11 top tips for working at home while your child is off school
With schools closed for an indefinite period due to the coronavirus outbreak, many of us are facing two new and unfamiliar situations: working from home, and having to ‘home educate’ our children.
Getting the balance right is far from easy, and it’s natural to feel stressed about how it’s going to work.
To help you find a strategy that works for you and your child, we’ve rounded up top tips from the real experts: parents who are juggling homeworking with home learning.
1. Start the day on the right foot
It’s tempting to turn off the alarm clock and let everyone stay in their pyjamas until midday, but getting up and aiming to be ready to start work and home learning around the usual time will help you and your child get into the right mindset.
‘We have said we'll be up and dressed by 9am, and do a short 10-minute exercise session like skipping or a YouTube live stream like the Body Coach to get us going’ – Miriam
‘I’m getting my daughters to put on their school jumpers at the start of the day, and take them off at 3pm, as a reminder that during school hours, learning takes priority.’ – Joanna
2. Break your schedule into manageable chunks
Try to work out when your child works best, and with the least need for input from you, and plan your more focused work periods to fit in with those.
Obviously, how this works will depend on your child and how independent they are. If you have a Year 6 child, they might be able to concentrate on a task set by their teacher for 45 minutes – but if they’re in Reception, doing your work in 20-minute bursts (perhaps while they watch an educational TV programme) might be more realistic.
‘Break your day up into segments and give your child something to occupy them for that time: for example, half-hour segments with a few quick checks on them.’ – Una
3. Work out your workspace
Not all of us are lucky enough to have a dedicated desk at home, so it’s quite possible that you and your child will be sharing the same workspace.
This can be really tricky, especially if you both have lots of paperwork and other resources to spread out.
Try to work out a plan for sharing your space. For example, you could invest in some magazine files, folder and in-trays to keep your papers and books under control. You and your child could each have your own space – perhaps at opposite ends of the table – rather than chopping and changing.
If things are getting messy, enforce a five-minute break to put your things back in order.
Think creatively about how you could use the space in your home, too. Your child doesn’t have to sit at the table if they’re reading, for example: they can move into the living room for that. Or you could do your work in your child’s bedroom and let them have the kitchen table, where they’re less likely to be distracted by their toys.
‘We live in a small apartment and my daughter and I are doing our work in the same room. It's difficult, but at times like this I think a relaxed and flexible approach is key.’ – Shirley
‘My children are all working in separate rooms. Getting them at the same table would end in bloodshed!’ – Emma
4. Set your priorities
Let’s face it: you’re not going to be as productive working at home with your child around as you would be in your usual place of work, so every morning, take stock of what you need to do that day and draw up a list of priorities.
You might, for example, have a conference call that you absolutely have to be there for, but decide that admin tasks could wait till the end of the day – and roll over to the next if need be.
Apart from anything, having a to-do list of tasks that you can strike off as they’re completed is highly satisfying, and will show you that even if combining work and kids is difficult, you ARE getting things done.
Consider getting your child to draw up a daily list, too, and reward yourselves as tasks are finished, perhaps with a tea (or squash) break.
‘Writing a list helps me stay focused, but I have to be realistic – I’m not going to achieve as much in eight hours at home with my child as I would in eight hours at work.’ – Mel
5. Set yourself up for phone calls
It’s likely that the biggest stressor when combining work and kids will be those times when you have to be on the phone or on a video call.
How you handle this will depend on your child’s age. A KS2 child can reasonably be asked to occupy themselves for half an hour, even if they’re playing with LEGO, on the trampoline or online gaming rather than working.
Younger children, however, may not understand your need to not be disturbed, but you can try to minimise interruptions by putting on a movie or handing over your tablet with some age-appropriate games that they won’t need constant help with.
Get your tech in order, too – it’s reasonable to ask your employer to provide the equipment you need to work at home, such as a headset for phone calls.
Be realistic, though: chances are the other person at the end of the phone will also have kids around, and be sympathetic to distractions. (If you haven't seen this classic BBC News clip, treat yourself to a first (or repeat!) viewing.)
‘My children all have headphones so they can listen to music while they work or listen to books on Audible (which is offering free children's audiobooks during school closures) while I’m on the phone.’ – Kirsty
‘A headset for your computer that you can mute when on conference calls, so the other people can’t hear your background noise, is a godsend. And save the best TV programmes for when you have phone calls you need to get on with.’ – Laura
6. Schedule breaks
Make sure you take some time out of your working day when you get a chance.
This isn’t just for your sanity (and to eat): it’ll also give you a chunk of time to spend with your child, and alleviate some of the guilt that comes with juggling work and family.
‘We’re stopping for lunch each day and going for a walk together in that time.’ – Miriam
7. Support your child’s learning
It may seem daunting, but it’s possible to support your child’s learning while you’re working from home.
Depending on your child’s age, you could encourage them to use a dictionary or the internet to help them complete their homework.
If there are things they need your help with, get them to write their questions down so you can look at them together when you have a break in your schedule. If that means they can’t finish a task, tell them to move onto the next one and come back to it, or have a break until you’re able to help.
Younger children will need more input, but their tasks will be shorter, too, so you may only need to give them five minutes’ assistance at a time.
If there’s another parent working at home, try to share the load. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking one parent’s job is more important than the other’s, but it’s important that you both do your bit – and this will help to avoid resentment and bitterness, too.
'If there are two of you at home, tag team so one is on parenting duties and one is working, then switch.’ - Sarah
8. Make the most of online resources
If you’re feeling stressed about homeworking around your child, just imagine how hard it would have been pre-internet!
There are hundreds of online resources and apps that you can make use of, such as TheSchoolRun’s daily emails and Learning Journey (find out how to subscribe), the BBC’s brilliant Teach Live library, livestream learning, museums offering virtual tours and educational "trips" and educational TV programmes.
These will keep your child entertained – and teach them something new – while you work.
‘The home learning pack set by my Reception child’s school isn’t great, so I’m really pleased to have signed up for TheSchoolRun and am downloading worksheets.’ – Kelly
9. Plan stress-free meals
‘I’m hungry!’ ‘Can I have a snack?’ ‘What time is lunch?’ It’s likely that these are familiar refrains in your home at the moment – and endlessly having to provide food can really interrupt your workflow.
To make things easier, have a plan of what you’re eating each day. You could have a tub for each child with a daily supply of snacks in, and when their box is empty, that’s it for the day.
Or make packed lunches the evening before so you don’t have to spend time making sandwiches when you could be working.
‘I often cook the night before, or use the slow cooker to make soup and stews which saves me cooking throughout the day.’ – Una
‘Have snacks and drinks in a basket or another set place that they can help themselves to.’ – Kate
10. Be flexible
The key to surviving the work/child juggle is to be flexible in your approach to work.
Talk to your employer about whether they need you to do fixed hours, or whether you could cut back your work in the day to be with your child, and catch up in the evening when they’re in bed, or at weekends. If they’re not sure how this will work, ask if you could do a trial period for a week or two and then review it with them.
These may be unpaid so will depend on your financial circumstances, but it’s worth thinking about if you’re finding the balancing act too stressful.
‘I’m considering dropping to part-time hours in the short term. I’ll lose part of my salary, but because we’re stuck at home, we’re spending less anyway.’ – Ian
11. Be kind to yourself
These are unprecedented times, and we all need to cut ourselves – and each other – some slack.
Don’t beat yourself up if your child isn’t getting through all their schoolwork, or if you’re letting them spend far more time on screens than you usually would.
Keep in touch with your employer about how you’re managing your workload, and if there are ways to make things easier.
And take time out to spend time with your child, shift your focus away from work, and just breathe. Half an hour away from your desk having a walk in the sun or playing a board game is essential for your mental health, and will help you feel more equipped for the ongoing balancing act of work, life and kids.
‘Don't feel guilty, or try to be superhuman. Do what works for you: this is about survival.’ - Kirsty