11 top tips for combining homeschooling with working from home
As the pandemic rumbles on, many of us are facing the reality that our children's schooling could be disrupted for some time, whether that's because of local or national lockdowns, or them having to quarantine or self-isolate if they have Covid-19 symptoms.
Others have decided to embrace home education and continue with it.
In both situations, parents who work from home are walking a tightrope between supervising and providing for their children while trying to keep up with the demands of their job: by no means an easy feat.
Getting the balance right can be tricky, and even if it's your choice to home educate, 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.
This can, of course, be flexible: there's no obligation to follow a timetable, or stick to school hours or term dates, but if you're homeschooling alongside working and you have to work set hours or do a certain amount per day, it'll stop your day spiralling out of control.
‘We have said we'll be up and dressed by 9am, and do a short 10-minute exercise session like skipping, a short run around the block or a YouTube exercise video to get us going’ – Miriam
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 you or 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 work that's within their capabilities and will 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, folders 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 a relaxed and flexible approach is key as long as we're both respectful of each other.’ – 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: they don't have to be learning every second of every day.
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 that during lockdown, the person at the other end of the phone will also have got used to having their kids around, and so 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 or borrowed from the library [many have apps for this] 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 with the dog in that time.’ – Miriam
7. Support your child’s learning
It may seem a monumental task, but it’s possible to support your child’s learning while you’re working from home, even on the busiest days.
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 you've chosen to home educate but have a particularly busy day coming up where you can't give your child as much attention, plan tasks that they find manageable for that day and leave tricky new concepts until you're less hectic. You could even get them to do vaguely educational tasks that will help you out, like planning a week's worth of meals and coming up with a shopping list.
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, livestreams and YouTube videos, 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 tasks set by my Reception child’s school weren’t great, so I’m really pleased I signed up for TheSchoolRun and got into the habit of 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, 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. Better still, teach your child to make their own sandwiches (and yours!).
‘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.
This is especially important if you're home educating long-term. Don't try to hide the fact from your employer, as this will only pile on the stress and lead to potentially difficult conversations. Instead, be proactive, draw up a plan for how you'll organise your time, and be willing for your employer to have questions that you may need to go away and think about in more depth.
If you're self-employed and working to deadlines or have clients to keep happy, be prepared to have those conversations, too: people are generally more understanding if they know there may be delays than if you can't quite pull it together at the last minute and you don't deliver on time.
Don’t forget that there are other options to take advantage of if there are short-term school disruptions and you’re finding it hard to work with your child at home, such as taking annual leave, time off for dependants, or parental leave.
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 dropped to part-time hours in the short term while the kids were out of school. I’ve lost part of my salary, but because I'm working from home, I'm spending less on train tickets and Pret lunches, so it evens out.’ – Ian
11. Be kind to yourself
Don’t beat yourself up if your child isn’t getting through all their schoolwork, if you've had a day where you didn't have time to provide enriching educational activities, or if you’re letting them spend far more time on screens than you usually would.
Keep in touch with your employer or clients about how you’re managing your workload, and discuss whether 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