5 Tips for Working from Home with Kids

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When COVID-19 hit, my husband, four children (ages 9-16) and I were all working/schooling from home at the same time, and magically, we managed to get through it like champs. 

Although it wasn't always bliss, we discovered some coping mechanisms that led to increased productivity and a tiny bit of sanity preservation. Still working from home today with kids around, we've continued to apply those techniques. Whatever steps you take to find balance with your family and working from home, the hardest part is committing to following them consistently. It’s much easier said than done. But hey, it’s all baby steps, right?

We all have to figure out what helps for our own unique family dynamics, including age ranges and abilities to work independently for stretches of time. But here are some things that work for my family and might help yours, too:

1. Create a Dedicated Workspace for Everyone

Few of us have enough space to create true privacy for everyone in the house. But desperate times called for creative measures. We put a desk into our hallway and hung up old curtains to create a private “office” for our youngest child. Trying to do schoolwork at the kitchen table exposed him to too much stimulus for his young brain — “Hey look, a dog!! I must pet him!” When he had his office, he could separate home from school once more, and the difference in his focus was immediate. Plus, he felt important (and he’s the last kid, so he’s lucky I even remember to feed him). He knew his office was only for work — no computer games or other playtime. He got his schoolwork done much faster than before and could enjoy the rest of his day.

2. Learn to Speak Their Language

I made my third grader a “school-day” schedule that included small bursts of work sessions for math, language, reading, and science, broken up with plenty of breaks to wiggle. And yet he was miserable. I overheard him, almost in tears, tell the school counselor on a video check-in: “I hate home school! I have to work all day with no recess!” I couldn’t believe it. He had three different 30-minute breaks in his school day. The kid had just come in from jumping on the trampoline (in his underwear…also known as his school uniform) for crying out loud! But he was upset about thinking he lost “recess.” Once I replaced the word “break” with “recess,” his entire outlook changed. I guess words really matter, especially to younger children. Sometimes it really can be as simple as making sure you’re using the same terminology they’re accustomed to. His world had changed so quickly, using familiar words gave him some comfort in his new routine.

3. Set Boundaries and Create a Contingency Plan

My job requires frequent video-conference calls, in addition to a lot of creative focus. I found I had to make realistic but firm expectations for the kids to understand when I absolutely could not be interrupted (unless for an emergency ... and it needed to be a darned good one). Wearing headphones was and still is my signal that I shouldn’t be interrupted. It’s okay to approach me and ask questions if the headphones aren’t on, and I try to use them only when I really need to focus. I have neither a home office nor a spare room and needed to let my husband use our bedroom for his office. So I shoved my father’s antique desk into the corner of the living room. It’s not the best place for concentration, but the headphones help. Pulling a folding screen behind me during video calls serves two purposes: people can’t see the half-naked children jumping on the couch behind me, and they don’t see how messy my house is and call the authorities. My middle-schooler also made me a very helpful sign to hang on my office screen when I’m on a call. When they see the sign, they should ask themselves: can I solve this problem if I take a break, eat a snack, and look at it from a fresh angle? Can a sibling help me? If they still can’t figure it out, they are allowed to just stop and read for 30 minutes or go play until I’m off my call and can help them. This helps their frustration levels — and especially mine!

4. Give Yourself a Time-Out

Just like the kids need recess, you need a little break every now and then too. When irritations mount, try to find a moment or two of privacy to breathe deeply and think non-murderous thoughts. I find curling into the fetal position in my bedroom with the door locked and the sound machine set on maximum to be an effective way to spend 20 minutes and get myself together. Also, the linen closet is a sure thing when you need a hiding place. No one ever looks in there.

5. Channel Your Inner Optimist

My mother used to drill this into my head, and I hate having to admit when she’s right. But you really do set the tone for your whole day with the attitude you bring to it. As I yawn and stretch before I get out of bed each morning, I remind myself of how much I have to be thankful for — which includes having a household of stinky brats to drive me crazy and make terrific messes. And I’m grateful for everyone out there who goes out of their way to make someone's day better. The first thing I put on is my attitude for the day — it goes under my Spanx. Oh, who am I kidding, like I can still fit into those. Clothing myself in positivity and gratitude each morning sets the tone for my day and helps me deal with whatever frustrations come my way.

Tags: Navigating the Pandemic, Working From Home

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Written By

Becky Hepinstall Hilliker

Becky Hepinstall Hilliker is the co-author of Sisters of Shiloh (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015) and a freelance writer. See Full Bio

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