So you’ve suddenly got kids home with you for weeks, and more likely, months. What is a parent to do? Some school districts are providing you with plenty of resources, but many are not. As an elementary school teacher and sewist, I thought I’d share some tips for you if you have kids ages 4-13 at home!
Let me share a bit about myself: I’ve been teaching since 2008, and working in schools and developing teaching resources before that. I’ve been a classroom teacher in Canada and Japan, and taught Kindergarten to Grade 8 along the way. Right now my specialty is supporting English as a Second Language learners; I work with 80 kids a week at three schools, and support their teachers in developing best practices. Teaching is the one topic I love more than sewing! It’s also a stressful and exhausting career, and I hope that my suggestions can help take some pressure off you and your family.
Think sustainable. This is for the long haul.
Every new teacher comes in guns blazing, spending every weeknight and weekend planning and prepping adorable activities. It takes a few years to realise that a bit of structure and repetition is good for you and for your students—and that an exhausted and crabby teacher does no one any good.
Involve your kids in decision making.
The trick is giving a list of options where there is no wrong choice! Studies say that kids (and adults) are more engaged when they have some control. I suggest brainstorming a list of repeatable activities and putting them up on the wall.
For example, for kids under 10 that could be: reading to self, writing, listening to reading, art, playing outside, doing chores, exercising to YouTube videos, working with math programs online, using learning apps and games, and working on some sort of passion project (more about that later!). For tweens and teens, swap in more academic tasks like writing assignments, making science slide shows, researching history, math practice etc.
You know how happy you are sewing? Well, your kid likely takes the same joy in some weird niche interest, like video games, dinosaurs, a favourite book series, or whatever. This is the time to do the kind of learning we struggle to provide in school: passion projects! Let them go whole-heartedly into topics they care about, and ask them to create some kind of finished project reflecting their learning. They could build a model, make a website, create a slideshow or a board game…they could do science experiments or write a fan-fic series, film a movie or start a business. This kind of interdisciplinary learning is such a great way to reinforce math, literacy, research, self-regulation, tenacity, and creativity. And since they chose the topic, they will happily work at it for hours without you!
(For kids under 7, this might need to be a “together time” project, but still, it will give a nice focus to your time. Look for books, videos, art projects, and hands-on things you can do together!)
Above is a sample visual schedule I made. You can download it here.
Routine is key.
Let me tell you a secret about school: Those 6 or 7 hours are broken into a routine with repeated tasks—and that’s how we get through the day. Kids are more successful when they know what is coming next. A visual schedule is a great idea (such as a poster with the day divided into chunks, with picture prompts to help young’uns; see sample below). Don’t feel like you have to micro-manage every second though: Figure out how long your kids can be successful and focused, and keep things changing often enough to keep them engaged—but not so often that you are hurrying them through tasks they would like to explore! I’d suggest some blocks of time be open for them to pick from the list of activities you made together, and some be predetermined, like “outside play” or “lunch/snack”. Maybe a nice routine of family read-aloud time, or baking, or a video chat with friends/family, whatever you enjoy together.
Child labour is great.
Not sweatshops, of course, but keep asking yourself, “Could one of the kids be doing this?” Reading to a younger sibling, looking for cool art projects online, tidying up, or creating a nice workspace—those are all things that children of any age can help with! In these stressful times a lot of us sewists are looking for ways to help, and I think children also want to feel helpful and valuable.
You are the parent.
As much as I’m suggesting you involve your kids in the planning and decision-making, the other truth of teaching is that kids feel safer when someone reliable is in control. The first month of two of each school year is usually spent teaching community norms, classroom rules, routines, and setting structure. If you don’t have that grounding, then all the math lessons in the world won’t work!
Oh yeah, curriculum!
Speaking of lessons…the curriculum is your friend! Of course, start with whatever your district has provided. After that, download the local curricula, and take a look at some of the topics that kids the same age as yours would be covering in school. More often than not, you might find that it’s not as complicated as you are making it! You don’t have to teach them trigonometry if all they need to know is numbers 1 to 100. Focus on any lagging skills that teachers have told you about in the past.
Most curricula give some suggestions for activities as well as learning outcomes. So for example, a particular curriculum might say, “Explore a variety of text forms, such as poetry, plays, letters, and short stories.” Voila! Writing a letter to grandma, and retelling a picture book you just read together, suddenly meet the curriculum requirements. Try printing off the language and math curricula for each applicable grade, and (you guessed it!) then pick the next topic along with your kids!
Online resources are fantastic.
Lots of apps and websites are now offering free resources, and there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Here are a few I have used in classrooms for years and recommend. Please leave your own recommendations in the comments!
- Dreambox Math usually costs an arm and a leg, but is offering free 90-day memberships right now. It offers engaging math lessons for Kindergarten to Grade 8, and adapts to move kids forward or backward in level depending on their success. It’s also lots of fun! Prodigy Math is another good option, but not as responsive to tracking students’ progress.
- Sightwords.com is perfect if you have a young non-reader! It guides you through lessons teaching the foundational skills of reading, like rhymes, first and last sounds, blending, and so on. Then there are lots of fun games for sight words. All free!
- Scholastic is a major publishing house of teaching resources, and is offering free day-by-day resources for kids up to Grade 9.
- Evan Moor is another publishing house for teachers which offers excellent PDF workbooks. They are offering free PDFs of their “Daily Fundamentals” books for Grades 1-6, and they also have a huge catalogue of workbooks for sale on different subjects. Every teacher knows that sometimes spending $20 on a downloadable resource is a great investment, especially if you want some easy structure for history, grammar, spelling etc.
- Get audiobooks or digital books from Audible, or whatever app your local library or school board uses.
- Sewcialist editor Becky home-schooled her own kids for years, and has a great post on a more structured online learning approach on her blog here.
REAL TALK: If you don’t have time for any of this, that is okay! If you are working from home, a single parent, ill, overwhelmed, or taking care of extended family, this may all sound like a guilt-inducing pipe dream. Love your kids, make them feel as safe as possible, and that is what they’ll remember in years to come. I teach a lot of refugee students who have been through hell and come out resiliently on the other side. You are enough, and what you are doing is enough.
When all is said and done, homeschooling has two main purposes: First and foremost, to make your time together happy and successful; and secondly, to teach both personal skills and academics. I truly believe that a few hours a day are plenty to keep the academic side going, and that doing passion projects, free-choice activities, and family fun stuff should make up most of your day. If you have any questions at all, either specific (“How do I help my kid with x?”) or general, please feel free to ask in the comments—and if you have resources or your own experiences to share, please do that too!
Gillian is cofounder of the Sewcialists, and an elementary school teacher, with additional qualifications in math, early learning, special education, and English as a Second Language. Her husband is a teacher, as are her parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles! She always swore she wouldn’t be a teacher too, but turns out it is the most satisfying and creative career she could imagine. It is a pleasure and an honour to have time to make kids feel special, and to figure out what support they need to take the next step.
This is awesome Gillian. My teenager is pretty self sufficient these days, but I homeschooled her over the summer in elementary school when we realized she did better with consistency and got back into the school routine better if I kept learning going. What she still remembers now and thinks taught an important lesson was that I had her sign a contact. Basically it was that we are in this together, that she will have her own free time (very important to her!) and that we would both try hard to be patient. All the very best to everyone. I am a pediatric school based occupational therapist if anyone has any questions, I would be happy to answer. One more thing – if you are overwhelmed by what your teachers are sending home- tell them. We are all learning together and feedback is essential.
What a fantastic idea!!! We often do behavior contracts at school but I hadn’t thought of it in this context! And thank you for offering to share your skills – I hope people take you up on it!
What a gift you have shared here – as the mother of very grown up children everything is completely on point! Thank you for being so generous with your experience and knowledge!
Oh you don’t know how relieved I am to hear it! I don’t have children of my own and I know teaching is easier than parenting, so I’m glad I’m making sense!
Thanks for your post. I have shared it on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for stopping by Poemattic.
I am a retired teacher who loved teaching until I moved to a certain school district which is one of the worst in the nation. Thank you for providing such a wonderful guide for struggling parents. My own grandchildren are too young and far away for this guide but I am sure you will be assisting many. Your suggestions were right on target.
Thank you so much, Kathleen! I appreciate that! (And I’m dying to ask where this school district is but I know I shouldn’t!)
Gillian: This article is a gem! Were I the parent of a young kid, I would be thrilled to see this information – which is as useful as it is non-judgemental! Thank you for continuing to be the great teacher you are. xo
You know how I love to nerd out about this stuff! 🙂
Great post Gillian! Agree with everything you have said. Love the idea of a passion project – it will hit all areas of the curriculum if they do some research, write about it and measure/count things they need.
I’ve taught Reception (like kindergarten) for a decade and for the little ones I would definitely recommend a visual timetable – doesn’t have to plan every minute but gives a guide like breakfast, reading, play, snack, maths etc. You could also put a timer on so they can see how long you want them to do something for. Don’t do too much and have lots of breaks for them to play and amuse themselves – in class they do a mix of adult tasks and child led play based learning.
Lots of daily chores can be valuable learning for little ones. If you talk about what you are doing using mathematical words then helping you prep food and lay the table can cover so much maths – size and shape of food and pots, how many per person, half fill a cup etc. And they can keep in touch with friends and family by writing little letters to them, or keeping a diary to show grandma later.
If you need to keep them quiet while you do some work, Numberblocks on BBC/YouTube is excellent.
Thank you for all those suggestions! I hope that a lot of little kids remember this as a magical time at home! 🙂
Great advice and information! Thank you for keeping it so positive and for reminding us of our true priorities.
Thanks Angela! It is really easy to let stress rule our lives right now – I find it so useful to check back in with what actually matters, and that is the kids!
Excellent advice. I’m going to pass it along to my high school students, especially the part about scheduling.
LOL – Jamie was tickled when 7 of his students responded on Google Classroom between midnight and 5am! He’s totally nocturnal when given the chance, and clearly teenage students are too. I think the trick to scheduling is to figure out what works for you and then stick to it!
Thank you Gillian!
I’m writing from Rome(Italy) and, as you know,we are locked in house for a month,during this period I’m helping my 16yo very smart son, but with learning special needs, to seek the on line lessons and homeworks. Sometimes it’s hard and your suggestions are very precious.
This is very useful. Thanks for sharing these ideas and do come over to http://www.homeschoolguru.org if you are keen to embrace a bit of the home ed approach during this time. Best wishes to all of you.
As an elementary teacher my favorite Math series had a “Reteach” mini lesson that was a great refresher for parental assistance. (I printed this on the reverse of the homework.) These lessons are often available online.
Parents beware: DON’T HAVE YOUR CHILD PRACTICE MATH INCORRECTLY! (“Practice makes permanent”. Ie. it’s difficult to correct misconceptions when they’ve been practiced repeatedly.) If you don’t “get it” after you’ve tried to, don’t go on. (And remember that Math lessons build on each other.) Keep a positive attitude with your child (and figure it out on your own time if necessary in order to keep your cool). Math is (and should be) fun. Don’t ruin it!
I mean this in a loving way 😍
I am a struggling homeschool mom of 3. I can’t seem to get organized and set and stick to a schedule that is productive. I’m struggling to teach my 8 year old son who has autism, to read. He learned some site words but then forgets them later 😔 Any advice would help please.
OH gosh, I feel for you! What if we take “productive” out of the equation? This is a stressful crisis time, and that is not conductive to learning for anyone. How about focusing on a routine that keeps you and your kids calm (because the day is predictable) and happy (because you aren’t trying to force what isn’t working)? I know that is all much easier said than done. From a teacher’s perspective, there are infinite ways to learn, and doing math while making cookies is just as valid (more valid?) than a worksheet. In other words, give yourself some grace!
As for specifics… Hmm. Have you homeschooled for years or was your son in school before? Do his previous teachers/psychologists/therapists have any insight into how to make learning sight words engaging for him? For example, if he is really into trains, can you use that as a hook? (Train pictures on flashcards, writing about trains, making books/slideshows that connect sight words with trains, a first/then chart with trains as the reward after a school task, putting sight words along a train track and he reads them as the train passes etc?) Does he have a solid grasp on basics like listening for first and last sounds in a word, rhyme, breaking up or putting together words in syllables? Is he pretty solid on letter sounds? The website sightwords.com has mini-lessons and games for parents who are leading their kids through those initial skills into sight words, and you might find it useful. MOst kids on the Autism spectrum have average intelligence, so hopefully it’s just a matter of making it relevant to him so he is motivated to learn. FIngers crossed – feel free to reply if you want, and also to ignore me if what i’m suggesting isn’t right for you! <3 Gillian