School has started or is about to start ’round here. For the moment, we’re all online, and many parents are struggling with the situation.
Different households have different dynamics. Parents and kids have a wide range of personalities and interpersonal relationships. Be open to possibilities. Take what works; leave what doesn’t.
As a teacher with decades of mostly-successful experience in classroom management, I’m here to give you some tips that will work with most kids most of the time. My context is elementary-aged people; much of this will work with older ones, too. And with adults. Really, most of this applies to most people most of the time.
Warning: consistency is critical, and consistency is maddening. You have to do it. It will not work without. (That’s actually true of parenting in general, but I’m not going down that rabbit hole.)
Also, it’s important to remember that children are people and have wants, needs, feelings, opinions, good days, bad days just like adults do.
Enough intro. On with the stuff.
Give them space to work
At school, they have their desk or their spot at their table.
Find a spot that is their school space. If you have room, you can have it be a semi-permanent space; it doesn’t have to be. An uncluttered table top that is theirs to use for the day gets the job done. Kitchen table would work, if it doesn’t need to be cleared for lunch. Their own desk, a child-sized table, a portion of a large table, a folding table, whatever. Ideally, it will be something that is their size, but again, if you don’t have that already and don’t have space or means to acquire, use what you have. It will be OK.
Also, many don’t like to sit at tables or desks all the time (which is good—adults shouldn’t, either), so if they’re working on a laptop or a tablet (or working during off-screen time), let them have the flexibility of sitting on the floor. In Montessori, students use mats to establish their work space. A throw rug, blanket, or towel could easily serve the same purpose. This sets boundaries for the child (this is my space) and for anyone else in the room (that’s their space). Again, this can easily be put down and picked up daily.
Give them necessary materials
Typically, they have one or more notebooks, pencils, erasers. Maybe a ruler, colored pencils, scissors, tape, glue, a white board, markers. Make sure ahead of time they have all the materials they will need (ask their teacher if a list was not provided) and keep the materials together in the work space.
If you have space and want to be fancy and use different containers and label and/or decorate them, etc., go for it! (Hats off to you, Pinterest-y mamas!) Involve the child in the process. Remember: it’s their school space, not yours. If you just have an Amazon box that seems like it’s close enough to the right size, use that. (Letting them decorate a plain cardboard box can incite buy-in, especially if they are younger or artsy. Older kids could make collages with magazine cutouts, if you want to go there.)
One of the things you’ll see in any well-run elementary classroom is a place for everything. The kids know where stuff is. The teacher doesn’t need to fetch everyday items for students, and students don’t need to ask where something is every time they need it. You can have this fluidity as well. Create it.
Establish a schedule
Kids like to know what to expect and when. Routine and consistency are critical.
The schedule will, in part, be delivered by your child’s teacher. I am assuming that some of the work will be done in real time with the teacher “present” and some of the work will be done without the teacher.
So let’s say live classes are at 8, 10, 12:30, and 2 each day for 30 minutes each. The child’s schedule might look something like this:
- 7:00 Wake up, do morning things (clothes, food, teeth, potty, etc.—whatever your normal morning routine includes)
- 7:40 Turn on computer, make sure internet connection is working. Assuming all is well with technology, play time (ideally outside) until 7:55.
- 7:54 One-minute warning that playtime is ending—helps the transition
- 7:55 Get a drink, go to the bathroom, settle into class
- 8:00 Class
- 8:30 School work (maybe more specific, if you have more information). This will not necessarily be sitting still and might shift between the table and the floor, or different positions on the floor.
- 9:30 Play, snack, drink, bathroom
- 10:00 Class
- 10:30 School work
- 11:00 Lunch, play, bathroom
- 12:30 Class
- 1:00 School work
- 1:30 Play, drink, bathroom
- 2:00 Class
- 2:30 Finish any unfinished work from the day
- 3:00 Play, snack, drink, bathroom
And schedule the evening however evenings go.
Schedule some one-on-one time with them (during the day or in the evening), even if it’s not for very long (10-15 minutes), and give them undivided attention during that time.
Schedule yourself some alone time, even if it’s not for very long (10-15 minutes), and set boundaries around it. It is non-negotiable. (You need this.)
Having a schedule for the school day lets kids know what they’re doing when and for how long. If they can’t tell time yet, set alarms. (Or set alarms regardless. I’ve been able to tell time for a long time—I don’t even need numbers on the clock face!—and I still use alarms regularly.) Teach them how to turn the alarms off if they don’t already know. Let them practice that more than once in more than one sitting.
Put the schedule on a piece of paper and hang it in the school area so they have it available. If you put it in a picture frame, you/they can write on the glass with dry erase markers. So they can, for example, check off each time block as it passes. Or you can make a note next to a time block for something to remember that day. Or write today’s lunch. Or write a note of encouragement.
Elementary teachers do this for weeks at the beginning of the school year. We set the procedures and we intentionally practice them. Kids don’t remember all the stuff in one pass, and they’re not going to by you telling them once, either. Habits are not formed in one try. The first Monday after the first weekend is the worst.
What do you need a procedure for? Everything. If you have a procedure for everything, and you practice them at the beginning of the year (or before, since you have that advantage), they don’t need to ask nearly as many questions once it’s all established. (That will take time.)
Refer to the schedule for starters.
- If they’re working independently, what do they do if the computer and/or internet isn’t working?
- How do they know when the times on the schedule are arriving? (Are you watching the clock? Are they? Are there alarms? Are they allowed to take the device with the alarms outside if they play outside?)
- Where do they put their written work when they’re done with it?
- Can they have a drink at their work station? What kind of drink? (Water only, please!)
- What is available for snack? Do they get it themselves? Do they clean it up after? (What does “clean it up” mean/include?)
- What do they do if they need help?
- What do they do if they’re finished their school work before the “school work” time block is up? (Read, draw, write a letter, practice another skill.)
- What can they do during play time? (I strongly recommend no screens and extra moving during the school day.)
- Are they allowed to listen to music during their work time? What about TV?
- Are they allowed to text or otherwise engage with friends outside of the class time during school time?
- What if they need to go to the bathroom and it’s not bathroom time? (I put bathroom breaks on the schedule because the bathroom is a well-known and oft-used place to spend time when you don’t feel like doing your work. And since at home, they can’t ask to go to the nurse…)
Practice them. Role play them.
Young kids can have significant independence. Teach them how.
Change your hat
This is theoretical. I made it up. I haven’t tried it. Yet.
Our kids often interact differently with their teachers than they do with us.
So perhaps as part of procedures, establish when you’re the teacher and when you’re the parent. Maybe literally wear a teacher hat. (I mean, not a hat made of teachers, which I guess would literally be a teacher hat. But a hat that you establish as the “I’m the teacher when I’m wearing this hat.”) Maybe make a different name for that character. Something (or a set of somethings) to separate the role of parent from the role of teacher, both for you and for them.
(It doesn’t have to be a hat. It could be any piece of clothing that is easy to add and subtract to whatever you’re wearing. A jacket. A cape. Fake glasses. Cat ears. Whatever.)
Follow through and be consistent
Consistency is key. Patience is necessary. It will take them longer to learn procedures than you think it should. If you have multiple kids at home, having similar procedures for all of them will help everyone to remember them.
Because this is new (unless you got it all figured out last spring), the plan might need tweaks. Have an intentional conversation about the tweaks.
Outside of that, when they whine, refer to procedures. If you give in after they bug you long enough, they learn that they just need to bug you long enough and then you get bugged more. I tell my students (and my son, though not often because he learned this a long time ago, and his friends), “You can ask me as many times as you want. The answer will be the same.”
Shaming is not good for behavior change. It also does not promote growth. (Have you made positive change in response to being shamed?) While snarky comments might be the first nine things that pop into your head in response to something not getting done/understood (or finally getting done/understood), please keep them to yourself.
You know all of those negative tapes that play in your head about yourself? Many of those were planted by people earlier in your life shaming you. Those are not the seeds you want to plant in your children.
(Sometimes this is the hardest one. Sometimes I text my friend and tell her I didn’t even get a trophy today for not saying xyz. Because there’s no pat on the back for staying quiet when you ought to. If you need one, let me know. I will empathize and give you an e-trophy. Because it’s so hard, and it’s worth it.)
A last note, just on mindset and vocabulary…
This isn’t homeschooling. When you homeschool, you create (or find and adapt) lesson plans, scope and sequence; you create assessments; you grade the materials. Parents with kids in remote learning, you don’t have to do these things. Silver lining: those tasks are not on your plate.
I’m not saying that what you’re doing isn’t hard. Just that it’s not everything.
And also: you can do hard things. Good luck.