Homeschool experts share their secrets for parents struggling with remote learning

With 35 of the nation’s 50 largest school districts opting for remote learning this fall, many parents are bracing themselves for similar stress, confusion and outright chaos that remote learning brought when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the United States in the early spring. But homeschooling experts from across the country have a message for parents as they approach the remote learning back-to-school season with trepidation: Don’t worry.

For help with that, here are their top 11 tips for navigating the complexities of work and remote learning from home.

Have realistic expectations of your kids

Kristy Bickmeyer is a mother of two in Gainesville, Fla., who decided to homeschool her children for the first time during the 2019 school year, when she and her husband took their 9- and 7-year-old kids on a cross-country RV trip. She says her vision of happy nature hikes and eager hands-on learning quickly evaporated.

“I thought my kids were going to be so excited to wake up and learn every day and really appreciate that we were in all these cool places and want to learn about the geysers at Yellowstone and how the Grand Canyon was carved…and that just wasn’t the case,” she says. “My biggest piece of advice would be to limit your expectations and just look at reality, look at what you’re working with in terms of your kids and their levels and what they’re capable of, rather than what you expect and what you think they should or shouldn’t be doing.”

She says she adjusted her course according to her kids’ needs, taking more breaks than she anticipated and sometimes not doing school at all.

“[When] I saw that I was getting a lot of pushback and there were a lot of tears, I just called it, and it’d be like, ‘all right, well… let’s lay on the bed. I’ll read to you while Daddy drives or whatever, you know? So they’re still learning and taking things in, but it’s not so strenuous,” she says.

Van and Carolina Bickmeyer learn about science on a nature hike. Their mom, Kristy, homeschooled them for a year on their RV. [Photo: Kristy Bickmeyer]

Fake it ‘til you make it

Homeschooling expert Wendy Hilton, co-owner of the site Hip Homeschool Moms, says she’s been bombarded with questions from parents who are searching for tips and advice to prepare them for remote learning this year. She says many of the tools parents use in homeschooling can easily translate to parents who are trying to also balance work. Her most important tip: attitude.

“One of the best things that the parents can do is help their kids to have a good attitude about what’s going on,” she says, noting that kids will take their cues from their parents about how to feel about distance education, and if parents are upset and stressed, their kids will reflect that. “It’s hard as parents sometimes not to let that show through to our kids, but one of the best things we can do is try to, if nothing else, fake a good attitude until we feel better about our attitudes.”

Teach your kids how to self-organize

Judy Sarden is a mother of two in Atlanta Ga., who has been homeschooling for the last eight years. She’s also a home education consultant who works with families and companies to, as she puts it, “navigate the home education maze.” She wants parents to know that working from home and helping their children with remote learning are not mutually exclusive, but it’s critical to teach them to self-organize and be independent.

“My children are at a point where they can completely manage themselves,” she says. They might not get every single thing I asked them to do done, but they can get about 80 percent of it done. And I have gotten to the point where if they got 80 percent of their stuff done and they didn’t come in, bug me or dad, I call that a success. “

She recommends a sticky note system, that can work for any age group. For smaller kids, she recommends drawing out each task on their schedule for the day: the first sticky note shows a drawing of food which means breakfast, the second has a number on it that shows they need to work on math, then perhaps draw a toy to show they can play. The next note could include a smiley face, she says, which lets the child know they can take a break and connect with a parent. “The child knows that only after they pull off those above sticky notes can they come and talk to mom. It’s a way of helping them kind of manage their day and be independent.” She also suggests doing it in video form, that they can watch on their device.

For middle school aged kids, Sarden stresses the importance of planning social events, be it virtual or in-person and socially distant. She says the socialization aspect is a crucial part of their development at this age, and can help combat some common problems around anxiety and depression.

Finally, Hilton recommends planners: “Once your child learns to write down homework, marking on a calendar, keep up with it, that’s a huge burden off the parent because then that parent is not every single day having to say, ‘did you get your work done? Did you get your work done?’” she says. “We want to teach them how to use critical thinking so that when they come upon a situation they’re not sure how to handle, they can think back on the skills and information that we’ve given them and make a good decision.”

Just accept that there’s no such thing as “balance”

“I think that we view balance as juggling all the balls in the air perfectly at the same time, but a juggler is never actually holding on to all those balls. They’re up in the air. Some are falling, and it’s in that moment you grab the ball that you need to grab,” says Rebecca Spooner, who has been homeschooling her five children — ranging in ages from 6 to 13 — for nine years now. “And I think that is a more accurate depiction of what true healthy balance looks like.”

Spooner also runs the website, Homeschool On, providing tips and curriculum for parents. She says there are some days she does it really well, and other days? Not so much.

“To have an expectation of doing everything perfectly is unrealistic and it causes burnout and it causes just feelings of failure,” she says. “So I think for people that are new that are going into this, just adjusting their expectations, understanding that you can’t do everything perfectly and that all you can do is your best at that moment.”

Sara McClure, a Tennessee homeschooling blogger and former kindergarten teacher, says one of the biggest challenges for parents who are juggling work and distance learning is helping kids who are different ages with different needs. She should know: she is currently homeschooling her 13-year-old and 9-year-old kids, and also has an 8-month old.

She suggests starting the day with the youngest child first. “If you’re trying to teach one child and then you’ve got little ones running around, it gets tricky.” She suggests something called “busy bags” for younger kids, filled with interesting activities or tasks of distraction. “They’re just activities that are set apart for that time, but it got to something that can be compact in a bag, in a box, something that you can grab quickly and take with you, that they can pull out and do.”

Don’t worry: your kids are going to be OK

“I get how stressful it feels,” says Jennifer Borget, a mother of three in Austin, Tex., who has been homeschooling on and off for 10 years.

Her biggest piece of advice for parents: Don’t worry about your child falling behind in school. “I think if you try to look at it more as an opportunity for them to take these interests, that really sparks them,” says Borget, who is also a homeschooling blogger and creator of Cherish 365. “Try to look at it as an opportunity for where they can grow in a unique way that they otherwise couldn’t if they were in the classroom.”

Remember that learning doesn’t have to happen at a desk

“If your kiddos feel comfortable on the couch — or under a table with a blanket fort surrounding them or out on the trampoline — learning can actually happen in those spaces, especially for some of our busier kids, the kids who need movement,” says Cindy West, a former public school teacher near Lexington, Ky., has been homeschooling her three kids for over 19 years.

West, who is also a blogger on creative homeschooling, encourages parents to find opportunities to help their kids learn outside of the classroom, “whether it is taking a nature walk and going to experience some of the things they’ve been learning about in a science class, perhaps. Or If they are talking about fractions and the kiddo is struggling, go make some cookies where maybe you cut the recipe in half or double it.”

“I just feel like we’ve been conditioned to see school one way and how it needs to be in the classroom and in line sitting at a desk,” says Borget. She suggests changing up the school routine in simple ways: “maybe standing while they’re reading or like putting on a yoga ball …you don’t have those same binds that you do at school. Just kind of be willing to think outside of the box, if you think it’s going to help your child.”

Haley Sarden, 11, on her laptop. Her mom, Judy, a homeschool expert, says learning from home isn't perfect and parents need to give themselves grace. [Photo: Judy Sarden]

Haley Sarden, 11, on her laptop. Her mom, Judy, a homeschool expert, says learning from home isn’t perfect and that parents need to give themselves grace. [Photo: Judy Sarden]

Figure out how your child learns

Bickmeyer says that before she started homeschooling her kids last year in the RV, she didn’t have a true understanding of how her kids learned. “I guess I didn’t really have an idea before because someone else was teaching them,” she says. “One’s audio, one’s visual. I didn’t know that before, and now I know it. So, I feel like that’s going to really help when we come face to face with like, why are we butting heads with this teacher? Or why is this particular homework so hard? I have that tool in my toolbox now.”

Hilton points to a section on her blog, called “Where to Start,” which has articles on the subject and a free online quiz that parents can take to better understand their child’s learning style.

West says the best way to understand how your kid learns is to watch for areas where you see they are consistently frustrated. “Ask questions even of little people. ‘How could this be better for you?’” She also says to pay attention to the kinds of learning situations where your kids are most happy, be it through music or a hands-on lesson.

Think “routine” over “schedule”

“Routine is like, we get up, we eat breakfast, we get dressed, we do school,” says Bickmeyer. “The schedule — and this is where I got into trouble — was like, we’re going to do math from 8-8:30 and 8:30-9 we’ll do whatever… Well, sometimes it takes longer.”

She suggests not allowing the clock to stress you out. “Let’s be honest, for some kids, math takes two hours and reading and writing is a breeze. So it’s really important to just kind of be flexible in that regard.”

Sarden suggests taking it a step further, and waking up early to start work, before your children are up. “You actually feel like you accomplished something. You’ll feel like you’ve been productive because you’ve had those solid hours of non-kid interruption where you’ve been really hunkered down,” she says. But she warns if you start work early, try to end the work day by 4 or 5pm. “You’ve gotta be able to give yourself a mental break, you know, cook dinner, spend some time with the kids, go for a walk,” she says. “You’ve got to be able to do these things so that you don’t burn yourself out.”

When your kid has a meltdown, stop

How to deal with the inevitable and dreaded meltdowns? Spooner’s recommendation: “Stop, stop, stop, stop. Walk away, go do something else,” she says. “Have a snack. Food does wonders when your kids hit that wall. There is such an opportunity to build connection and relationship with your kids to help them grow for you to grow through these things.”

For Sarden, who has a son in the eighth grade, she’s got a trick when he’s “just being a 13-year-old.” As she explains, “I’ll actually have him go outside and walk around the house five times. And it sounds really simple, but just getting outside, getting, moving, getting the blood pumping does wonders with helping him to refocus.”

She also recommends, for kids of every age, 10-minute “brain breaks” every 45 minutes or so. “And even as parents, if you can take those… brain breaks, while you’re at home, take a brain break with the kids, that’ll meet the [kids’ need for] interaction with mom and dad, and everybody can get back more refreshed.”

Don’t forget to take care of yourself

Hilton says one of the most important tips of all is to make time for self-care. “It is super-duper important for parents to take care of themselves. One of the things that I have to do is exercise,” she says. “If I don’t do it, I am not a nice person. And it can seem hard to make time to exercise, to make time to eat right…but everybody truly will be happier.”

Think of this time as an amazing opportunity to get to know your kids

West says this remote learning experience is an educational journey not just for the kids, but for the parents. “It’s so neat when you start learning about your kids and their likes and dislikes,” she says. “And the cool thing is, even with distance learning, there is probably going to be a little bit more time than usual to and explore some of their passions…that maybe they didn’t have time before, when they were in school.”

“You’re going to encounter bad attitudes. Your kids are going to push back with you. And it doesn’t mean that you can’t do this,” says Spooner. “It doesn’t mean that you’re not equipped for this.”

As the parent of two homeschool graduates and a homeschool senior, Hilton adds, “I know it sounds kind of cliché to say, but your kids will be grown and gone before you know it. And we don’t want our kids to look back on this time as, ‘Gosh, I was stuck at home with my parents for that entire school year, and we were all miserable.’ We want them to look back on that time and say, you know, things were stressful, but my parents made it as enjoyable as they could.”

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