This year, many parents around the world have faced an unprecedented situation: working from home along with their children. And, without access to babysitters, camps, school programs or playdates, many parents have had to find new ways to balance work and family life — as well as new ways to motivate their kids to engage in their education.
If you’re one of the many Americans who are struggling with this new — and exhausting — paradigm, don’t worry. We asked eight parenting, education and time-management experts for actionable advice on how to plan efficiently, set boundaries, motivate kids and design engaging learning environments. Below are their answers to our most pressing questions on productivity and education during the pandemic:
Jump to section:
- How to Balance Work & Family Life
- How to Set Boundaries for Working Time
- How to Manage Interruptions During Working Hours
- How to Motivate Children in Online School
- How to Create an Appropriate Learning Environment
- How to Help Your Children Become More Independent
How to Balance Work & Family Life
1. Discuss, Plan & Divide Work & Childcare
If you have a two-parent household or you’re living with other adults who can pitch in, your first step in finding balance is getting to know each other’s schedules and planning your working and child care time together.
Heather Nelson, four-time published author, recommends: “First and foremost, parents should dialogue together on their respective work commitments. Determine what can flex, what can move and what absolutely must be addressed. After that, look for areas where you can each step into the lead with the kids and focus on what the kids need without distractions or split focus. Kids deserve that level of engagement and, with a little planning, it’s completely doable to both work and supervise your child’s education.”
That’s not to say that the childcare needs to be evenly divided. In many situations, one caregiver may have a more demanding job than the other.
Lindsey Wander, founder and CEO at WorldWise Tutoring, explains that, “Parents with more demanding jobs can correlate schedules with the other parent to get longer, uninterrupted stretches during critical times of the day. If both parents have demanding jobs, consider hiring help.”
Of course, help needn’t come solely from your partner. You can also engage your larger network of family and friends when you need an extra hand.
2. Use Your Plan to Compartmentalize
Once you’ve figured out your battle plan, balance working and family time by compartmentalizing. Wander expands on this point and stresses the importance of prioritization:
“With office and school closures, our private homes have also become a hub for working and learning. This has made our normal work-life balance topple over. To help remedy this, compartmentalize your brain to separate family time and work time. When you are with your kids, be fully present. Do not try to multitask by checking emails. Give your kids your full attention during their dedicated time. If something comes up while you are with your kids, first gauge [if] it is really urgent before acting. Most ‘emergencies’ can wait. If it is urgent and needs your immediate attention, allow your kids 15 minutes of screen time while you address the issue.
In the same way, be totally productive when you are working. Avoid social media or texting breaks, for example. You’ll find that when you cut out the time-wasting distractions, you don’t need eight hours a day dedicated to work to achieve the same productivity.”
How to Set Boundaries for Working Time
3. Create & Settle Into a Rhythm
Productivity experts have written hundreds of books on habit-building for a reason. A routine allows everyone in the household to settle into productive time and off-time, as well as enable all of you to stick to schedules more easily.
“My best advice for organizing your time during remote learning is to keep to a rhythm every day and every week that most closely aligns with your family’s natural rhythm. Children need order and predictability to feel safe and secure. Sticking to a rhythm means you can be intentional about what your priorities are. For instance, you can all have the same wake-up time and the same sleep time. Or, you can have one adult get up early and work 6 a.m. to noon so the other adult has time for him/herself and then dedicated time with the kids, and then switch. Whatever you choose, I recommend you follow your family’s natural rhythm and habits to make it as easy as possible,” Wander said.
4. Divide Time Into Blocks
A routine everyone can stick to day in and day out sounds fantastic. But, the fact of the matter is that it’s probably unrealistic for most households. So, use time blocks to make sure you adhere to a rhythm as much as possible.
Carolyn Garett, parenting expert at Teach.Work.Mom, recommends: “Set time blocks. They will help you to stay productive without feeling like you are neglecting your kids. There will be a time to work and a time to give attention to your kids. Plan out your schedule and set blocks of time where you can take a break from work to spend with the kids. If you give them the needed attention, they will more likely respect your work time. Kids who interrupt you all day are kids that are starved for attention. Give them their time, and they will learn to respect your time.”
When it comes to establishing this schedule, Wander advises parents, “Block off times for work and school meetings first, then add in time blocks for exercising, eating, relaxing quietly and fun (baking, games, swimming, crafts). When possible, add in extra ‘cushion time’ for transitions that you know can sometimes be challenging, like leaving the house or getting ready for bed. The key is not the specific schedule; it’s just having one. You can flex as needed if something significant comes up, but with this in place, all of you will know what your days will generally look like. Consider referencing homeschool scheduling suggestions for remote learning.”
5. Communicate with Your Supervisors
Boundaries come much easier if everyone in your home and work life is informed of your schedule and the interruptions that might arise. To that end, Nelson suggests you communicate openly and clearly with your supervisors if the situation allows it:
“Open communication with both parents’ supervisors can go a long way. The pandemic has been global. Not a single, solitary soul can claim they haven’t been touched by it. Therefore, every supervisor can appreciate that parents need a little flexibility to accommodate healthy and robust education for their kids, at least on a basic level. Set realistic goals and manage those expectations. With a little give and take, work goals can be met and kids can be actively engaged in education at the same time.”
6. Plan Your “Stop Time”
Letting yourself and your kids know when you’ll stop working is another crucial factor in balancing work and family during these unprecedented times. Alexis Haselberger, time management and leadership coach at Alexis Haselberger Coaching and Consulting, explains that stop times are essential for both your productivity at work, as well as your family time:
“It doesn’t have to be the same time every day, but I’ve found that deciding in advance what time I’ll stop working on any given day helps me stay productive. When you pick a stopping time, you apply the principle of Parkinson’s Law, which states that work expands to fill the time allotted. When we lack physical boundaries between work and home, it’s important to create this time boundary. Picking a stopping time ensures that a) my work doesn’t bleed into all aspects of my life, and b) that I’m more productive because I’ve given myself a defined period to get things done. I have a certain set of things I’m trying to accomplish on any given day, and now I am essentially trying to beat the clock, which kicks me into high gear.”
Likewise, technology can be a lifesaver when it comes to stop times.
Haselberger adds, “As far as time is concerned, your tech can be your friend. Block out your ‘unavailable’ hours on your calendar. Maybe this is 11:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. when your kids are at lunch and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. for family time. During times when you are not working, set your out-of-office reply and your away message on Slack to let people know when you’ll be back online and how to reach you in an emergency.”
7. Don’t Forget About Quality Time
Setting boundaries can become much less of a hassle if your family knows how important they are to you and that they have time dedicated to them. For instance, Sarah Miller, teacher and educational blogger, notes that it’s best to set the tech aside when you’re spending time with your loved ones.
“When work time is over, it’s important to turn off the technology — including work phones and computers — so that notifications won’t draw you back in to work. Parents should be intentional in planning quality activities for family time when they are not working. If kids see that they get their parents’ undivided attention when they are not working, it can be easier for them to understand that work needs to be the priority during working hours.”
How to Manage Interruptions During Working Hours
8. Use Visual Signage
Even if you’re a pro at setting boundaries, interruptions will happen unless you creatively remind your kids of the rules.
Haselberger explains, “Signage is key. If your kids are old enough to read, post a schedule outside your workspace clearly indicating when you can be interrupted and when you can’t. If you’ve got toddlers/preschoolers, use a sign that is red on one side and green on the other to indicate when you can be interrupted. This can be on the outside of your home office door or the back of your laptop. You just want them to see it before they see you.”
9. Establish Interruption Systems
When interruptions do happen, they’re much easier to manage with a dedicated system. Elizabeth Malson, parenting expert and president of the U.S. Nanny Institute, explains how you can plan for the unexpected:
“Rather than managing interruptions one at a time, create and communicate a plan. Start by defining what an urgent issue is and what problems can wait. Go through the list and teach the children to ask themselves if the interruption is critical. Children may not think in terms of urgency, so it is important to give examples. Urgent interruptions include feeling sick, dropping a glass of water on the keyboard or a freezing computer screen. Information that can wait includes the dryer buzzing its completion, eating the last orange for a snack or their homework score on an assignment.
“After defining urgent issues, teach the children how to interrupt. If you are on a video call, can they come in without being seen on the screen? If you do not want them to come into the room, should they knock?
“The final step is to teach children how to remember the issue to talk about it later. This can mean writing a list or having them draw something to help remind them of the topic. Set aside a time of day — ideally lunch and dinnertime — to ask the children for their notes so you can discuss all the topics. Not only will this reduce interruptions, but it will also strengthen your relationship, as you dedicate time to hearing and discussing issues that are important to your children.”
10. Prevent as Much as You Manage
Miller notes, “One of the best ways to manage interruptions is to try to prevent them. Make sure that your child has a comfortable work environment where they can focus on their school work. It’s also important to make sure that your child has the supplies they will need to complete assignments available. Check on your child periodically to make sure that they understand the directions for assignments or how to use the technology.”
Rebecca George, education consultant and founder at Teacher in Your Pocket, gets more specific when it comes to technology:
“Make sure that your child has the basics of managing their technology. While a 5th-grader can likely handle it all on their own, even kindergarten and pre-K students can become independent at most of the skills necessary. Ensure they know how to plug in headphones and adjust the volume, mute/unmute themselves, and teach them to plug in devices that need to charge at the end of the learning period so they will be charged and ready to go for the next day.”
How to Motivate Children in Online School
11. Find & Fix What’s Missing
If your kids struggle with motivation, the quickest fix is to observe them, find out why they’re having trouble and address the issue by filling in the blanks.
Nelson says, “As the pandemic has rolled on longer than anyone anticipated, motivation is something we’ve all struggled with. For kids, motivation can take many different forms. But, usually, whatever is lacking currently is what becomes the motivator. Had a long week of online lessons? The carrot might be some outdoor family time playing at a park or taking a hike. Had a frustrating week of rushed lunches in between meetings and deadlines? The motivation might be a fun family night making pizzas and playing games together. Ask your kids what they are missing most, and reward their efforts accordingly!”
12. Establish Reward Systems
Wander says creative learning techniques and external rewards can help your children’s desire to learn:
“I suggest starting by finding an outlet your children enjoy, such as music, crafts or one-on-one time with you. Use these to supplement their traditional learning. You can also utilize extrinsic rewards for staying focused and completing work. For instance, maybe they can take some time off from schoolwork, play a game, watch a movie or cook — which all still provide learning opportunities and are very motivating to kids.
“However, to make sure your children are not just rushing through and putting out low-quality work just to get to the reward, remind them that you have to check their work first (and schedule that time into your day). Or, set boundaries so that these rewards cannot take place until a specific time of the day. And, if your child is just not feeling it one day, give extra hugs, take a longer break or maybe just skip some assignments to get back to neutral. Motivating kids can be a challenge while schooling at home, but with some planning, students can succeed.”
13. Engage in Non-Traditional Learning
Wander also explains how learning goes beyond what our kids study in school and how learning life skills can be a great motivator:
“Sometimes, you may just need to take a break from schooling at home to, well, learn. Kids innately love to learn, so that can be motivating in itself. Keep in mind that not all learning requires formal lessons. Being outside in nature allows for learning about math, science, inquiry and innovation. Movement and physical activity allows for learning about self-awareness, impulse control, nonverbal cues and personal strength. Hearing books read aloud provides learning about active listening, empathy, critical thinking and debate. Baking allows for learning math, social studies, geography and nutrition. Digging in the backyard allows for learning earth science and problem-solving. Raising animals allows for learning biology, empathy and responsibility. Gardening allows for learning about horticulture, ecosystems, life cycles and nutrition. Providing these non-traditional learning opportunities is a great way to motivate kids while schooling at home.
“Create a task list for each child each day with categories like Self (meditation, journaling, etc.), Exercise (biking, running, etc.), Chores, Learning, Music, Create, [and] Connect (with someone outside of the house). Set minimum time limits for each. Have each child check off the tasks as they complete them in any order they want. This allows them autonomy and ownership.”
14. Use Different Techniques for Older Kids
“For older children, lack of motivation may stem from difficulty with defining goals,” Wander explains. “Students who do not see the point of an assignment will likely regard it as ‘busy work,’ and kids who do not see the big picture will probably reject the steps to get there.
“Start by talking about goals. Help them identify something specific they want to accomplish that is meaningful to them. Suggest starting with something fairly simple and achievable — like saving money — before moving on to longer-term goals, like buying a car. Once you have helped them identify short- and long-term goals, encourage them to think about what they need to do to achieve them. Ask questions like: What skills need to be learned? and What are some problems that might arise? Then, break it down into weekly individual goals.
“At the end of each week, allow time to reflect on why they did or did not meet those goals. This encourages them to think deeply about their behaviors and abilities, and allows them to view struggle as an integral part of growth and learning. All of this will help them get into a goal-oriented mindset.
“When it comes to schoolwork, encourage your children to consider ‘why’ they are asked to do certain tasks and how they matter. For instance, why was this assignment given and what can be gained from completing it? You can suggest that your children write down these big-picture reasons and goals where it can be easily referenced while they are working.”
15. Start with the Most Challenging Topics
For an easy solution that can have an immediate effect, George suggests starting with what the kids have the most trouble with.
“Motivation can be hard to sustain after months of online learning. If you have flexibility with your child’s schedule, I always suggest that students tackle subjects that are difficult first thing in the morning so that they still have the energy and stamina to complete them. Saving their preferred subjects or activities for the end of the day gives them something to look forward to and helps sustain that motivation throughout the day.”
16. Ask Lots of Questions
Keep in mind your child feels the stress of the pandemic as well, and might get overwhelmed.
“Ask lots of questions. What are their interests? What do they want to learn about? Make certain to ask about their feelings during this time. Are they concerned? Do they have questions? Now is a good time to address their mental health. This time period will become their history at some point, just like 9/11 was for many of us. It’s best to keep them somewhat informed and not fearful.” George said.
How to Create an Appropriate Learning Environment
17. Define a Dedicated Learning Space
This should come as no surprise: Children need a structured, dedicated space to get in the right learning mindset.
Miller explains, “Parents should make sure that kids have a comfortable place to study that is quiet and free of distractions. If your kids participate in online video calls, they will need to access the correct technology and a distraction-free background behind their camera. Kids also need easy access to the supplies and materials they will need to complete their lessons. Having the right supplies on hand can help minimize distractions while they are working. Kids should also have access to a desk and chair that is sized correctly for them. This is especially important if they are learning to write. The desk should be a comfortable height so that their arm can rest on it while writing. About 1-2 inches higher than the child’s elbow is ideal. When a child is sitting in their chair, their feet should be able to rest on the floor.”
18. Make the Learning Space Flexible
Wander adds that online learning requires a bit of creativity when it comes to working spaces.
“For organizing your space during remote learning, get creative with your workspaces. One mom said she found an ironing board makes a great adjustable-height surface for laptops when working on the couch. A small rectangular folding table with adjustable height can also create a makeshift workspace. If separate rooms are not an option, give everyone headphones with mics. Ensure each child has essential tools at his/her space: device, pencils, paper, water, relevant assignments/books, etc. Having a dedicated and equipped workspace minimizes your kids’ reasons for interrupting you. And, if your first attempt isn’t working, try another. Move from the kitchen counter to the couch, for instance. Keep experimenting until you find something that works.”
Teri Shepard, homeschooling expert at Rosetta Stone, also advises against rigidly modeling the classroom:
“You are providing education in your home. This can become confusing to younger children. A desk and chair aren’t always necessary. Try a bean bag, the kitchen table, the couch. I even had my children learn to do their math while running up and down the stairs and had spelling tests in the car.”
How to Help Your Children Become More Independent
19. Give Them an Increasing Amount of Space
The key to a healthy transition to independence is to provide your children with an increasing amount of space when they’re completing their schoolwork.
Miller advises, “One of the best ways to help kids become more independent is to give them space and allow them to practice this vital skill. Parents can check in to make sure that kids understand what they are learning and the directions for their assignment, and then give their kids time to complete it. As long as the task is not too tricky, kids will start to build confidence and independence as they see that they can complete assignments independently. Parents will need to check on younger kids more often, but as kids get older and more used to working alone, parents can check in less frequently and transfer more responsibility for completing school work to their kids.”
20. Plan Based on Your Kids’ Needs & Ages
Wander explains how you can give children the right amount of space for their needs and ages and that, sometimes, screen time is a good option for getting your child used to working independently.
“Keep in mind that before the ‘traditional school setting’ (which did not become a national norm until the 1960s), there were three main school options: home school, private tutoring or one-room schoolhouses. This worked because elementary content builds on information taught previously. That is, the concepts are repeated in more detail as the student gets older. So, a younger child who is sitting on your lap or laying on the floor as you work with your older child may not seem like they are paying attention and learning, but they are, and doing so will help them better grasp the content when it is their turn to learn it.
“If older or special needs kids require more of your time during schooling at home, use learning-based entertainment to occupy the other children’s minds while you focus on the one. You can feel less guilt about screen time if you look at it as independent academic time. Or, allow your younger child to sit on your lap while you work with your older children. Even if it doesn’t seem like it, they are usually listening. So, being exposed to what they will be eventually learning makes it much easier for them when that time comes.”
21. Teach Independence Through Household Responsibility
Another efficient way to teach kids to manage more of their schoolwork on their own is to show them how to become responsible in a more comfortable and more rewarding setting — at home.
“Have your children help around the house with cleaning and cooking. This allows them to learn essential life skills that are not taught in schools. Remember: ‘Life is learning and learning is life’ — not all lessons occur during designated school time. Furthermore, having responsibilities around the house also allows them to experience an immediate sense of pride for completing something meaningful. The praise you give — such as ‘Wow, the floors are sparkling clean,’ or ‘Yum, this dinner you made is delicious’ — builds within them an innate sense of self-worth not contingent on their grades or scores.”
22. Use the First/Then System
Malson chimes in with an easy reward system to strengthen independence:
“Sometimes, you can encourage children to complete unliked tasks on their own by using [a] ‘first/then’ statement. For example, if a child is reluctant to write their vocabulary words, you might say, ‘First, write your vocab words, and then we will go on a bike ride.’ This lets the child know the unliked task is not up for negotiation and gives them something to anticipate when the task is completed. Remember, no one learns a new skill the first time and children will make mistakes. Parents and caregivers must remember that just because something is simple for them does not mean it is not challenging for a child. When a child completes a new task successfully, they should be praised. If a child makes a mistake, be patient and encourage them to try again.”
23. Celebrate the Wins!
Finally, make sure your child knows how proud you are of them. Break down the plan in daily chunks, set goals and celebrate every little accomplishment that works toward the final result.
George advises, “Parents can start by celebrating the small wins each day, setting appropriate goals for the next day and showing their kids the improvement in their effort to be independent. Graphing and showing kids their progress is an excellent way to show their growth. For example, parents can say, ‘Wow, today you worked for 10 minutes independently. Do you think you can try for 12 minutes tomorrow?’ Continuing this each day can slowly help build the stamina that kids need to be more independent.”
And there you have it, the complete guide to working from home and managing your kids’ education during these unprecedented times. Do you have any tips and tricks when it comes to staying on top of it all while motivating yourself and your family? Let us know in the comments!
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