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A Parents’ Guide to Working From Home Without Completely Losing Your Shit

If you’re trying to keep your job while being derailed by constant interruptions, take comfort in knowing that you’re not alone — and that there are some tips for getting through it

By now, you’re probably more than a month into figuring out how to work from home with kids. If you’re like most parents, you probably still feel like you haven’t gotten the hang of it — and that’s almost certainly putting it mildly. This situation has been a nightmare for many parents who, although very grateful to still be employed and able to work from home, are finding it excruciatingly difficult to actually get anything done. 

As a personal example, I usually work from home, but I’m not used to doing so with an endless parade of interruptions, tantrums and questions (or with SpongeBob’s laugh as background noise). My wife is home now, too, and while she’s working remotely a few days a week, she’s had to shoulder about 85 percent of the childcare during the weekdays. All in all, it’s a breeding ground for frustration, and that’s when things are running relatively smoothly.

We’ve had some success, though. After floundering for a few weeks, we developed a schedule for my daughter’s day, and she’s responded to it really well. I’ve also turned Saturdays into the school day, where Daddy is the teacher, to let my wife sleep in and take some of the weight off her shoulders.

My kid’s schedule… when we can stick to it.

But no matter what we do, this whole thing is fucking hard. My wife’s workload seems to increase a little each week, which results in days where our five-year-old is pretty much on her own. Regrettably, there have also been days where she’s spent nearly every waking hour in front of a television. Even on the days when we stick to the schedule, it’s hard to ward off interruptions from work or the general malaise we’re all feeling from suddenly being turned into teachers — a job many parents find utterly overwhelming.

There’s nothing that will make this easy, and there is certainly no one-size-fits-all solution, but we can learn from each other. By adopting ideas that have worked for others or letting those ideas inspire our own, it might just make this whole experience a little more palatable. That, at least, was my reasoning behind reaching out to a number of parents, teachers and other childcare professionals in the same situation to offer some tips, or sometimes just to share their stories to remind us how hard this really is and to cut ourselves a little slack — after all, no matter how many virtual happy hours we’re scheduling, this is still going to suck all the way to the finish line.

Tag Team the Kids When You Can

Tyrone, childcare professional and father of three (ages 15, 6 and 2): I’m considered an essential worker because I work in a residential facility, but I’ve been off the past couple of weeks because someone on my staff tested positive, so I’ve been working from home along with my wife. My 15-year-old lives with her mother half the time, but the two little ones are at home. At first, it was a struggle just for my wife, who has been working at home — she’d try to get them not to talk to her during video conferences, but it was a struggle because they’re so young. She tried to pretend for her job like it wasn’t an issue, but there was one call where she acknowledged that she had to take care of something and she had to tell the group that she needed a minute to get her situation together. The good thing is that everyone was really understanding because most of them are in the same situation.

Since I’ve been home, we’ve been having to coordinate our schedules so that we’re not in meetings at the same time. Normally we work the same hours, but we’ve had to get more creative so that one of us can be with the kids while the other is working or in a meeting. We’re trading off for meetings constantly, so she’ll do an hour or two with the kids, then I’ll do an hour or two with the kids. We’re literally trading off all day, depending upon our meetings and what we have to do for work. 

It’s just a mess. We get really frustrated sometimes, but the best thing parents can do is be calm. This is all very serious, but you can’t be frantic all the time; you’ve got to role model for your kids. Like last night, my six-year-old was having a meltdown about the coronavirus. My wife and I were talking about it later, and we realized that we have to be more careful with what we’re talking about in front of them. It’s good to give them a little bit of reality, but he’s six, so he can only handle so much. I also know that, for my family, God and religion has been helpful during these times, so my wife and I work together and pray we’ll get through this alright.

Know the Limits of Little Kids

Kristina, preschool teacher and mother of a 16-year-old: I was recently explaining to a parent who was struggling with their kid at home that, in school, there are days where they’re on and days where they’re off. The best way to counter that is to be consistent with them and not let them get out of doing their daily work; otherwise, they might develop a habit that having a few behaviors will get them out of work. You want to let them know that the work they’re doing now at home is just as important as the work they do at school. 

For little kids, I’d say the first half of the day is when they’re most responsive, so I’d schedule the real learning early. Also remember to give breaks, as sometimes 15 or 20 minutes is all you can get out of an activity. During those breaks you might try physical activities like GoNoodle or some sort of movement break. Giving them choices is good too, so letting them choose between a couple of different activities might be a good way to excite them.  

For parents of preschool age or kindergarten, it helps to know when to push and when not to. If a child is fading out of an activity in the first five minutes, they’re capable of learning for longer than that, so it’s probably a good idea to push them and encourage them to continue on, but if you’re 20 minutes into the same activity and they lag, it’s probably time for a break. 

It also helps for them to know what’s coming next and when things are happening. Having a consistent schedule helps to teach a young child time. For example, I do circle time in my class the same time and on the same carpet every day, so it’s predictable, and during that time I may get their attention for 20 minutes or so. But when I do other activities on the same carpet at different times of the day, I’ll lose their attention much more quickly, because they don’t know what to expect.

I know this is all very difficult, but I encourage parents to stick with it and develop a routine and work with their kids. Some parents might think “it’s just pre-k or “it’s just kindergarten,” but in the month we’ve been off, I’m sure a lot of young kids have lost a lot of what they’ve gained if parents aren’t working with them. It happens pretty quickly. 

20 Minutes of Movement Before Your Kid’s Toughest Subject May Save You a Headache

Lindsey, educator and mother of four (ages 13, 8, 5 and 2): I’d been doing some tutoring and remote instruction as well as some writing, but I had to take a step back during all this to care for my children. Honestly, I feel like I’m having a breaking point once a day — it reminds me of my first week of teaching, but every day. 

Our oldest child is pretty good on his own, but the younger ones I’m constantly walking back and forth [between] all day long — I literally get 10,000 steps in every day just from walking back and forth between my kids’ computers. For the two-year-old, he’s kind of left to the wolves a bit, wandering the house, or he wants to do what the older ones are doing on the computers, so it’s tough — he’s only two, so it’s hard on him. 

As soon as this happened, I got them on a schedule right away. Some people can be looser, but I have to survive and they do better when things are predictable. I find that it makes sense to get our kids learning earlier in the day. Also, there’s research that shows that for a child’s hardest subject, it helps to schedule it after a physical activity. So if your kid struggles with math, 20 minutes of vigorous activity beforehand really helps them to tackle that, because it increases blood flow and the neurotransmitters in the brain are firing, so kids can think more clearly after that kind of activity. I recommend parents trying that before a child’s hardest subject if they’re struggling with it, because it really does help.

Scheduling Will Save Your Life (Sometimes)

Elsie, mother of two (ages 4 and 2): I work for a company that does medical billing, and before this whole craziness started, I was working from home, caring for my kids. My routine has been that I wake up really early to try to get some work in before they wake up, then I have a general schedule set for every day, going from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. 

For the first hour, I feed them breakfast and get them ready for the day, and then from 9 a.m. until 10:30 is free play and TV, so that’s time for me to get some work done. At 10:30, there’s some work for my daughter and a snack for them both, then from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. my son naps while my daughter does arts and crafts and I work again. Then it’s lunch and playtime, then music or another activity at 1 p.m. while I work again for an hour, then it’s outside time. Then at 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. it’s nap time again for my son and quiet time for my daughter while I work some more. I might also work again after they’re in bed, depending on how much I need to get done. My job’s been very understanding, though — as long as I get the work done and I’m honest about how many hours I put in, they understand. 

That might sound pretty structured, but honestly, it never works out exactly like I plan. I try to use it as a general guideline, but if I get off schedule, I try not to drive myself crazy or get too hard on myself. The schedule is just a way for me to have some direction, but I try not to get too rigid — otherwise, it stresses me out more than anything.

Remember, If You Find Quarantine is a Nightmare You’re Just Praying to Wake Up From, You’re Not Alone

Rosemary, mother of an autistic child (age 9): I’m like 10 seconds from losing my mind literally every day. My normal is to work from home, and usually my day would go from 6 a.m. until about 2 p.m., but now I’m done most days at 11 p.m. because I’m caring for my son, who is considered low-functioning autistic and who isn’t getting all the services he really needs. My son isn’t autonomous at all, so he might try to electrocute himself or jump from the second floor to the first floor, so he requires constant supervision.

Meanwhile, I’m trying not to lose my job. Recently, two people from my department were laid off — fortunately I wasn’t one of them, though we did all get a pay reduction due to COVID and the slowdown in work, so I don’t want to give anyone a reason to focus on me, so I’ve got to keep up my productivity. 

I have my computer open the entire day and I’m working while my son goes from activity to activity literally every two minutes. I recently bought a little bounce house to put in my dining room, and that has helped to keep him occupied, so he’ll be in that as I’m getting work done right next to it. He does have a couple of providers that come in and I have a friend that helps out, but most of the time it’s just us.

I’ve also had to start taking him to an outpatient clinic a few times a week so he can get some of the services he would normally get through school. I have to pay for them myself now, though, until I pay off my deductible, which is killing me financially. In addition to the clinic, we’ve had to go out more to get groceries. Normally, I get groceries delivered, because stores are so overwhelming for my son, but with Instacart being so backed up, I’ve actually had to go into the stores more to get what we need. I feel like everyone else is living my normal life of isolation, but because of a lack of services and how backed up everything is, I have to interact more with the public now more than I ever would. 

Then I’ve got my kid’s teachers sending assignments, but I can’t do any of that. I just have to focus on keeping him safe through all this while trying not to lose my job. That’s all I can do.

Have the Kids Make Their Own Lunch

Stella, mother of three (ages 14, 11 and 8): I’m used to working from home, but this is a lot harder now. I’m teaching three kids five subjects each day at three different levels. It’s fucking exhausting. Throughout this whole thing I’ve been thanking my sons’ teachers and telling them, “I’m not you, I don’t have the patience to do this.” I feel bad, but I’m not explaining these things like a teacher would. I’m trying to be patient, but in my head I’m thinking, “What the fuck don’t you understand!? How do you not get this!?!? I’m giving you the answer!”

While I’ve been a little more lenient sometimes, generally they wake up at 8:30 and I let them lay around for an hour, then school starts at 9:30. That’s when all three of them log onto Google classroom, but I have to do it with my eight-year-old because he’s still learning how to use it — I’m pretty much with him until he’s done with his schoolwork. For my oldest, he’s good on his own, so I just check in at the end of the day. For my 11-year-old, he’s pretty good on his own, but every day I give him a list of what to do, and at the end of the day, we go over whatever he needs help with. 

During that time, I’m doing my easier work, like answering emails and things like that. Fortunately, the schoolwork doesn’t take all day and they’re usually done by 1 p.m., so I do my heavier work at 1 p.m. while they play. They’re old enough to watch each other and take care of themselves a bit. When this all started, I decided to get them food they can make themselves, so they take care of breakfast and lunch for each other, because I can’t do everything. They can make sandwiches or frozen pizza, so that’s been a big help, too. 

I’ve kept their bedtimes the same, because I still need to unwind and have a glass of wine after 9 p.m. too. I let them have their devices now, which I didn’t before, but I’ve had to be a little more lenient — otherwise, I’ll go fucking crazy.

Let Your Teen Sleep In

Theresa Russo, PhD in human development and family studies, mother of two (ages 23 and 21): The biggest thing I’d recommend for parents is to develop some kind of a schedule. No matter what age, kids need structure, and that’s especially true with younger kids, like preschool age, because they’re still developing a sense of time, and having a schedule helps with that. It also makes people generally more efficient and to feel more in control of their environment and I’m sure most parents are feeling out of control right now, so by structuring their day and making it as predictable as possible, that should help. It’s just how we are as humans — we like structure.

You will have to be aware of the attention spans of the child’s age, too. For preschoolers, that’s when kids are most active, so for a four- or five-year-old, their attention spans may only allow for 10 to 15 minutes for a given activity, which can be very trying for adults trying to get through an hour Zoom meeting. At early school age, a child might be able to get through a half hour of activity, and you might find some success if you have the kid manage their time a little more, so if they have a half hour at one activity, have them set a timer, and when it goes off, they can reset the timer and move onto the next activity.

For  teenagers, while you might think they can be autonomous, finding motivation in this kind of environment is hard for all of us, and that’s especially true for a teen, so they might need more set times to get things done and clear expectations set for them. Also, making things a bit more reward-based might help, so if they get their work done by a certain time, maybe they’re allowed two hours of screen time afterwards or something like that. 

The times scheduled might vary by kid as well. Young kids tend to go to bed earlier and are most productive in the morning, so it makes sense that they would start early. Adolescents are a bit different, though — there has been a debate for years that high school and middle school start too early, so maybe it’s okay to let your adolescent kids sleep in and a parent can use that time to get their work done, and let the teen wake later and get started later. You wouldn’t want them up all night, but you might find that allowing them to sleep in so you can get a few hours of work in early on might really help.

Opposite Schedules May Be What Your Kids Need

Heather, substitute teacher and mother of two (ages 9 and 6): You really have to know your kids and modify your day around that. My two sons couldn’t be more opposite — one starts the day ready to go and the other likes to sleep in. We also only have one device, but both of them have schoolwork from their teachers, so we have to trade off the device throughout the day. To do that, I have to give them opposite schedules. I also have to schedule their day so that I can give one my attention for an activity, while the other can be autonomous. It’s pretty structured, but each kid is doing his own thing and I bounce around between them.

When Trying to Figure out How to Work From Home With Kids, Forget What Other Parents Are Doing

Sam, father of two (Heather’s husband): I’m an essential worker and I’m working night shifts, so most of this is on Heather, and when daddy comes home, the boys just want to wrestle, so that just messes up her schedule. I try to support things, though, so I do all the grocery shopping, and I do what I can on the days I’m home. I’m not the one shouldering all of this, but as an outsider, I’d say to be careful not to compare yourself to what everyone else is doing on Facebook or whatever. Just do what works for you and your kids. It’s going to be different for everyone.

Don’t Forget the Emotional Support

Veronica Acevedo, school social worker and mother of a five-year-old: Even for little ones, like around kindergarten age, this is all very hard and they’re going to feel the stress of the situation. Sometimes stress can evoke regression, so a five-year-old may display behaviors they had when they were two or three — there could be thumb-sucking or temper tantrums or they’re more fussy or irritable. It’s hard not to just react to that, but the best thing you can do is be present and ask them what they’re feeling. Also, keeping them as active as possible will help because stress lives in your body, so have them ride a bike and dig in dirt — let them play in the mud. It’s a very adult time right now, so let kids have as much of a childhood as possible.

Kids also need socialization, so try to accommodate them with Zoom meetings with their friends and other ways to stay in touch, because they really need that. You should also try to help them look to the future, because there still is one. We may not know when it’s coming, but you can still look forward to the future with them. Please take care of yourself, too — modeling self-care is extremely important for your kids, so don’t forget that.

In my present position, I council teens, and I’m finding that there are a lot of unique challenges with teens in this situation. Not only are many teens missing prom and graduation and their friends, but they’re still going through very normal things, like being attracted to someone at school and wanting to talk to their friends about it. Many parents might want to shut this down but it’s very normal, it just might be a bit more in your face now because they’re home. I encourage parents to talk to their kids and try to normalize these feelings and be honest with your kids, too. Just remember not to shame them for very normal feelings during a very abnormal time. 

Parents should also remember that they aren’t alone. You may feel alone, but you have your school district. You have teachers, social workers, guidance counselors, psychologists and others with years of experience, so don’t forget to reach out. For myself, I’ve reached out to my child’s teacher a lot to make the learning experience at home more like it is in school and that’s really helped me. It takes a village to raise a child — that village may be virtual now, but it’s still there.

Don’t Rent Sonic the Hedgehog 

Vanessa, mother of a six-year-old: I’m still expected to be working full-time from home, and I’m lucky that I have that, with so many people out of work, but it’s super stressful working with an extremely active six-year-old who hasn’t left our one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment in over 35 days now. We don’t have a yard or anything like that, so he’s literally running around in these two rooms driving us crazy. He also happens to be obsessed with Sonic right now, of course, so he’s constantly talking about “speeding around” in these two little rooms we have. The other day he was playing this game where he pretended to be turning into animals and he said, “I’m turning into a cheetah!” and we told him, “No, you can’t be a cheetah, be a sloth.” This poor kid is going nuts in here.

Another challenge is that my son has an IEP [Individualized Education Program], but he’s not getting all the services he needs. He generally has a para [one-to-one aid] and one of the things he struggles with is being in control of his body, so keeping him on the couch to do schoolwork is a huge challenge, though I’ve found some things to help him and me throughout the day. Since he can’t run outside to burn off his energy, if he’s feeling out of control, I’ll have him do push-ups or sit-ups and that helps to center him. For me, I usually use Trello at my job anyway, but now I use it for all of my work assignments to schedule my day, so that when I get interrupted, I can pick up where I left off, without that I’d be lost right now. 

If Your Kid Can’t Get Services, Reach Out to Their Providers for Help

Ellie, special education teacher and mother of two (ages 13 and 10): So many teachers right now are wondering, “How on Earth am I supposed to meet the needs of all my kids?” For me, I’ve got my two biological kids, plus I have a caseload of over 50 children who need services, and we’re all trying to do a job we’ve never done before, both as parents trying to teach our kids at home, and teachers trying to teach our kids remotely.

One of my children is identified as talented and gifted and the other has autism, so it’s the opposite ends of the spectrum as to what services they need, and neither is getting their services. I don’t blame the teachers because I know what’s being asked of teachers and service providers isn’t possible. For me alone, I’m being expected to provide individual assignments for over 50 children and I’m expected to co-teach along with 34 teachers. I also have to be aware of privacy concerns with providing groups and services via video, and we’re all constantly bombarded with information from the national level, the state level and from the district, so things are changing constantly. We just started providing direct services this week, which means they’ve been floundering for a month, and many services cannot be replicated via Zoom.

For parents who are struggling with what to do for their child who needs services, I’d recommend reaching out to the providers and finding out what they recommend that you can practice at home. In general, I don’t think parents should feel pressured to teach any new skills — the aim really is for providers to introduce new things, whereas parents can just practice with them.

I count myself as extremely lucky that my kids are older and able to work at the computer by themselves. I also have a masters in special education which, of course, not every parent who has a child with autism has. I also have access to resources through my job, and we have reliable internet access, which many families don’t have. Even with all that, it’s still extremely hard. The way we’ve gotten through this is with structure. We have our day scheduled from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. That doesn’t mean it’s all worksheets, it just means we have scheduled time for starting our day, then times for reading and writing, science and history. There are also hours of play time in there, both structured exercise and unstructured play times. 

Honestly, that structure is the only way we could get through it. I’m not recommending that for everyone — I know some families have, like, a menu, and they choose what to do because that’s what works for their family, so it’s up to everyone’s own situation, but for us, we needed that schedule to balance it all.

Remember That Every Family Is Different

Morgan, small business owner and homeschooling mother of two (ages 15 and 12): I never intended to homeschool, this was never in my life’s plan, but about six years ago my husband and I decided that we didn’t like the environment at our children’s school, so we decided to pull them and give it a shot.

When it comes to teaching your kids at home, everyone really does their own thing, and it’s all about what’s best for your own situation. Originally, when we started homeschooling our kids, we scheduled it just like a school day, but I quickly realized that that didn’t work, so eventually we changed that. Now we don’t have a very structured day at all, my boys have their schoolwork and they have to get it done by a certain time — they have their assignments for the day and it’s up to them to get it done. Other homeschooling families may be much more structured and others might be less, it’s really about what works for you and your family. 

It’s changed over time, when they were very young I would teach them the same subjects together, but I’d give harder questions to my older son. Now we’re part of a co-op, where other homeschooling parents teach certain subjects that they’re more experienced in. This all takes figuring out, though. My biggest advice for parents would be to chill out and not be too hard on themselves. It took me almost a year to get homeschooling figured out and now I’ve been doing it for six years. I think a lot of parents are overestimating it, then they feel bad because they think they’re lacking, but they shouldn’t feel bad. You’re their parent, you’re not going to ruin your kid.

And Finally, Some Advice from a Goat Farmer

Doug Fine, author of American Hemp Farmer and, yes, goat farmer (because kids): Goats are social animals — they want to be around you and they’ll always try to get where you are. One trick I’ll use if the goats aren’t listening to me is I’ll get out my saxophone, because, just like humans, goats love music. So if I’m trying to get them out of the garden, I’ll play my saxophone and lead them out of there like a pied piper. I also have to keep the kids away from the mother while I’m milking her, so I have to lead the mother to the edge of the gate, open a tiny bit and grab the mother’s collar and quickly close the gate so they don’t get out. 

I’m not sure how helpful that one is for human kids, but the music thing might work.