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"Back" to School - Navigating Online Learning and Homeschooling with Young Children

Going back to something implies that you've done it before. The way things are going right now with the pandemic, there is no actual going back to anything. Here in Honolulu, we just started our second full COVID lockdown last week, meaning mandatory work-from-home orders. As if parenting while working from home is not challenging enough, the new school year has started. For older, more self-sufficient students, this may require just a bit of checking in to keep them on track. For younger ones, it's a full-time job to manage their online learning, oftentimes on top of the demands of full-time work and incessant zoom meetings.

I witnessed this challenge with one family when I did an on-site visit and worked with one parent in tandem to keep a second and fourth grader on task. One was working on typing out a reading comprehension response when typing on the computer was an extra level of challenge. We went from letter searching and slow pecking on the keyboard to using the iPad's predictive text as he typed. This was a saving grace for that exercise. I normally would encourage using the assignment as a way to get better at typing, but under the time constraints we had together and the amount of work to be completed, that was the unfortunate compromise at the moment. The other had some worksheets to complete, which resembled a normal homework assignment, and was more manageable as she was familiar with this format. In all honesty, I was relieved that I had help from the parent. The minute I took my eyes off the child with the iPad, he was on a different educational website or app. Still educational, so I couldn't get too angry. Nevertheless, it was not the task at hand. Between me and the parent, we spent a total of three hours each, or the equivalent of six hours of homeschooling assistance. I left when the parent took a break to make lunch for the kids. I have no idea how she is getting any of her job's work done and wonder if she sleeps at all.

At the end of our session, I recommended a couple of strategies based on my observations of the kids' behaviors and what they responded well to, and wanted to share this in case others find themselves in the same situation. The caveat here is that I am not a parent and some of these observations and suggestions may seem obvious to you. In fact, I think the parent I worked with knew some of these things as well, and simply needed extra help to get started and some advice on how to sustain it.

1. Undivided attention

I sat between two students at a large dining room table and attempted to work with both simultaneously, giving intermittent instructions, watching over their shoulders as they worked, chiming in when they needed encouragement or help. What I noticed was that each time I took my focus off of one child to work with the other, the one not receiving my attention immediately started to get distracted, lose their train of thought, and forget their task. Basically, I was just prolonging my time with each one and forcing both to sit there for double the duration unnecessarily because each needed and waited for my full attention to get anything done.

We all want undivided attention no matter what age we are. Having someone sit in solidarity with us is in itself encouraging when we have a difficult task to do. If you have multiple children needing hands-on management and you work from home, this is even trickier and requires more creative time management. With this family, we discussed the possibility of an extended work day with the parent waking up earlier to work with one child who wakes up early, get the workday in, then work with the other child later in the afternoon/evening. It's a long day, but it's a little bit of progress per child each day.

An alternative was to focus more attention on one child a day, getting them to work ahead of schedule and then shift focus the next day to the other child. Each child continues to push forward daily, but with the understanding that one has to work more independently on more manageable tasks or enrichment activities on "off" days.

For each family's unique situation, there will be a unique creative solution for dedicated homeschooling time. But undivided attention is key for students needing more help.

2. Dedicated work spaces

Most families don't have the luxury of a dedicated spare room for learning and there's a lot of makeshift classrooms happening at kitchen counters and dining room tables. However, I noticed that sitting one seat apart at the dining room table was not conducive to focused work for each child. However, this varies with the children's personalities and needs. In this case, one was more distractible than the other and having them sit in close proximity to each other just meant that they were now both distracted.

A little separation goes a long way. In this case, it was necessary to have one in the living room and the other in the dining room where both are easily monitored by the parent floating back and forth between areas.

3. More breaks

Lastly, this one is obvious for both the parent and the child's mental health as well as productivity. There's a technique in project management called the Pomodoro Technique. It's great for concentrated efforts for 25 minutes at a time separated by 5 minute breaks. What is most effective about the Pomodoro Technique is that it requires discernment upfront about how long a task should take and then planning backwards accordingly. If you can get your hands on a pomodoro kitchen timer, that's an added bonus as a fun manipulative and a clear visual reference for the kids as well. If not, here's a video timer with four Pomodoro sets of 25 minutes:

Doing Our Best

I'm not proposing that these are by any means the only solutions or techniques, but this is a recount of my observations with one family and the solutions we came up with together to make this forced homeschooling situation more manageable for everyone involved. In the end, we are all just doing our best during these unprecedented times and if it ends up being one semester (hopefully not more than that) lost to the unfamiliar territory of online schooling, it is not the end of the world. Children all learn at different pace and learning happens in spurts anyway. One semester will not define a child's entire academic career.

I would love to hear what observations you have in your homeschooling situations. Please comment below if you have uncovered some insights that have worked for you.

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