My friend Heather has four kids under the age of 9 – all suddenly stuck at home in the San Francisco Bay Area under some of the strictest shelter-in-place orders in the country. Life right now she says, is “challenging,” to say the least, but heading into week two of homeschooling, the Carlson family is making major headway.
The oldest, 9-year-old Finn, has claimed the dog bed as his new homework haven to keep up with all of his third-grade schoolwork, while 4-year-old Orion is using the bathtub as a makeshift classroom for pre-K phonics.
“It’s insane,” Heather Carlson, the Alameda, California-based supermom told me, “but it’s working.”
Carlson’s four children are among the nearly 55 million students nationwide now expected to continue their education at home while schools are closed – some indefinitely – to slow the spread of coronavirus. Education Week is keeping a running tally of the closures that it updates daily.
All across the country, parents are looking for silver linings as they dig into this new norm, working, parenting, and now teaching from home. Here are some of the biggest dos and don’ts crowdsourced from thousands of parents and experts worldwide.
Set up a dedicated space
Whether it’s a dog bed, bathtub, kitchen counter, or actual desk, create a space for your child to tackle his or her school assignments free of as many distractions as possible. In my family, and many others that I’ve been hearing from, clutter equals chaos, but carving out a dedicated space in close quarters is a huge challenge too.
Utah-based mom Amelia Wilcox already runs her own virtual wellness business from a home that’s under construction. With her three daughters, ages 8, 11, 14, and her husband all now working from home, “we were all cramped at the kitchen table and it’s wasn’t going well,” she said. Last week, Wilcox submitted photos of tight spaces and unhappy faces to social marketing-guru Scott Paul’s LinkedIn page and won a $400 Edge Desk. “She had a photo on my post that was pretty desperate,” Paul texted me along with the post showing Amelia working outside in a parka in what looks like a framed-in room with no roof and snow in the background. “I’m loving this new desk,” she told me, “it’s a lifesaver, especially that we can roll it from room to room.”
The Macgyver-style Edge Desk is a gadget I’ve also used in the past for this exact problem. It’s one compact piece of furniture that transforms into whatever you need – a sit-down desk, chair, or even an art-friendly easel. It’s like a Murphy bed made for comfort and productivity, is super comfortable, and it tucks away in an instant.
“Sales are up 800% over the past two weeks,” Edge Desk founder Marc Rosenberg, told me over the phone. “It sets up in 60-seconds and right now shipping is taking about a week.
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The hardest part of all might be getting your child to focus. That smartphone glued to their forehead isn’t doing them any favors when it comes to scoring good grades, so make a rule to keep their app-packed phone out of sight when it’s time for school work. But what about when they need to confer with classmates on projects via text or video chat? Try an app like unGlue to make sure they have access to what they need, without the distraction of all those Snapchat streaks and YouTube videos. Common Sense Media also lists 17 apps to help kids ages five through late teens stay focused.
“An agenda, a learning space, norms for how they ask for help and work through problems, help your child create physical and mental space where they are ready to learn,” Caitlin Warren, Community Lead at ClassDojo wrote in an email. ClassDojo is an educational technology communication app offering free, turnkey remote learning platforms. “Classrooms are hardly ever silent though, and playing music with a BPM of about 60 is ideal for focus. Play music without lyrics so that students aren’t tempted to sing along.”
Set time limits
As tempting as it can be to just tell your hardworking student to hammer through their work and have fun later, overwhelming them is a recipe for disaster. The National Education Association and even the National PTA endorse the “10-minute rule” – 10 minutes of homework per student, per grade level.
Carlson, who used to teach second and third grade adds, “stick to a daily schedule with lots of recess and don’t get hung up on homeschooling for hours on end. In a classroom with 25 students, things take longer. In my master bedroom/bathroom with three students, we can get it done in two hours in the morning and an hour in the afternoon.” Carlson said exercise, including getting the whole family into GoNoodle-led dance parties and good energy at-home exercises that include yoga and meditation can be a real sanity-saver too.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all schedule for families,” adds Samantha Barnes, founder of the popular kids cooking subscription kit Raddish Kids. “Families should not try to replicate an 8-3 school day at home. There are lots of learning opportunities throughout the day. For my own kids, I made a menu of choices that I’ll let them select from independently throughout the day, making sure they are choosing options for creativity, exercise, house help, and academics.”
“Our favorite has been a jar with pieces of papers filled with activities that we want to do each day,” writes my friend Karin Bryson on my Facebook feed. Everyone in the house adds to the jar and ideas include science experiments, arts and craft projects, household chores and even activities as basic as writing a letter to a friend. We choose one each morning and everyone participates in the chosen activity. The kids love it and it adds some levity to our days.”
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Keep creepers out
I’ve always been a big advocate of talking with your kids early and often about all-things gadgets, games, apps, and healthy habits. Now’s a really important time to have that conversation again, according to an FBI news release warning parents of an increased risk of child-exploitation, “children will potentially have an increased online presence and/or be in a position that puts them at an inadvertent risk,” reads the online statement.
FBI suggestions include:
• Discuss Internet safety with children of all ages when they engage in online activity,
• Review and approve games and apps before they are downloaded.
• Make sure privacy settings are set to the strictest level possible for online gaming systems and electronic devices.
• Monitor your children’s use of the internet; keep electronic devices in an open, common room of the house.
I also saw this firsthand during the past week, when a friend texted a photo of a chat thread that popped up at the bottom of a popular and seemingly age-appropriate video game one of their kids was playing on their Google Chromebook. Their son immediately showed it to them and they worked together to get rid of the app and lock down the device’s built-in parental controls. Rather than becoming an issue, it became a teachable moment.
Common Sense Media also has a handy updated list of app ratings and device parental controls. Also, make sure your security software is up to date – protecting against viruses, online threats, risky websites and dangerous downloads. Double-check passwords, too. Yes – you will always need to be privy to theirs, for their own safety. And make sure to backup all data, whether to the cloud or to a secure external drive – or both.
Maintain social connections
“During difficult times like these, it’s important for children to maintain a somewhat normal routine that includes both school work and social time,” writes Susan Kim, CEO of the global education network Edmodo. Kim has two kids – third and seventh graders – and she said in an email that finding ways to keep them connected to classmates has been a big help. “They miss their friends, and I see that they are more excited to learn when they get to engage with their classmates,” she added. Her advice during these tough times includes incorporating video livestreaming into your day. “If your school isn’t initiating synchronous learning right now, then parents can work together to create a ‘virtual playdate’ by designating a time every weekday to connect through video to chat – about schoolwork, or just catch to up.” Kim also said teachers and parents can use Edmodo to create safe chat rooms for families, too.
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Other parents and students are turning to Zoom, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, Skype, and even Messenger Kids – an app designed with kids ages 6 to 12 in mind – to maintain social connections.
Fourth-grade math teacher Anthony Lombardo from Englewood, Ohio, is using a free app called ClassKick to keep connected to his students. “Social connections are important for teachers too,” he wrote via Facebook Messenger. “We are outside of the classroom but I want my students to know that I still care about them. We are a family. We are going to get through this together.”
What are you using to stay safe and sane during your shelter-in-place time at home? Be sure to comment on our social feeds and let us know.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus: How to make home a workable school during COVID-19 crisis