4 tips for teaching kids at home, according to experts

How to suddenly navigate homeschooling during the coronavirus pandemic. "We all have to be flexible," one expert said.

Anders Peistrup, 7, attended class remotely from his family's home in Bothell, Wash., a suburb of Seattle, on Monday, March 9.

As Massachusetts students and families grapple with home learning after Gov. Baker closed schools for at least three weeks amid the coronavirus pandemic, one North Shore family is in the middle of a typical school week.

Stefanie Whitcroft has been homeschooling her daughter Lara, 6, a kindergartener, through TEC Connections Academy Commonwealth Virtual School since the fall. As parents look to her for homeschooling tips, she tells them flexibility is key.

“I see all these parents kind of freaking out,” said Whitcroft, a stay-at-home mother of four. “Education is important but it doesn’t have to be structured and rigid. They don’t need to sit at a desk and be there for eight hours.”

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Bill Heuer, director of the Massachusetts Home Learning Association, said homeschooling is indeed about being flexible and looks and feels different than public school. His children were homeschooled.

Ahead, experts offer tips for navigating homeschooling during the coronavirus pandemic.

1. Set a flexible schedule.

It’s a good idea to set up a schedule, but be prepared for it to change, Heuer said.

“One kid may need a lot of structure,” said Heuer. “The other may just thrive on their own.”

The Massachusetts Home Learning Association posted a “Covid-19 Routine” on its Facebook page for parents looking for guidance.

“There’s not a one-size-fits-all [schedule], but use it as a guideline,” Heuer said.

Melinda Macht-Greenberg, a child psychologist in Bedford who works with families on clinical and education issues, agreed that homeschooling schedules shouldn’t be set in stone.

“We all have to be flexible,” she said. “Some days you might do some [of the schedule]. Some days you might ditch the whole thing. That’s OK.”

It’s a good idea to maintain your family’s rules for screen times, chores, wake-up times, and bed times, said Macht-Greenberg, who posted 10 tips for helping parents adapt to this new normal on her website.

“The biggest thing is helping kids to have a sense of familiarity, comfort, and routine,” she said. “Because predictability leads to security and unpredictability and uncertainty leads to anxiety.”

2. Plenty of resources are available.

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The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has created a list of free educational and enrichment sites for families, which school districts are sharing with parents this week. Districts are also reaching out to parents on social media with their own resources and plans. For example, Boston Public Schools posted on Monday that it will begin distributing Chromebooks on Wednesday to kids who need them. And Beverly Public Schools announced Monday that it will launch a “Beverly Keeps Learning” website on Wednesday.

“No students will be penalized for any missed work and, for at least for the first week, all activities are for enrichment and engagement purposes only,” wrote Sue Charochak, superintendent of schools in Beverly, in a letter to parents posted on Facebook. “We also want you to understand, there is no expectation that our parents will be providing students with new instruction.”

Parents searching for more materials will find that PBS has great educational tools for kids, Heuer said.

“They now just started putting out a daily newsletter for kids who are out of school,” he said.

Parents feeling anxious this week can rest assured that there will not be a lack of learning resources available to them, Macht-Greenberg said.

“People are developing resources even as we speak,” said Macht-Greenberg. “I think that within the next week or so there’s going to be an enormous reservoir of resources and then we’re going to be challenged with trying to sort it out. I think right now the main goal is to establish a sense of security in uncertain times.”

3. Learning at home looks different.

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Learning at home looks different than learning at school, the experts said.

“It’s hard to make a kid sit down for hours and hours and do work,” Whitcroft said. “If they feel like doing work on the floor, let them. If they feel like going out to play, let them. You can turn that into a science class.”

Whitcroft said Lara has online classes, but she supplements those with lessons she comes up with at home. For example, she said, a home science lesson for Lara could mean examining the trees and flowers in the yard and then coloring relevant printouts. A math lesson could mean Lara measures all of the ingredients when they bake together. For art class, Whitcroft spreads plastic trash bags on the floor and lets her paint.

Heuer said the flexibility is a great benefit of homeschooling. When his son would get antsy, he’d head outside with the understanding that his lesson must be completed upon return. Learning tools can include card games, board games, and puzzles, he said, and “literacy is more than reading, it’s telling stories.”

When educating children of different ages, it helps to pick one topic for everyone and use age-appropriate individual assignments, Heuer said.

“Just because at school you learn something different at each grade level, you can’t do that at home,” Heuer said. “It’s too stressful on the parent.”

For example, a Civil War lesson could mean watching a video and then asking questions of the younger kids while the older kids write an essay, he said.

4. Be kind to yourself.

Whitcroft, a former first responder, said keeping her oldest daughter on track while caring for her 2-year-old twins and 4-year-old old son can be challenging, but her days as a first responder taught her not to stress.

“My kids are watching TV right now because I’m doing lessons with the older one,” Whitcroft said.

Parents juggling work-at-home jobs right now or other tasks while helping children learn should ditch the guilt and be kind to themselves, Macht-Greenberg said.

“I think we need to give ourselves permission to figure this out as we go along and that there is no wrong or right answer,” Macht-Greenberg said. “We’re just going to do the best we can.”

Parents are reaching out to ask Macht-Greenberg: “Is what I’m doing OK?” and her answer is “Yes.”

“Within a relatively short period of time, we’ll adapt to this new normal,” Macht-Greenberg said. “And kids are very adaptable.”


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