8 Steps to Starting Homeschool During COVID-19 (and Keeping Your Sanity)
A step-by-step guide to setting up your new “homeschool” as smoothly as possible
Like many of you, my family is suddenly and overwhelmingly in full homeschooling mode, with all the ups and downs that come with it. As a teacher, I thought I knew exactly what to do…but this first week home has proven more challenging than anticipated. I’ve asked many socially isolating families what their main ‘pain point’ is at the moment, and most of them reply with the same — they are working multiple full time jobs, with their role as teacher/parent completely overlapping their role at work.
We started our homeschooling on Monday, and it was not until Thursday that I suddenly felt everything snap into place. So I decided to use my newfound free time (which was nonexistent Sunday through Wednesday!) to walk you through a step-by-step guide for getting set up at home. Hopefully I can help you recover most of your working hours…and practice some sorely needed self care!
Step 1: Be realistic
As with any endeavor, it can be helpful to set appropriate expectations. The first few days will be tough. Even if your children are relatively happy, there is just so much work to be done for the first few days, until all the resources are set up properly and the routine becomes….well, routine! It is also helpful to set some goals, which can help you to choose wisely when bombarded with options. We live in an age of endless online resources, and the choices for what to fill our children’s lives with can be a bit overwhelming.
Here is what happened in our house the first 5 days of *surprise!* homeschool.
Day One: Everyone was excited, especially our 7 year old. She prepped a lunch and ate it at “school,” set up her desk the night before, and asked me for a late slip when she dallied a little too long at breakfast. I was relatively full on patience, but little fires popped up ALL. DAY. LONG. Missing passcodes for online learning sites. Screen time controls malfunctioning. Missing supplies. On top of that, our youngest wanted to show me everything she did, every 10 minutes of the day.
Day Two: The novelty had worn off, and my patience was flying at half mast. This was our hardest day. Lots of outbursts, luckily mostly from the kids, but perhaps one or two from me.
Day Three: Much better, but still a really busy day. Tons of curriculum started coming in from school, which I kept hurriedly trying to understand and map to our schedule. The complaints started coming in from the kids, things they didn’t like about their schedules. My best advice here is stop and really hear them out on what is working and what isn’t. They will feel listened to and more in control, and it can help you understand what they need right now. I stopped our day by about 2:00 and let them watch two movies in a row. They needed it and I did too. I used some of that time to restructure our planned daily schedule.
Day Four: Readjusted schedules meant some more legwork again on my part, but things started to really hum
Day Five: Totally smooth sailing. All 3 kids seemed to have found their new rhythm, the youngest was sharing all her work with her teacher instead of me, and generally I was free almost the entire day!
Step 2: Get organized
I should preface this by saying I have remade the kids’ schedules about 4–5 times in as many days. But having a schedule has still been FAR better than letting the kids run their own days. What has worked well for us is dividing the day into segments, and then having a checklist of items to get done during each portion of the day, in whatever order they want. This schedule can be printed out for each child to then cross off items as they go. In my personal version, I notate next to each line if there is specific work they need to complete from their teacher (or from me), and I include any links they need for the day. I then share the file with them digitally, giving them ‘suggestion’ access on Google Docs. This allows them to delete each item as they go, and I can see the strikethroughs on my screen as they finish each task.
If you are home with younger kids who are not yet fluent readers, the same type of schedule can be used to help them be self sufficient — simply replace the words with pictures and create a ‘visual schedule.’
It is also helpful to organize in other ways. I have many different lists posted around the kitchen: options for recess/PE activities, family activities, personal project ideas, a chores chart, and a menu. This document has samples of many of my lists, including a list of online learning resources you can share with your children.
Another way of getting organized is to plan out activities to help children to deal with their emotional reactions. There is a lot of change in our lives, and lots of fear and worry around all of us. The Red Cross says, “Children are especially at risk as they may become frightened that they or their loved ones will get sick. It is important to reassure children and talk to them in a calm manner. Their view of the world as a safe and predictable place is temporarily lost. How a parent or other adult reacts around the child in a situation like this can determine how quickly and completely the child recovers.”
In order to help parents with this daunting task, I have updated my Social and Emotional Learning directory, normally designed for teachers, to include tips for parents. Rather than asking you to read everything on the site, when you already have way too much to do, I am sending out one tip a day over social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram) — please follow me if you’d like to see my daily suggestions. Here is a ‘feelings board’ I created a few days ago — walking by and changing their peg gives my children automatic moments of checking in with themselves and assessing where their emotional health stands.
One final necessary bit of organization is setting up a desk or workspace for each child. Choose a spot together, and set up their schoolwork, some paper, some extra workbooks and coloring books, etc. This space should ideally ONLY be used during homeschool hours, as it will help them to focus — just like having a separate “office” helps adults to focus.
Step 3: Get control of their devices
Like it or not, my kids now have many of their devices out all day long. I am the type of parent who typically keeps these put aside for short amounts of time on the weekends or long plane flights. In order to achieve my second goal, reducing screen time, I went through the onerous process of updating all of their ‘Screen Time’ restrictions (Apple products). Most devices allow you to set downtimes, choose what apps are allowed and for how long, and control which websites your child visits. This way, I don’t have to wonder if they are secretly whittling away the hours on Minecraft. I also checked their screen time usage each day to see if I needed to make any adjustments, as my kids are really good at outwitting the system!
I also created a document with all of their online learning resource sites, teacher codes, user names, and passwords. I shared this document with each of my kids, so they wouldn’t have to ask me to help them log in over and over again throughout the day.
Many teachers are using zoom to connect with kids live — I have a separate document with these logins, which I continuously update. I taught my children how to set up their own zoom meetings, so I often find them doing live dance or flute lessons without needing me at all.
Step 4: Bodies moving
Exercise is one of the best ways to regulate emotions, especially during high stress and anxiety times such as these.
Here is a list of active play ideas to get you started incorporating ‘recess’ and ‘PE’ into your child’s day at home. My favorites are definitely Cosmic Kids Yoga and GoNoodle, both available on YouTube.
Step 5: Occupied minds
Being at school actually wastes quite a bit of time. You may have found this with your transition to working from home — meetings are more efficient, there is no commute time, and no one to distract you at the proverbial ‘water cooler.’ It is the same for my kids — they often finish all of their school work before lunch. Hence, my addition of the personal project.
Each child has a personal project of some substance, which they chose for themselves. This occupies a portion of their afternoon each day, and allows them to focus in deeply on one topic for the day. They don’t have to choose just one, but each project must be done well. Our 2nd grader has opted to create a digital photo book of all of her favorite photos. She is also working on a journal chronicling her experience of living through a pandemic — photos, videos, drawings, diary entries, and even interviews of people she knows at home and around the world. Our 5th grader is learning how to start a YouTube channel of his own, and our 9th grader has put together a website to gather primary source material on life during COVID-19 from around the world (I will update with a link once it is live!). You can find a list of personal project ideas here.
Step 6: Stay connected
However you structure your schedule, set aside a free time window for your children to connect with friends and family. It can be helpful to take time to figure out which apps each person is primarily using in their network, so your kids know how to get in touch with people on their own. FaceTime, WhatsApp, Messenger, Messenger Kids, and Google Hangouts are just a few ways your kids can be in touch with their friends. Try to encourage at least 1–2 calls a day for each child, to help them feel connected to the outside world. Don’t forget to call grandma and grandpa whenever possible, who may be even more isolated than you!
You can also show your kids how to play virtual games with others. These can be video games that allow users to connect, like Roblox, or simple apps on the phone such as Words with Friends and the like.
Step 7: Have weekends
It can be easy to let homeschooling bleed into the weekends, but try to put a firm stop on schooling activities on Friday afternoon, so home just feels like home for the weekend. If you can, find places to go outside the home while still being safe. So far we have planned family walks by the lake, hiking in the woods, and a trip to the beach when it gets warmer outside! Simply walking to a different part of town for a change of scenery can help restore spirits. It can also be great to plan some unwinding type projects for the weekend, whatever that means to you — knitting, cooking, meditation, or a long bike ride.
This weekend, we put more effort into video calls to stay close to family and friends. We’ll be rounding out Sunday afternoon with a family movie marathon!
Step 8: Self care
While working two or even three jobs at once, it can be seemingly impossible to practice self care. But I have managed to find moments here and there to make sure I exercise, unwind, and do what is needed to manage my own emotional well being.
I began by adding time into the schedule when I am ‘unavailable.’ I use that time for some peaceful and focused work of my own, as well as to get my own daily exercise. I tell the kids to ask each other for help during those hours, and to write down questions they have if they get stuck. They are then expected to switch to another topic until I am free to answer their question.
As much as possible, I have enjoyed joining my kids for their recess and PE time. By joining in on Cosmic Kids Yoga, for example, I get 20 minutes of yoga in for myself. It’s also just a great way to have fun together throughout the day, to take this opportunity to bask in their childlike joy.
We have been doing chores together each day as a family, with the children doing many more chores around the house than they typically do in a school week. This is my way of making sure I don’t end up picking up all the slack myself. It’s also great learning for the kids!
Don’t be afraid to throw the schedule to the wind and plop the kids down for a movie here and there. You are doing your best, and your best does NOT need to be perfect! Chances are the kids need to unwind as much as you do.
I know this is hypocritical, as I am a notorious night owl, but try to get your 8–9 hours of sleep each night. It is ok if school is not set up perfectly for the next day. Getting your zzz’s will keep you healthier, and make you more productive. It will also help you regulate your emotions better.
And finally, turn off the news. Reading a few articles in the morning and end of day seems reasonable…binging coronavirus updates 24/7, not so healthy!
For more tips on how to help your children (and yourself!) to regulate emotions during this chaotic time, please visit my Social and Emotional Learning site, or follow me (Twitter/Facebook) for daily tips!