Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently appealed directly to children and thanked them for their efforts to combat the coronavirus. "Your playgrounds and schools have closed, and your March break was certainly different than what you had hoped for," Trudeau said in a news conference, acknowledging the dramatic change many children have experienced. Then he offered them "a special thanks ... for helping your parents work from home."
To many working parents, that addendum may have sounded downright aspirational. Talk of kids helping their parents work from home isn't what I've been hearing.
Instead, parents describe how challenging it is to get much done these days, with routines turned upside down and everyone hunkered down in place for an extended period of time. "It's been quite a full-on experience," says Abby Davisson, a senior director at the Gap Foundation, who has been working from a San Francisco home buzzing with her first-grader and preschooler kids' activities and needs, as well as her remote-working partner's. "It's an extreme sport," she adds. Even parents who have worked from home for years say it is a lot more difficult when family members of all ages have work to do and nowhere else to go.
As more schools move to remote learning, parents can't help but wonder how to facilitate school for their kids while also working from home. Here are a few strategies to navigate this overwhelming time:
• Get a head start. "Getting one or two work things done early in the morning - before everyone else is up - can make a huge difference," explains Laura Vanderkam, author of several books on time management and productivity, including "168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think." Vanderkam lives with her husband and five children - ages 12, 10, 8, 5 and 3 months - outside Philadelphia. Every morning, she creates a general schedule for each child listing school tasks, chores and general activities (including furniture assembly!) as a way to keep things moving and on task. Mornings spent completing schoolwork are followed by afternoon time that can be spent on activities, games or screens.
• Divide and conquer. "For us, it's been really useful to have a morning shift and an afternoon shift," says Neda Maghbouleh, a sociologist at the University of Toronto whose 6-year-old daughter is in kindergarten. Maghbouleh now teaches all her courses online, which involves delivering lectures, grading assignments and being available for virtual office hours.
Maghbouleh and her husband, who is also in her department, have worked out a system where, for a concentrated four-hour block of time, one parent takes the lead with their daughter while the other one completes work and research. Switching around lunchtime has been an equitable way of dividing tasks, which she admits may not work in households with multiple kids with different needs.
For those parenting without a partner, the notion of dividing and conquering may seem dreamlike. Segmenting time into buckets of work, movement, and rest using outside resources, screens and activities might be the way to create blocks of time to complete necessary tasks. For an older elementary school student, having a video chat with a grandparent or family friend might provide a virtual check-in while a parent is in an important meeting.
• Create designated workspaces. Scott Olszewski, a senior field director at a global pharmaceutical company, lives in Exeter, New Hampshire, with his wife and three children - a college junior, high school senior and high school sophomore. Each child now navigates different remote-learning options at home. Carving out designated spaces has been crucial. "We've needed to create our office spaces for each of them," Olszewski explains. "They each have their own designated space to study, to work, to Zoom with their teachers or their professors," he says. This has taken some creativity, including repurposing an area of the basement once used for storage.
• Adopt a camp director approach. Davisson and her husband have found success in writing a list of potential activities on a board, setting a timer and letting her kids choose how to spend the time from the designated options. "We choose activities with the right amount of structure but let them still have a choice of what to do when, and if they are having fun at the activity, they can extend it for a little bit longer," she says.
A loose schedule is written out on paper, with breakfast, cleanup and tooth-brushing all before 8 a.m., followed by a string of activity blocks. On another sheet, each child has a sticky note filled with different options - their 6-year-old's include reading, art, math, writing, science, exercise, iPad, quiet play and chores. The sticky notes start out under "Sam's Choices" and are then moved to "Sam Is Doing" when in progress and "Sam Has Done" once completed. Choice times are 25 minutes each, with five minutes for transition, and the kids can extend the choice once (which Davisson says then buys her nearly an hour of time to work). The kids have to clear all choices before starting again, lest iPad be favored over exercise and chores.
One parent is technically "on duty" overseeing the process, and the other is able to fully work in their home office without interruption. The parent on duty can get work done if the kids are engaged in a project; for instance, they recently put butcher block paper on the kitchen table and gave the kids colored tape to create a racetrack for their cars.
• Encourage autonomy. "Older children should be allowed to manage their own schoolwork and their own responsibilities without nagging," explains Christine Carter, sociologist and author of "The New Adolescence: Raising Happy and Successful Teens in the Age of Anxiety and Distraction," who has two high school students and two college students learning from home. She suggests that the role of parents is to provide emotional support and structure as needed, and help when asked.
For younger children, providing a structured set of choices like Davisson's allows kids to feel a sense of autonomy.
Nancy Schatz Alton is a writer and editor in Seattle whose eighth-grader has diagnosed learning differences and needs additional support navigating assignments. Schatz Alton works with her daughter to come up with a daily schedule and then they review it. And though her daughter is used to receiving a great deal of additional support at school, that isn't always feasible right now. So Schatz Alton works with her to figure out what she needs side-by-side assistance on, and what her daughter can do on her own for her to review later.
• Expect false starts and adjust accordingly. This is a tense time for everyone, and every person with whom I've spoken has had to make adjustments. Carter's children initially thought working at the same table would be fun but quickly realized they needed their own designated spaces after they began arguing over study habits. Some wanted to talk, and others needed complete silence. Davisson and her husband initially made the schedule so rigid that their kids were overwhelmed. Even with the most organized structure and system, many of us are processing multiple levels of loss, and making adjustments from day to day or week to week may be necessary. But building in routines and rituals to start and end the day can be important to maintain continuity in a time that seems disjointed.
• Keep the lines of communication open at work. Switching to remote work is challenging for any company. Add kids to the equation, and communicating transparently with a boss and colleagues becomes even more important. Those with smaller children who need full-time supervision, or older children who need help with schoolwork, may need flexible adjustments to once-normal work routines. Davisson and her colleagues block time off their public calendar when they are unavailable for meetings, and several of the parents said they discussed priorities with their bosses to eliminate or pause projects that were not essential during this work-from-home time.
Davisson says that crowdsourcing solutions is also helpful, both for kids and work completion. Some companies have started parent-oriented Slack or Microsoft Teams channels that can be helpful resources.
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• Ask kids to help. "I think it's really important to ask kids of all ages to help us with our work to the extent they can," suggests Carter. "If my door is closed, please don't knock on the door. Please don't interrupt me if there is a Post-it note on the door that says, 'Do not disturb.' I really mean it."
Carter found that explaining what she is trying to do and how she felt when she was interrupted with "I" statements - "I feel really stressed and anxious when I keep getting interrupted, because I've got a lot to do in a short period of time" - is effective.
Strict boundaries might be needed for parents working in confidential settings - mental health professionals, for instance - and asking kids to help also empowers them to be part of finding solutions, which can be comforting at a time of uncertainty.
Ultimately, the more children actively contribute to the household - whether with household chores or helping with dinner or walking the dog - the more they can feel a sense of competence and control. This feeling can help counterbalance feelings of grief and uncertainty from the loss of the world they once knew, including daily structure, in-person socialization and activities that we all probably took for granted.
As Trudeau reminds us, "Let's make sure we all do our part."