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How to work from home while supporting your kids’ virtual learning

Our experts share tips to make life easier.

Family working from home in chaos

Many school divisions are beginning the year in a fully virtual format, which means already busy parents are facing one more huge responsibility – guiding children through this new mode of learning. This may seem particularly daunting for parents who are also working from home during the school day.

recent study found that only 25% of U.S. elementary and high school students will go to school in-person every day this fall, which leaves 75% doing some amount of virtual learning. You’re not in this alone.

“Each family should identify their goals for this school year,” said Margaret Rittenhouse, LCSW, clinical director of the employee assistance program at VCU Health. But be realistic in regard to grades and attention span of each child.

Self-care is also key, she said. Walk around the block or do some mindfulness exercises to remain calm and energized. Keep communication lines open with your children to understand their experience and needs. 

Many employers offer employee assistance programs to support team members and their families who may need help coping. If yours does, take advantage of it,” Rittenhouse said.

How else can you help your family thrive while working and learning from home in the weeks ahead? Here are a few tips that may help.

Maintain a routine

Kids thrive on routine, and many adults do too. Many virtual school programs have a set schedule. Develop a consistent schedule that works well for your family.

Plan enough time for everyone to wake up, get dressed and have breakfast before the school day begins, and incorporate breaks for nutritious snacks and movement throughout the day.

Have dinner together as a family and discuss what went well that day and what improvements could be made for tomorrow. Consistent bedtimes are important, as well, to make sure everyone gets enough sleep.

It can be helpful to post a written schedule for each family member that includes start times, end times, “do not disturb” times, breaks and other key parts of the work and school days. This can help everyone feel more at ease by knowing what to expect. Incorporate pictures for younger kids.

Parents: Start work early

Getting one or two items checked off your work to-do list before everyone else is awake can help relieve some pressure and set a positive tone for the day. It can also be helpful to ask everyone to tidy their work spaces at the end of each day to prepare for a smooth start the next morning.

Create individual work spaces

With multiple people trying to work and learn from home, it’s important for everyone to have their own space. The area should be quiet and clutter-free, with limited distractions.

You don’t need formal offices. A portion of the kitchen table or a folding table in the living room can work great. If separate rooms aren’t an option, try making cubicle-like dividers out of cardboard and give each child a pair of headphones to minimize noise. Kids can even decorate their areas.

It’s also helpful to have everyone’s supplies organized and easy to find in their designated spaces, so everyone can focus on work or learning and not disturb others.

Expect some bumps, be prepared for adjustments

Even if you’ve been working from home for a while, the start of the school year will involve an adjustment period for everyone. You may find that workspaces are too close, or everyone has different work styles that don’t necessarily align. Maybe some people are talkative and others prefer silence. Perhaps your children need the most help from you at different times than you thought.

Expect that everything will not run like a well-oiled machine from the beginning and try to be flexible. Make adjustments as needed until you find a set-up and routine that work best for your family’s unique situation.

Talk to managers and co-workers

Making adjustments at home will likely require some flexibility at work, too. Many people are facing similar juggling acts, and employers throughout the country are looking for ways to support their teams during this time. Communicate openly with your manager and colleagues. Discuss priorities with the team to make sure you tackle the most important tasks in a timely manner.

You may be able to block times on your calendar when you’re unavailable for meetings. If there are important meetings or other work obligations you can’t miss, use that block as your child’s allotted screen time, ask a relative or friend to have a video call with your kids, make it rest time or have a few activities lined up that they can do on their own – depending on their age.

Foster independence

Older kids will likely be able to manage their own schedules and schoolwork — either from the beginning or with some guidance at the start of the school year. It’s still important to check in and make sure they are supported as needed, meeting deadlines, etc.

Younger children will generally require more help, but allow them some autonomy in areas where you think they can handle it. Virtual learning provides a great opportunity for you to support your children while helping them develop independence.

Kids can pitch in with household chores, too. Helping with laundry, walking the dog or taking out the trash — chores can help children feel a sense of capability and achievement, which can boost self-esteem for learning. Let them choose from a list of options so they feel invested and empowered. It can also take a thing or two off the adults’ to-do list.

Every day won’t be smooth sailing, especially in the beginning. Celebrate the little things and remember that this isn’t forever, even if it feels like it in the moment. You’re doing great, and we’re here to support you.

Take a look at CHoR’s coronavirus resource page for more topics related to back-to-school during the pandemic.