For Parents

Lessons Learned Surviving Covid: The First Week of Social Distancing and the start of Homeschooling

1. Acknowledging emotional reactions to school closures

So it’s March Break here in Ontario, Canada (spring break for those of you not from here). “Ontario has declared a state of emergency and had implemented various measures, including restricting travel, prescribing physical distancing and asking certain businesses to close in order to curb the spread of the virus” (CTV News). And just like everyone else in Ontario, hopefully, my family is practicing social distancing to the extreme which means no leaving the house: no “field trips”, no visits to family or friends or playdates, not even a trip to the grocery store with the kids.

We are all reacting to this enforced seclusion in different ways and this is ok. It is important to acknowledge that everyone will react differently and all reactions are normal and ok. “Support, expect and normalize that they [children] are very sad and very frustrated about the losses they are mourning” (6 ways parents can support their kids through the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak).

My 10 year old daughter Margaret is loving it. She could stay on a device: watching youtube, playing roblox (with or without friends), or chatting via video on messenger kids, all day with no problem (other than the emotional fall out of screen fatigue) . In fact she seems to want to go directly into hibernation mode and has created a hamster like nest/fort in her bedroom closet where she would happily spend her days and even her nights (has taken to sleeping in there with a string of star lights for company) if I let her. She has no problem verbalizing her concerns and her reaction to “the danger” of the situation is that she will be fine if she gets it because she is young and only very old people are in danger of dying (but again she is hiding in a closet, so may be somewhat worried).

My 7 year old daughter Katie has had a much tougher time with the whole situation. She hates being stuck at home. Don’t get me wrong she loves her screen but wants to go out. She is full of energy and (although a shy child) wants to socialize. In my desperate need to engage her (she had refused to eat breakfast, get dressed, or brush her teeth) I suggested a field trip. She got very excited until I told her it was going to be on the computer, at which point she broke down in tears. She does not express her feelings as freeling at Margaret and needs a lot of coaching to open up. All of this does seem to have her worried even if she can’t express her feeling or thoughts clearly.

My husband, as an avid reader of online content, knew things would get this extreme (or even worse) months ago and has been concerned by the fact that no one else around him seemed to have any awareness of what was going on in the world or what was going to happen (including me). He is relieved now at the strides society is taking to stem the tide of covid. He was happy when the schools closed and the kids and I were forced to stay home: safe from exposure or more likely aiding the spread of the disease. He is a government employee who works downtown (at the epicenter of all the Toronto covid cases) so was constantly surrounded by people talking about the newest cases and how close they were to his office. He is more than happy to be working from home now.

I have reacted with my usual “let’s go” teacher attitude, meaning that I have made a plan and arranged everyone else’s life according to it. Based on my own online presence, and what I see in the world of teaching, I have assumed that we may not get back to school this year and have made a plan accordingly. This is annoying to everyone else but is a way that I can feel in control of the situation.

2. Setting Up a Liveable Living Arrangement

So now that we are all stuck in the house together, 24/7 we needed to set up a liveable environment. My husband normally works from home one day a week and has been working at the bar in the kitchen. This has been fine up until now but with us all at home it is like we are all at work with him which can be stressful for everyone. So to facilitate a more relaxed environment we hastily created an office for my husband by rearranging the two kids rooms: bedroom and playroom. My husband now has a workable desk and a door he can use to close out our noise (and his).

While we were at it we decided to separate the two girls, who have always shared a room (something we have been thinking about doing for a while now), into the two rooms to facilitate easier bedtimes. My 10 year old daughter needs to be asleep by 9 and my 7 year old daughter would prefer to stay up forever. Leading to a lot of talking on Katie’s part and a lot of shushing and annoyance on Margaret’s part. Neither girl is allowed in the other’s room now which has worked out well as it gives each girl a room they can escape to when they need time alone.

3. Begin the way you want to continue

So, despite child complaints, and the fact that it is March break, I started off the week with homeschooling. I figured since camp was cancelled, I would need to do some programing or the kids would end up screen zombies. Since school is closed for two weeks following March break I figured it would be easiest to run things during March beak the way I would want them to run afterward. I announced that weekends would be for fun family time and independent choice activities but the weekdays would include mommy school.

4. What homeschooling can look like

I looked into what homeschooling looks like for other people, and talked to friends who have done homeschooling, and there seems to be as many variations as there are people doing it. But this is what I learned:

Homeschooling is not school

It doesn’t need to be scheduled, set up, or cover the material in the same way. Figure out what works best for you and your family.

Set up a workable environment

We do our “work” mostly in the dinning room where there is a large table and were resources (workbooks, laptops, pencils…) are easily accessible.

Focus on a few areas

Again, homeschooling is not regular school. You don’t need to teach them everything. I suggest focusing on the few areas that your children need the most support in. For both my daughters this is reading, so I have them read to me everyday. A good place to start is reading & writing (these can be based on fiction, non-fiction, or subject specific content) and math. I have created a list of resources (that I am frequently updating) that are useful for both elementary and high school students, many of which I am using.

As you are not necessarily trying to replace regular school, their actual teacher or the “approved” curriculum you can take your direction from your child instead. Start with what your child is interested in and work in the learning from there.

If you have a reluctant learner, have the child teach a lesson. Have them teach you what they know about the topic and co-create the lessons from there, e.g. Tell me what you know about dogs, use their answer as springboard to the day’s lessons:

  • art-youtube video on how to draw your favorite dog
  • science: label the parts of your dog drawing or research why dogs need to take flea/tick medications
  • language arts: write a story from the perspective a dog (a day in the life of a dog) or watch a video on dogs (eg. rescue videos) and discuss and then write about what can be learned from the scenario about dog behaviour or how people should behave.
  • social science: research how we ended up with dogs as pets
  • math: Have them figure out how much a small, medium, large dog eats in a day, a month, a year. Find out the cost of dog food and figure out how much it would cost to have each type of dog for a year?

Set up a routine

Have a basic schedule but be flexible. Children need routine but be ok if what you had planned doesn’t work, go with the flow.

8-10am Everyday starts off the same way.

I allow the kids to sleep in (within reason). Since they wake up at different times I have them eat breakfast, read to me and then get ready for the day. For Katie, who is not a morning person and will sleep all day if you let her, this can be difficult so if she at least brushes her teeth and reads to me we have accomplished something. It’s ok if we learn in our pajamas.

10-12pm This is where the programed learning happens (sometimes)

There are different ways you can set this up and I have done all of these depending on how things are going. Ideally it is all at one time (8-10) but sometimes we break it up throughout the day. I also teach them together for some of the material and teach them separately for others.

What I find really useful is to strategically use recess, or learning breaks, throughout the learning process. We have a google home device (you can also use a phone) that I use to set an alarm that tells the kids when recess is over. This way I am not the bad guy. It also helps if they decide how much time to take or set the alarms themselves.

Since last week was March break there was no specific homework from teachers and I facilitated all learning. Now that we are moving into the two weeks of school closures Ontario has offered these resources for home use (at this point teachers are not being asked to support remote learning in any way) but there isn’t much here for elementary school students. See bottom of blog for the resources I am using or my remote learning/homeschooling resources blog post.

Teaching them together:

I have always found it difficult to support two kids doing two sets of different homework at the same time, so when I can I find it best to teach them together. Use the same resource for both kids, for example scholastic has provided lessons for day to day homeschooling. Although they do have different grade levels I have decided to use the grade 3-5 content (Margaret is in grade 5) and adjust what we do with it for Katie (grade 2). Katie is excited to be doing big kid work and Margaret isn’t bored with work she thinks is below her level.

We completed the day 1 work “Meet a teen changing how the world views disabilities in “Nothing Can Stop Her.”“:

Margaret read the article on her own and created a jam board page with the “5-10 interview questions” she would ask Jordan. She needed some support in coming up with questions so we started with the 5ws and then looked at this resources to extend to more critical questions.

In the meantime I read the article with Katie (you can adjust the reading level).

We all watched the video interview with Jordan. Margaret added to her questions and Katie verbally summarized what she learned. We all read through Margaret’s questions and tried to infer what Jordan’s answers might be.

https://www.pinterest.nz/pin/290552613431865870/

We then all watched the second video about 3d printing and discussed ideas for what the world needs and what products we could design. We designed products using Jamboard. (accessible on any Gsuit).

Maggie’s invention
Katie’s invention

There are different ways to set up teaching them separately:

Have one kid use assistive technologies to work independently, such as text to speech or speech to text (Read & Write is free as a chrome website app extension). Have the screen read the text to your child or have them dictate their answers while the computer types up their answers. While they are working independently take this time to work with your oher child.

Or have them work on something they can do independently such as learning games or apps while you work with the other child.

Or set up the breaks so that each kid is on a break while you are teaching the other kid.

Homeschooling and assessment

Homeschooling at its core is differentiated and individualized. Since it is intended for the few student(s) in front of you it is geared to them specifically. BONUS: No need for excessive practice, tests or projects that take forever to do and access. Since you are working with your child one on one you can adjust your teaching as you go.

Suggested resources and strategies that I have implemented and am using right now (unless otherwise stated resources are available to both teachers and parents):

Reading:

We are working through our bookcase of books but once that is done I plan on accessing the many ebooks and audiobooks available through my school and public library.

If you’re looking for books you can access books via:

  • your public library website
  • the Overdrive app or website (connected to your school library or the public library) ,
  • many audiobooks are available free from the Audible app or website and
  • the EPIC! app gives students (if the teacher sets up an account and sends them the link) to books

We have also been working our way through the Harry Potter series via audiobook (normally while commuting to activities) so we spend some time listening to it while doing quiet time activities (colouring, drawing…).

Writing:

If I want the kids to work on responses to what they are reading independently I use whooosreading (available via website only). I have set them each up with profiles. They enter the book they are reading and if they have finished reading it I have them complete a quiz. If they are reading it in sections I have them do practice questions. They can change the questions if they don’t like it or (more likely) have no idea what to say. Once the hand it in the owl gives them feedback. They get coins and can change their avatar by buying stuff from the store with their coins.

Math:

Right now we are using the game Prodigy to practice and learn math. I have their accounts set to “no override” which means the program adjust to the student need instead of the grade level. Available both as a website and as an app.

Other subjects:

Right now the only content driven work I have done is that from scholastic projects website (see lesson outline above) although they do have some great stuff for science as well.

Holistic Health:

In these times it is important to focus not only on academics (brain development) but on all areas of our being and that of our children.

We have been practicing mindfulness (emotional/mental) as a family in the afternoons. I found this really helpful last year when I was experiencing health issues due to stress and it is highly recommended for people struggling with anxiety. I am reading the book Sitting Still Like a Frog by Eline Snel which comes with online meditations for kids.

We have implemented journaling (emotional/mental) after dinner: gratefulness journals and family journaling and are trying to implement other practiuces that lead to happineess according to New York Times–bestselling author Neil Pasricha.

In his book The Happiness Equation there are nine secrets to being happy: “walking three times a week, writing about positive experiences, doing acts of kindness, completely unplugging, meditating, and practicing gratitude.” This is restated in his book The Book of Awesome outlines how to do it: “Take 20 minutes a day for 20 days in a row to do one of five happiness exercises: take a brisk walk; journal about a positive experience; engage in a conscious act of kindness, like taking a break to buy someone a coffee; meditate, using an app such as Headspace or Calm.com; or write down five things you’re grateful for” (How to be happier at work).

Kids who don’t get exercise (physical) are more likely to be emotionally difficult. My daughter Katie is no different, so we try to get out as much as possible: play soccer, bike, walk, chalk sidewalks…but sometimes it’s not an option so we do an online exercises program such as gonoodle or a dance along on youtube.

Unfortunately given the limitations of social distancing kids aren’t able to meet their social needs as easily. I have been trying to get them in contact with their friends or relatives using non physical means. We are keeping in contact with people by making phone calls (or using whatsapp…), having them find their friends in online games (roblox), have them message or facetime (skype or messenger kids). I have also set up group virtual playdates so they can do something as a group (I am skyping with my cousin and her kids on Monday to do cookie decorating together).

You can meet their spiritual needs in the same ways that you normally do, just from a distance. We are running children’s liturgies on sundays and group prayer with my family over whatsapp on a regular basis.

Do you need support or have ideas to share?

I hope you find the ideas presented in this blog helpful. They are n no way exhaustive or perfect but hopefully they help guide you as you adopt your own way strategies to support your own family through this crisis. Good luck and stay safe.

If you have questions or ideas/resources that may be helpful others trying to cope with this crises, please feel free to ask or comment/share.

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