Surprise! You're Homeschooling! Here are some tips. | Kids Out and About Westchester <

Surprise! You're Homeschooling! Here are some tips.

by Debra Ross, publisher, and former homeschooler of two young adults

Whether due to COVID-19 or some other unforeseen event, families may find themselves suddenly in the position of educating their kids at home. This can seem daunting or even overwhelming. Here are some strategies to help your family survive, and perhaps even thrive, in this situation.

The overall goal of education, after all, is to set kids up to succeed in life. School teaches certain facts, and certain skills, that help in this process. In the long run, as long as no doors are closed to your child's success, it doesn't matter what path they take to get to life's launch pad. So it is worth taking a moment to get some perspective about how this special circumstance fits into the overall scheme of your child's education, rather than focusing narrowly on trying to mimic their school experience at home. You won't be able to do that, in any case.;

First, think about your goals for the time learning at home. These will differ depending on whether your child is in elementary school, middle school, or high school. But for all ages, you want them to emerge from this experience with their love of learning intact (or refreshed), and a sense of ownership over their education. After all, as I tell my kids, you learn for you, not for others.

Elementary School: What to keep in mind

For elementary-school-aged students, the details of the way this temporary time will be spent learning at home does not matter much.

By the end of elementary school, kids need the following skills: They need to be able to read, to do math through the point at which they are ready for pre-Algebra, to write short, coherent essays, to know a smattering of history and their current cultural position in space and time, to understand basic science, and to use logical reasoning to assess facts and come to a conclusion. Do they need to know specific facts? I think of this as the some-but-any principle. They should know a bunch of things about the world so that they are culturally literate and able to move around in the world. If you're interested in the kinds of facts and skills kids typically have year by year, I recommend E.D. Hirsch's What Your Child Needs to Know series.

Kids who miss weeks or months of elementary school while the rest of their classmates are still in school can experience adjustment problems when they return to the classroom, because of a perceived need to catch up with what their peers know. In the case of everyone missing school because of a pandemic or other natural tragedy, though, no such issue exists: Everyone will be in the same boat.

High School: What to keep in mind

High school-aged kids are somewhat different: If they are on a particular trajectory for college, work, or trade school, absence from the classroom can be more of an issue, as specific knowledge (especially in math and science) needs to be mastered sequentially. It often (though not always) does make a big difference to keep up with one's path of study as much as possible. If your child's teachers provide curriculum guidance and assignments, that will help. Regardless, investigating additional methods of learning what is needed can be invaluable. Khan Academy is the best free resource I know of for high school (and college) learning; if you have other recommendations, please email them to me.

Middle School: What to keep in mind

Middle school needs and requirements vary both by school and by individual and typically fall somewhere between that of elementary and high school. The main question to answer is: Is my child ready for high school learning? If the answer is yes, I wouldn't worry too much about the specifics of how this time is spent, as long as work assignments from school are generally completed satisfactorily and the student is in some kind of a productive routine. If the student is lacking in certain skills, though, especially math, then this time away from school can be spent extremely productively in exploring alternative methods of catching up, with the added bonus that it is relatively pressure-free.

Roles and attitudes

Here's a question that may help focus you: Next year, in 5 years, in 10 years, in 20 years, what story do you want your kids to tell about this experience? My recommendations for "how to be" during a time of temporary / emergency education at home:

  • Try to have a spirit of we're-all-in-this-together adventure.
  • The parent will do best by adopting the role of cheerleader and partner rather than taskmaster. Try to help shape the experience so that "the school" is the one generating assignments rather than you; you're the facilitator and coach. Do not generate separate busy work and try to make your child do it just for the sake of "doing school."
  • If something isn't working, STOP and try something else. This is the time to experiment with different types of learning.
  • Remember that everyone else is in the same situation. Do not worry about your child "falling behind."
  • If studying for state examinations/SATs is a concern for high schoolers, do it, but don’t increase the pressure more than the schedule disruption already has. With no other school going on, you can see this potentially as a more relaxed opportunity to get ahead of the game.
  • A little fun goes a long way, especially in the middle of a bunch of stress. If your kid is enjoying her civics textbook, it’s not the moment to jump into math homework. There is no reason to be rigid about anything academic.

Establish a Routine

  • Remember that the goal is to keep up the momentum of learning, not to imitate school.
  • As you start the process of helping your child be educated at home, start with the easy wins, the stuff your kid is good at, to set the tone for the rest of the weeks. Have them teach you what THEY know; you'll be surprised and delighted that they'll teach you new things, and that can get you on the right foot. It reminds kids that learning is lifelong and lovely.
  • Setting goals for the day might help you, but if it doesn’t, don’t do it. Don’t make “getting off track” into a big concern. The basic goal is “doing some useful school stuff” each day, if possible.
  • Example of a routine: Birthday of the Day: As my girls were growing up, for about 10 years, we would start each morning around the breakfast table with the Birthday of the Day, and my husband and I consider this to be the routine that most contributed to our kids' general cultural literacy. Each morning, we'd head to Wikipedia and search for that day's date in the search bar. It tells what happened that day in history as well as who was born that day. We would choose one person and talk about him or her together, and talk about why he or she was important. We would also have the kids practice mental math: They'd figure out how old that person would be "today." We would talk about the technology that was available to that person (cars? computers? telescopes?) and also what his or her daily life would have been like,
  • One way to make this a little more fun is to set up a new, special workspace for your kids somewhere in your home. Find a corner, rearrange the furniture or clear away clutter, put out a couple of decorations, find some new notebooks, cover some folders with stickers, whatever. Infuse the process with whatever joy you can muster. It will signal a new beginning, a new adventure, and will be a key positive memory once this is all over and done, and, we hope, successfully in the past.

Standards and expectations

  • Measuring success is pretty much impossible in an emergency. Your goal is to get through this time without eroding enthusiasm for learning or family relationships. Other concerns are secondary.
  • Lower your standards a little, change is scary and in the middle of a crisis a half filled in math worksheet might be a serious win.
  • The more you can build study time around school provided materials or study guides, the better.
  • If your school has provided remote instruction or a work packet, great! You should still lower your standards for kids’ schoolwork. 
  • Be ready to drop some balls. For example, if chemistry seems impossible and terrifying it goes to the bottom of the priority list, at least initially.
  • Stick with what works and be ready to drop things that don’t work.
  • Do not hesitate to let kids know that you don't know something: You can pursue the answer in the spirit of solidarity.

Focus on the basics

  • Emphasize review in subjects like math and language learning, it’s less intimidating than starting new topics, and it will make it easier to pick back up where you left off when school starts back. If the only thing you accomplish is “your kid doesn’t forget any vocab words during the closure,” that’s a win.
  • Mental health and love of learning are more important than any given assignment.
  • There will be mess.
  • There will be crying.
  • There will be anxiety.
  • Go outside. A lot.
  • Show your kids you are learning / working, too.
  • Read together. Watch movies together. Discuss books and movies together


What is success, really? Try to determine in advance what success might look like, making sure not to set your standards too high. If our kids emerge from this experience healthy, with memories tinged with adventure, with their love of learning intact or strengthened, then the rest is just details. Try not to worry. You got this.

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