6 Ideas for Improving Distance Learning and Homeschooling

You can do this!

Alessia Bowman, 10, Sybella Bowman, 12, and Oliver Bowman, 8, do school work at their family home and cattle property on April 5, 2020, in Tarpoly Creek, Australia.
Alessia Bowman, 10, Sybella Bowman, 12, and Oliver Bowman, 8, do school work at their family home and cattle property on April 5, 2020, in Tarpoly Creek, Australia. (photo: Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

“Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children. They bear witness to this responsibility first by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2223)

 

With the closing of in-person schools due to the coronavirus outbreak, families with children enrolled in traditional schools have suddenly found themselves responsible for the daily schooling of their children. Several of my friends in this situation have reached out to me with questions about how I run my homeschooling day. It is difficult when what we have discerned as the right thing for our family is turned upside down and we are faced with challenges we never planned on facing.

So, for parents who feel like they are drowning in distance learning home school style, I want to offer some help. You can do this! 

Just think of Ma (Caroline) Ingalls in her isolated homes in the territories of Minnesota and Dakota over long, long winters helping her children learn while running her whole household without electricity or indoor plumbing. You can do this!

Here are some ideas to make your days at home more peaceful and manageable:

 

1. Teaching kids at home is at least a halftime job. Be prepared to give at least 4-5 hours of your day to homeschooling.

We have been homeschooling since my oldest was in pre-school, so we are coming up on seven years. The look of our homeschool has evolved over the years. Up through kindergarten for my eldest we only worked at most an hour a day, but when first grade hit, and we added more subjects, the time commitment increased. Now I have a fifth-grader, third-grader, first-grader, and a child at pre-K age. Teaching them and keeping them on track requires my undivided attention for my entire morning.

Our basic schedule looks like this, and by basic I mean that some days these times shift:

  • 6:30 a.m.: Kids get up, get dressed, and eat breakfast. We pray a morning offering and school prayer.
  • 7:30 a.m.: The kids haul all of their schoolbooks from their cubbies in our lower level up to the dining room and start independent schoolwork. I work with them one-on-one on subjects that require direct instruction, but, depending on their age, many of them can be done independently.
  • 10 a.m.: Ten minute snack break. We set a timer or else it devolves into 30. The kids have requested a 10 minute outside recess after snack, so we are going to start trying that out and see how it goes.
  • 10:20 a.m.: Back to work. If they finish their work early, they can play until lunch.
  • 12:30 p.m. Lunch: All school work that requires my help is done by this point.
  • 1:30 p.m.: Family prayer time. We read the Gospel of the day or other spiritual text allowed and then pray silently for about 10 minutes.
  • By 2 p.m.: Kids take a quiet time. Any leftover independent schoolwork, such as reading assigned novels is done alone at this time.
  • 3 p.m. until dinner: The kids play together.

 

2. Give them a checklist of their work for each day and check it off with them.

I asked my children about suggestions they had for this blog post, and my eldest said, “Planners.” My children each have a planner with all of their schoolwork listed out for each day is written out. I fill these out in two-week intervals—it takes about one hour to do three grade schoolers’ planners for two weeks—but it makes our days much smoother. With all of their work listed before them, they can choose what they want to do at each time.

The planner also helps me know what they have done each day and what they have left. They are not allowed to declare themselves finished with work until I have personally checked off all of the subjects for them. Technically, the rule is that they bring it to me between subjects, but that does not always happen.

I know families who just print off from the computer a checklist each day for their kids with their work listed out. Another friend writes it out on a notecard for her kids. Any system works, but just have a system.

 

3. Let them know the behavior you expect.

We have a major distraction problem in our home school. Most of my mornings are spent asking the children to be quiet and focus on their work. I try to keep our working school space as quiet as I remember the work time in my own public schooling. So, we have created a list of school rules with things like:

  • There is no talking in the school space, unless the teacher talks to you. (I am the teacher. Giving the title helps for school time.)
  • If you need help and the teacher is with another student, raise your hand silently next to her until she is available to help you.
  • No toys in the school space.
  • Anyone finished with schoolwork or too young for school must play in their bedroom, the playroom downstairs, or outside.

 

4. Encourage independent work but be available to instruct when necessary.

I did not realize until I was bedridden with Lyme disease two years ago of how much independent work my children were capable of doing. Once they can read independently, they are capable of doing a lot on their own. And I know that in a school environment the teacher does not hover over every child continually, helping with each math problem or exercise. That would be impossible for the teacher and it is impossible for parents who teach their children at home.

There are certain subjects I always instruct: English/Grammar/Writing, Math, Catechism, and usually Science. But most of the rest is in a format that once they know what is expected they can do on their own. For example, our history curriculum comes with a recording of the text, so they listen to that and read along. We discuss it once a week over lunch, but they are able to learn and understand the content on their own. The amount of help needed per subject varies child to child as well. My oldest loves her science work, and dives into it on her own, experiments and all. My second prefers me to read through her science lesson with her and help her do any experiments.

 

5. Ask for help from your spouse.

Sometimes I encounter a concept that no matter how I explain it to a child, I cannot get it across. That is when I either wait until my husband comes home from work, or if he is working at home (like he is every day now), I ask him to come in and help. Between the two of us we have not encountered a topic that our kids cannot understand.

Further, my husband teaches several non-core subjects to our children. He meets with them once a week and then I supervise their daily assignments from these subjects. He covers Latin, Geography, and poetry memorization. He also coordinates and teaches our art and music appreciation class, which we do over dinnertime. We listen to one musical piece a week and look at one painting a week, and spend our family dinner discussing them.

 

6. Keep the younger kids occupied, but away from the school space.

Children under school age can be the biggest challenge to focusing on schoolwork. They need and want a lot of attention. Our children who can play alone are sent to a different space and set up with a game or toys that will occupy them. We use toys like magnet tiles, Duplos, Perler beads, marble works, and basically anything that uses the imagination and occupies the hands.

Toddlers and babies have always ended up on my lap or toddling around the school room. My sister has a system where her older children take turns in their school morning playing with their youngest siblings while she teaches subjects to the other children.

I hope that families that are new to schooling at home will find some of these tips helpful.

Helping our children learn is hard even in the best of times. Please remember as you discern how to approach distance learning that what works for me in my house with my family will not necessarily work well for your family. Every family is unique. Every child is unique. Every homeschool family I know approaches their schedule, their children, how they run their day differently. Don’t feel obliged or pressured in any way to do any of the things I offer here. I pray that all families find peace in these stressful times and are able to create “a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule.”