Working from home as a parent can be hard. Working from home as a parent with schools closed and a global pandemic raging outside—that’s nearly impossible. And yet working parents rise to the occasion every day—and they may have to continue to do so for many more months.
As many companies are transitioning employees to long-term remote status, working from home with kids is becoming the new normal. Online education and virtual summer camps are becoming an increasingly popular solution to both education and childcare needs—but you’ll need strategies that go beyond enrollment.
Read on for our complete guide to working from home (productively!) with kids.
8 Tips for working from home with kids
As many parents adjust to working from home with kids for the first time, there are some strategies that can help.
1. Use time blocking to make your daily schedule.
Your child’s school may give you a schedule, but that schedule might not work for you and your family. Don’t expect to re-create a full school day at home, but do set a reasonable routine and stick to it. For young children, visual schedules are especially helpful. Kids feel reassured when they know what’s coming next and have things to look forward to, such as playtime, snacks, movement breaks, and fun screen time. It’s not just your child’s schedule that you’ll have to adjust: Your working hours will likely change, whether you’re taking advantage of working in the early morning before the kids wake up, or trading off home school duties with another adult in the home. Make sure your work team members know about your new work schedule, especially if your work requires frequent video calls or conference calls.
“It took us a few tries to figure out how to make working from home while teaching our kids actually possible. We create a weekly schedule for each of our kids with all of their activities and to-dos—in our house having structure but then allowing flexibility seems to be best,” says Amy Jenkins, Outschool’s Interim Head of Schools and Distribution.
“We divide our day into blocks of time 5:30-8:30 am for getting work done while the kids get up and ready; 8:30-9:00 for a family walk, and then 9:00-12:30 for me to do work while my husband ‘homeschools,’ 12:30-4:30 for him to do work while I ‘homeschool,’ and an additional shift for whoever needs it most at the end of the day. Our school provides limited options for our 1st and 3rd grader so they take Outschool classes and join activities on Instagram live. It definitely isn’t perfect but we are in a good rhythm now and that helps.”
2. Set concrete goals.
The key to balancing work, homeschool, and home life is to set priorities and goals. You might not be able to get everything done, but if you can hit one goal, that’s something to celebrate.
Your child’s teacher might give you learning priorities for the day; if not, reach out to their teacher to get clarity about the most important tasks for your child to focus on. Concrete, realistic goals will help you (and your kids) feel more accomplished at the end of the day.
Set your own work priorities as well, consulting with supervisor and team members if needed.
3. Start with something fun.
Kids are happiest when they can start their day with a period of play or chosen art projects, like an online class of their choice. For example, tell your child, “You have 30 minutes to play with blocks, and I’m going to take a picture of what you build at the end.” Use those 30 minutes to get your own work tasks done.
4. Use visual timers.
At school, schedules and rules are clear. You can’t recreate school at home, but you can use timers to set boundaries and avoid struggles. Rather than trying to get an assignment done from start to finish, say, “We’re going to work on this for 20 minutes.” Visual timers, such as sand timers, are especially helpful for young children, but can be useful for all ages. If you don’t have a sand timer, there are plenty of visual timers available for free online.
5. It’s okay to be unavailable.
At school, kids don’t have around-the-clock access to their teachers, so don’t feel that you have to provide this at home. Let them know when you are busy, but also when you will be available again. (Kids are more likely to wait if they know you’ll be free soon.)
Use visual cues to signal the differences between your new teaching job, your actual job, and home time. Options for signalling to kids that you’re “at work” include moving to a specific location, wearing headphones, wearing work clothes, closing a door, putting up a sign, and taking conference calls on speakerphone. Remove the visual cues when work time is over and you are available so that kids are more likely to respect these boundaries.
6. Let kids make choices and self-direct.
Allowing kids to make their own choices will foster a sense of independence (and free up some of your mental energy). Online classes are a great way to let kids to pursue their interests with some independence—let them choose classes that appeal to them. Outschool’s marketplace of over 15,000 live online classes allows kids (ages 3-18) to safely learn and connect with teachers over live video chat. Classes, camps, and tutoring across a wide array of subject matter—from math and music to filmmaking, coding, writing, cooking, and beyond—ensure that your kid will find something that suits their interest.
For purely independent play, set up activity stations that kids can decide to explore, such as blocks and pictures of different buildings; empty ice cube trays and a bucket of pom poms; and a flashlight and paper cut-outs. For young children, posing these stations as invitations, rather than tasks, is a fun way to keep kids engaged in independent play.
With older kids, set expectations for what they need to get done during the day, or bigger goals they want to achieve, and allow them to determine which parts of the day will be devoted to each activity on their list.
And while your kids are engaged independently in something they’re interested in, you can get some work done.
7. Focus screen time on educational activities.
It’s still unclear how screens affect kids’ brains, so most experts recommend setting limits around screen time. But with mandatory social distancing, this can be difficult, as most academic activities now happen on-screen, and playing outside with friends has been replaced by playing online games together. Favor educational apps as much as you can, but expect to be more lenient about screen time in general. To help kids (and grownups!) sleep better, consider turning off all screens at least an hour before bedtime.
8. Take breaks for movement and mindfulness.
Kids benefit from taking frequent breaks, and adults do, too. To stay productive and healthy, younger kids will need more frequent movement breaks: every 10–20 minutes when doing seated activities and every 30 minutes for more physical activities (such as building with blocks and making art).
Older kids can sit still longer, but they will still benefit from regular reminders to dance, stretch, or do breathing exercises. Older kids like to sprawl out while they work; they might need sitting and standing options—just like you.
Movement breaks are important for adults, too. Experts recommend adults take a 1-minute movement break after every 30 minutes of sitting. Building breaks into each family member’s daily schedule will make everyone more likely to actually take these crucial breaks.
There’s no one-size-fits all strategy for working from home with kids. As you try different options for balancing work, school, and home, you’ll find that some techniques work better for your family than others. Remember to be gentle with your child—and yourself—as you navigate this new and difficult situation.
Outschool is a marketplace of live online classes for kids (ages 3-18). Learners can safely learn and connect with teachers over live video chat. From math and music to filmmaking, coding, writing, and baking, the small-group online format supports all learner types at any level. Classes start at $10.