How to Homeschool Your Kids During the Pandemic: 10 Tips From Homeschooling Parents

Feeling overwhelmed since your home suddenly became a classroom? This advice should help.

Figuring out homeschooling on the fly thanks to the coronavirus pandemic? These tips from longtime homeschool parents can help. Photo: Jasmin Merdan/Getty Images

With the pandemic forcing education online for the time being, parents have suddenly found themselves in the somewhat intimidating role of teacher, and their homes are now doubling as classrooms.

To help those now feeling like unwitting contestants on Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? (who really remembers abstract algebra and iambic pentameter?) we reached out to the pros, homeschooling parents, for tips. Below, they share advice for parents based on what’s worked best for them.

1. Use your teachers as your tutors

As long as your child or children are technically still in school, don’t forget: You’re not alone! You have expert knowledge at your fingertips. “All teachers [in the public school system] have office hours, so it’s not like [parents] are without a resource,” says Dominick Acosta, who both homeschools his own children and teaches Spanish at Frankford High School. If you have a specific question, need advice or are looking for resources, don’t be afraid to reach out: It’s their job to help. “We are no longer just the teachers, we are the tutors,” Acosta says of himself and other public school teachers. “We can get parents the resources they need.”

2. Lower your expectations

“Then lower them even further,” says Kathleen Lopez, a mother of four with homeschooling, public, private and cyber charter school experience. “Distance learning is a discipline. It has a methodology, and it can be done very well, but even then it’s not for everyone.” Before worrying that you or your child are underperforming, remember that “maintaining a loving, close emotional connection with kids during this time is number one by far,” Lopez says. “They will learn so much: resilience, love, how to deal with difficulty. This will teach them far more about how to be in the world than trying to cobble together lessons.”

3. Start early in the day

“Do not wait until the afternoon to do your schoolwork, because it will be a struggle,” advises Christy Rucker, a Chester County mom who has homeschooled her children for seven years. “As soon as your children get up in the morning, young or old, elementary or high school, start school. Sit them down at the breakfast table if they’re young, with their food, and hand them their schoolwork. Do not let fun happen before school. The reason is children have less self control than adults, and think about how hard it is for you to stop something fun and go do drudgery work. If you get started right away in the morning — before electronics, before toys, before games — and just get the drudgery schoolwork out of the way, your day will go much, much smoother.”

4. Establish a structure

“The success of homeschooling depends on your willingness to commit to a structure and a schedule and your willingness to be on top of it,” Acosta says. “I tell my children: 8:30, after breakfast, I want everyone at their assignment. ‘You have your Latin work done?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Ok. Well how about debating?’ With Google Classroom, parents can look at what their teachers are putting online and say, ‘Okay, so you have this Spanish assignment due next week, did you look at it? Are you done?'”

Rachel Azzaam, a Northern Liberties mother of four, uses time blocks to break up the day and offer something to look forward to. “Knowing what to expect relieves anxiety and helps us redirect,” Azzaam says. “For this semester, I plan our days as: Academic, physical, fun food. Like, Wednesdays: Math, karate video, pizza night. Tuesdays: Reading, wheels (bikes, scooters, skates), smoothies and sandwiches. It’s fun to be creative with things we can do. We block out mornings from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. for our Zoom lessons with the class, and after that it’s free time to read or go outside, weather permitting.”

5. Give your kids snacks

This one is simple: “I know all of our kids are eating a ton right now,” Rucker says. “But it is much easier to sit still … especially for a young child —  but even I do this — if we have something to snack on. It can be grapes, carrots, healthy things. But it helps them focus and sit still, and they’re not as antsy. Just try it.”

6. Keep the little ones out of the room

This tip is for parents who have children who are toddlers, or preschool age, in addition to school-age kids. “It is so important that your student, the one that is in school, has as little distraction as possible when they are trying to learn,” Rucker says. “Keep the little ones out of the room or allow your student to go to a quiet space to do their schoolwork.”

And if you don’t have a separate space available? “You can have special toys or special activities that you pull out for that toddler or preschooler only during school time,” Rucker says. “It has to be something really good that they like to do — something new, something fresh — and it only comes out while the older students are doing school.”

7. Schedule free time after schoolwork, especially if your kids are ahead

Rucker says allowing kids to do what they want after they finish their schoolwork is a “huge motivator.”

Rather than set strict schoolwork time requirements, Acosta focuses on goals. “With my son, because he has a different class every day through his [homeschooling co-op], we spend the day prior majoring on that,” Acosta says. “It’s whatever is coming up the next day with him, so it’s not about time as much as, ‘Are you meeting that goal? If you can meet it in a certain amount of time, great. If you need more time, take more time.’ He’s finished work with two hours free sometimes, so I’m like, ‘Well I guess you’re done for the day.’ Other days he’s gone an hour or an hour and a half over [the set amount of time].'”

8. Find online resources you trust

9. But don’t forget about books

Now is a good time to rediscover your favorite reads you already have at home: “Enjoy the stories you already know,” Lopez says. “You’ll probably pick up new details every time.” When it comes to at-home activities, Ghrist swears by “lapbooking,” which requires kids to research and write about topics under an umbrella subject and then compile what they learn. It involves “a manilla file folder you open up, and you print out these mini books, and you create a collection of [mini books] around one topic,” Ghrist says. “If I was really passionate about snakes, I could make six mini books: one about where snakes live, one about where they eat, and so on. And then you take the mini books and put them in the file folder. It’s super easy to implement.” She suggests using some of these templates — or making your own.

Acosta, meanwhile, uses Flash Kids activity books for “spelling, math, language arts, reading,” he says. “There’s a full curriculum in each book, and they’re not expensive.”

10. And remember: You don’t always need to force online learning

It’s okay to take daily breaks or adjust learning based on your child’s and your family’s needs. “Online learning can be hard for some students,” Rucker says. “Maybe they have special needs or maybe it’s just not their personality. Do not be afraid to watch the videos that the teachers are requiring, take the work that the teachers are requiring, and take them off the computer and present them to your child. It would be like a one-on-one tutoring situation — still the same content, still the same information, but you in real life, not in the cyber world, would be presenting the material. Even if you do it the same way the teacher does online, there’s just something different about that real world [experience of] sitting next to them at a table teaching it for some students.”

Ghrist offers similar advice: “Don’t be afraid to make judgement calls based upon your family situation. Each kid is unique and as much as possible be able to respond to what’s coming out of each of your kids. Use this as a chance for your kids to explore their interests. If the work is driving them nuts, allow them to find what they love and give them time each day to explore that.”