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What Matters Most?
Prioritizing time to support our children’s education during COVID-19 closures.
We can’t do it all. That much has become clear, if it wasn’t already. Managing our work and home lives is challenging enough in typical times; throw a pandemic into the mix, and it can be enough to tip the scales to “unmanageable,” even if we’re not on the front lines of response and support. (Let’s take a moment to honor - and consider the realities of - all those who are.)
As members of the PLS community, we should also take a moment to consider all the advantages and privileges we have as we encounter the daily realities of quarantines and closures. Some of us may be perceiving that, given all these advantages, we should somehow be able to do it all - that we must - especially when it comes to our children’s education. As a 22-year educator, I will tell you that we really can’t … and we shouldn’t. Becoming an effective teacher takes years of training, practice, and professional development, so there’s no point in pretending you’re going to become one overnight. Furthermore, teachers - whether in traditional schools, virtual schools, or home schools - spend weeks designing, internalizing, and preparing to implement each element of curriculum, time and expertise most of us working parents simply don’t have. The detrimental effects of the stress people may put on themselves and their children in an effort to replicate school in this new reality far outweigh any potential academic development those efforts might yield.
So, what to do? Obviously we want our children to keep learning for the duration of school closures, and we can make that happen in authentic, real-life, and largely stress-free ways. Whether your child’s school has sent out dozens of emails, directions, and links to online resources or they’re left to their own devices, here’s a simple way to think about how to prioritize time - and how to integrate daily learning - using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
1. Let’s start with the essentials: our kids’ physiological needs. The first things to plan for in whatever semblance of a daily schedule you can muster are meals and sleep. A well-nourished, well-rested child is much better able to cope with the wacky new realities we’re facing. Plus you can involve your child in deciding on menus, making shopping lists, following recipes, and preparing food together: life skills, food science, and math! When the going gets tough, the tough bake cookies.
We all need time for physical activity too. Dedicate time each day for movement and exercise. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy: do an online workout video if your child is so inclined, but you might find a game of tag or a kitchen dance party is even better. Being home together presents a unique opportunity to build healthy habits.
2. The best way to create a sense of safety and security is to establish and follow a basic schedule and set of routines each day. This will help you too as you try to navigate work calls, meeting deadlines, and not eating all the cookies you’ve baked. Allow for some flexibility, but stick to general times for things like daily chores and meals, and also plan consistent time for things you and your child enjoy, whether that’s a walk outside, a game of Scrabble, or watching a favorite show together. Predictability creates a sense of stability, and it gives kids the concrete knowledge that less enjoyable things will end, while ensuring they have specific activities to look forward to each day.
Academic work time and any school schedule requirements should be built into the daily plan, but they shouldn’t dominate. Organize schoolwork into time-bound chunks based on your child’s age and attention span: for younger kids, 15-20 minute blocks for a total of about 90 minutes per day; older kids can typically handle 45-60 minute stretches for up to 3 or 4 hours a day. This doesn’t need to be drudgery; you can and should allow time for your child to learn about topics of interest to them, which supports their need for self-actualization.
Give your child a sense of agency by working to make a schedule together or giving them parameters (must-dos, may-dos) and having them create a schedule on their own. Talk about a life skill! You’re also getting at elapsed time, executive functioning, and logic as they try to fit all the pieces together.
3. This sudden disconnection from friends and teachers can be jarring for school-age children, so work in some deliberate time for connection. Ask your child what they would like most - some are really eager for virtual play dates with friends and calls with extended family, while others just want to sit and talk with a sibling or play a video game together. Some schools are hosting virtual classes or online student meetings, and extracurricular groups are hosting online rehearsals and practices.
Kids can practice their writing skills by composing letters or emails to friends and teachers and crafting notes of appreciation to family members. Families can “meet” for online read-alouds and game nights. We can and should acknowledge that it doesn’t feel the same, and that makes it even more important to prioritize opportunities to cultivate a sense of love and belonging.
4. Shifting to different modes of learning and accessing schoolwork can breed striking levels of frustration, even - and especially - for children who typically thrive in school. Our kids need daily validation of what they’re doing well and sincere acknowledgement that it’s okay if something is difficult. One of the most challenging parts of this work-from-home / school-from-home dynamic is trying to be present for your own professional responsibilities and be present for your child when they need help with schoolwork. Don’t try to make those things happen at the same time. Schedule specific times when you can be available to assist with school work, and help your child develop plans and strategies for what to do if they encounter something they can’t figure out independently.
Self-esteem comes from feeling empowered to accomplish tasks and solve problems on your own, and from having a sense of self-direction and choice. Encourage your child to set a goal for the day, make a plan for how to reach that goal, talk through some strategies for what to do if they get stuck, and then make time at the end of each day for them to reflect on how they did by talking with you, writing in a journal, or filling out a simple google form (my son’s favorite).
5. Let your kids do what they love! Leave some openings in that schedule to allow for flexibility and time to pursue passions, whether that’s playing music, painting and drawing, practicing a sport, building with legos, dancing around wildly, or reading quietly. Self-actualization may seem more remote than ever in these circumstances, but our kids generally have a lot more control over their time these days, which could open up fantastic new possibilities for them. Encourage them to make the most of it.
Through it all, remember that you share these same five basic needs. Be patient with yourself and your child. If the schedule isn’t working, change it -- and don’t feel like you have to follow it rigidly. Ask for help when you get stuck or feel overwhelmed. Allow time and space for the life moments that matter most. And make sure you build some time in that schedule to take care of yourself too.
Jane Henzerling was a 2017 Presidential Leadership Scholar and is the Managing Director of Professional Learning at T.L.P. Education, a non-profit that partners with 400 diverse schools across the U.S. Previously she served as Assistant Secretary for Policy, Innovation, and Measurement at the New Mexico Public Education Department, and she founded The Mission Preparatory School in San Francisco, CA. In addition to consulting with school systems and education non-profits, Jane serves on the boards of Atlas Corps and DreamHouse ‘Ewa Beach charter school. She graduated summa cum laude from Skidmore College with a degree in Spanish and earned an MEd in Educational Leadership from Northern Arizona University. Jane lives in Santa Fe, NM, with her husband and 11-year-old son.