Photograph by MoMo Productions / Getty Images
Photograph by MoMo Productions / Getty Images

Homeschooling tips for the coronavirus shutdown

These ideas will help you teach from home—even if you’re not a teacher.

On the first day that her school district in Sherman Oaks, California, closed its doors because of coronavirus, April Grant woke up early, ready to help her 7-year-old son start learning virtually from a teacher-recommended education website. “I thought, ‘No sweat!”” she says. Then she tried to log on to the lessons. “After trying the 50 or 60 most-likely passwords, and having no luck contacting an actual person at the company, I did what any sane parent would do: I emailed an annoyed support request and … turned on the TV.”

Forced school closing: 1. Homeschooling: 0.

With coronavirus safety measures closing many schools indefinitely, you also might have conflicting emotions. Like, “Yay, my kids are safe at home!” and “Yikes, I am not a teacher! How will they learn?” If you can’t imagine creating a day of lessons, take heart. Buckling down for hours at a desk isn't realistic—it’s not even how kids learn in a classroom. “Research shows that a 10-year-old child has about a 10-minute attention span on any particular task,” says Laura Chang, 2019 Michigan Teacher of the Year and reading intervention specialist at Sunset Lake Elementary in Vicksburg. “If we’re talking about a kindergartner, that’s about a five-minute activity.”

Rule number one: Don’t panic—you’ve got this! “Basically, the biggest thing families should do is keep the sleep schedule the same, read every day, and do some problem-solving with real-life situations,” says Jessica Dueñas, a special education teacher at W.E.B. DuBois Academy in Louisville and 2019 Kentucky Teacher of the Year. Here are easy ways to help your kids learn while schools are closed.

Set a simple schedule. This is especially valuable if you’ll be home with your kids. While some parents choose to do an hour-by-hour chart, a loose guideline can be enough to keeps kids on track. Parents of older kids can even let children create their own schedules, like Somchay Xayarath Edwards did. Her two tweens and a teen in Newton, Massachusetts came up with their own routine—with her approval, of course.

Chang suggests blocking out time for independent reading, math and science exploration, and writing. One schedule making the online rounds suggests alternating an hour of academic time with an hour of creative time, but that might be too much for some elementary schoolers. And flexibility is key. Says Los Angeles middle school teacher Terry Williamson, “If anyone seems stressed, move up movie time or another relaxing activity.”

Both Chang and Dueñas suggest taking movement breaks when attention wanes. Think: switching on ABBA for a ’70s dance break, a quick game of catch in the yard, or even supervised time on exercise equipment if you have it. “Many schools don’t provide enough emphasis on movement because we’re all trying to meet state standards,” Dueñas says. “So this is a nice opportunity to balance out the academic work with a chance to move around."

Read freely. To keep up literacy skills, Dueñas suggests that students should read (or be read to) at least 20 minutes a day, but that doesn’t necessarily mean serious academic texts. “I would recommend anything a child is interested in,” she says. “That could be sports magazines, comic books, or graphic novels.” Kids don’t have to sit at a desk—sitting on the floor, stretching out on the sofa, or standing up to read can all make the task more engaging.

If you really want to play teacher? “Google ‘reader response questions,’” Dueñas says. You’ll find lists of prompts you can print out or use in conversation, such as “What do you predict will happen next?” or “How would you change the story?”

Even television breaks can help with literacy. “Watch television with the closed captioning on,” Dueñas says. “Especially for younger and emerging readers, seeing the words with the visuals helps teach sight words.”

And if you have questions for a librarian, try Ask a Librarian, where kids can digitally connect to a reference librarian from the Library of Congress.

Solve real-life math problems. Your home is filled with opportunities to practice math skills, if you know where to look. Planning a shopping trip? Give kids a budget and let them help figure out what you can buy. Or turn a set of stairs into times-tables practice by letting kids climb while calling out multiples for each step. For instance, the first time is by twos, then by threes, then by fours. “That can help with math fluency,” Dueñas says.

If worksheets are your thing, kindergarten teacher Rachelle Shipstad of Roosevelt Elementary School in Burbank, California, recommends the free printables for preschoolers through fifth graders at education.com. “It’s great and has pretty much all topics,” including math, she says.

Keep up writing skills. These are extraordinary times, so encourage children to document what’s going on in their lives. A daily journal helps kids keep track of not just day-to-day events but their thoughts and feelings about it as well. If that’s not your child’s thing, suggest that they write out a skit or short fiction story.

Dueñas suggests another type of writing project to help them deal with their fears and anxieties. “For fourth graders and up, take a piece of paper and break it into two columns: What I Think and What Is Real,” she says. “Kids can write their thoughts on the first column, but in the other column they can write about the reality of their thoughts. So the first column could say, ‘I’m going to catch the coronavirus.’ But the second would say, ‘If I wash my hands, keep a safe distance, and practice good hygiene, I probably won’t.’”

Try task analysis. That’s a fancy term for breaking down any task into its basic parts. (Your great-grandparents probably did it but just called it “doing chores.”) “A parent might ask a child to wash and dry the dishes,” Dueñas says. “But a lot of little steps go into that. What do you need to start washing the dishes? What should you wash first?” The more you break down the steps, the more you’re teaching problem-solving.

Unplug. While some kids do great with apps and digital learning, Chang points out that kids don’t spend the majority of their classroom time online. “They need chances to be creative,” she says. So hit pause before you download a bunch of academic apps. “How about doing a puppet show, writing a song, or making and designing a board game?” she says. If parents are working from home, older kids can create while the grown-ups are on their conference calls, then show off their creations during work breaks.

Need more ideas to spark creative thinking and problem solving? “Write a poem,” Chang suggests. “Create a secret code, write a coded message, then include the decoder and mail it to Grandma. Build a boat and see if it will float. Fly paper airplanes. (Check out Nat Geo’s crowd-sourced ideas on activities for kids.)

Most of all, try to see this weird time together as an opportunity. “The activities that excite kids tend to be the ones they learn from most easily,” Dueñas says. “If it’s engaging, they’re going to learn from it. We’re so used to being ‘stuck on standards’ that creative activities can be a welcome change.”

Breathe. This at-home break will end, and life will eventually return to normal. But in the meantime, you might spark learning that lasts a lifetime.