I've homeschooled all three of my kids by choice for four years. Here is my advice on how to help your kids learn from home as their schools are shut down because of coronavirus.

By Sarah Bradley
March 17, 2020
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Long before COVID-19 forced school closures, I was sitting at my kitchen table with my school-aged kids, teaching them math, science, language arts, and social studies. I've homeschooled all three of my sons, aged 5 through 9, from preschool on up. My oldest is currently in third grade (although grade levels are usually pretty fluid in homeschool).

It's normal for us and we love it, but for millions of American families facing unexpected school closures in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, homeschooling has been forced on them rather than chosen. Now, many parents are left scrambling to educate their kids at home when they didn't plan on it, don't really want to, and just plain don't know how.

I'll be honest: Homeschooling is more complex than it may seem from the outside and it takes practice. You and your kids won't adapt to it right away, but that doesn't mean you're failing or doing it wrong. In order to happily homeschool, you'll have to look at learning through a different lens than what you're used to.

And online learning with tools like Google Classroom, which schools across the country are prepping for, is something older kids may be able to navigate easily. But for younger kids, it might be a bigger struggle to help them get their work done. But here's what you need to know about making a temporary homeschool situation work for your family.

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Forget what you think you know about homeschooling.

Most homeschooling families don't chain themselves to chairs for eight hours every day. Sure, the older your child is, the more time you'll spend on formal, sit-down instruction—but my third grader is the only one of my kids who spends part of his day reading from texts and answering questions (and it's truthfully a pretty small part of his day). Meanwhile, I ask my preschooler and first grader for about 15 minutes of their attention before we move on to more hands-on learning activities.

There are no rules about how long homeschool should take, but I usually start with 20 to 30 minutes in kindergarten and then move up in 20 to 30 minutes increments for each grade level after that. If you're a temporary homeschooler or just starting out, I would cut those numbers in half and call it a day.

Don't try to recreate a school environment.

School at home is not the same as school at, well, school. Don't waste time, energy, and sanity trying to make your homeschool function like a classroom—it just isn't necessary. Embrace the fact that your kids will be learning in entirely new ways for the time being.

It's OK to homeschool in your pajamas, or in the backyard if you have one, or in a blanket fort under the top bunk. It's OK to skip the fraction flashcards and get your kids baking in the kitchen with you. It's OK to spin a globe, land on a random country, and look up that country on YouTube. And it's definitely OK to go for a backyard bug scavenger hunt and call it science. Us full-time homeschoolers do these things all the time!

Follow a basic routine with built-in breaks.

Unless your child is especially averse to routine, it's smart to establish a basic flow for your day. I'm not an advocate of a strict homeschool schedule (though it absolutely works for some families), but my kids appreciate knowing generally what's coming next. That will likely be the case for kids who are used to their school schedule too.

First we free play, then we learn, then we practice, explore, build, create, whatever. Then we all take a break, because we all need one—including me.

If you've ever bemoaned the lack of recess or play time in your child's school, this is your chance to correct it, at least for right now. If you spend 30 minutes learning in earnest, give your kids twice as much time to regroup. Quiet reading, building with Legos, coloring, playing card games, and yes, even practicing skills with semi-educational apps on a tablet are all great ways to power down periodically without losing your groove.

Count quality, not quantity.

Here's a word problem for you: If Mom A spends 10 minutes working through math equations with her son and only completes five problems, and Mom B spends 45 minutes harassing her son to complete all 25 math equations on his own until they're both frustrated and crying, which child had a more meaningful learning experience?

Duh, it's Mom A's kid, because even though he accomplished less, he had Mom's full attention for 10 minutes. She connected with her child and gave him a chance to ask questions, correct mistakes, and feel good about his skills. It may be hard, but resist the temptation to tally up how much work your kids complete and focus instead on how many minutes you spent being fully present and attuned to them. That kind of 1:1 instruction, even for a short period of time, goes a lot further than long bouts of semi-distracted learning.

Follow your child's interests.

If you need an older child to work independently, it's OK to set aside her existing curriculum or unit studies and let her concentrate on what she wants to learn.

Is she obsessed with Billie Eilish (who, coincidentally, was also homeschooled)? Cool, that's a unit study. Have your daughter research Eilish online and write a short biography (social studies). Ask her to compare and contrast record sales between Eilish and other top female music artists like Madonna and Britney Spears (math). Tell her to study all the lyrics from Eilish's debut album and analyze them like poems, searching for connections and hidden meanings (language arts).

Basically, almost any topic of interest can be turned into a multidisciplinary unit if you think outside the box just a little. Your child will learn across a variety of subjects and be able to self-direct a lot of their own study. Slam dunk.

Lower the bar (a few times).

I have no doubt that you're a smart and capable parent if you're reading this. But even the most skilled homeschoolers struggle to find a rhythm each year and have to rethink, replan, and strategize when things aren't working.

Wherever your expectations are set right now, you should probably lower them (and then lower them again, once more, for good measure). If you're hitting that bar, you're doing fine. If you're surpassing it, pat yourself on the back. And if you're consistently missing it, don't throw in the towel yet—try to figure out where things are going wrong and self-correct if you can.

But mostly? Have fun. It's a scary world out there, and the single best thing you can do for your kids right now is make your home a safe, happy place.

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