that nearly everyone involved in this is new to this method of learning. A teacher may give your child a list of tasks that might involve logging into multiple websites to complete items. Even when your child says they submit some completed work, it might not be getting through to the teacher for any number of technical reasons. If you and/or your child are tracking their weekly work on a checklist, have them put the date/time when it was submitted. This way you have a record of when it was completed and submitted, and can share it with the teacher at the end of the week so they can see if any work is being lost along the way.

In addition to content clarifications and instructional tips, some students have accommodations for their learning via a 504 plan or Individualized Education Plan (IEP). When learning shifted suddenly from the classroom to the home, some of these accommodations might have been lost in the shuffle. Be sure to reach out to your school contact person (often a counselor) to see how you might get additional help and accommodations at home with your child’s learning. Our middle child has dyslexia and has struggled some since we started this remote learning adventure. However, we reached out to the school and almost immediately were given resources to help her with any learning challenges she might be having.

Setting goals

Having goals can help keep students on track and helps them feel a sense of accomplishment when they reflect on their work for the day or week. It also provides some measure of accountability with themselves to see if they can accomplish everything they set out to do. 

With older students who are a little more autonomous, you may want to think of your role as more of an academic counselor than a teacher. You’ll want to check in with them each morning to go over their goals for the day and follow-up at the end of the day to see if they completed everything they had targeted.

A big overall goal for any student is to increase their autonomy when it comes to completing their work. Many families don’t have the ability for both parents to help and assist with learning every step of the way. Encouraging your child to be more independent and getting their work done, even with small tasks, helps to build their confidence and takes pressure off of you as a teacher.

Finally, have some form of reflection built into the remote school day that helps kids internalize what they learned. Know that learning happens in many different forms, and it’s not just about covering whatever content has been assigned. Take advantage of teachable moments such as looking up the type of bug discovered on a walk or the best way to make good pizza crust. If your child is interested in a topic even after they have finished an assignment, give them some time to research, write, draw, read, or record their thinking as an extension. 

Learning is as much about the process as it is about the product. And right now we all have quite a bit to process to help our kids from falling behind and preparing them for what every challenge is thrown their way next.

Good luck. You got this!

*More from T&L: Practical Advice for Remote Teachers and Families