A Back-to-School Guide for Balancing Work and Kids at Home

Jane Kellogg Murray

Updated 27 October 2022

Published 28 November 2020

Jane Kellogg Murray is content operations manager for Indeed. A former magazine editor now based in Vermont, she particularly enjoys helping others find fulfilling remote work opportunities through Indeed’s Career Guide.

When I told my friend Kim Skadan I was assigned a story about how to balance remote work and looking after children during the pandemic, she gave me a knowing look. 'Will the article be blank?' In her defence, it was week 22 of the global shutdown due to COVID-19, and together we had already come to the conclusion that it simply wasn’t possible to juggle our careers and our children alone. Back in March, when her job as an attorney for tenants in eviction and substandard housing conditions in New York City switched to remote, Kim and her family quickly moved up to Vermont so they could enlist the children's grandparents for help. But even with the assistance of Granny and Grandad, they had yet to find their flow in this juggling act – and were anxiously preparing to move back to the city as their five-year-old starts school.

As children across the country re-enter the school year from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students, parents and educators alike are grappling with how to manage remote schooling while also trying to work remotely. According to Education Week, 39 of the 50 largest school districts in the United States – representing more than 6.1 million students – are beginning the 2020-21 school year fully remote. Meanwhile, many employers continue to keep their office buildings closed in an effort to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

This dramatic shift introduces new challenges for parents who are struggling to balance working with children. This is to say nothing of parents whose work requires their physical presence and are also facing new challenges, including finding childcare if their children still need physical supervision for remote learning. In this article, we offer 11 strategies to help you navigate working from home while simultaneously guiding children who are learning online.

Related: A Parent's Guide to Working From Home With Kids

How to balance working from home with kids

Unfortunately, there is no easy solution, but you can implement a few tactics to better manage working from home while your children are learning remotely. Keep the below tips in mind if your children are beginning the 2020-21 school year from home:

1. Remember that you’re not alone

According to a June 2020 Gallup poll, the majority of US parents felt remote learning was difficult when the 2019-20 school year abruptly switched to the home. Compared to 44% of non-working parents, 6 in 10 working parents said remote learning was difficult for them. In addition – likely a reflection of their children’s ages and the amount of supervision they required – parents younger than 45 were significantly more likely to say remote learning was difficult compared to older parents.

If you’re feeling stressed that you might not be able to keep up at work with your colleagues who don’t have children – or that your kids might fall behind with their learning – keep in mind that others are likely struggling just as much (or perhaps more) this year.

2. Be transparent with your manager and co-workers

The summer holidays may have made it somewhat easier for you to balance working from home with children, but it’s important to let your team members know the shift you are preparing for if your children are returning to virtual learning. Communicate to your co-workers and supervisor which times during the day you may now be unavailable. For example, if your children need guidance in the hour before online school starts, or they need help with a particular subject, block off that time in your calendar. You might also ask your team members to let you know if your attendance is imperative at meetings with conflicting times.

Communication is vital when telecommuting, so ask your supervisor how – and how often – they’d like you to update them about your progress on any work projects. And if you think you need extra help from your team or time off to guide your children through online lesson plans, vocalise that. Tone can get lost in email, so consider other methods of contact.

Related: 7 Challenges of Working Remotely and How to Overcome Them

3. Use visual cues to designate workspaces

As courses resume online at home after an extended summer holiday – much of which may have been spent playing and relaxing at home – pupils might struggle to use the same environment for their school work. If your child has difficulty focusing, clear out the clutter. Just like adults, children focus best when you remove distractions. If a separate, closed-off room isn’t possible for every remote learning and working individual in your household, look for places where you can introduce a threshold.

If your child wasn’t successful studying in their room last term, consider taking a different tack for the new school year. Set up desks facing a window, or use cardboard boxes to make a makeshift cubicle at the dining table that allows you and your children to work quietly side-by-side with headphones.

Related: How to Stay Focused When You Work From Home

4. Open up a line of communication with your child’s teachers

Remote learning doesn’t mean that you are your child’s homeschool teacher. Educators have had to prepare for a remote school year without much notice, but they are still experts in developing lessons for your child’s stage developmentally. Think of yourself as a partner in the learning process. Keep in touch with your children’s teachers and try to develop a relationship with them by email, phone or video conference to ensure your child is keeping up with their tasks. Teachers may need your support this year as much as you typically require support from them.

5. Build structure and routine into your day

If your child’s school doesn’t offer a structured schedule for online school, it can be helpful to establish a basic but flexible schedule that mimics a regular school day to maintain consistency. Set up learning routines, or small actions that indicate it’s time to learn, such as putting certain devices away or moving to a specific place in your home.

Experiment with different schedules to find a routine that works best for everyone in your household. 'Finding what fits for a family involves a fair amount of trial and error over time,' writes Pamela Price, author of How to Work and Homeschool. 'In other words, homeschoolers are always tweaking their plans. Sometimes what works one year doesn’t work the next. And sometimes what works with one child or household doesn’t work for another.'

6. Schedule breaks for your children and yourself

Prioritising breaks throughout the day can help boost productivity and reduce burnout. You might try the Pomodoro Method, a time-management method where one focuses for 25 minutes followed by a mandatory five-minute break. Price recommends breaking down daily schedules by the hour, so you can schedule things with some precision, while still being careful to not overschedule. 'It may be tempting to schedule every minute, but no one likes to be micromanaged. Allow free time to play, stare at the wall or take a walk. Breathe a little. Make space...'

Read more: Time Management Training: Best Practices and Tips

7. Set realistic expectations

The COVID-19 pandemic is a historic interruption of education. Don’t expect perfection this school year. Instead, the baseline goal is to protect your family’s physical and emotional health – and to keep your job. As that baseline becomes more manageable over time, you can slowly introduce new milestones, like reading a set number of books per month. Look at every new day as an opportunity to strive toward your goals.

'My husband has been working from home since March and will be until at least January 2021. He’s taken the brunt of the remote working and schooling,' says Dana Miller, a mother of three (8, 12 and 15 years old) in Ohio, USA. She works out of the home as a pharmacist. 'Our motto is "must-dos before can-dos" – so school and household chores before the other stuff.'

8. Seek out support

Every person you know holds valuable knowledge they can share with your children to help ease the burden of home schooling. If you have older family members or friends who don’t have kids or are retired, consider asking them to act as a virtual tutor for a few hours a week so you can carve out some extra time to focus on work. It doesn’t necessarily need to feel academic – rich learning opportunities are prevalent in daily life, such as cooking or talking about a documentary.

Alternatively – or additionally, if your budget allows – you might be able to find childcare in your community for a second environment for your children to focus on their online schooling. This may be necessary if your job doesn’t provide you enough flexibility to manage your children’s schooling at home. Introducing other people to your pandemic circle can help your children develop valuable social skills, such as conflict management, empathy and respect, all of which can be difficult to build remotely. Just be sure to stick to the government guidelines on how many people can socialise in groups.

9. Prioritise sleep

While the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 8-10 hours of sleep for teenagers aged 12 to 18, and 12 hours for children aged 6 to 12, a 2018 study of high school students in the US found more than 70% of students were not getting enough sleep during the school year. Use the flexibility of this new remote school year to your advantage. If your child’s school allows it, let your children start their day later than they would if it were a normal school year or schedule time for a midday nap. This can give them the opportunity to get the recommended amount of sleep for their age, while also allowing you some quiet time to focus on your own remote work.

Read more: How to sleep better during COVID-19

10. Keep a positive mindset

The distance-learning era might have some unexpected benefits. LM Preston, author of 'Homeschooling and Working While Shaping Amazing Learners,' says familial bonds are one of the primary benefits of parents being able to influence their children’s lives by supervising their schooling:

'When a child is in school all day while a parent is at work, both are usually tired in the evenings. Even though I volunteered at the school, there were many aspects of my kids’ personalities I didn’t see until I was their teacher,' Preston says. 'After overcoming those challenges, our relationship and theirs with their siblings have a deeper connection.'

Your attitude toward this 'new normal' will influence your childrens’. Try to adopt a positive outlook every morning, even if it seems impossible right now.

'I don’t think remote learning is all bad,' Miller says. 'It’s definitely giving our kids a good life lesson on time management, which is something I saw so many students struggle with in college when I was 20 years younger. Remote learning is also making them take more responsibility for their education, which doesn’t happen when there’s a teacher or bell telling you it’s time to do this or that. Obviously, remote learning isn’t ideal, but I’m looking at the bright side. Showing up, staying organised, feeding yourself, knowing when to ask for help or not, managing the hours in your day...these are life skills.'

11. Be open to other options

Assess whether your school’s plan for the upcoming year will work for your family’s personal situation. Does your school board seem prepared? If they are planning a hybrid model with in-person schooling, will students and staff be able to quarantine if necessary without penalty?

When you’re evaluating your school’s plans, account for the time you (or other adults) will need to spend supervising them. The younger the child, the more help they will need. Budget one to three hours a day for older children, while primary school children will need assistance for four to six hours a day. If your school’s current plans won’t work for your family – for example, if your child has special needs, but will be required to sit at a computer for five hours straight, you may need to consider other options, such as homeschooling or transferring to another school that better suits your family this school year.

Read more: 29 Family-Friendly Positions for Working Parents

Explore more articles