My top 3 tips for schooling your children at home while working…
I homeschooled my oldest son, currently 10, from kindergarten through 4th grade while running a physician training software company, completing an Executive MBA/MS in Healthcare leadership at Cornell, writing a book and launching a small clinical practice to prevent chronic disease. This year was supposed to be my son’s first full year in public school (5th grade in NYC), and it was going very well until COVID-19. Friends who knew about my experience homeschooling while working for years asked for advice, so I thought I would humbly share my top three tips, here they go…
#3 Dedicated space
Creating a dedicated space for learning within your home or apartment is very important. If you have multiple children and live in a moderately sized NYC apartment like we do, you need a way to isolate your child from distractions. This was especially important for us because our son is extremely active and struggles to focus slightly more than the average boy his age. The kitchen table would not cut it for long stretches of learning. His desk was well lit, clear of distracting objects, and stocked with standard learning supplies (paper, pencils, ruler, etc.) I use my old laptop as his PC, docked with a wireless keyboard/mouse device that could easily be tucked away when the computer was not in use for learning. My son understood that this space was for learning, and so did his younger siblings. It is critically important to be able to close off the room when working through challenging problems together, or for him to complete a short learning activity on his own. It’s almost impossible to get rid of all distractions, and some distractions can provide a healthy break from learning that your child will need (more on that next). What’s most important is your ability to flip on and off distractions like a light switch to support healthy learning, not disrupt it. Another important tip about dedicated space is ensuring you have plenty of extra materials “in-stock”, including a dedicated printer (with extra ink) if space permits. It can be quite disruptive to get ready for a learning activity you have to print out, only to realize you are out of paper or ink.
I have a lot to say here. If you haven’t already received detailed learning activities from your school, I am sure that will come soon. It turns out that although we previously schooled our son from home, he was enrolled in an online private school called K12 International Academy. It spanned K through 12, was accredited in all 50 states, and graduated many students who continued into the Ivy league, mostly young actors and athletes (before starting public school, my son was ranked 5th in our state in gymnastics). K12 provided the curriculum, about 60% of it off-screen, with as needed support and online lesson reviews from a well-trained and super nice teacher in Florida. At home we coached our son through all the learning, about 4 hours of instruction per day, with approximately 70% of that time requiring direct oversight. Having a structured list of activities that were easy for both him and me to follow was very helpful, and it helped him mentally prepare to start learning with a reasonably distanced light at the end of the tunnel. It also allowed me to plug in a different learning coach like my wife, or a paid tutor when things got extra busy for me at work.
Having access to customizable paper worksheets are very helpful. Some I created on my own, for instance with spelling and vocabulary. I would have him write out his weekly words multiple times, then the definitions, followed by sentences… It was a simple sequence effective for learning, but just as importantly one that he could easily complete on his own. There are many resources online to help you build custom worksheets, some free and others for a fee. A favorite of mine was www.math-aids.com (free), with just a few clicks you construct custom worksheets on any math topic in varying degrees of difficulty. www.IXL.com (about $25/month) is an online learning program providing adaptive learning assessments on most topics in alignment with grade and statewide curriculums like Common Core. Of course, there is Khan academy which was great at explaining new topics he struggled to initially grasp, especially in math. For reading and comprehension Raz-Kids is great (about $100/year), providing thousands of books by reading level, including audio with visual prompts, the ability to record your child reading for a little extra accountability, and questions to test/prompt comprehension. For history and science, I would google short, kid-friendly lessons on YouTube on virtually any topic to help bring them to life, especially in history. The key for a working parent homeschooling their child is the ability to plug-and-play learning activities that may be on- or off-curriculum but reinforces learning while keeping your child busy so you can handle the inevitable things that pop up at work daily.
Activities don’t all have to include schoolwork either. You can google pretty much anything with the words “coloring page” at the end to create a fun independent activity for your child. Letting them come up with the search keywords and pick the image to print out will get them more engaged. I also picked up a few coloring books from Amazon at a few dollars each, and as he got older, he enjoyed tracing images he found on Google using this Crayola Light Up Tracing Pad ($25 on Amazon). I put up a pull bar on his bedroom door, and once a day we would take a stroll or toss a ball outside together to burn off some steam, weather permitting. Time together during non-learning activities were enjoyable for us both and gave us time to clear the tension that often accumulates when trying to get your kid through a daily lesson plan…more on that next.
This is number one for good reason, homeschooling your children will test and develop your patience like no other activity. If you were already managing homework for 60-90 minutes a day you’ve undoubtedly had moments when your patience was tested. Home schooling is an order of magnitude greater, and you must position both you and your child for success. It starts with preparing your work schedule, because the easiest way to lose your patience is when homeschooling interferes with working from home, and your child gets stuck in the middle. My workday would start early, usually about 2-3 hours before the kids would awake. Having primarily worked from home for over 10 years, my schedule drives everything, and I created a daily schedule that I, my co-workers and my child could all become accustomed to. I set three blocks of time 2 hours in length each. The first was to get the first half of school done. The second block of time was lunch and decompression time for my son. For me that second block was a working lunch and crunch time to catch up on emails, call backs, brief meetings, etc. The final block of the day was to complete the second half of school, with all the aforementioned plug-and-play activities when needed throughout the first and last blocks.
The other key to patience when homeschooling your child is being realistic. The reality is that teachers and schools follow a time-tested process that works relatively well, requiring years of training across all stakeholders, which costs billions and didn’t develop overnight. The same is true with my situation, except for the billions part. All of the above took me years to figure out, I have a master’s degree in education and train physicians for a living. You won’t be able to manage homeschooling like you manage your work and employees, but you also don’t have to, and it will be OK if your child doesn’t learn everything or learn it easily. The most important thing is to somehow enjoy (as challenging as it will be), the unpredictable yet curious and unique mind that your child possess and makes them special. One of the best things in life to witness is when your child struggles to learn a new topic, you push and get frustrated teaching them almost to the point where it feels hopeless, and then a breakthrough occurs! They finally learn the topic and start nailing all of the subsequent activities. You’ll see what I mean. Throughout this process you will most likely have to manage yourself and your emotions more than your child, but through it all remember to be patient.
Perhaps this unprecedented experience for us all, where more parents homeschool their children while working from home, will provide an opportunity to partially rebuild the parent-child relationship disrupted by mobile devices, Youtube and TikTok (no judgement here, it's a daily battle in our home too). At very least, I bet a lot of teachers will be receiving hugs along with students when schools start back up again.
I hope you find this information helpful. If I missed any important tips, please add them to the comments below. Stay safe and have a wonderful day!