Rule No. 1 for Parents Doing ‘Crisis Schooling’: Take a Deep Breath

It’s not like you have to worry about teaching calculus or advanced biology. Not yet, at least.

Source:  The NYTs

Image credit:  Monika Aichele

By: Melinda Wenner Moyer


There was a moment this month when I was helping my 8-year-old with his school science project while spelling the word “mermaid” aloud for my 5-year-old while browning meat on the stove while fielding a work call. That, I think, was the closest my head has ever come to exploding.

It’s hard enough to be a calm and effective parent during a pandemic in which there’s a shortage of toilet paper. When you also factor in having to teach your children fractions and social studies, surviving each day becomes a superhuman endeavor.

To ease our collective parental burden, I gathered tips from education researchers, teachers and longtime home schooling parents on things we can do to make distance learning easier and more effective.

First: Relax your expectations. Your children are probably not going to learn advanced calculus this spring, and that’s OK. What we are doing now is not the same as traditional home schooling.

“Home schooling is a choice,” said Beth Maloney, a mother and also a teacher at Sunset Hills Elementary School in Surprise, Ariz. “It’s something that you go into having made the decision to do it. You’ve prepped for it, you undertake that as your job.”

What we’re attempting now is something else entirely — some call it “crisis schooling”— and we can’t possibly give our children the kind of learning environment that home schooling parents provide during a regular school year. The goal is just to get through these next months with our lives (and, ideally, our sanity) intact.

Still, one thing that may help is to “make a schedule for school that fits your family” and to try to keep it somewhat consistent from day to day, said Angela Victory, a mother who teaches fifth grade language arts at the New Albany Elementary School in Mississippi.

My husband and I print a schedule every day, and the structure helps to ground our children and create a new normal. Teachers say the schedule doesn’t have to mimic a regular school day or even involve schoolwork first thing in the morning — do what works best for you and your children — but ideally, it should include short blocks of focused schoolwork interrupted by snack and meal breaks, outdoor play and time for activities such as reading and crafts.

(Of course, how much you’ll be able to do largely depends on your circumstances. My husband and I can work remotely and have flexible schedules. We also have computers, tablets and internet at home. Many families aren’t so fortunate, and they may not be able to do as much.)

Keep in mind, too, that learning blocks can be short. In March, the Illinois State Board of Education published remote learning recommendations that advised parents to aim for focused learning blocks of three to 10 minutes at a time for children in grades K through 2; 10 to 15 minutes for grades 3 to 5 and 30 minutes for grades 6 to 12.

You may also want to set up a consistent space for schoolwork. Keep it stocked with what they might need: pencils, erasers, paper, other craft supplies and maybe a dictionary.

And “do what you can to make that learning space as distraction-free as possible,” suggested James Lane, Ph.D., a professor of elementary education at Columbia College in South Carolina. Ideally, you won’t have a TV blaring in the background, and you’ll close the blinds if things are happening outside. If your children frequently get drawn in by texts or app notifications, turn off your Wi-Fi or change their notification or device settings.

If you have a very active or creative child, though, you might want to experiment with more flexible work environments.

“Some kids, like my daughter, learn best while moving,” said Michelle Mista, who lives in the Bay Area and has been home schooling her sixth-grade daughter since kindergarten. “One of the main things that I’ve found helpful as a home-schooler is letting go of the idea of what learning ‘should’ look like. Learning at home often doesn’t look like what we may be used to in a classroom environment with a teacher at a board, students at their desks.”

Christie Megill, who lives in New York City and has been home schooling her three children for three years, agreed. “One of the biggest lessons home schooling has taught me is flexibility,” she said. “If you think it’s time for your kids’ writing lesson, but they’re bouncing off the walls and need to create an obstacle course inside the house to burn off energy, you can change direction.”

Use your discretion, too, on how much schoolwork you make your children do. When I saw that my 5-year-old grasped a particular literacy concept the other day, I didn’t make her do the extra three sheets of practice.

“I’m not saying ignore the assignments,” said Barbara Stengel, Ph.D., a philosopher of education and professor emerita at Vanderbilt University, but during a crisis, parents “don’t need drill and practice for the sake of drill and practice.”

Still, if your children are struggling with their schoolwork in ways that concern you, or if you’re struggling to keep up, don’t hesitate to contact their teachers and ask for help. “They know what your child has responded to in a classroom situation,” Dr. Lane said. “They probably also know what has been really challenging for your child.”

If your children are pushing back on the very idea of doing schoolwork at home, schedule a one-on-one conversation between the teacher and your child, Ms. Maloney suggested.

It can help when the teacher explains that school is still happening — it’s just happening at home now.

But what if your school isn’t doing much distance learning, and you want more? One excellent resource that began in March is WideOpenSchool, a free collection of online learning experiences curated by Common Sense Media, an independent nonprofit organization that provides technology recommendations for families and schools.

Teachers also recommend Khan Academy, a free website that engages children (and adults) in different subjects; Epic, a digital library featuring 40,000 children’s books; Storyline Online, a website featuring videos of well-known actors reading children’s books; and Starfall, an educational website and app for children in pre-K through third grade. Your library may also have audiobooks and digital loans available.

You may not be a trained teacher, but as a parent you probably know more about teaching than you realize. Trust yourself and what your children need.

“You have the great strength of knowing your children better than any teacher could,” Dr. Stengel said.

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