Principles of Parents Teaching at Home

Nov 03, 2023
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Like many educators, I’ve been receiving a lot of texts from friends who want advice about teaching at home, whether it be homework, hybrid learning, or fully remote learning. The concerns have regular themes:

  • A lack of preparation for their new role as learning guides
  • Competing demands of work and teaching at home
  • A disconnect between school expectations and parent capabilities
  • Confusion in trying to follow directions for different children in different schools with different teachers

This is not the world that many parents bargained for—and, frankly, it’s not the world that schools envisioned either. But, now more than ever, the family-school partnership is a critical one, demanding understanding and support from both sides.

Here are a few basics that I think can support parental sanity as parents try to support their children and themselves while teaching at home.

Understand Developmentally Appropriate Practice

Developmentally appropriate practice means structuring learning activities to the developmental age of the child. So, you might be thinking, “Everyone is talking about distance learning, but my child is four years old! What does distance learning mean when my child is four years old?” Well, chances are that it means something very different than if your child is 14. 

That’s where developmentally appropriate practice comes in.

Young children—those below the age of six—should be engaged in short bursts of focused activities of around 15 to 20 minutes. This is true of both offline and online activities. 

Remember those learning stations your child had in school? They allow young learners to engage in short, focused periods of structured learning activities that they self-select. 

Those same learners are now in your homes, so expecting your young child to thrive in front of learning software for 90 minutes at a stretch is probably not realistic.

Here are some general guidelines to help you—bearing in mind that there are no hard and fast rules because learners differ.

What comes between these activities? Timed breaks—chatting with a friend, running around the house, playing with a pet, or reading a graphic novel. 

In school, we generally keep “breaks” focused on learning; you may not have that luxury teaching at home as you seek to balance competing demands.

There’s No Such Thing as Screen Time

Did I just make an entire generation of parents faint? As Chip Donohue, founding director of the Technology in Early Childhood Center at Erikson Institute, has pointed out, content and context matter.

Think about it—what do an online gymnastics class, video gaming, video chatting with grandparents, instructional time with a teacher, and educational software have in common? The device. They involve different purposes, different tools, different levels of concentration, and different muscles in your body! They differ in both content and context.

While it might be wise to limit the amount of video gaming in which an eight-year-old participates, screens can be used for healthy breaks as well. And, digitally mitigated instructional time with teachers and educational software time are now the center of your child’s universe.

So, if you have any lingering doubts about the role of screens while teaching at home, monitor the type of usage and not the device.

Here are a few more gems from Chip Donohue:

  • Relationships matter most. Encourage your children’s use of software to form connections—to teachers, to family, to each other. Educational software should exist in an ecosystem in which students talk about, extend, and apply their online learning.
  • Proper pedagogy complements technology tools. Don’t think simply of what educational technology “delivers” to your children but of how they use it to make or create something. That’s learning!
  • Technology-mediated family engagement works. How can technology connect your child to “family” (like grandparents or even close friends)? Think about learning allies with whom you’ve not yet engaged as partners in your child’s learning.

Routine and Predictability

Make a written schedule. Children function best in environments in which they know what to expect. A schedule helps children understand when it’s learning time and when it’s playtime. It helps mitigate conflict about the inevitable “later” that never seems to arrive.

Your schedule should contain:

  • School-sponsored check-ins with the teacher
  • Times for independent, structured learning activities (with software or print materials)
  • Breaks
  • Movement times
  • Eating times
  • Social time
  • Blocks of family availability
  • Wake-up/lights-out time

This may mean blocking out part of your workday to be available for family needs with your employer’s support.

If you’ve been operating in an unscheduled universe, you and your children are probably experiencing a lot of anxiety and frustration. Work on a schedule together. Particularly if you are parenting a teen or a tween, buy-in is essential.

By the way, developmentally appropriate sleep research about teens tells us that they need about 9 to 10 hours of sleep each day, and biologically, they have difficulty falling asleep before 11 p.m. If you do the math, that means they are not likely to be successful with homeschooling before 9 to 10 a.m.

Structured Choices while Teaching at Home

Telling children what to do all day is not likely to be successful, and it may result in meltdowns. 

Structured choice means offering a “this” or “that” choice. “Do you want to read with grandma online or work on software for 20 minutes?” With two to three choices (all of which you can live with) and a child feeling self-empowered, this is a wonderful, stress-relieving win-win.

Practice Comes After Instruction

Sometimes, self-exploration can lead to self-discovery learning, which is a wonderful way to learn. However, much of the material making its way into the home during school shutdown contains fairly traditional practice problems. And certainly, these are important learning tools.

The act of practicing performs an incredibly important role in learning called consolidation. In order for learning to solidify in our brains, we have to do something with the learning. 

Well-constructed practice experiences can also lead learners to refine concepts in new ways.

But, it’s important for parents to understand the basic cycle of instruction: instruct à practice à assess. This means that a student needs to have instructional experiences (either explicit instruction or a self-discovery experience like discovering that cylinders roll) before applying the concepts. They need to understand the basic concepts of division by first being exposed to opportunities to learn them. 

Spending hours on practice software or worksheets can be frustrating and counterproductive without learning coming first. So, communicate with your child’s teacher if this is happening frequently.

Don’t Punish; Reward

If you’re like me, you could probably use a reward chart that rewards you as the parent for remembering that positive discipline works better than negative discipline. We’ve all had those days when we have simply run out of things to take away. Focus on rewarding good behavior and redirecting problematic behavior. Why? Because it works, and research has documented the results.

Incentivize your child’s learning behavior by rewarding things your child values rather than taking away privileges. It might be a new book, a coveted video game, or simply a movie date with Dad. 

Some of the top rewards in a child’s universe are not what you may imagine, and they are often free. If you design rewards with your child, you might be surprised by what he or she comes up with.


Let’s all give ourselves—and each other—a little grace. 

Parents won’t do a perfect job as stand-in teachers. Children won’t do a perfect job as at-home learners. Educators won’t have perfect home-based lesson plans. But, we’re all in this together. 

And, if we give each other a little grace, we can make the most of learning opportunities during home learning periods.

Interested in building the structure of a school day, creating a productive environment for learning, dealing with anxiety, and more? Check out our webinar: Principles of Teaching at Home: When Parents Become Learning Guides.

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