OK, so your office has shut down and you’re working from home. Great, maybe it’s a few more Zoom meetings than you would prefer, but totally manageable, right? That is, until they close schools. Working from home with kids present is an entirely different situation. Here are three tips for not losing your mind, being a decent parent, and actually getting some work done.
If you watch any really amazing elementary school teacher, one thing you’ll notice is that they most definitely have a plan. In the best classrooms I’ve seen, the teacher starts each day off by going through the day’s schedule with the students, inviting them to ask questions, get clarification, and where appropriate, to participate in making adjustments and changes to the schedule. These teachers keep things moving, not staying too long at any one activity, supporting their students in maintaining focus, and they always have a few back-up activities in case (read: when) something goes awry. I’d also say these teachers put a lot of stock in the power of ritual, relying on certain consistencies to help students have a greater sense of agency, visibility into the process, and control of the world around them.
It may sound nuts, but starting off every day with a review of the day’s schedule is a really good idea. Post it up somewhere central and visible and refer to it throughout the day, checking things off as the day progresses. If your kids are young, drawing/writing it out with them is a fun way to spend the first 15 minutes of your day. Break the day into 15-30 minute chunks of time, interspersing activities you do with them, such as taking stretch breaks (@Playworks is posting online free #playathome activities like this), story time, making and eating snacks/lunch, or activities like these from @Inspired Teaching. As you make your way through the day, make notes for yourself about what worked well, how much time things actually take, and ideas that you come up with for new activities. Go over these notes with your child in the morning when you’re making the next day’s schedule and ask them about their observations.
A quick note about screen time. When my kids were little, I definitely used screens to distract them, so I have no judgment. I will share, though, that the transition post-screen time was almost always rough. As in, almost made me regret ever letting them have screens in the first place. If you are going to let your kids watch a movie during the day so that you get one 90 minute block, I’d recommend doing it towards the end of the day and to do a lot of pre and post prep with your kids to minimize transitional angst.
One of the biggest keys to success in all of this is recognizing that your kids are only a part of the challenge. Your behavior is a big factor in making this work. We are operating in a distracted age, and some estimates of actual work time are as low as 2.5 hours of productivity in the average 8 hour day. Your job in making this weird situation work is to choose 2-3 important work things that you are prioritizing on any given day and to resist/eliminate the many ‘urgent’ things – like email and social media – that can easily distract us.
This emphasis on focus also applies during the times in the day when you are interacting with your kids. This time is as important as the 2-3 important work things that you’ve identified, and actually focusing on your kids makes it much more likely that you will be able to actually focus on your work priorities during those allotted times. Close your computer and put your phone out of reach when you are with your kids. Treat it like a meeting with your boss or most important client/funder.
Maintaining perspective is everything. If you are in a situation where you are healthy, your loved ones are healthy, and you’re getting paid to work from home, you are in a privileged position and the most important thing you can do is to be visibly aware of how lucky you are and to make sure that your kids don’t take any of it for granted. They are watching you and what you say and what you do matter. That said, the Maya Angelou quote applies here as always: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Your job in all of this is to make sure your family feels safe, grateful and committed to doing what is right for the larger community.
This is not a normal time and we are all – our kids included – likely to be experiencing additional stress. Paying attention and noticing how you’re feeling, noticing how your kids are feeling, and acknowledging that things are really, truly, mind-blowingly out of the ordinary will help your whole family set appropriate expectations and maintain perspective. In thinking about your work, pretending that everything is normal and we’re just working from home is going to set you up for a frustrating experience. Adjusting your expectations – and articulating them as part of morning scheduling– can really help mitigate frustration and engage your kids as your partners in achieving your goals, setting them up to be the best possible “coworkers” they can be.
People need meaning, the opportunity for mastery, and community to thrive. Creating opportunities for people to contribute, and to find their best selves is some of the most important work we can do.