LIFE | Teaching children while working from home: Advice for working parents

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A conversation with GG Weisenfeld, National Institute Early Education Research

What advice do you have for parents struggling with children who aren’t as cooperative learning at home as they might be in a classroom?

Weisenfeld: Just like we feel stress, so do our children. Among the ways children demonstrate their anxiety is by being uncooperative. To help children feel safe and less anxious, we need to set realistic and consistent behavior expectations. Younger children have attention spans of 10-15 minutes when working on tasks and benefit from breaks so they can freely move around. They also might not fully understand what is going on or be able to express their feelings in ways we would prefer.

My preschooler keeps telling me I’m not doing things the way the teachers do it and refuses to participate in any educationally activity. How can parents help their young learners make the transition to home schooling?

Weisenfeld: Remind your preschooler that home is different from school. One way to start the conversation is by making lists. What things are the same at home and at school? What things are different? What can we do differently at home that reminds us of preschool? Keep adding to each list. Encourage your child to be part of the process. This is also a good early literacy activity that connects oral language to written language.

Should parents replicate the school experience at home or aim for something different?

Weisenfeld: Change is hard. It’s typically best to help your child experience some of the same things they do at school. One of the most important things is to follow your child’s regular school schedule or use Macaroni Kid or other websites to create a schedule. If there are activities you student enjoys at school, see if you can replicate them with materials you have at home. Does your child have a favorite book or author? Check the internet for book extension ideas. For younger kids, finding out what songs they sing at school and replicating at home may also be helpful.

The screen time battle is harder with the children home all day. Should parents relax screen time rules, or strictly enforce them? Is there a middle ground?

Weisenfeld: Limiting screen time is important for children’s learning and development. However, you might need to adjust the family rules on device use. Whatever you decide, be sure to articulate the rules clearly and apply them consistently. Remind your children when the time for using devices is nearing the end.

Should parents be concerned the being away from school will to a long-term education gap? If so, what can parents do?

Weisenfeld: We don’t know how long schools will be closed, but learning doesn’t happen only at school. It happens at home, too. Take this opportunity to create and provide high-quality educational experiences at home for your children. There are many online resources to help you identify ideas, but look for find activities that encourage creativity, use multiple materials, and allow for play that stimulates the senses: touch, smell, taste, sight, and hearing.

What advice do you have for parents who never imagined themselves as a teacher and are struggling with the transition?

Weisenfeld: Whether you know it or not, parents are teachers. Everything you do sets an example for your child. Learning for young children can happen doing ordinary things, such as sharing a book, having a conversation, or playing with bubbles in the kitchen sink. Children can help you prepare meals (measuring, following instructions, safe use of home kitchen equipment). Of course, with adult supervision depending upon the age of the child.

Is this a time to relax some house rules, like don’t clear out the kitchen pantry for hide and seek?

Weisenfeld: It is okay to relax some rules, but consistency and routine is reassuring to children, especially during uncertain times. Share any rule changes with your children and keep them consistent. Children often test limits until they find the boundaries, be clear of the limits.

Do you have tips for helping children deal with the social isolation of being home and away from friends?

Weisenfeld: Thank goodness for video chat. Young children might not have an “adult” conversation with their friends, but they could sing a song together or share silly “dress-up” outfits. Helping with the content and keeping the conversation short might make it more successful. This is also a great time to connect with grandparents and other family members.

How can parents encourage good hygiene for preschoolers?

Weisenfeld: This is a great opportunity to remind children how to correctly wash their hands and to always wash their hands after touching their face, going to the bathroom, or coming in from outdoor play, and to use proper techniques (running water, soap, scrub for 20 seconds, rinse with running water). If your children don’t do it already, teach them to sneeze into a tissue (then throw it away), if possible, but their arm or elbow (not hands), if not. Providing visual cues, such as displaying a drawing that reminds children to wash their hand in the bathroom, can be helpful.

How can we keep our children calm during these uncertain times?

Weisenfeld: We want children to feel safe. Parents can help by being consistent in expectations and remaining calm. We also want children to feel they can ask us questions, so talk to your children, share information as appropriate, and respond to their questions. It is best to give just enough factual information to answer their questions but not so much as to cause them more worry. Consider trying to limit the exposure to news programs that may add to their anxiousness. The Child Mind Institute has helpful guidance for talking to young children about the coronavirus and Zero to Three has information targeted for children birth to age three.

My social media feed is flooded with resources, online events, and suggested homeschooling schedules. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. What resources for parents do you recommend?

Weisenfeld: There are lots of resources out there, some made by commercial companies looking to make a profit. There are also a lot of free resources that provide ideas for creating opportunities to do things at home. Avoid those that encourage computer-based learning or passive TV/video watching.  The goal of any activities should be for children to be active and creative in their learning and encourage all areas of development (language & literacy, math, science, culture, art, music, etc.).  Common Sense Media provides parent and child reviews of websites, games, and apps, as well as reviewed COVID-19 resources.  Both NYC and Boston have created resources for preschool families. In addition, museums are offering virtual tours: Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden brings the zoo to you!; and Smithsonian Education and Learning Lab. Other resources include Fred Rogers CenterHome Reading HelperKhan Academy KidsKids Classes from HomeLunch Doodles with Mo WillemsSesame Street.

Please note, NIEER neither endorses nor has an interest in these resources.

GG Weisenfeld is an assistant research professor at the National Institute for Early Education Research within the Rutgers Graduate School of Education. Her work includes scanning state- and local-level pre-K policies, researching state efforts that support implementation of high-quality preschools, contributing to research and production of the State of Preschool Yearbook, and offering technical assistance to state and city leaders seeking to design and enhance pre-K programs. Dr. Weisenfeld earned a master’s degree from Bank Street College and doctorate from Teachers College, Columbia University.

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