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A Guide for COVID Homeschoolers: How to Help Your Student Stay On-Track

One of the biggest challenges in COVID-era parenting is taking on new roles. Yes, you’re still a parent, but you might also be a remote employee, backyard soccer coach, amateur sous-chef, and (perhaps most challenging of all) temporary headmaster of your very own home school. Even parents who have been homeschooling for years have had to adjust to the new reality of sheltering in place: over the last few weeks, our homes have become where we eat, sleep, learn, work, and play. 

We’ve all seen the viral tweets and videos of parents struggling to make it work when math class happens at the kitchen table, and the jokes hide a very real anxiety. How can I keep my student from falling behind?

With school districts across the country announcing that they plan to remain shuttered until the end of term, what started as a few weeks at home has turned into months. We’ve pulled together reflections and best practices from experts – and our own Applerouth experts! – to help you navigate at-home learning.

The great is the enemy of the good: don’t expect to be a perfect teacher!

As CNN’s Matt Villano points out, “The most important caveat about temporary homeschooling is that it simply isn’t school.” We’re in the midst of a public state of emergency, so be kind to yourself. If you’re not an experienced homeschooler, don’t worry: you don’t have to be. Kimberly Fox, staff developer for the Reading and Writing Project, told Villano, “We don’t have to be school…[u]nder these circumstances, we’re not going to entirely replace all of the structures that happen at school.” If you can do your best to bring learning into these challenging days, that’s enough.

If you’re feeling imposter syndrome about your new role, try reframing the situation. Melissa Pluchos, Applerouth IEC Account Manager and temporarily homeschooling mom, isn’t trying to take the place of her children’s teachers. She says, “I’m a facilitator who is helping my children navigate the assignments their teachers have given. This change in titles helps take some of the pressure off.” 

Understanding your limits and embracing flexibility is particularly important for parents of students with Learning Differences. Without the support of teachers, IEP teams, and coordinators, it may seem overwhelming to make sure your student gets what they need. Villano’s advice? “Remember that different kids have different needs, whether at home or at school.” Find what works and stick to that, even if it looks different than what you imagine school would look like.

Set aside space for learning

For Applerouth Program Advisor Charity McDaniel, creating “a dedicated school area” has helped her and her seven-year-old daughter make the most of their at-home time: “When [she’s] there, she knows it’s time to get down to business.” Having a physical distinction between school and leisure can help students cope with the uncertainty the current situation brings with it.

John Cadenhead, Applerouth’s Senior Director of Tutor Services, has been leading webinars on schooling-from home for several weeks now, and has some good advice on how to build a school space. An ideal space, he says, should be separate from household traffic (not the sofa, if you can avoid it!), feature a desk or table and an upright chair, and be clear of clutter. 

Having a dedicated space makes it easier to establish technology guidelines; consider making the school space a phone-free space. Students can hop on social media, text friends, and watch videos during breaks, but not in their learning space.

Create a schedule for your student – and let them be a part of the process

Whether your student is a kindergartener or a high school senior, they have a regular schedule that takes them through the school week. It’s important to keep to a schedule while they’re at home – but it doesn’t have to be the exact same one they have at school. In fact, working with your student to build a schedule that works for them can be a learning experience in itself. Depending on your student’s age and personality, you may choose to give them more or less freedom in keeping their own timetable. Applerouth Premium Tutor Lynda Ratmeyer sets aside time for schoolwork, but lets her daughter take the lead on her assignments: “We have a table with daily assignments, and my daughter decides which order to do the assignments and marks them off as she goes.” 

Oona Hanson, educator and parent coach, told Today that she’s a big advocate of the self-built schedule. She says, “This is a great chance to build [students’] metacognition — where they can become more aware of how their own learning and thinking process works.” Ginger Fay, our Director of IEC Engagement, has definitely seen that benefit (and some unexpected fun!) with her two students. She says, “In the spirit of the 90s Saturday morning comedy, our 6th and 9th graders with ADHD inattentive type have been setting reminders on their phones to get back to class during the day. It has been a surprising joy of this challenging period to see our children rising to the occasion of taking responsibility for their own learning.”

Parents who are juggling work, school, and life also benefit from careful scheduling. Diana Cohen, Applerouth Director of Brand and Content, says that she and her spouse have a daily meeting to strategize how they’ll use their time: “This has helped both us and the kids to be as efficient as possible each day. When the kids have a question, need or break, or just want to play, we’re able to be fully present for them without feeling torn away by email or something for work.”

With at-home learning, less can be more!

Most students are at school for eight hours a day, five days a week, but not all of that time is dedicated to deskwork. What’s more, individual learning tends to go faster than group learning, because you’re only concerned with one student’s comprehension. It’s better to have regular practice, rather than trying to cram the entire week’s learning into one day. Applerouth Tutor and experienced homeschooler Meggan Padvorac puts it this way: “As long as the kid is working at grade level, just a little practice every day is better than a lot [at one time].”

So, how long should your student dedicate to studying at one time? Well, that depends on both the age and individual personality of the student in question. Writing for Good Morning America, Dr. Colette Poole-Boykin suggests a simple equation: “Multiply the child’s age by 2-5 minutes. So, if a child is 4 years old, he or she will be able to focus for 8 to 20 minutes, maximum.” Some students will have longer or shorter attention spans based on the subject they are studying, the time of day, or how hungry they are, but the general rule is “shorter and more often.”

For students with learning differences, breaking up learning into digestible pieces can make all the difference. In a resource created for parents of students with LDs, the Australian Coalition for Inclusive Education recommends taking things a step at a time: “Small chunks of learning with regular breaks will keep everyone engaged and connected.” 

When in doubt, pull out a book

Reading comprehension is one of the most vital skills a student can build, and it doesn’t require a classroom. All it takes is your time and energy. Meggan Padvorac’s students are younger, so they don’t have a fully-fledged schedule like a high-schooler might, but the one thing they both do every single day is reading. The benefits of reading comprehension range from increased confidence to critical thinking skills. Oona Hanson says that reading time is another opportunity to let students take ownership of their own reading: “Whenever possible, let kids choose their own books. Following a child’s interest is more important than identifying the right reading level; when motivated by their own curiosity, kids can stretch their reading comprehension.”

If your student isn’t at the age where they can independently read yet, you can read to them (which is good for both you and them!) or find a famous voice to do the reading for you! Here’s a handy list of places to find movie stars, voice actors, authors and illustrators reading books, sometimes accompanied by illustrations and activities. 

Make room for play in any way you can

It’s really important that your student has time for unstructured play, particularly if they’re in pre-K or elementary school. As Meggan Padvorac notes, “Developmentally, playtime is really important.” Laurel Bongiorno, PhD compiled the benefits of play for young students for the National Association for the Education of Young Children. “Play is a child’s context for learning,” she writes. “Children practice and reinforce their learning in multiple areas during play. It gives them a place and a time for learning that cannot be achieved through completing a worksheet.”

Older students also need unstructured time for recreation, even if they’re not playing supermarket or building Lego masterpieces. They may be missing out on gym class, recess, or open lunch right now, and their minds need the break as well. It’s a good idea to encourage students to spend time outdoors as long as you’re being socially responsible. 

Help your student connect with their friends remotely

You might be feeling disconnected from your colleagues and friends during this time, and so is your student! School is more than just a place for learning; it’s also the primary social space for most students. They need time and space to connect with their peers. Duke University professor of psychiatry Robin Gurwitch told HuffPost that “[f]inding ways for children to connect with friends via Skype, FaceTime, etc. is important. Texting, Instagram, and phone or even old-fashioned letters keep us connected.” Older students may not need any help with this, particularly if they have an active social network, but younger students will benefit from virtual playdates with their classmates and friends. These can be after school hours, but they don’t have to be. For Charity McDaniel and her daughter, Zoom playdates have been a great way to break up the monotony of staying at home all day. It may feel strange to set up a lunch meeting for your eight-year-old, but it’s a great way to take care of your student’s emotional health.

Final Thoughts

This is an unprecedented time and you might be feeling overwhelmed by your new roles and responsibilities. The important thing to remember is that you’re not alone! Your students’ teachers are just an email or phone call away, and there are many online resources to help – Forbes has pulled together a convenient list of online resources for educators and parents here. 

Applerouth is a trusted test prep and tutoring resource. We combine the science of learning with a thoughtful, student-focused approach to help our clients succeed. Call or email us today at 206-456-6864 or