4 Ways to Survive Working (and Learning) From Home With Kids

Since having my first child in 2014–and almost simultaneously launching my business–I’ve read my fair share of parenting books and articles. Most of the advice centered around finding an ideal balance between work and family demands, and squeezing in a bit of “me time” in an already hectic schedule. 

Fast forward to 2020, and exactly zero of that advice feels relevant now.

Together, along with many working parents across the country, I’m just trying to keep my head above water at work and at home (the same location!) and make sure that my kids get an education through the very screens all of those parenting books once said to avoid. 

While it’s definitely been a trial by fire situation, I have learned a lot since March about ways to make the working-and-learning-from-home situation work–or least, a little more productive for everyone involved.

And while my own advice may very well have expiration date (please let it be so–and soon!) here are the tricks that are keeping the members of my household little more sane and collaborating (pretty) well together.

Set up a dedicated workspace for everyone

I live in a two bedroom apartment near NYC with my husband (who also works full time) and my kids (3.5 and 6 year old) who are in school part time. All four of us need to be able to log onto our laptops and iPads in order to take calls, participate in Zooms and not talk over each other’s conversations–or completely disrupt one another’s focus. 

We’ve set up stations all around our apartment (with headphones!) for everyone. Even though my kids are small, I try to respect that they–like all of us–need a comfortable and distraction-free area to get their learning done.

In an effort to get very creative with out space, we put one of those workstations inside of our walk in closet. At first I was a little resistant to using it (no window or air circulation?), but since there’s actually two doors between me and my little ones, its actually the quietest space in the apartment. With the help of a small fan and a good desk chair, it actually feels pretty comfy.

My husband and I trade using it when we have important Zooms (he thinks my wardrobe hanging behind him is an amusing backdrop/conversation starter, but I’m all about the pretty Zoom background!)

Set a date with your calendar(s)

Never has planning ahead been more important to my survival as a working parent. The only way for me to keep many balls from falling is to set aside time each and every day to update and triple check my calendars.

And yes, there’s more than just one. There’s professional calendar I keep for myself, the one shared between my colleagues and me (where we block any “out of office” or family time), and the one I share with my husband in order to manage our kids’ appointments and deadlines.

My husband I also meet informally at least once a week to determine if we have an important video meeting happening at the same time. (We try to avoid this unless we’re 100 percent sure we have in-person school or childcare).

It’s a lot of coordinating–but skipping over that all-important planning step rarely works out well. It seems counterintuitive, but I’ve learned from some very successful women that it’s always better to prioritize planning over execution–you’ll be the one who shows up calm, on time, and prepared (and you’re even more likely to meet your deadlines).

Reward and inspire your little learners

Both adults and children respond well to rewards and incentives–and clever caregivers know that. The kids’ dentist has treasure chest filled with little trinkets; our doctor has stickers. At school, there is a “desk fairy” that delivers prizes for the students who keep their workspaces clean. 

When kids are doing most of their learning from home, we (super busy!) parents often forget about the tiny things that both incentivize our little students and make them proud.

My fellow working mom Jessica Agarwal, who is overseeing remote learning for her son (and couple other kids) took the prize box concept one step further after she realized her son wasn’t feeling enthusiastic about online classes. Rather than a toy, she made a box filled with fun adventures that could help the kids learn.

Some ideas written on slips in the box: “Build a new toy out of recycling,” “Mail a letter to someone you love,” and “Try 5 new yoga moves. She says, “These are small daily treats my son sees as fun because they are a mystery until he picks them each day.”

For those times that you really need your at-home students to focus (and free you up to execute!), don’t be afraid to provide incentives and mysteries, however small they are, to help them dive into something fun and new.

Delegate childcare when you can

This is a tricky one–because its not always possible. Whether its budget, concern about potentially exposing family to germs, or uncertainty about schools opening/staying open, its extremely challenging to plan any kind of childcare right now. But, having no contingency plan at all is definitely going to make you stressed at the least–and at worst, it could strain the relationship you have with your employer.

For some of us, it maybe easier to trade off time with other like-minded parents (or pod families) to watch each other’s kids (and supervise online learning) a 1 to 2 days a week. 

If your job has less flexibility or your kids are very young, you may choose to invest in a paid caregiver for at least some of those hours (full disclosure, this is what I chose). I say “invest” because those payments–while not necessarily something you planned for–may enable you to stay more focused and able to grow in your current role. This, in turn, could make you a higher income earner down the road. 

However you’re handling your job and the school year ahead–my hat is off to you!

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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