Teaching your kids at home? Give yourself a break


Since the COVID-19 pandemic has forced schools into operating online, many parents have had to turn their homes into emergency classrooms.

The University of Pittsburgh hosted two online presentations designed to give parents some extra support while they work to continue their children’s education without physical access to schools.

On May 5, experts gave a series of tips to help ease this transition through the Coffee Shop Talk with Chris Bonneau: Teaching Elementary School at Home with No Expertise and the Working from Home, Raising Kids and Living the New Normal presentations.

These webinars featured Patricia Crawford, associate professor and chairwoman for the Department of Instruction and Learning in the School of Education, and Denise Esposto and Molly Matsik, who are educators and developmental health care consultants with Pitt’s HealthyCHILD program. 

Here are nine takeaways from the discussions that can help make this transition a little easier:

1. Have reasonable expectations for yourself

One of the first tips Crawford gave during the coffee talks was for parents to set “reasonable and flexible” expectations for themselves during this difficult and unprecedented time. 

“I think we have to admit, this is really hard,” Crawford said. “It can be really wonderful in some ways, but we’re doing something we’ve never done before, and everybody’s learning how to work and teach at home so I think we have to be really gentle with each other and patient when we’re setting up those expectations in terms of what we want kids to be doing, in terms of school.”

2. Be honest to your kids about how serious the virus is, but don’t overload them with information

Parents should be as forthright as possible with their children about how the pandemic has changed things but should try to make sure not to scare them. This will help the children understand why they are suddenly being homeschooled and can’t see their friends as much as they want to.

“We need to tell them that it’s serious,” Crawford said. “If kids ask a question, give them an answer but (do not) use it as a chance to vent our own fears and our own scariness.”

Further, try to answer questions about the virus using simple language the children understand, Esposto said.

3. Acknowledge the fact that learning this year will certainly be different, but it doesn’t necessarily mean your child will “fall behind”

The pandemic has forced schools to transition to online instruction, which may be completely new for parents and children used to physically going to school. The child’s education won’t be the same as it was before the pandemic, Crawford said.

Parents shouldn’t be too afraid of their children falling behind on their work, she said, but they should work to make sure their children are engaged with learning. This could mean reading or exploring the house in meaningful ways “that help them to develop the habits of mind that when we’re able to go back to school, we’re going to be able to just jump right into learning.”

4. Create a designated workspace to help minimize distractions, but stay flexible

Children are naturally going to be distracted, Crawford said, but parents can help children focus on learning by creating a specific workspace for themselves and their children to continue their education. This also can help create and teach children boundaries 

Parents shouldn’t stress about keeping their children on strict schedules that mimic their schools since learning is typically balanced with socialization skills.

“The truth is, a lot of that time is devoted to social issues, which are so important — learning to make friends and moving around and doing art activities,” Crawford said. 

Crawford also recommended creating a type of buddy system to make sure children stay social. This could mean facilitating zoom calls with their classmates.

5. Check in with your child’s school as much as you can, when you can

Parents shouldn’t be afraid to communicate with the child’s teacher or check in with their school, especially if they need help.

It’s important to keep in mind that this is an unprecedented situation and some parents are more equipped than others to handle homeschooling.

Each household doesn’t have the same access to the internet or online instruction, Crawford said, and the pandemic has shone a light on this issue.

Making an effort to engage with the child’s school for check-ins can help guide the transition. It’s not necessary to check in with teachers all time, but depending on the situation, “seeing their teacher in some form, hearing from them, getting a note from them” can give the child assurance during this time.

6. Create a personalized schedule tailored to your family’s needs to reduce the household drama

Crawford, Esposto and Matsik each recommended that parents create schedules that are more designed around their unique households as opposed to trying to re-create their child’s school schedule. 

Esposto said having a personalized routine can bring everyone in the household more comfort. It also can help teach children self-regulation.

Parents don’t have to solely focus on school subjects either. They can incorporate some independent reading, games, puzzles or other learning experiences into their child’s day to help mix things up.

Matsik recommended that parents stay mindful and calm to help ease the transition into the new routine. As a general rule of thumb, parents can start the child’s day with some playtime or a similar activity before breakfast. Parents also can incorporate outside activities, weather permitting.

7. Try a breathing exercise when you’re stressed

When things start to feel overwhelming, Esposto recommends that parents try to create moments for mindfulness, relaxation and self-care. This can be done in the form of breathing exercises. 

The 4-7-8 exercise is a good place to start. This is done in four breaths. For each breath, inhale for four seconds, hold the breath for seven seconds, then exhale for eight seconds, making a “whoosh” sound.

Matsik said this exercise can help offer relief during a stressful day.

“It provides a nice little break in whatever it is you’re doing just to do this breathing method, and then you can kind of re-acclimate and focus and kind of center yourself and move forward.” Matsik said.

8. Keep an eye on your child’s screen time

Esposto said that while research on how time in front of a phone, tablet, or a TV affects child development is still ongoing, it’s important for parents to make sure that these screens are not babysitters.

Even though children will have to be in front of a screen for online classes, parents should closely monitor the content their children are consuming and how long their child is in front of the screen, she said.

“I don’t think it’s good for children to be on the screen, you know, four or five or six hours a day,” Esposto said. “It’s just kind of common sense.”

Matsik said that an alternative to limiting screen time is monitoring the quality of what the children are consuming. “Sesame Street” and PBS Kids can offer solid programming centered around social and emotional topics.

9. Take care of yourself

Finally, when creating a routine, parents should make a point to schedule time for self-care to wind down from the day, Esposto said.

“There’s a lot of sayings that relate to this: You can’t pour from an empty cup or an empty bucket; if you don’t take care of yourself first, you can’t take care of others,” Esposto said. “It’s the same kind of thing where you need to have your own time, and don’t feel guilty about it. It’s important for you to recharge.”

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at dharrell@pitt.edu or 412-383-9905.


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