List of helpful products and resources near the end of this post.
School closures across the country mean that families are unexpectedly homeschooling during the coronavirus crisis. Families like mine that homeschool can carry on as usual for the most part. Field trips, co-ops, and classes outside our homes may be canceled, but we are accustomed and equipped to educate our kids at home. We have schedules, supplies, and curriculum, so our poor kids are getting no/little interruption to their schoolwork and education. 😜
But how about families whose kids attend public/private schools? Schools in our area aren’t planning to open again for another month, and some districts are already saying that they will be closed indefinitely. School officials and teachers are working hard to help their students continue their education at home in some way, but it’s a HUGE lifestyle change for families, especially when one or both parents are also working from home.
I’ve had a couple of conversations with non-homeschooling family members about how to tackle this lifestyle change. Homeschool-specific advice doesn’t fully apply in this temporary situation, so I thought I’d share some thoughts and recommendations about how to get through this season of life. Please keep in mind that I’ve never worked as a teacher and do not have a degree in education (I do have a degree in computer engineering and 13 years working in the computer industry, so there’s that). This advice is based on my almost-five years of homeschooling our three boys (currently 5th grade, 2nd grade, and Kindergarten) while trying to turn the hobby of blogging into something more. I hope that it’s helpful to you!
Ok, let’s get started.
Define a Schoolwork Space
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I highly recommend that you define a schoolwork space in your home. Typical after-school homework may happen wherever – living room, bedroom, kitchen – but doing ALL schoolwork at home is different because a lot more supplies/resources are involved and you’ll likely be doing some teaching.
Your two main needs will be a work surface (ex. desk, kitchen table) and storage. A solution that worked for us when we were moving and going through a minor renovation in our new home was a file crate for each child that held all of their schoolwork, along with a pencil case for pencils, erasers, crayons, markers, etc. You may also want your own crate with teacher supplies, like notebooks, pens, small whiteboard/markers, boogie board, etc.
The beauty of a crate system is that you can take it right where you need it and then store it in a closet when not in use, but really any shelf or cabinet will do. If you do store your supplies on a shelf or in a cabinet, I recommend that you find one close to your work area so that kids don’t wander off to another room to get a book or whatever and simply not come back because they get distracted. It’s little frustrations like that throughout the day that lead to chaos and turn an ok day into a bad day.
One note about using file crates – you may want to color-code your crates for your children. Even though I color-code my kids’ supplies, I purchased white crates for all of my kids because they are normally kept in our schoolroom and sit on their workboxes. But that turned frustrating after a month. Ideally, you should all be able to glance at the crate from any direction and know who it belongs to. And it really helps if you need to send a child to get something out of their crate. Rather than digging through a sibling’s crate and ruining your attempts at organization, they can go directly to their own crate and get what they need.
(I also color-coded their pencil boxes and even started wrapping the tops of their pencils with washi tape in their color so that there weren’t arguments over school supplies or who left their pencil on the floor/in the kitchen/in the laundry room(?!).)
Please keep in mind that your main schoolwork space doesn’t have to be the only place you do schoolwork. I’ve loved days that we’ve done schoolwork outside, at a picnic table or on a blanket or even in the trampoline. I wouldn’t recommend doing all schoolwork for a day in those locations, especially when you need a lot of supplies for a particular subject or activity. But reading and workbook-based schoolwork are good options for taking outside.
Define School Hours
I think that this will be one of the biggest differences for families that are accustomed to dealing with homework during the evening. You might think that it’s not necessary to define specific hours because you and your kids have the whole day to get things done. But please trust me when I tell you that during the evening, when you and your kids are tired (you from work and them from whatever), working through a lesson on fractions is the last thing that you’ll want to do. The temptation to skip schoolwork “just for today” will be strong, and before you know it a lot of days will have gone by and you’ll feel terrible and like a bad parent.
Please save yourself from frustration and guilty feelings by setting school hours and sticking to them. In my house, schoolwork starts after breakfast and Teacher Mommy is off-the-clock after 5pm. After 5pm, I will not teach or grade or help with schoolwork. And any child that hasn’t completed all of their assigned schoolwork that day doesn’t get access to TV or iPads during the evening. (More about discipline further down.)
Just know that you and your child won’t be doing schoolwork during the entire day. Likely their schoolwork will be spread out throughout the day between meals and chores.
Also, familiarize yourself with how much time your kids should be doing schoolwork each day, based on their ages. For homeschooling:
- Pre-k kids should be fine with just about an hour (including activities with fine motor skills, number sense, read-alouds, phonics activities.
- Kinder/1st Grade might be 1 1/2 – 2 hours.
- Myy 5th grader has about 4 -5 hours of work each day.
This might sound strange since kids are at school for much longer, but if you’ve ever volunteered in your kids’ classes then you’ve probably noticed that students aren’t “on task” the entire day. There’s time spent moving from one activity to another, recesses, and lunch. And besides all that, curriculum creators that sell to traditional schools (rather than homeschools) build “busy work” into the curriculum to aid teachers in class management so that they can do things like work with individual students or smaller groups.
Also keep in mind that kids have a short attention span. One rule of thumb I’ve heard of and used is to equate chronological age to minutes of attention span. So a kindergartener might have an attention span of about five minutes.
This will, of course, vary from student to student and activity to activity (my boys can focus a lot longer when Minecraft is involved), but it’s something to keep in mind when planning out your days. Spending an hour a day on math with your first grader would probably be a terrible choice leading to tears and heartache. You might be able to get away with it if you had your student do several short math-related activities during the day, but it really isn’t necessary for their math education. Short, daily lessons work just fine.
What I’ve seen in my home is that consistency is one of the greatest contributors to learning success. The rule of thumb I try to adhere to in our home is to keep most subjects/activities each day to 20 minutes or less for my younger kids. Sometimes a particular subject takes longer because my kids don’t stay on task or because I’m working with them. But I try to be aware of signs of overwhelm or saturation.
Create a Weekly Schedule
I’ve got great news for you! You don’t have to, and shouldn’t, do every subject every day.
But before we explore that idea, let’s first talk about how many days of schoolwork you should have per week. Would it surprise you to know that many homeschoolers “do school” only four days a week? This is usually to leave room during the week for a co-op, class, field trip, fun day, or catch-up day.
My family has adopted a four-day school week…sort of. Fridays are a combo of a catch-up day / fun day / Mommy-needs-a-break day. What this means for us is that, on Fridays, I try to give my kids assignments that don’t need any teaching and very little help from me. And I try to mix it up a little on Fridays, too. So my fifth grader might do Mad Libs for grammar and a crossword puzzle and online resource for spelling practice. My younger boys will work out of a drawing book for art and connect-the-dots (extreme version for my second grader) for math.
A pre-k student would be fine “doing school” only two or three days out of the week. But if they have older siblings, they might want to do some schoolwork along with them every day (see resources below).
Other ideas for Fun Fridays include educational games, crafts, baking together, or a fun read-aloud complete with special snacks.
Ok, now let’s get back to how often to do each subject. This will vary from family to family, but here’s how I try to approach each subject:
- Every day (4-5 days a week, depending on your weekly schedule) – subjects where my kids are learning a fundamental skill, like reading, math, spelling, and handwriting.
- 2-3 days a week – content-rich subjects, like history, science, and grammar.
- 1 day a week – art, music fundamentals.
- A subject like writing (not handwriting) will depend on age. It’s probably best to do a little writing every day, but I currently have my kindergartener write a sentence in a sight word journal twice a week, and my second grader does a writing activity twice a week, too. They both get some writing in most days in other ways.
Again, what subjects you do each day will vary from family to family and child to child. A child that loves art or science may want to work on what they love every day. A child taking piano lessons will probably need to practice every day. Just use your best judgement.
Create a Daily Schedule with Time Blocking
You may have used time blocking in your professional life, but it can be a big help to you at home, too!
Quick explanation – time blocking is the idea of setting up blocks of time for specific tasks. For example, I had an OB/GYN that saw obstetrics patients during certain time blocks during the week. When I called to make an appointment, the receptionist looked for appointment availability during those time blocks. A financial advisor might have some time blocks for client appointments, and other time blocks for working on financial portfolios. Time blocks should be treated as “sacred” and not interrupted by other tasks.
Without realizing it, I’ve used a form of time blocking (and you probably have, too) since becoming a mom. When my oldest was a toddler, we had time blocks throughout the day for meal times, playing downstairs, playing upstairs, playing outside, and nap times. Our time blocks established our daily rhythms.
- Group Time – This might include a Bible devotional, prayer, a read-aloud.
- 1:1 Teaching – This includes teaching a new concept, shared/guided reading, a read-aloud.
- Independent Work – Independent activities will depend on the age and maturity of each child. My 5th grader has a list of his work for each day, and I highlight the items that he should do independently. This might include reading, a video lesson, or practicing a math concept that he’s learning. Younger kids will need mostly 1:1 teaching, but can do some independent activities (coloring, drawing, crafting, puzzles, etc.).
- Outside Time – Playing in the back yard, taking a walk if you don’t live in a highly populated area and can keep up good self-distancing practices.
- Chores – This might be a good time to instill some good habits by setting up a chore system. My kids each have a job to do after every meal (Kitchen Chores) and also help with their own laundry each week. (My fifth grader does his own laundry by himself, from start to finish, every Tuesday.)
- Mommy Work Time – Many parents are working at home due to social-distancing requirements. Since these parents are also having to fill in as educators for their kids and likely don’t have live-in child care, I truly hope that employers are being reasonable with their employees. Regardless, you’ll need a big block of time, or a couple smaller blocks of time during different parts of the day, to get your work done. Even if you’re not working outside of the home, you likely have things that you need to get done and could use some focused time.
- Free Play – This is where I tell my kids to go find something to do. They’ve got plenty to play with, lots of books to read, but I still get the “I’m bored!” complaint. There are a lot of ways to handle this time block. You could have bins for each day of the week containing activities that they get only during this time block. You could allow some screen time, allowing them to watch educational television (set the sleep timer on your TV to turn it off after a set time and put on Magic School Bus, PBS Kids, etc). You could set up an iPad to allow only educational apps during the school day (set up Screen Time section in Settings, specifically Downtime and Always Allowed). Or you could do what I’ve had to do a few times, which is to say, “Oh, sweet child, are you bored? Let me help you. Here’s a trash bag – fill it with all of the toys and games that bore you, and we’ll give them to a child that will enjoy them.” That usually ends the conversation and gets the kids interested in their things.
It’s much easier to think about time blocks than, “What are we supposed to do between 2-3pm?” I think of it as flexible planning because you can play around with the blocks until you find what works for you. It also helps you to group various activities in a sensible way.
For example, your older kids might have an Independent Work block while you work with your younger kids (1:1 Teaching block). Or all of your kids may have an Independent Work block while you have your Mommy Work Time block. Or you could spread a blanket in the back yard and have a Group Time, 1:1 Teaching Time, and/or Independent Work block, alternating assignments with 15 minutes of play (Outside Time block).
If you are working from home, I recommend having a Mommy Work Time block early in the day while your kids have Independent Work or Free Play blocks. The reason for this is that I find that, on days that my kids (or I!) wake up on the wrong side of the bed or are behaving badly or are resistant to my teaching and leadership, I have a really difficult time doing anything productive afterward. So try to get your most important things done in the early Mommy Work Time block, and then dedicate time later in the day to getting schoolwork done.
Determine What Schoolwork Your Kids Will Do
Ok, this is a difficult one because there are so many different situations. But I’m going to assume that, if you’re reading this, you’re doing school at home temporarily and plan to send your kids back to their schools as soon as the school doors open. Amiright?
So in this situation, the first thing you should do is get guidance from your children’s teachers. You’ve likely been in communication with them and are getting guidance, maybe even assignments. If not, check out the school’s website. When my oldest was in public school, the teachers at his school each had a webpage that they updated periodically with information about what was being covered in class. They even had links to helpful websites and resources. Look for the same from your kids’ teachers.
You’ll probably have to fine-tune after you get started and see how your kids are doing in each subject. For example, you might feel like they’re not being challenged enough in reading, but are struggling with their multiplication tables. An awesome thing about being so in-tune with how your kids are doing in their schoolwork is that you can customize their education and either challenge them more or slow things down a bit.
Look for areas of struggle. Your child may be struggling because concepts are being taught to him/her in a way that doesn’t fit his/her learning preferences. Or maybe they never learned an earlier concept well. For example, if your student hasn’t learned their multiplication tables very well, division is going to be a huge struggle. Doing more division problems isn’t the answer. Instead, it’s better to back up and focus on those multiplication tables again, maybe in a different way (see resources at the bottom of this post).
Ok, let’s have a moment of truth here and talk about the least-fun thing about teaching your kids at home: discipline. This topic is so vast and complex that there’s no way that I could possibly do it justice in a blog post, but I’ll try to touch on some important points for you to consider.
<deep breath> Here we go…
- Make your expectations and boundaries (rules) clear, along with consequences for not meeting expectations and breaking rules. Boundaries may include school hours (discussed above), respectfulness, cleaning up the school work area at the end of the day, etc. Keep it simple at first so that your kids have early success in meeting expectations.
- You don’t need me to tell you that kids don’t always want to do school work. Especially if they’re struggling. If behavioral issues and non-compliance are due to academic struggles, spend whatever time you need to identify the point of difficulty and remediate. Trouble with handwriting? Maybe you need to work on pencil grip. Trouble with division? See if your student has a good grasp on multiplication tables. Trouble reading? Check their eyesight. You may have to try many different things to make progress, and may have to consider learning disabilities. This is difficult, I know, but keep at it.
- If behavioral issues and non-compliance are simply due to a lack of interest, rewards may help. My kids don’t get access to TV or iPads during the evenings if they haven’t done their schoolwork and chores for the day. Sometimes I feel like this hurts me just as much as them, but I’ve followed through enough for them to know that I’m serious and won’t budge on this.
- Brace yourself for behavioral issues, especially if any teacher has expressed concern or frustration with your child’s behavior. It’s easy to ignore negative comments from teachers and privately blame them for the problems, and sometimes there’s truth in that. But sometimes we’re not aware of how our kids behave when we’re not present. I speak from experience here. In our homeschool, I’ve dealt with a lot of what I would call oppositional behavior beyond typical childish defiance. And honestly, sometimes I’ve felt like it has broken me. There have been times that I’ve just sat and cried during really difficult moments. Some days, you may have to put the school work on the back burner in order to work with your child to accept your leadership in your home and behave with respect and civility to you and everyone else. This is easier said than done, of course, but totally worth the effort.
Helpful Products & Resources
I’ve put together a list of resources that I’ve used and liked. While I’ve used them for homeschooling, most are not necessarily homeschool-specific and could be helpful to you during this temporary season in conjunction with lessons and materials that you get from your children’s teachers. Most of these resources aren’t homeschool curriculum, but I did include a couple of curriculum items that you might try if your student is really struggling in that area. This might be a good time to get them on the right path before going back to their regular schools.
Some of the resources below are available as downloads. I highly recommend using Dropbox to store your downloads. Dropbox provides a layer of backup for your important files and allows you to access files across your devices. I store all school-related files on Dropbox.
Resources for Pre-K Students
- Handwriting Without Tears – Curriculum Alert! This is my favorite handwriting curriculum. One of my favorite things about it is that it clearly explains hand and finger positioning, things that I didn’t think about when my kids were learning how to hold a pencil correctly. I have a review of Handwriting Without Tears for Pre-K which you may find helpful.
- This Reading Mama – This website of a former teacher (now a homeschool mom) has quality printables and great advice for parents. If you have a child learning to read, you’d be wise to educate yourself a bit about how to teach your child how to read.
- Leap Frog Letter Factory – This is an amazing resource and how all of my kids have learned their letters and letter sounds. I can’t say enough good things about it. I would play it every day for whichever child was learning their letters, and they didn’t get bored with repeated viewings. It’s also a great option for an Independent Work block for a preschooler. It’s available as a DVD or even streaming.
- Bob Books – All of my boys have loved using Bob Books as a supplement to our reading curriculum. See my review on Bob Books for more information.
- Kumon Science Sticker & Activity Book – My youngest has loved this sticker book. See my review of this workbook for more information.
- Confessions of a Homeschooler’s Letter of the Week – <Printable> I used this for my younger two boys. I didn’t use every item and didn’t go exactly with her schedule, but it was very helpful to me in knowing what I should cover. It is printer- and labor-intensive, so it’s not for everyone, but we liked it.
Resources for Elementary Students
- Handwriting Without Tears – Curriculum Alert! This is my favorite handwriting curriculum. I have a review of Handwriting Without Tears for Fourth Grade (Cursive) and another review for Handwriting Without Tears for First Grade which you may find helpful.
- Cursive Writing Practice: Jokes and Riddles – My review on this book may be helpful to you.
- Cursive Handwriting Practice Bundle – <Printable> I’ve been loving this cursive handwriting bundle for my fifth grader. It’s great for a science-loving kid.
Reading / Phonics / Literature
- Hooked on Phonics – Curriculum Alert! This is the curriculum I’ve used to teach all of my boys to read. I actually purchased it when my oldest was attending kindergarten at a public school. Whatever the school was doing to teach reading wasn’t working for him and his teacher expressed concern, so I decided to go the tried-and-true phonics route. Thanks to this, he was all caught up by the end of the school year (his teacher was amazed) and we just kept on going. My review of Hooked on Phonics may be helpful to you.
- Bob Books – All of my boys have loved using Bob Books as a supplement to our reading curriculum. See my review on Bob Books for more information.
- Confessions of a Homeschooler Literature Units – <Printable> I’ve been using these literature units with my fifth grader this year, and they’ve been a hit. They are great for Interactive learners.
- Kindle E-reader (Kindle Unlimited) – Kindle e-readers (NOT the Kindle Fire tablets) are great for older readers. A Kindle isn’t a great option for picture books or graphic novels, but is my preferred option for any book that is mostly text with few pictures. You can also use it in bright daylight, so a Kindle is great for an Outside Time block combined with an Independent Work block. Kindles are associated with an Amazon account, so I’ve set up an Amazon account specifically for my kids so that any e-books I purchase or borrow for them are download to their Kindle….and so that their Kindle isn’t loaded up with my own e-books. If you have a library card, check out Overdrive to borrow e-books for your kids from home for FREE and have them downloaded to their Kindle. It’s easy-peasy and an amazing option during this time when a library trip isn’t a great idea. You may also want to try out Kindle Unlimited.
- Audible – I love audiobooks and have started using them with my kids. They’re a great option for an Independent Work block, especially for kids that love stories but struggle with reading. Audible is currently providing access to hundreds of titles for free.
Before getting to spelling resources, I need to share my biggest spelling tip with you: teach spelling (encoding) separately from reading (decoding). This includes sight words. One of my biggest homeschooling mistakes was trying to teach my oldest to both read and spell sight words concurrently. I eventually realized that reading level is about a year ahead of spelling level, at least in the early elementary years. Reading and spelling are different skills, so I find it much easier to teach them separately.
- Explode the Code Online – The Explode the Code workbooks have been a hit with homeschoolers for a while, but I prefer the online option as a supplement to our spelling curriculum because the software assesses your child’s skill level and presents appropriate lessons. I usually have my oldest work on it for about 10-15 minutes at a time.
- Spelling City – This website provides games and activities to review spelling words. If you’re getting spelling lists from your child’s teacher, you can just plug them into the website and have your student work on it for about 15 minutes a day.
- Reading Eggs – This is a fun option for Independent Work or Free Play blocks for your pre-k or early elementary student.
- Evan-Moor Building Spelling Skills – <Printable> This is my favorite approach to spelling so far for my middle boy, who is a natural reader but also a perfectionist that gets stressed out with tests. Evan-Moor is currently offering 25% off e-books through March 31, 2020.
- Spelling Power – Curriculum Alert! If spelling is a weakness for one of your kids, you might want to invest in this book. If spelling tests are a huge stressor for your kid, though, you’ll probably be better off with Evan-Moor spelling workbooks.
- Spelling Word Work worksheets – <Printable> This is the resource that I’ve used the most from the Teachers Pay Teachers website. If you get spelling lists from your child’s teacher, you can use these worksheets to practice spelling the words for a week before testing them. If they still have problems with particular words, I include them in the next week’s word list (although you’ll want to make sure to limit the size of your word list each week – no more than 10 at a time, maybe even less).
- Search for writing prompts on the Teachers Pay Teachers website. <Printable>
- Student Spelling Dictionary – <Printable> This is a great way for new writers to be able to look up words on their own. You can also write in words that your child uses often.
Evan-Moor Grammar & Punctuation – <Printable> I was so impressed with Evan-Moor’s Building Spelling Skills that I decided to try one of their grammar workbooks, too, and have been very pleased. Evan-Moor is currently offering 25% off e-books through March 31, 2020.
- Times Tales – A great resource for kids working on their multiplication facts. There’s an app, too. Even my younger boys wanted to use it.
- Dice Activities for Multiplication – My oldest loved practicing his multiplication facts with the games in this workbook. It really saved my bacon during his third grade year!
- XtraMath – This is a nice alternative to flash cards and works well for an Independent Work block. It only takes about ten minutes a day and really helps with math facts.
- The What Your…Needs to Know series of books are a great help for history since they include the content along with teaching tips. They also tie in related poetry, geography, and art lessons when they can. Students can read on their own or they work well as read-alouds (that’s how I used them). You can supplement with activities and leveled readers on the period of history you’re studying.
- Liberty’s Kids – My kids LOVED this video series. Definitely consider it if you’re studying early American history.
- Carson Dellosa Science Interactive Notebooks – <Printable> These are a nice alternative to typical worksheets and can work as a supplement or be supplemented with hands-on science activities. And they’re running a sale on eBooks through April 20, 2020.
- Skrafty – If you have a Minecraft lover, they may love studying science on the Skrafty website. Skrafty actually has courses on many different topics, including history and technology, but my son has especially enjoyed a couple of the science courses.
- Mystery Science – We haven’t used this website ourselves, but I’ve heard good things. And it looks like they’re all ready to help families dealing with school closures.
- Little Passports Science Expeditions Subscription – My kids really enjoyed these kits. You can easily stretch out a kit for a month if you do science once or twice a week, especially if you supplement with worksheets or other activities along the same topic. Some of the activities are better than other, but in general they are enjoyable. The Science Expeditions subscription is better for upper elementary, but it looks like they now have a Science Junior subscription available.
- Draw Write Now – I love these step-by-step drawing books. I like using them as a supplement for both science and history if I can find an appropriate drawing related to our current studies.
- Draw and Write Through History – This series of step-by-step drawing books is more advanced and for older students.
- Rosetta Stone – I’m using the app version with my fifth grader. I’m not thrilled with the vocabulary aspect, so we’re supplementing with Quizlet (below).
- Quizlet – This is a great tool that goes beyond simple flashcards. We’ve been using this app with great success for history, but it’s also a good option for foreign language vocabulary.