It’s basically impossible to do two separate roles well, if you’re trying to do them both at the exact same time. Parent and professional—those are two separate roles, two separate identities.
Believe it or not, I can relate. If you think all teachers do is entertain and work directly with the kids all day, that’s fully false. We have a bunch of responsibilities to complete each day, both with and in the absence of the children. I can attest that I personally can’t do all of my work responsibilities aaaaaaand be the teacher at the same time. No no no. Those things don’t happen simultaneously. They happen in the same day, sure. But not at the same time.
The truth is, you can’t do your professional job while working remotely, AND be a parent at the exact. same. time. I can’t write reports to parents AND be actively engaged with kids at the same time. I can’t design materials AND be with the kids at the same time. I can’t wipe down tables, sweep, and mop after lunch AND be actively engaged with the children at the same time, either. And I’m a professional at the “teacher” part of the work!
So I wanted to share with you my strategies for how I carve out times in the day for multiple work responsibilities. And no, I’m not just doing all the non-child-related duties while the kids are at home, LOL. So that’s your first free work-from-home hack, in case you missed it– re-conceptualize your expectations for yourself. You’re not going to work from home and parent at the same time– you’re going to work from home and parent on the same day, in the same place. Anyone who can be in the same place doing two separate things at the exact same time is a wizard, and not a mere mortal like us. So let’s get started with more parent-meets-work-at-home success tips!
Through this post I’m sharing four main strategies that I use to be successful in the classroom every day with 12-24 children. If my assistant and I can do it with 12-24 kids, you can do it with hopefully 6 or less.
a) keep the children independently engaged, ideally for longer stretches of time. Key words here: “independently” (from you), and “engaged” (not entertained, and ideally not by you! LOL)
b) make at least one space in the home utterly and completely child-proof. This is where the child can do their thing, without needing your nonstop, eyes-on-hands-on supervision. This is a space where they can do part A as easily as possible if they can’t manage their behavior in other areas of the home.
c) Create a daily schedule that works for you, and mercilessly stick to it M-F. Some of you are already rolling your eyes at the mere suggestion of a schedule. But no joke, how the heck do you think teachers make it through reality M-F? By letting a room full of kids do whatever the heck they want? psshhhhh– No! Structure, people. Say it with me: Structure. I’d like to introduce you to Structure, your new nanny.
d) Set clear behavioral limits and expectations.
Okay, so now that you have the framework, let’s flesh this all out.
A. KEEPING THE CHILDREN INDEPENDENTLY ENGAGED for as long as they can, or ideally two to three consecutive hours per day.
Our goal in part A of your work-from-home strategy is to keep your children independently engaged for longer stretches of time so that you can free up your time and attention to squeeze in some work. For a preschool child, they are going to hop from activity to activity to activity because they have shorter attention spans and lower concentration stamina. So keeping them independently engaged is achieved by choosing the right toys that keep them engaged for longer; which I will post about soon; and it might initially involve helping them learn how to look around the room for things to do.
For a child in the public school system, they will spend two to three hours working on their required work-from-home academic assignments . Ask them to do whatever they can without help; and have them sit nearby you while you do your work-from-home tasks. If there is an older sibling to help the younger sibling with homework, definitely take advantage of that. Try to only pause your adult work for brief moments to help them (because if your concentration is broken, it is just as hard for you to get back on track); and remind them before you get started that if they cannot work without help, to move on to a part they can do until you’re available. It may even help to set a timer for one hour intervals when you can check in to ask if they need help. If their work is too hard to do without ample adult help, you may need to communicate to your child’s teacher and keep it real. If your elementary child’s work is complete before the two hours are up, or if you have a preschooler, see this next part.
In order to literally set your home up for independent, lengthier engagement, put out six (6) toy and activity options your young child can jump between. Make the toys easily accessible by putting them out on table tops, on the floor, or anywhere within reach for the child to easily use. I do NOT recommend giving your kid free range access to a large toy storage box full of toys, where the child is required to hunt for toys and will in turn make a lot of big messes. You can’t just say “go play!” and magically expect all younger children to entertain themselves. It really helps if they see what they can play with, and are visually attracted to the toy naturally rather than the adult having to coax them into using something. Choosing six clear activities, instead of giving free access to the entire toy box, also gives you less of a mess to clean up later.
You can display toys or activities in baskets or on trays if there are lots of loose parts. Pay attention to how long it takes your child to work their way through using all six of these toys or activities. Stick to those same six toys every single day; and let your child use those ad nauseam until they get bored. When a particular toy or activity starts to get “stale” or boring, you will know because your child won’t use that toy anymore for at least three days in a row. When a toy gets stale, put that particular toy away, and choose a different toy from your giant toy storage system to replace it with.
When your child starts using their six toys/ activities, let them be; and don’t engage with them. Don’t talk to them, don’t interrupt them, let it ride. They will build their concentration stamina through playing independently and playing uninterrupted. During this time, you will sit nearby with your laptop doing your work.
And voila– using the aforementioned tips, you have now entered what we call in Montessori, a “work cycle”. A work cycle is basically multiple “sessions” where a person focuses their attention and concentration on one activity at a time, over and over, for up to two hours (ages 3 and below) or up to 3 hours (ages 3 and up). Ideally, with the completion of each activity, the child will also clean up and put that activity back where they found it. Cleaning up after each activity will lengthen your child’s engagement, focus, and concentration. Because cleaning up also requires focus and concentration.
Once the “work cycle” phase of the day starts to become successful for you, your next goal is to lengthen the work cycle, striving to reach two or three consecutive hours depending on your child’s age. The work cycle will feel like “indoor play time” for your kids (unless they’re doing school work then it will definitely feel like work), and it will be work time for you. I would recommend that you use your more educational toys for the work cycle, and that you remain indoors for your work cycle every day. That way, you can utilize outside time at a different part of the day. And if you’re a parent who uses screens, I would suggest use “movie time” for a completely different part of the day, too. I would also recommend movies over youtube clips, because you as the adult can get a lot more work done while they watch Frozen 2 than if they get bored after 5 youtube clips.
Each “part” of the day when your child is engaged and concentrating independently and at length represents a chunk of time you can be doing your adult professional work. You will snack together, and eat meals together, like co-workers; and share some outside recreational time together each day. It’s just that they’re two, and you’re like, 42. LOL. So it also means you might need to help your child toilet throughout the day, read books to your kid at some point during each day, and help them fall asleep for nap.
B. UTTERLY CHILD-PROOF AT LEAST ONE SPACE IN YOUR HOME.
The easiest space to child-proof in the home is the bedroom if they have their own room because the room is a contained space. If they don’t have their own room, I would recommend that you use shelving in your home, and a baby gate to block off a section of your living room, creating a contained “play space”; and make sure that play space is utterly child-proof.
By “utterly child proof” I mean that there are absolutely zero dangers and hazards present in this space, such that you can leave the child in that space visually unsupervised while you step away to use the restroom, while they nap, and if they need to be separated from you because their behavior is out of control. There are no chokeables, no cords, childproofed electrical outlets, nothing they can climb on and fall or jump off of. Crawl around that space on your hands and knees and ask yourself “if I was a crawling infant, would any of this injure or kill me? If I was a very smart three year old, what mischievous things might I think to do, and could any of it hurt or kill me?”. Rather than using a play pen, in Montessori we just make the whole room utterly child-proof; and block off the door with a baby gate.
The best way to know that a space is childproofed sufficiently is of course to closely watch how your child behaves in that space. If anything in that space inspires unsafe behavior, don’t hesitate to remove that object from the space. For example, in my class, the kids were perpetually jumping off of the child-sized couch. So that couch had to go. Sorry! I know I can’t possibly maintain individual surveillance on each and every child in a 12-child reality. But I do know I must keep each and every child safe. So I let the environment do the brunt of that work for me. Establish a child-proofed space. You’ll need one, and you’ll thank me.
C. CREATE A DAILY SCHEDULE THAT WORKS FOR YOU, AND STICK TO IT MERCILESSLY.
So here’s a thing parents haaaaaate: being told that your kid needs a structured day. And I know you hate it. Especially right now in the midst of all this sudden, unfair, unexpected, and uncertain coronavirus lockdown madness. But structured days are a truth that I have the responsibility to inform you of if I genuinely want to support your success working from home and parenting in the same space. I see the online responses of parents who are frazzled and frustrated, like “f*ck you guys and your stupid teacher-imposed schedules and routines– I’m barely staying afloat over here! Let’s all just have a moment to breathe and adjust!”. Well here’s the thing… the reason you’re barely staying afloat is because your child needs structure. Have you ever had to work from home and parent for weeks in your life before? No. We’ve never had to live like this all of a sudden. But what I know for sure is that your child came from a structured classroom reality.
Let me be clear: I’m not here to tell anyone what to do. My whole goal behind this entire website is to disperse ideas and information that have worked for me, time and time again, thanks to the Montessori method. Because I know these things work, and I know they have brought a tremendous amount of success for me while doing life with kids, I now feel compelled to share what I have learned. Take what works, and leave what doesn’t.
If the schedule I provided in a previous post, or anyone else’s schedule from any other resource doesn’t work for you, you don’t have to mimic that exact schedule. You are free to design a schedule however you want– so long as it works for you and your family. That is the ultimate goal. The goal is to find something that realistically, genuinely works. And as a professional preschool teacher since 2006 I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that for children ages 6 and below, structure is what has worked for me no matter which kids I’m working with, how many kids there are, and no matter what setting I’m working in (homes or schools). Structure is how us professional teachers get through each and every day. It’s actually how YOU get through the day, actually. It’ just that you might not be consciously aware of exactly what your work structure is. But humans thrive on routines, rituals, and structure. Time is a structure. Calendars are structure. The sunrise and sunset? Structure. LOL.
There are going to be days when your kid is a mess, OK? There are going to be days when YOU are a hot mess and your fuse is short. On those days, maybe you need to change what happens within the structure you designed, because on any given day you can’t predict how a child is going to show up. But it is ideal to try your best to stick to the same structure; and to only deviate from the structure if absolutely necessary. A consistent structure is what ends up holding it all together when everything seems to be falling apart, trust me.
A daily structure is like the leash on a surfboard. I can’t really surf yet, so I wipe out all the time. And when I’m going through the washing machine (tumbling through the ocean in a cartwheel-like fashion), getting my *ss served to me by the powerful and unpredictable ocean like the kook that I am (a kook is a wanna-be surfer who can’t really surf), I know the leash is always connected to the surfboard that will ultimately keep me afloat.
If you’ve never home-schooled your child and had to work remotely before, you’re like a kook of the work-from-home world or perhaps a kook of the “homeschooling” world. I’m just trying to offer you a leash, via structure, so that when you fly off the surfboard of parenting and don’t know which way is up, you have something to grab onto. That’s what a structured day is. Something to grab onto amidst the unknown. It’s about hopping from lily pad to lily pad until you get from one side of the pond (wake up) to the other (bed time). So if you think structures are dumb, don’t create one then. But if you do, I promise it will serve your success.
Keep it real about whatever structure works best for you and your family. If your kid does better going out to play for three hours straight first thing in the morning after breakfast, do that! To be honest, we’re bound by expectations in a school environment because we have a business or a school district to answer to. If it works best for you guys to go for a nice long walk as a family first thing in the morning, and then come home and jump into your work cycle, yes! do that! If your child launches into their work cycle best after you read them a story, yes, do that! If your child is exhausted right after lunch and their energy drops, make that your nap/rest period. You want to be able to say “yes” to your child as much as you can; and make this whole work from home thing as easy on yourselves as possible. Structure allows more ‘yes’s’ to happen, imho.
The parts of any structure for children that I believe are non-negotiable are: self-care (brush teeth, comb hair, get dressed, using the bathroom throughout the day, washing faces and hands throughout the day as needed), a work cycle (this might look like indoor play to the child), a rest time/ nap for children 4 and below, meals, reading at least one story book every day, and outside play time. Outside of that, design thy structure as thy sees fit. What you do within those parts of the day is also fully up to you.
I would also specifically recommend that rest/nap time is a quiet, uninterrupted, 1.5 to two hour window of time. Tell the child that they are to stay in the designated rest space, and you will coming back to invite them up when rest time is over. If they wake up early, they can quietly read books until rest is over. If they don’t sleep, fine. But they need to stay in the space peacefully and do quiet things. You will be doing adult work during this entire time.
D. SET CLEAR BEHAVHIORAL LIMITS AND EXPECTATIONS
If you want a kid whose behavior is manageable while you work from home, you have to put limits on the reality. In other words, you have to use the word “no” sometimes. As in, no; you can’t just do whatever you want and be loud, disruptive, crazy, and behaviorally unmanageable all day long while adults have work we must complete in order to keep diapers on butts, food in mouths, and roofs overhead without needing questionably available unemployment during corona times, OK?
Some children are a dream; they are so easygoing and need few limits. Other children are perpetual limit pushers. It’s also possible that your child is a dream and does things at school that you can’t manifest at home. I know a girl who will not nap for her parents; but when I babysit her, because I used to be her teacher, she knocks out in 10 fuss-free minutes, a la Bob Marley’s “no more trouble”, completely drama-free. But she really works her parents.
Working from home all of a sudden may not feel like the best time to have to deal with your child’s behavioral struggles. We’re in a pandemic, and we have enough stressors, do we not? I fully sympathize that some of you out there are struggling right now with your kids’ behavior. But finally establishing some limits with your child at home might turn into one of the best lessons and transformations you did not expect to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. A child who learns limits within freedom is truly a blessing to live life with. It means you can trust that child to have control of themselves. It means you can trust that the child understands the rules of reality, and you can trust them to maintain those limits all by themselves. It’s a beautiful thing; and it strengthens relationships when a child understands their freedom within the limits of any given reality.
So what do you do if your child currently sucks at understanding freedom within limits?
- childproof spaces and let the environment do a significant part of the work for you. If they can’t behave safely, kindly, and peacefully, remove the things that inspire dangerous, agitated/unkind, and disruptive behavior. The “things” might even be their own siblings– maybe they need to be spaced apart. If they can’t play peacefully, they can’t play with that thing/ person.
- reinforce the limits by stopping children as soon as they do anything inappropriate. Renowned early childhood educator Janet Lansbury says “I’m sorry, I can’t let you do that”. I use a combo of “I can’t let you do that”, and “we don’t do that here, sorry”. Another world-renowned Montessorian, Sylvia Dubuvoy, says “In this house, we…”. You might have to do a LOT of limit maintenance in your first week of work-from-home. But hopefully, by week two or three, the child will understand that their new normal of living at home constantly does in fact involve following some rules. This is actually a GREAT time to re-establish behavioral expectations in the home as parents, because novelty is a fantastic time to start new habits. I use it to my advantage at the start of every school year.
- Try to phrase limits in positive language; and remind people what TO do, rather than saying what not to do. stop making a mess–> “Put your toys away”, stop climbing on furniture –> “keep your feet on the floor”, stop bothering your brother –> “be kind to your brother”, stop throwing puzzle pieces! –> “puzzle pieces belong on the table or in the puzzle board”, etc.
- reinforce limits by thanking people for independently and willingly following the limits. “I love when you clean up by yourself”, “thank you for keeping your feet down”, “thank you for playing so nicely while mommy worked on my computer!”
- reinforce the limits by, well… reinforcing the limits. Stick to your guns. If you say it’s rest time, it’s rest time. If you say it’s time to go for a walk, it’s time to go for a walk. If you say it’s time to clean up, it’s time to clean up. A limit is not a limit if it’s negotiable. Behavior responds very well to consistency.
- You can be firm, and kind/loving at the same time. When delivering limits, talk face-to-face, with eye contact. That way, you know your child heard you (and were paying attention). Give a child 10 seconds, then kindly repeat a limit one extra time in case the child didn’t respond the first time. Then just start making that limit manifest in reality. Like, you kindly say it’s time to clean up, wait 10 seconds, and then you just start putting the toys away. If they want to help, great. If they don’t want to help, it’s still time to clean up regardless. You never, ever need to get flustered just because children don’t agree with the limits.
- As a last resort, offer them a countdown. Say “Would you like a countdown?”, as if you’re offering them a napkin, no joke. Count backwards from three to one slowly, 3 (pause pause pause), 2 (pause pause pause), 1 (pause pause pause)… then say, “Ok, I’m now going to help you… (do whatever) put your toys away, walk to the bathroom, put on your shoes”. Children LOVE doing things by themselves and feel ashamed or annoyed when the adult must help them, and they lose autonomy. In the rare instance, a very young 18-month old or two year old might genuinely answer “yes” to the countdown offer. But typically, whenever I have to resort to offering a count down, they usually hop to it and start doing whatever needs to occur before I get to “1”.
- remember whose in charge of your house, and who is keeping said roof over everyone’s heads. Hint: it’s not the kids. Being the grown up makes you the CEO of your house who gets to decide what the limits are for peaceful cohabitation. Maintaining limits allows people to co-exist peacefully in the same space. That’s why we use them in a Montessori classroom, where 12+ kids must coexist peacefully in the same space M-F. It doesn’t mean everyone is always going to be happy with said limits. But it absolutely means that everyone is going to coexist in the same space functionally, safely, and most often than not, peacefully; with as much personal freedom as is appropriate for each person to have.
MY FINAL TIP..
Lastly, do not allow yourself to work 7 days a week, mamas and papas, even if we are in this unprecedented and uncertain worldwide coronavirus situation. I recommend 6 days of work, tops. And at least one full day of chill, duty-free family and recovery time. No chores, no work– just pure relaxation and fun.
Good luck! And if anyone has questions you can always contact me from the homepage or leave a comment (: