Dos and Don’ts of Schooling at Home
By: Lockey Webb Coughlin
Set them up for success. Of course, we want to set our children up for success, but all too often, we end up doing the opposite, playing the role of saboteur rather than mentor. No matter the task, there are definitive dos and don’ts. Do create clear expectations and predictable structure. Do not create excuses or open doors which will encourage skipping work. This applies to athletics training, academics, and chores. Why? Because both send clear messages about a parent’s priorities, which always translates into their children’s priorities.
While emotional distress and mental health always overshadow everything else, most issues with children are manageable through clear, consistent boundaries, structure, consequences, and conversation. Of course, these require a parent’s or guardian’s attention and time. Hold yourselves as accountable as you hold your children’s teachers and coaches, and you will be ahead of the game.
While consulting for twenty-nine families with children of varying ages, academic interests, and abilities, I have seen only one family that is not experiencing push back from their children or other indications of a slow descent into injurious habits. The one family without issues includes a mom with a master’s degree in elementary education. If you are experiencing difficulties, I promise, you are not alone.
To clear through the enormous amount of advice and suggestions currently available to parents schooling at home, here is a simple, go-to checklist of strategies that I have seen work time and again, with great success. Be honest with yourselves as you read through this list. Most of us sabotage our children in some way.
Physical space: Do create a dedicated space in which your child may work. Do not place it far away from you or behind closed doors. I have detailed this before, but it bears repeating. Set up a place close to where you are during the day, where your child can work consistently without interruption or the need to constantly move their things. Make sure you can see their computer screen as you walk by or from where you are working and look at it often. Make sure that your child keeps non-academic tabs closed during dedicated academic time. I cannot stress this enough. Set their phones aside, as well. Distractions abound online.
Schedule: Do create a schedule with your child. Do allow for flexibility within the schedule, but do not change it constantly. Keep a schedule of their online classes or expected tasks throughout the day posted where it is a quick and easy reference for everyone. This is one of the best ways to ensure that expectations are clear and communicated to all parties. Your schedule should include a list of daily and weekly household chore expectations. A planner, detailing homework assignments, and required teacher communications is also essential.
Remember that your child has difficulty planning because their brain is not fully formed. The more you guide them through this process, the more you will help them to learn executive functioning skills, as their brain develops. Eventually, they will be able to manage all of this on their own. A win-win.
Exercise: Do encourage your child to exercise regularly and to get outside often. Do not make it regimented or onerous for them. Studies show that exercise before classes increases test scores and class participation. Schedule a walk or other physical activity first thing in the morning, near the middle of the day, and ideally, between classes. A quick stretch, a run around the house, or dancing to a favorite song works wonders.
Daily check-ins: These are essential. Do communicate with your child often about their classes, how they are feeling about their peers, their teachers, and their work. Do not make this time stressful or contentious. Do remind yourself often that you are there to listen and to problem-solve with your child.
Check-in both at the beginning and end of their academic day, every day. In the morning, look at their schedule with them, make sure they understand it, and check-in that their homework is complete for each of their classes. Strategize and problem-solve with them around incomplete or difficult assignments. This could involve contacting teachers to request an extension, carving out time during the day to complete an assignment, or preparing something quickly on the spot.
In the afternoon, check-in on how each class went, asking them specifically about each class. Help them update their planners and strategize to complete assignments on time.
Interruptions: Do remember how much you like to be interrupted when you are trying to complete a task. Do not interrupt your child while they are working on their academics to ask them to do a chore, take a walk with you, or if they like your newest pandemic baking, painting, or re-decorating project. This is their time and if you do not respect the importance of their work, neither will they.
Quality: Do look over their homework and assignments to make sure they are complete and that your child has followed the instructions, as written. Do not do their work for them, ever.
Rewards: Do reward your children for a job well-done, for continued effort, and for being honest with you, even if they are telling you they blew off their homework. Do not promise rewards that are over-the-top or are unrealistic. Most often, making an announcement to your family that your child has done well or thanking your child for their hard work is enough. A dinner in honor of their work on Friday night, playing a favorite game together as a family, or letting them pick the movie for the night all are wonderful ways to let them know they are on the right track.
Early and Often: Do make consequences for a lack of work or effort clear upfront. Do not make idle, angry, or unenforceable threats.
Push back: If you are experiencing push back from your children, check this list to make sure you are doing everything possible to set them up for success. If you have checked all the boxes and your child is still giving you push back, it is time to start looking at what is sabotaging your efforts.
I have found that this is almost always from a lack of sleep and/or a perceived interruption to social time/online games. Take away all electronics at night. Remove the X-box or Switch, and/or remove their gaming computer and give them a simple Chromebook instead, and be clear that they need to earn these privileges back by participating actively in their other obligations. How and when they will earn back these privileges is up to you, of course, but I suggest clear expectations and a slow return of privileges based on verifiable behavior changes. Contact a professional to help guide you if you are at a loss. Once again, I promise, you are not alone. Mental health professionals are busier than ever helping people manage the challenges we all are facing right now. Asking for help is healthy and sets a great example for your children.
Remember that children crave structure because it makes them feel safe. Knowing the rules, knowing what is expected of them, knowing the answers to who, what, when, where, why, and how, and understanding that these are expectations and rules that everyone must live by are all extremely comforting when one is tasked with anything unfamiliar.
Whenever I grade a paper or complain that my class is not doing as I have requested, my college-age daughter asks me the same question, “Did you give them a rubric?” A rubric, of course, answers all these questions. It communicates to students exactly what is expected of them, as well as from every other student in the class. It communicates structure, expectations, and an underlying sense of fair play. Knowledge is power. Empower your children and set them up for success.