How to homeschool during coronavirus: keep your kids engaged and learning

Last Updated July 2020
By Sian Babish

Even though the kids have been on home instruction for over a month, there’s still a bit of a learning curve for parents and kids alike. Some days it’s easy to get through coursework, while others can be far more challenging. When you add siblings, work-from-home parents, and upended extracurricular schedules to the mix — it’s no surprise that distance learning requires unique adaptation skills.

As you work around new dynamics and one another’s schedules, you might be searching for ways to keep kids on track with learning. We consulted Dr. Aimee Ketchum, Pediatric Occupational Therapist at UPMC Hospital and owner of STEM Starts Now Child Development Company, for expert recommendations to excel in homeschooling.

As distance learning is certainly uncharted territory, Dr. Ketchum shares these tips to help you navigate this time. Keep reading to discover new ways to help kids stay engaged and on top of their learning during coronavirus.

Recreate routines

Impact of predictability

While the initial shock of home instruction may have worn off, it still feels somewhat uncomfortable for kids. As Dr. Ketchum explains, this is partially due to new unpredictability in their lives. As adults, we’re better-equipped for major changes given our life experience; for kids, the switch to distance learning is a major interruption in their daily lives.

You may notice the impact manifests as new-found anxiety as well as changes in behavior, mood, and attention span. Kids often internalize their stress, according to Dr. Ketchum, especially when they don’t know how to react to a new situation at hand. There are a few ways to alleviate your kids’ stress, and it boils down to returning to what brings them comfort: the predictability of routines.

Sticking to schedules

One way to get back into the swing of things is to recreate routines. Dr. Ketchum suggests maintaining the same wake-up and bedtime for kids and sticking to normal school hours for coursework. This framework is crucial to nudging kids in the right direction, as they can better identify with routines with which they’re already familiar.

Establishing schedules is one thing — but sticking to them is something else. Including kids in the implementation is the key to success, says Dr. Ketchum. Get kids involved in designing weekly schedule sheets, blocking time for homeschooling as well as family and recreation time. Let them go to town designing custom calendars or writing to-do lists. It’s fun and engaging, plus it does double-duty as a creative enrichment activity.

Set up learning zones

Importance of changing classes

Kids move around at school — a lot. Even grade school kids change classrooms for music or art classes, while high schoolers change rooms up to ten times every school day. Dr. Ketchum explains how this impacts kids on the spatial level. The movement and change of atmosphere give kids breaks in more than one way, both from routine as well as a micro-break from learning.

This is one of the most crucial aspects lost with distance learning, especially when you’re quarantined and movement is, to some extent, restricted. As Dr. Ketchum points out, kids may feel anxiety boil over or experience a lapse in engagement, purely because there isn’t much to break up their day. Being sedentary for several hours at a time also takes a toll on kids — and adults, too.

How to re-zone for engaged learning

To combat the mundane routine of screen-centric learning, Dr. Ketchum suggests setting up new learning zones to get kids moving and re-engaged. Changing rooms or environments gives a much-needed change of pace and scenery. Reading, for example, can be done on the couch or in the backyard. Typed assignments can be done at a desk, and kids can move to the floor for art projects or handwriting practice. Take recess to the driveway or porch with sidewalk chalk. 

Setting up learning zones for comfort is also crucial, explains Dr. Ketchum. Prolonged time sitting in front of computers can result in poor posture, not to mention aches and pains. It’s recommended to keep screens eye-level to avoid unnecessary torque to the neck and stress on the spine. Upgrading furniture might not be an option right now, so Dr. Kethchum offers an alternative solution: stack books to elevate the laptop or monitor to reach eye-level. 

Others ways to adapt

Partnering with other adults

Dr. Ketchum recommends partnering with other parents to form learning or tutoring cohorts. Each parent has a different knowledge base, which means they have a leg-up in helping kids learn certain concepts. Grandparents can help too, whether it’s proofreading essays or hosting virtual storytime or read-alongs. 

Babysitters and tutors are also invaluable resources, as they may have flexible schedules for one-on-one instruction during this time. Younger kids can video chat for homework help or guided activities, such as music lessons. High school students can work with online SAT or college-readiness tutors and spend time developing their Common Essay or upping test-taking skills. 

Using screen time effectively

Screen time is frequently a concern, so you may feel conflicted as to where to draw the line when you rely on it heavily for the time being. Dr. Ketchum emphasizes that it’s important to be realistic with expectations regarding screen use right now. Among other things, screens help give parents a break from the added stress of juggling home instruction and work-from-home life.

More screen time is inevitable, and Dr. Ketchum recommends simply using it more effectively to focus on social interaction and educational value. Encourage kids to hop on video chats with friends and family or have online pizza parties with their teammates or youth groups. Introduce them to educational programs, podcasts, or video games in subjects that interest them or are relevant to coursework. 

Common concerns about learning goals

Fears of falling behind

Falling being is a top concern for parents, and Dr. Ketchum assures there is a considerable degree of leniency at the moment. School systems are embracing modified grading systems to accommodate the lack of normalcy and structure, some of which are migrating to pass/fail rather than letter grades. Teachers are also astute to the change in progress from their students and connect more often with parents.

In terms of getting thrown off-track for end-of-year goals, Dr. Ketchum says that many schools are actually in a review phase at this point in the year. If you notice that lessons feel as if they’ve been done before, it’s because reinforcement is considered the best course of action to promote knowledge retention. Working off the kids’ existing knowledge base lays a solid foundation for when they’re ready to take on new information.

Kindergarten readiness

Parents of preschool children may be concerned about whether the interruption in learning affects readiness for kindergarten. While you can’t replace the physical social interaction of a preschool setting, you can mirror the curriculum at home, says Dr. Ketchum. It’s also worth noting that many preschools are communicating with local schools to help assess the unique situations of incoming students. 

Dr. Ketchum’s best recommendation is to have a constructive learning environment for your preschool-age kids. While they don’t require the same structure as older kids, they need their own pint-sized predictability. At the top of the list, says Dr. Ketchum, should be daily reading to maintain — and hopefully grow — their reading level and fluency. Focus on adapting activities for skills development with fun challenges, hands-on crafts or projects, and structured playtime. 

Staying on track with IEPs

Parents of kids with IEPs may be concerned about missing out on specialized instruction. Dr. Ketchum assures parents that IEPs are still being honored. Kids undergoing speech, occupational, or physical therapy will be able to utilize telehealth services with therapists. 

Parents may be provided additional resources for specialized home exercises in between virtual sessions. These may be in the form of activity plans and new goals to bridge the time until in-person meetings resume. If you have concerns about the impact of closed schools on your kid’s IEP, speak to your case manager to troubleshoot challenges. 

Tap into online learning resources

As parents embrace their new roles as homeschooling educators, Dr. Ketchum encourages them to explore the world of supplemental resources. Here are the top picks to help your kids stay on top of their learning:

Storyline Online: Parents and kids alike can enjoy site showcases from famous actors reading children’s fiction.

Time for Kids: Keep kids up-to-date on current events, including those outside the news cycle, with access to kid-friendly articles on relatable topics.

Fun Brain: Let kids preschool through grade 8 flex their skills with over 100 interactive games to grow their skills in math, reading, and literacy.

Cool Math 4 Parents: If you didn’t plan on being a math teacher this year, you’ll appreciate this site that guides you through math tutoring with reward charts and engaging activities.

Improving Literacy: Foster independent reading with access to books, audiobooks, and literacy games on this site designed by the National Center on Improving Literacy.

K5 Learning: Take a look at this kindergarten through grade 5 website to download online lessons and supplemental worksheets for reading and math.

Ready 4K: Sign up for this text program that shares family engagement curriculum, including ways to open dialogues as well as help kids grow their oral communication skills and EQ.

STEM Starts Now: Founded by Dr. Ketchum, this STEM-driven program from birth to age 5 sends weekly emails tailored to your kid’s developmental milestones and kindergarten readiness. Premium access is offered for free until the end of the calendar year to preschools and childcare centers.