I've never, not for a fraction of a second, considered homeschooling my children. They both thrive at school and, as a work-from-home parent all of the time — not just during global pandemics — I need that precious alone time. Plus, my kids learn all sorts of mathematical and scientific stuff I could never even try to teach them.
But now — like millions of other parents across the world — I've found myself a reluctant homeschooler. And we're not just talking about the short-term. I could probably wing it for a few days with art supplies and a little help from Beverly Cleary and J.K. Rowling. Beyond that, I really have no idea what I'm doing. I've had to take a social media hiatus because pictures of other parents' lesson plans have me in a cold sweat.
Luckily, Cindy Hemming, an elementary school teacher from Toronto, Canada, has some reassuring words for me — and anyone else who's feeling majorly out of their depth right now.
"My advice to parents would be to enjoy spending time with their children and not worry overly about academic worksheets and meeting standards," she says. "Parents and families are under a great deal of stress in the current climate. Asking parents to take over the teaching role for eight hours a day is an enormous task that can put even more stress on both parent and child. Mental health for everyone in the family unit needs to be a priority right now. Stressed out, overwhelmed parents don't teach well and stressed out, overwhelmed kids don't learn well."
That doesn't mean we can just go on early summer vacation, though. While Hemming worries about families who are "attempting to do worksheets and online assignments hour after hour each day," she says some academic activity is important to maintain children's skill levels.
It turns out that "some academic activity" is a fairly broad category. "Hands-on, real world learning is powerful and can take any number of forms, including teaching life skills that children need to learn from their parents anyway," Hemming says.
She points out that, for example, baking helps students learn about fractions, reading the instructions to a new board game is the perfect reading comprehension activity, and penning letters to loved ones or elderly community members is an authentic writing exercise. "We often lament that these days kids don't have the life skills they need when graduating from school," she says. "Here's an opportunity to fill that gap."
Hemming suggests thinking about how you can incorporate learning into quality family time, daily responsibilities, and your child's interests. "You are, and have always been, your child's most important teacher," she says. "Spend time together. Play. Bake. Make art. Talk together. Grow a garden, Read, read, read. Your child is probably doing a lot of learning without you even realizing it. The silver lining in this incredibly difficult situation is the opportunity to connect with your child. Focus on that most of all."
I realize that not everyone's like me, and for many people, a stricter schedule can be a good thing. Jillian Bershtein, professor and student teacher supervisor at The College of New Jersey, thinks there are many positives to sticking to a set roster.
"Kids thrive on schedules, especially when the world is 'off-schedule,'" she says. Right now, she's homeschooling her two kids (8 and 10 years) and they "start at 9 a.m. sharp daily."
But they're normally finished with the academics by noon, and the PE and arts they do in the afternoon are mostly self-directed by the kids. "Keeping a schedule helps my high-anxiety child have purpose and control," Bershtein says. This echoes what friends of mine have said: Having a daily routine is helping to keep their kids' worries at bay.
I'm still not convinced that I have to start homeschool at 9 a.m. sharp to make sure my kids are equipped to deal with the pressures of pandemic life. Fit Learning Founder Kimberly Berens, Ph.D., agrees that we shouldn't stress too much over keeping rigorous schedules, but she does recommend one must-have tool to set clear boundaries between work time and break time: a timer.
"When your child needs to work on school assignments, set a timer for an amount of time that is reasonable for your child and will increase their chances of success, which may only be a few minutes for some learners," Berens says. Your child doesn't need to complete the assignment in one sitting, but they do need to work consistently during the timed work period. When the timer goes off, set it again for a break period (as short or as long as you like) where your child can stretch their legs, play, interact with their phone, etc. It's a flexible method that can be adapted to each family and their particular schedule.
And if your child is putting the effort into an assignment but doesn't seem to understand it, or is unable to complete it, let their teacher know you need help. "You're not required to act like your child's teacher and attempt to teach the lessons — that's not your job," Berens says.
Another vital component of your homeschooling toolkit is patience. "Teaching is tough. Period," Bershtein says. "Educators spend years perfecting their craft. Be patient with the teachers who are trying to rearrange their lives and teaching style on the fly. Be patient with your vulnerable children as they navigate life's changes and expectations, and be patient with yourself. Know that the kids will bounce back from this loss of true academic time and their regular classroom teachers will be there with open arms when the pandemic is over."
"We're all doing the best we can in this extremely difficult situation and doing the best you can is all teachers can ask of parents," Hemming adds. "Keep doing the best you can. You are enough."
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