Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email email@example.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
As COVID-19 continues to spread, schools nationwide are shutting their doors for extended periods in an attempt to limit virus transmission. I’ve spent the last week or so fielding questions from parents about what this means for their children’s education, what parents should be doing to help their kids, and how best to handle all of this uncertainty. Here’s a list of some of parents’ most pressing questions, along with my answers, which I hope may help you navigate this difficult time.
Do you have suggestions for how to create some structure in my kids’ days so that we don’t all go crazy?
By now you’ve probably seen many a cute, color-coded daily family schedule being shared like brushfire through your social media feeds. Rather than rehash those or give you my own hour-by-hour breakdown, I’m going to offer you some guiding principles instead.
I think the first thing we all need to reckon with is that creating a structure and sticking to a routine is hard. Preparing and executing structured activities that your kids can immerse themselves in is hard. Kids might push back on your schedule, they will certainly test your limits, and they often have needs and ideas and desires that don’t cleave neatly with your vision. It can feel like swimming upstream all day long. Moment to moment, it’s so much easier to, y’know, not. I still think you should try, though. This is not the contained indulgence of a snow day; we’re in for a long haul. The temporary relief of taking the path of least resistance on Week One is going to seem a lot less easy when your kids are anxious, aimless, or downright feral on Week Three, or Four, or … You need to be prepared to stick to your guns (most of the time).
That’s not even accounting for the fact that many of us have to work at the same time we’ve been thrown into this sudden stay-at-home parenting arrangement. So the second thing we all have to reckon with is the fact that everything is going to be affected by the situation we find ourselves in, and nothing is going to meet the usual quality standards—not our work, and not our parenting. We’re all going to have to be generous and compassionate with ourselves, with our kids, and with one another. And I mean have to, because there really is no other option! Children are not fish that you can feed once in the morning and then leave to placidly swish their tails for the next six hours; it is simply not possible to put in the usual focused, responsive, and productive 9-to-5 while also caring for kids. The sooner we—and, more importantly, our employers—come to accept that truth and adjust expectations accordingly, the more doable this will feel.
A few specific suggestions:
Set an alarm and wake up before you anticipate your kids will. It helps a lot to get ready in peace and to feel like you’re on top of things as their day begins.
Yes, create some sort of schedule. Impose it on little ones, who will need a sense of guidance and leadership in this weird, disorienting time. I’ve done this for my kids (a 4-year-old in district pre-K and a 2-year-old in day care), and my pre-Ker was suitably wowed by the officious-looking chart I taped up in the hallway. Collaborate with older elementary and middle school kids to develop a shared routine; getting their input will also help get their buy-in. Make it public, and try setting timers to help you stay on track. High schoolers will certainly be more self-directed and self-sufficient, but I’d still set some baseline expectations and mutual agreements about things like household contributions, screens, and academic work or productive activity. Everyone will feel better if they know there’s time allotted for breaks, free time, physical movement, and fresh air throughout the day.
Preparing structured activities for younger kids might seem unbearably high-maintenance, but it doesn’t have to be that much work; I’ve been spending the 10 minutes I normally use for packing lunches to pull together a game, project, or activity plan for the next day. It really does help extend the periods of peacefully occupied time (and will help you steal a few more minutes to yourself). I plan to alternate between periods of expecting my daughters to play independently and providing them with more structured (yet fun) activity.
Change locations within your home throughout the day if you can. Quit while you’re ahead and end every activity before it unravels into needy restlessness. Hide your newest or most attractive stuff and ration it out at a miserly pace.
Know your kids. If, on an average day, they’re totally uninterested in crafts, they aren’t going to magically bliss out constructing a milk carton birdhouse now because you’re desperate and you saw a tutorial on Instagram. I almost panic-bought a basketful of coloring books before I remembered that neither of my kids gives nor has ever given a single shit about coloring books.
Sometimes there will be a lot of yelling and tears or they will watch four movies in a row. It happens. Tomorrow is another day.
Am I supposed to be teaching my kids right now? How much time should my kids spend on academics every day?
Teaching teaching? Personally, I don’t think so—I mean, you don’t know how! Teaching well requires a complex network of skills: content knowledge, the ability to explain that knowledge succinctly and clearly in an age-appropriate way, modeling and then guiding students through practicing various cognitive strategies, understanding students’ misunderstandings and mistakes and then responding with appropriate feedback, successfully motivating and encouraging them while upholding behavior expectations. It is, as any teacher will tell you, a lot harder than it looks, and it takes years to master. You should not feel guilty and dismayed if you tried and you felt unsuccessful. (By all means, keep trying if you can sustain it! But it’s OK if it flopped on Day One.)
That said, I do think it’s important to regularly include some form of academics in your day. It’s common for students to experience a regression in school-based habits and skills even after breaks as routine as the winter holidays, and we are facing down the potential of a long, long interruption in formal learning. I think it’s in the best interest of your kids’ eventual return to school to keep them engaged, stimulated, and learning something. If you can manage two total hours of academic-skills-oriented activity over the course of each day with your school-age kids, you’re doing great. Plenty of time within the typical six-hour school day is not spent consumed in hard-and-fast academic work anyway, and nothing about the situation we’re now in is typical! You don’t need to be leading and coaching them through it at every step, but you should try to keep them on task (which is, as I’m sure you’re beginning to observe, not easy to do!)
Remember: We are in uncharted territory here. You can be very flexible—and even try to have some fun—with what “academics” means for your family right now. Writing a short story or graphic novel counts. Watching a Crash Course video and teaching the key points to a younger sibling counts. Reading (or rereading) a great book and trying a fun, out-of-the-box analysis activity counts. Watching interesting documentaries or TED Talks and trying out different methods of note taking counts. Listening to the first season of Serial and completing related lessons and activities counts. If the best you can manage on some days is keeping half an eye on your kid doing 30 minutes of Khan Academy while you sit on a conference call, I still think you’re doing fine.
OK, so it’d be good for me to keep up with the academics. What curricular resources, apps. or videos are available to help me?
For younger kids (say, preschool and kindergarten), I don’t think you need to trouble yourself much with attempting things like math workbooks and reading drills (I don’t plan to!). Developmentally sound early childhood education should be mostly exploratory and play-based anyway, so that’s what we’ll be doing at home. When I’m spending hands-on time with my preschooler, I anticipate interspersing 20-minute “teaching” increments throughout her day, doing things like browsing and discussing her visual encyclopedias and maps, practicing letter sounds with alphabet magnets, examining various things under a magnifying glass, measuring household items with a ruler and discussing what we notice, reading, practicing handwriting, and so on. If you need inspiration for engaging, enriching activities for younger kids, the Instagram accounts @busytoddler, @dayswithgrey, and @theworkspaceforchildren and the book 150+ Screen-Free Activities for Kids are all great resources.
For older kids, there are tons of options! The Libby app will allow you to check out library books onto your tablet, including picture books. I think older elementary schoolers who haven’t begun a foreign language class yet will be intrigued by getting a head start on Duolingo. IXL and Khan Academy both offer high-quality lessons and practice problems in a range of subjects, with levels from kindergarten to 12th grade. BrainPOP is a little more gamified, but still an academically oriented site with lots of subjects and choices. NoRedInk allows students to select their favorite musicians, TV shows, and movies, then delivers interactive grammar exercises with customized pop culture references built into the sentences. If you create a free account on Newsela, you can access articles about current events from various news outlets and adjust the reading level to suit your child’s needs; the site adapts the content of the articles for stronger or weaker readers. CommonLit is a truly excellent resource with a vast library of articles, poems, fiction excerpts, and nonfiction articles that each include guiding comprehension questions, a final assessment, and open-ended discussion prompts. You can sort the library by genre, grade level (third to 12th), featured literary devices, topic, theme, or book pairings. Facing History and Ourselves is a history curriculum designed to confront bias and injustice; you can find readings and lesson materials about a variety of topics and themes.
My student has an individualized education program, or IEP. What happens with the services they normally receive?
I wish I had a good answer to this, and I really feel for parents who are in this situation. While kids who are developing typically and have many resources will be knocked for a loop, they will likely get back on their feet fine in the end. Students with special needs, students whose academic skills were already lagging, and students whose families lack the resources or the time to support any academic pursuits at home are poised to be far more set back by our current scenario. I have two suggestions: 1) Reach out to your child’s classroom teacher, therapist, or IEP coordinator if you can; they are not on vacation, and you’re not being intrusive. Ask questions about how to best support your kid’s individual needs. Ask for resources and guidance. 2) If you’re working with nothing and you’re trying to keep your student on track, meet them where they are. Some curricular resources offer a diagnostic—start there, and have your child work on tasks targeted at their current skill level. If school is already particularly challenging for your learner, you don’t want this period to become debilitatingly frustrating and defeating. Stay on the same team and do your best to make your kid feel successful.
This pandemic is already revealing a lot about just how vulnerable our neediest populations are and how little our society is equipped to provide adequate support for them. This issue is long due for a reckoning. I hope we learn from it.
My kids’ school assigned “optional” work. How important is it to complete it?
I’d say you’re aiming for “good faith effort.” We’re all figuring this out as we go. No one has ever been in this situation before—not you, not your kids, not their teachers, not your district. You will likely want and need to have something to occupy your kids and ground their day in some kind of routine, and the assigned work lets you create some sense of normalcy without having to generate the tasks yourself, so I think it behooves you to try. But I cannot imagine a scenario where teachers come back to school ready to issue zeroes to every discombobulated 10-year-old who didn’t successfully teach themselves the social studies unit posted on Google Classroom. Just try.
Does signing up for Disney+ count as pandemic preparedness?
Oh, God, yes, definitely, yes. (It counts as everyday-coexistence-with-your-children preparedness, as a matter of fact.)
I know the larger question of how much screen time we can give our kids without liquefying their brains is at the forefront of everyone’s minds right now, and while I am not an expert in this area, my personal thought is: Our household will probably get more than usual, but I’m still going to try to set boundaries. I’ve learned that my kids need clear delineations about when screen time is and isn’t on the table, or the day devolves into them asking about it over and over. If my preschooler does start persistently bugging for TV, I try to suss out the need behind the request. Is she just craving a little more stimulation in the environment? If so, she’s often as happy with a streaming webcam of animals, an ambient background video, or an audiobook. Is she restless and itching to blow off some steam? Cosmic Kids yoga, a few GoNoodle routines, or dancing along with a Just Dance play-through helps more than sitting for an episode or two.
For older kids and tweens, I think you should discuss expectations and limits as part of your overall scheduling conversation; screen time is a great break option or incentive for cooperating with the larger routine.
With high schoolers, I think a lot will depend on the precedent you’ve already set in day-to-day life and how much it matters to you. Personally, it’s not the hill I would die on, as long as the general functioning of the household is satisfactory.
Good luck to you, good luck to your kids, good luck to me and mine, good luck to all of us. We’re going to need it, but also, we can do this.
—Carrie Bauer (middle and high school teacher, New York)
More Advice From Slate
My daughter’s sixth-grade elective teacher recently called me to tell me that my daughter is a great student, eager to learn, and very fun to have in class. But he also mentioned that he often asks her to partner with difficult students in class. When I asked my daughter about this, she said that these difficult students are often boys that don’t pay attention. It seems wrong to put her in this position: What should I do?