Coronavirus has relegated many parents to home offices. For some, it's a struggle to balance technology, personal space and elearning for their school-age children.
You may have seen this meme: “Homeschooling going well. Two students suspended for fighting. One teacher fired for drinking on the job.” It’s a sign of the times.
For many people, working from home isn’t new. But the coronavirus is creating an unexpected army of WFH newbies. Mix in the closure of Ohio’s schools and the change families are facing becomes exponential.
Some parents are trying to figure out the technology of working remotely. Others are attempting to work while simultaneously becoming teachers to newly homebound kids. It puts work-life balance in a strange new place, and as of now, there’s no end date in sight.
While there’s no single right way to find your new normal, here are some ideas to help your family adapt.
“These are weird times. I think all of us do better with some stability,” says Dr. Nicole Dempster, a pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. She says developing a schedule can help kids adjust to the situation. “I think trying to find some kind of routine is important. Kids thrive at school because they know what to expect.”
Setting “office hours” also can help parents build structure, Elizabeth Grace Saunders, a time management coach, tells Harvard Business Review. “It may sound silly, but if you want to have a focused day of work, pretend you’re not working from home,” says Saunders, who began keeping office hours to prevent chaos from taking over her day. “I’d ask myself, ‘If I was in an office, would I do this task during the day?’ If the answer was no, I knew I need to do the activity before or after office hours.”
“If your kids are still taking naps, then you’ve got an hour—or two or three—of uninterrupted time to focus,” Heather Levin writes on the MoneyCrashers website. “Make sure you save this time to complete tasks that require your full attention.”
But Leave Room for Flexibility
Jessica Logan, an assistant professor of educational studies at Ohio State University, says that schedules are helpful, but shouldn’t be taken too seriously. She tells the Ohio State News service that she ditched a schedule she was working on when she noticed her children (ages 8 and 12) engrossed in building a puzzle together. “They were talking and there was all this creative expression and play,” she says. “And I thought, if I had a schedule right now, I would be shutting this off and moving them to the next activity.”
Dempster suggests that adding variety can help, building in something that differentiates each day. “Maybe Wednesday is pasta night and Thursday is movie night,” she says, to help everyone stay oriented during the week.
“I also like different types of activities that move towards a goal. Something overarching like building a big puzzle over the week or something that you can see accumulate and make a difference really excites people and energizes people more than just sporadic activities all the time.”
Hannah Jew, a strategy director at branding and marketing agency Ologie, says it’s tough to build a lot of structure into her 2-year-old daughter’s day. “Day care sent their class schedule to help us keep that routine, but that’s been tough with work. So, we’ve just been going with the flow,” she says via email. “We keep her meals at the same times every day, and we always try to fit some time for a walk or playtime in the yard. Otherwise, it’s a lot of movies on Disney+, playtime with toys, games and just trying to keep her busy.”
Find Your Happy Place
Social distancing isn’t just for outside the house. As the days wear on, there will be points when long periods of close quarters wear on everyone’s nerves. This is where splitting the house into areas for work and play can be a smart option.
Establishing a dedicated area for work is important. Having a separate space can allow adults to focus and also manage interruptions. Set up shop in a guest room or other unused area of the house if you don’t already have a little office space available. The kitchen table may look like the ideal spot, but it’s likely to invite disruptions, especially around mealtimes. The kids will probably camp out where they can be entertained or do schoolwork.
Like other suggestions, the success of this strategy also depends on the age of your children. “We have a real office upstairs, but I’d be too far away from Sadie up there,” says Jew. “I’ve found it easier to work from the couch in our living room so I can keep an eye on Sadie. She gets into everything and she wants to see me. I take a lot of breaks to play with her and can keep an eye on email at the same time.”
Be realistic about what you’re likely to be able to accomplish from home and what your children can accomplish if they aren’t in school.
“Going fully remote is a new experience for many companies and their workers,” Yiki Noguchi writes for National Public Radio. “Be honest about what isn’t working or can’t get done in these circumstances. More overall communication is going to be necessary.”
“I tried to be real with myself that I would not be as productive at work while also taking care of Sadie and that’s been true,” says Jew. “But I’ve been able to do more than I thought, honestly.”
Likewise, OSU’s Logan says parents shouldn’t stress out about helping children with educational tasks if distance learning isn’t an option. “You signed up to be a parent, not a teacher,” she writes. “Your kid is not going to fall behind if they don’t do these assignments every day.”
To Screen or Not to Screen?
As everyone stays home per the new state order to try to flatten the coronavirus curve, playdates seem like a logical way to pass a few hours. But U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams warns against them. “It’s not worth the risk of our kids being spreaders and potentially taking [the virus] to someone else,” he has said repeatedly.
But there are ways to chip away at the isolation your kids may be feeling. Talking on the phone or texting is fine, of course, but there are virtual ways to maintain friendships during the crisis. Set up a server on Minecraft and let the kids invite their friends to build an adventure. Allow them to play Fortnite with their friends and talk with headsets. Or get a free WebEx account for the occasional face-to-face chat. “Younger kids probably aren’t Skyping each other to have long conversations,” says Nationwide Children’s Dempster. “But if they have some kind of activity that they’re joining in together, I think that’s really important.”
If you’re reluctant to let your child spend too much time with a screen, this may be the time to loosen the reins a bit. “I think, especially if you’re working, it probably needs to be a little bit looser,” says Dempster. She suggests granting access to screen time more deliberately. “Save it for those meetings or those times when you really need to tend to other things in the house. You can also tie it to something they did so they feel like they’re earning it, not just that we’re backing off on our rules just because it’s a different world.”
Extra screen time shouldn’t be spent on extended amounts of news, though, which can be scary for children. “We want to make screens the enjoyable, let-go place,” Dempster says.
“We also have to watch if we say, ‘Don’t worry,’ but we find ourselves talking about the news a lot or leaving it on in the background, because they still pick up on that. They’re always listening.”
Boredom Is the Enemy
Setting kids up with their favorite books also can give you quiet time to concentrate on work. If the kids have read everything in the house a dozen times, try online books or resources from your local public library or digital collections through Hoopla, Overdrive or Kanopy.
Getting outside is always a good idea, though Ohio’s fickle weather makes it difficult sometimes. Walks or bike rides are good options, being careful to keep your distance from others you might encounter on the way.
Virtual field trips also are becoming attractive. New lists of resources are popping up daily, filled with links to lots of interesting places you may not be physically able to visit for a while. “It’s been hard not participating in our usual activities,” Jew acknowledges.
And involving kids in daily routines such as meal prep or other home projects can help keep them occupied with work they enjoy. “Kids really like to have a role in what we’re doing,” Dempster says, “so if you’re maybe making big meals to freeze, let them be part of that.”
Take Time for Yourself
Above all, don’t neglect yourself right now. If you’re trying to balance working from home with caretaking, it can be easy to develop a short fuse.
“Being kind to yourself is probably really important if you’re home with your kids right now,” Dempster says. “I think that’s important for people to know that none of us have it all figured out if we’re wondering if we’re doing it right. We have to be a little bit flexible in our parenting right now.”
Dempster says parents should spend their free time wisely, being purposeful in what they do at night to help them feel rejuvenated for the following day. “Keeping our mental health up is one of the key driving factors in keeping our children’s mental health up,” she says.
“Give yourself a break,” says Jew. “We’re all doing the best we can and it’s hard to be both a great parent and a great employee in equal balance right now. Cherish the small victories of the day.”
Chuck Nelson is a freelance writer for Columbus Parent.