11 Practical Tips for Successful Schooling at Home
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"It's funny, I always thought I was doing the right thing, that they're not device kids," said Dr. Leigh Duffy about her two children, ages 8 and 10. The family doesn't have a communal computer or iPads, and her kids get very limited screen time. They're happy reading books and playing outside. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, however, the kids were suddenly trying to learn at home, and they were unfamiliar with their mom's laptop. What's the Chrome browser? How do I upload a file? "I thought it was good parenting in the beginning," she said, "but it turned out to be a little bit of a stumbling block."
Her experience goes to show how little many parents were prepared for learning at home when COVID-19 first hit, and how monumental a task families face when it comes to getting ready for going back to school this year. In addition to helping two kids learn at home, Duffy (disclosure: she's my sister) is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Buffalo State. In other words, she has the added perspective of an educator who had to transition her college courses to an online environment, too.
Since March or April, when most schools in the US closed for the remainder of the school year, parents and students have had some opportunity to think ahead about whatever the 2020-2021 school year might bring. Depending on local circumstances, students may be back at school permanently (or until an outbreak sends them back home), at school part-time, or learning at home for the foreseeable future.
I talked with Duffy about her experiences both as an educator and a parent of school-aged kids to get an idea of what went well at home and what she might improve next time. I also spoke with someone who learned at home for most of her education, Caroline Ousley Naseman. Ousley Naseman grew up being homeschooled alongside several siblings, finishing her at-home schooling in 2017. Now as a young adult with a few years of hindsight, she's in a unique position to reflect on what makes learning at home a successful experience.
Through these conversations, we came up with some tips for parents who are trying to manage schooling at home. These tips are generalized and may not be right for every student or household. You and your at-home students know the most about your situation. Additionally, for students with special needs or different abilities, the challenges may be more difficult. So adapt these tips to your needs, and remember that no one knows how to do it "right." Everyone's simply doing their best.
1. Allow for individualized learning
Every student has unique interests, as well as a different attention span, adeptness at using technology without distraction, and so on. Compared to classroom-based learning, home-based learning allows for much greater individualization.
I asked Caroline Ousley Naseman what differences she noticed between how she learned versus her siblings. "We were all focused on different subjects so the learning style was tailored to each child and the material they were studying," she said. "My brother excels with a hands-on learning approach while my sister succeeds with a textbook approach, I am somewhere in the middle."
Being at home also gives students greater flexibility in how they express self-motivation. If they master a new skill or concept quickly, encourage them to apply it in a creative way. Online learning sites, like Khan Academy (which is free), can help shepherd students along when textbooks and worksheets fail. Additionally online, video-based tutoring costs much less than in-person tutoring, from as little as $30 per hour. These resources let student work at their own pace, get additional help as needed, and go deeper with subjects or ideas that spark their interest. Language-learning services are another way you can supplement your kids' education, too. Some are even free.
2. Ask for help — and give it, too
As both an educator and a parent, Duffy says don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it. "A lot of us were frustrated [at the start of COVID-19] because we felt like we had to figure this all out," she said. In her home, for example, she was highly involved in a hands-on way while her children learned how to use her laptop. The kids were only familiar with Chromebooks, which is what they use at school.
"I was kvetching with another parent about how hard it is to use the Mac, and they said, 'We got a Chromebook from the school.' I was thinking they were reserved for lower income brackets, and this person said, 'No, no, no, you just ask the teacher.' And so we did! And as soon as I asked, they said, 'Absolutely!'" If she hadn't asked, the school might never have loaned her family a Chromebook.
Often help is available but the person who needs it doesn't know it. Duffy sees it with her college students. When they submit an assignment late because they didn't have a reliable internet connection or didn't join a live video-based class due to device limitations, she usually could have helped by extending a deadline or providing specific instructions. "I'm happy to help them figure it out if I know what the problem is," she said.
Keep in mind that many teachers are learning an entirely new skill set in teaching remotely. They're relying more than ever on parents and students reaching out to ask for help when they're struggling.
Some teachers are going to be struggling with new tools this year, too. Are your kids going to be working in a remote learning workspace for the first time? You might need to do your own research on, for example, how to use Google Classroom to help your kids get started. You might pass any tips you find onto other parents—and maybe even the teachers.
3. Pay attention to both hard skills and soft skills
"Some of the best things I learned from homeschooling," said Ousley Naseman, "were life skills that would not necessarily be taught in a traditional school environment: self-discipline, accountability, managing a workload without deadlines set in place by someone else."
Schooling is about much more than academics. Very young students learn fine motor skills, how to share and take turns, and older ones work on more socialization, time-management skills, and so on.
Duffy said something she'll do differently in the coming school year is teach more organization skills. Her younger child had nearly a dozen different websites that she needed for schoolwork, and she had trouble keeping track of them. Duffy said she wants her kids to "see what it is to be organized instead of being flustered every time they have to log in. I might teach them how to use a password manager or show them how to keep a written record of [usernames and passwords] if it's just two or three."
4. Make a space for learning
Learning at home is similar to working from home in that it's much easier to create separation between your personal life and work or school life if you create literal boundaries. Choose a place for schoolwork, whether it's at a desk or simply a particular seat at the kitchen table. Try to make it different from where your kids have personal time. For example, if your kids work at the kitchen table, have them choose one chair for school time and a different chair for meals.
Furthermore, it's disruptive to have to keep getting up to find a pencil, laptop charger, or particular book. One strategy is to keep materials nearby in a basket or box. That way, when the learning time ends, the students can put all their materials away quickly and transition out of learning mode. Taking out and putting away materials signals the start and end of the school day. PCMag has an entire roundup of all the tech kids need for going back to school: laptops, noise-cancelling headphones, antivirus software, VPNs, and more.
When it comes to reducing distractions, it's important to make a virtual space that's conducive to learning. While Duffy's young kids didn't have much screen time, yours might be a different story especially if they're older. You can make sure their laptop is a learning friendly environment, if you create a separate user account for your kids on Windows. This is especially important if they don't have their own personal laptops. Setting up an account prevents them from being able to access files of anyone else who shares the computer.
5. Create consistency and predictability
"I say this as an educator and as a parent: A schedule and consistency makes life so much better," Duffy said. Flexibility certainly can save the day when things go wrong, but having clear expectations for the routine of a day can give kids a sense of normalcy, especially during this time when everything else is abnormal.
As a college professor, Duffy held synchronous video-based classes for students, though she said she had a very flexible attendance policy. "The overwhelming feedback was 'I'm so glad I had this class because it gave me consistency.'" Many of her students lost their jobs, were living away from family, and didn't have a particular reason to leave their dorms or apartments day to day. "Some of them said, 'It gave me a reason to get up and something to look forward to, and it gave me a way to connect to people my own age,'" she said.
6. But also be flexible
Consistency sets expectations. Flexibility, however, gives you freedom. The freedom to troubleshoot. The freedom to move on from a lesson when a student picks it up quickly. The freedom to stick with something longer if it's not gelling. The freedom to spend more time on art, music, gym, and other subjects that sometimes get cut from public schools.
Flexibility lets you solve problems, too. If a student can't access their schoolwork in the morning, for example, they may be able to simply swap it with whatever's on their afternoon schedule.
In the grander sense, learning at home gives you the flexibility to live life differently. Ousley Naseman told me, "My siblings and I greatly benefited from the flexibility homeschool offers. We were able to travel extensively, tailor our curriculums based on what interested each of us, and work at a time and pace that was convenient."
Traveling might be off the table these days, but there are other ways to take advantage of flexibility to have a positive learning experience and rich life.
7. Connect learning experiences
Classroom education usually has limitations regarding how students connect to what they learn. When asked what she might do differently in the fall semester compared to the spring, Duffy said, "I might try taking whatever it is they're learning out of the house with a hands-on activity so that they're connected to it and so that they have a break from sitting in front of a screen for six hours." For kids who love the outdoors, this makes sense. Encourage students to connect to their interests, passions, and curiosities.
Ousely Naseman had more general advice in this area. "Listen to your child and allow them to lead the learning experience," she said. "Don't feel the need to rush things or check boxes. As the parent, however, it is also important to step in occasionally and ensure that your child has fundamentals in all subjects."
8. Accept that every day won't be ideal
When work or education moves into the home for the first time, people can be less forgiving of themselves when they have bad days. When kids go to school, they don't have perfect learning days every day, but parents don't always see it.
Acknowledge a bad day when it happens, and be willing to move on. Take sick days when needed. I wrote It's Time to Put Self-Care Before Productivity with adults in mind, but all the advice applies to kids, too, who are feeling extra stress because of the pandemic just the same as their parents are.
9. Build in breaks
In the spring, Duffy started each school day with a morning walk. It replicated the outdoor time her kids would normally have had walking to school. Then at 9:00, they started learning. At noon, they took a break. "They would look forward to noon when they could go outside for half an hour," she said. They also looked forward to 2:30 when they knew they would wrap up their work and once again head outside.
Having predictable breaks can help students manage their time and attention. It also gives them time to refresh and reflect, which is important. Breaks can relieve stress and increase productivity, even for kids. For more on breaks in general (adults need them too!) read our story on how to take better breaks to boost your productivity.
10. 2 to 4 good hours of academics is plenty
In an episode of NPR Life Kit, educational coach Ana Homayoun encourages parents and other home educators to "shoot for two to four good academic hours" per day. Once you factor in breaks, lunch, recess time for young students, and other distractions, you might find that scheduling a six-hour day leads to three and a half or four hours of learning. That's plenty.
11. Remember, we're all doing our best
Since Duffy first had her two kids home from school and realized they were struggling with computer skills, she's changed her thinking about screen time. "They both now have home email," she said, "and they've both been playing Minecraft. Their screen time is still very limited, but it's enough to get them comfortable on the computer."
At a time when expectations continually shift, it's harder than ever to predict how life will look a month from now or a year from now. And when we can't predict well, we also can't plan well. Be ready to adapt and keep in mind that we're all doing our best.
For more tips on how parents can help their kids live their best online lives, you can read 10 Things Every Parent With a Connected Kid Needs to Know.