By Kerry Wilson
My husband, Tom, and I have four children. One is an adult who has completed college and her master’s degree. We have two boys in college and one still in high school. We are also licensed foster parents in Fairfax County, although we do not have a foster child living with us currently. I have home schooled one of my four children during high school. All four have attended public schools as well, with several spending a few years in parochial schools. I have also known many homeschooling families through my job as a speech language pathologist in Prince William County. I am also very familiar with the opportunities and pitfalls of the public school systems in Northern Virginia. In addition to my personal experience as an educator and a parent, my husband sat on the Fairfax County School Board for four years.
No more websites (in this article)
I don’t know about you, but I feel a bit overwhelmed by all the links I’m being sent by various groups — virtual meetings, Zoom appointments, suggested websites, etc. I know that everyone wants to help, and I am appreciative of the attempt everyone is making to continue to be connected virtually to our jobs, groups, and families. However, it is a lot to keep track of. There is so much online material for the homeschooling parent that one could easily go down a million rabbit holes each day exploring all the various options. So, I am not going to offer more links to great websites or virtual learning opportunities, assuming everyone can either find these themselves or already has them.
Instead, I will try to offer just a few non-technology related thoughts that may be of help to parents who find themselves at home with their children all day, every day.
Your youngest children
Children under the age of three do not need any “academic” focus to their day. They do benefit greatly from consistent structure, particularly consistent mealtimes, naps, and bedtime. Routines are so important for this age group. This is how they learn what words mean (bath, shoes, go out, let’s eat), how to sequence events, and to understand what is expected of them (and what is not allowed). Consistent meals and sleep patterns also help them to stay well-regulated during the day and prevents excessive tantrums.
Children this age also benefit, as we all do, from consistent time spent playing outside. I suggest to the parents I work with that they take their young children outside at least twice a day in almost any weather, unless it is truly horrible outside. Thankfully, we are having beautiful weather now, so this should be easy for every family to achieve.
If your children seem bored, consider rotating their toys around so the toys “stay fresh” and are not just becoming background clutter in your home. From 6 months on up, I also recommend regular story time, multiple times daily, if possible, such as before nap and before bed at night. The libraries are closed, but there is always Amazon if you need new books to read. Fortunately, this age group is often happy to read the same books over and over.
It is very important to avoid excessive screen time for this age group. There are no studies that find that screen time is beneficial, even if the content is supposedly educational.
Young children also love to do things “by themselves,” and they will be eager “helpers” with almost any task! During the course of our normal lives, it is often the case that letting a two year old “help” is a challenge because it just takes so long, but in our new normal there is suddenly time to let small children try to do things like wipe the counter, feed the dog, take the socks out of the drier, or water the flowers. These are great moments for learning about all kinds of new concepts and words.
Your typically developing child
If your child is typically developing and generally succeeding in school, then I would look at this time as an opportunity to work on some things that the public schools are missing or that are of high interest for your child. The typically developing child is not going to get that “far behind” from missing a few weeks or even months of school, in the grand scheme of things. They may benefit greatly from exploring a passion or acquiring a new skill that they would not have otherwise. Some examples that come to mind include teaching a child to cook, sew, garden, build something, write stories, keep a journal, and so on. Instead of making everything a “chore,” try to include something in the activity that can “hook” your child. For example, if you want them to learn how to garden, let them pick out some seeds they want to plant or choose where to put them. Another example would be to let them choose aspects of the meal they want to make. Have them pick out (online) a new journal to write in. They don’t have to have complete control over the activity but letting them have some ownership over it will go a long way towards sustaining enthusiasm.
There may also be areas you would like to work on precisely because you find that your child has gaps in his or her education. For example, many people are shocked to realize that their children cannot read or write in cursive. Perhaps your child has significant gaps in his or her understanding of basic historical events or of geography. If your family is religious, now is a great time to spend focusing on this subject.
Do you feel your child is required to write consistently at school? My guess is, probably not. It is easy to come up with fun ways to practice writing. Fill a jar with writing prompts and have your child pick one each day to write about. Don’t edit their writing too much, if at all. The goal is to have them become better writers by DOING IT regularly, not by nitpicking. Have them read what they write aloud to you, and they will start to hear where it does not make sense. They may also enjoy learning how to write a letter, address it, mail it, and hopefully receive one in return.
I am a huge proponent of reading aloud to children. I was able to read aloud to some of my children through middle school and even early high school because it was so much a part of our routine. I have extremely fond memories of doing this with all my children. I remember the year my youngest daughter and I read through the entire Harry Potter series together. I think we both enjoyed it equally! Ask yourself, does my child read for pleasure or because they “have to?” If the answer is the latter, definitely read aloud to them. There is no better way to build their vocabulary. If you want to give them choices of what to read, that is fine, but I would limit the choices to things that also interest you, otherwise you will not be so motivated to continue reading with your child. Don’t forget older books or classics. I find that some of the subject matter of “modern” children’s literature is too dark (that could be said, of course, of the Harry Potter series, which is not appropriate for all children). Some of my favorite books to read aloud have been older books that can remind us that there was once a gentler, sweeter time for children to grow up than the present one (I will add some examples at the end).
Your child with special needs
Parents of children who struggle in school may be particularly anxious during this time. Try to put your anxieties to rest. You can provide them with more help in a short amount of time each day at home than they were probably getting at school, to be honest. The reason is that you know them so well and can provide one-on-one attention that a school cannot. There is a ton of time wasted at school, even if your child is pulled out into small groups or receives instruction in a self-contained classroom. The reason is that it is very hard to group children together with similar needs and developmental levels. Children with special needs can be radically different from one another and still be in the same classroom. It takes a master teacher to keep everyone on task and learning most of the day. You CAN be that master teacher for your child.
These children may need consistent work on basic academic skills, such as reading and math facts, so they do not fall farther behind. Try to keep this work scheduled in the morning, when they are fresh, perhaps after a walk around the block. Presumably, the public schools will be providing some packets of things to work on. Since it does not seem like these assignments will be graded, don’t worry about having your child complete everything if you can find better materials online or from a home school program. You can always do a mixture of things but put your focus on your child’s area of greatest need.
For many children with special needs this area is going to be language-related: reading comprehension, decoding, writing, spelling, understanding words, following directions, etc. When thinking about how to tackle this huge area of need, try not to do one-off assignments, worksheets or language games that are unconnected to anything else (assuming your child has only so much patience for academic work). For example, if your child is finishing third grade this spring and moving on to fourth grade, you can assume they will be learning about Virginia history next year if they attend public school. Now would be a great time to work on reading, writing, spelling, etc. using a variety of materials related to Virginia history. Children with language processing issues often need repeated exposure to new vocabulary words in order to be successful comprehending age level texts. Embedding your “language” learning into topics that they will be seeing in the future is a great use of their time this spring.
For children who are hooked on screens, this time at home provides a great opportunity to help children build other play skills such as doing puzzles (the real ones, not the ones on your phone or tablet), playing board or card games, building things with others, drawing and doing various crafts, playing outdoors with siblings, and so on. Children with poor social skills gravitate towards screen time. They are often visual learners and love the visual stimulation. We are usually too busy and too tired to put up a fight about screen time, but unless we limit it, they will not develop new play skills. The more they can diversify the things they like to do for fun (and are competent at), the more likely it is that they will be able to integrate into play with peers in the future.
Life skills are also so important for these children. They often feel like failures at school. Small things they can successfully do at home can make a huge difference, particularly if it leads to genuine praise and appreciation from the family. This is true of children with special needs all the way into adulthood. The more independent they become at taking care of themselves, the better. This period at home is a perfect time to focus on whatever life skills are appropriate for your child.
If you have a particularly challenging child, and suddenly find that you are not getting any breaks, try to find a way to tag team occasionally with a spouse or older child. You will need a break each day, and you may need to use something like screen time in order to get one. Make taking a break a priority on your to do list, and don’t feel bad about needing a break. With this beautiful weather, taking a walk alone comes to mind as an easy way to “get away.” When my children were younger, I also liked instituting “quiet time” for everyone after lunch, even when they were way past the age for naps. I led the way and would go lie down myself! I allowed children to have books and some stuffed animals on their beds, but no screens. Of course, in those days we didn’t have screens, so I guess that is easy for me to say now!
I think every modern parent has felt at one time or another that there was very little time in their schedule for good old-fashioned family fun. Every family is going to have their own definition of what this looks like. Some families are super energetic and want to camp out in their backyard all week. Others will want to have jigsaw puzzle marathons. Don’t worry too much about keeping up with the Joneses online, or even of keeping up with your own expectations. I have had some grandiose ideas about amazing family meals we were going to be having or daily rosaries we would say together that have not come to fruition (yet)! We can have big plans but having everyone home together all day can be strangely hectic.
Focus on what you can do and build on that. I thought I might assign my high school daughter some wonderful reading of classics of Western Literature. She is doing some reading, but it is not Shakespeare. Instead we have watched a few movies together. She didn’t like Pride and Prejudice too much, but she tolerated Anne of Green Gables. Perhaps we will watch some Dickens next. There are some wonderful adaptations of Dickens’ classics on Amazon/PBS. The good thing is that movie time is also family time if you watch together.
You may not have the homemade lasagna and fresh baked bread that you wanted to have for dinner, but maybe you can make s’mores over a fire in the backyard. Or, just make them in the microwave. Even older children will enjoy little “special” things you do together.
The importance of imaginary play for preschool and early elementary school children is often underrated by parents and school systems. Parents may not realize it, but imaginary play requires a robust vocabulary, an ability to sequence events, and a delicate understanding of social relationships and emotional responses. It also requires general knowledge about the world and how things are used in it. It prepares children for school by helping them learn how to cooperate with each other, to think abstractly, and to use language to explore new concepts.
This period we are in is a perfect time to help your children develop their imaginary play skills, particularly if they need help with any of the skills listed above. You might need to think outside the box a little bit to get started. Many families of very young children have the usual play kitchen and plastic food in their homes. Perhaps if you have girls you have some sort of doll house. Boys may have trucks and action figures. What else can you do that might interest both sexes? Examples include things like playing post office, grocery store, restaurant, airport, school, doctors office, and so on. You can find a few props from around your house (real grocery bags, suitcases for the airline passengers, a white board for the teacher, a pad of paper for the waiter) to help set the scene. You may need to initially give them ideas of scenarios, particularly if the idea is a new one to your children. You might introduce the concept by reading some books about it. After the children are hooked, let them take over the play and back out of it. As much as possible, let them solve their own disputes.
Here is an example for beginning pretend play that works with very young children every time: Wheels on the Bus! Set up some chairs in your house to look like a bus. Get some friends (siblings, parents, or stuffed animals). Put them on the bus. Pick out someone to be the driver. Maybe they have a hat to wear? Talk about where you are going. Sing as you go along. I often have them go to McDonald’s. Pretend to go through the drive through. Pretend to drive other places. Maybe the bus needs gas. You get the point. Your small children will love this game and will play it over and over if given the chance.
There are many opportunities that come along with homeschooling, but we also need to be gentle with ourselves because this time is not typical for anyone, including homeschooling families. Even they are used to being able to go out in the community to see people and participate in events and various activities like sports and going to restaurants and parks, etc. Don’t feel bad if you feel overwhelmed and want your old life back! We all do!
In the meantime, consider what opportunities you have in this situation, what is realistic for your family, and how you can take advantage of some of them under the strange circumstances we have now. This can be a good time to work on life skills, to explore a passion or start a new hobby, to work on play skills, to spend more time together as a family, and to fill in any educational gaps that your children may have. Have fun, good luck, and stay well!
A few favorite books (in no particular order)
- Anne of Green Gables
- Harry Potter books (for older children or children who can handle dark themes)
- All-of-a-Kind Family (series)
- The Milly Molly Mandy storybook
- Mr. Poppers Penguins
- Half Magic (or any book by Edward Eager)
- Mrs. Piggle Wiggle (series)
- The BFG
- Charlotte’s Web
- The Chronicles of Narnia
- The Little House series
- Pippi Longstocking
- The Secret Garden
- Wind in the Willows
- Harriet the Spy
- The Hobbit
- Percy Jackson books
- The Borrowers
- The Penderwicks
- The Railway Children
- Henry and Mudge
- The Little Bear Treasury
- Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
- Stuart Little
- The Princess Bride
- Sideways Stories from Wayside SchoolThe Witch of Blackbird Pond
- James and the Giant Peach
- A Little Princess
- Frog and Toad books
Kerry Wilson is a speech language pathologist who lives in Fairfax County.