The phone rings in the quiet evening. “This is your proud Middle School Principal…” the voice booms through the receiver. This is it, you think. The school board has made their decision. Either the kids will go back to school in September, or we are all on homebound instruction. Which will it be?
For many parents, this monumental decision has already been made. Superintendents and School Board Members across the nation have stepped up with unprecedented announcements. As a result, many schools are opting for an optional virtual start to the school year. Public health officials are touting it as the safest route, not wanting to gamble with the students (or their families’) lives.
Most of us agree knowing our kids and families are protected is comforting.
We can also agree this level of change is intimidating, overwhelming, and often downright scary.
Beyond the health crisis we’re all facing, for many families, there’s a space challenge, too. Our living spaces are not set up to support and nurture young students. What do we do? What on earth can we do?
The short answer is to take a deep breath. Then, it’s time to hack your house for homeschooling! Here are our ten favorite ways to turn your home into your kids’ school… for however long it needs to be.
1) Designate space.
Ideally, every home has a spare bedroom, office, or unused corner to dedicate specifically to schooling. If you do, you already have space designated.
However, many families don’t have the luxury of an extra room. And that’s okay! If that’s you, don’t worry. You can still help your students get the most out of their lessons.
The key point here is to keep your “school space” distraction-free.
To decrease distractibility, you can block off part of the room with room dividers, or you can rearrange furniture to support your school needs. Another great option is to simply face your student away from high traffic areas to reduce visual stimulation.
For example, if you are using a family room as a school area, updating the entertainment center to one that has cupboard-like doors to close away the TV will greatly reduce potential distractions. A screen or room divider could work equally well.
Another way to encourage focus is to make sure the space where your student sits is only used for schooling. If “school” is the kitchen table, make sure your student sits in a different seat than the one they use for meals. Covering the table with a “school time” sheet or tablecloth that is only used for school activities is another example of a visual cue that can help prompt focus.
2) Have your supplies ready to go.
Nothing is a greater distraction than having to hunt around for the supplies you need to complete a project. This is especially true for school! How can we devote our mind to learning if we’re running around the house looking for the pencil sharpener? We head off to look or send our student to retrieve it, and then… Oh wow, I haven’t seen this toy in forever… Suddenly, that math lesson is completely forgotten.
It is extremely important to have everything your student needs at hand, in an easy-to-reach area. If you are using a spare room, investing in a desk with storage and furniture specifically for holding school supplies is a great way to go. Or, if finances are tight, many second-hand stores, thrift shops, and Facebook groups carry used furniture for cheap.
If you are creating your school space in a room that already serves a function (like a living room or dining room), or you don’t have room for a large piece of furniture for storage, there are still good options for you and your family. Small desks on wheels can hold laptops and be rolled into a closet for storage. Storage carts with multiple shelves, also on wheels, are great options for pulling out and putting away school supplies at the start and end of the school day.
Even furniture that already exists in the room you are using can be repurposed or rearranged to accommodate school supplies. Maybe Grandma’s Christmas silverware can be stored in a closet so the drawers in the china cabinet can be used, at least temporarily, for pens, pencils, and paper.
The point is to get creative, just as you want your kids to do. There is always a solution if you look hard enough.
3) Find those electrical outlets!
Another time thief and huge distraction is the constant search for a place to charge electronics. When coronavirus first hit, and we all started the virtual learning / homeschooling process, the most common excuse my kids loved to toss out was, “But my laptop is dead!”
It doesn’t matter if you constantly tell them to plug those computers the night before. At some point, you will run into this problem. The laptop is dead, the charger is missing, all existing outlets are already overloaded with chargers and devices… Before you know it, lessons are forgotten, and distraction reigns supreme while you impatiently tap your fingers, waiting for the device to charge already.
Proactively identifying available outlets near where school will be taking place, or running an extension cord or power strip to your school area so there are available outlets nearby, will absolutely save your sanity. It will also allow you to have a pencil sharpener, desk light, and the laptop at hand, ready for your student(s).
Professional tip: You’ll also want to have a container ready to store those laptop cords. Otherwise, they will get misplaced, and you’ll berate yourself for not having one every minute you spend looking for them.
4) Know what’s “behind” your space.
Part of the new normal for school is the virtual classroom! Teachers and students are able to interact with each other via cameras and microphones. But have you seen any of the news stories recently about parents accidentally walking on camera nude(!) while their 5th grader is learning science?
Being aware of what’s in the background is a must in this day and age.
While you’re arranging your student’s space, make sure you take into account where that laptop camera is pointing. Try to keep high traffic areas and common living areas out of view. Instead, seat your student in front of a wall, furniture, or in a less-used part of the house. If that is not possible, consider using a room divider placed behind your student, or try a DIY backdrop option (simple plans are available online with materials costing less than $20, and even a sheet tacked over a doorway can be a temporary fix).
If none of those options work for your family, consider making a sign or some other type of indicator that you can put in a viewable part of the house to warn other family members that school is in session (and not to go wandering by in your skivvies, unannounced).
Also, if you have an energetic pet or younger child in the house, take that into consideration while setting up your student’s space to limit distractions on both ends of the camera.
5) Make the schedule visible.
It’s almost impossible to keep the school schedule straight in your head during a normal school year, much less a COVID year. Help yourself and your student by making their schedule visible. Whether it’s a planner they review at the beginning each school day or a dry erase calendar on the wall in the school area, having a place to visualize upcoming classes, homework, and projects will help your student stay on top of their work while adjusting to this new environment. It will also bring you peace of mind and allow you to be appropriately involved (without helicoptering).
6) Get your kiddos’ input!
While you’re setting up this wonderful homeschool space for your student, don’t forget to ask your student(s) what they need, especially if they’re older.
Do they need complete silence and isolation? Do they work better being around people? Listening to music? With a timer? Middle-schoolers and high-schoolers should already have a basic idea of what will help them study and learn, and even the little ones will be more engaged if they can help set up the space.
For example, two of my children prefer learning in an environment where they can chat and listen to music, but my third child needs absolute silence and can’t be around others. So, for my oldest and youngest, school happens together in the dining room. For my middle child, the utility room is her haven, where she can sit alone at her own desk with her noise-dampening headphones.
7) Touch base with teachers.
If your student was in school last year, you have a fantastic resource: their previous teacher(s)! These teachers have been working all summer to create virtual content just in case school stayed online. Not only are they educational pros, but if they know your kid, they will also know exactly what your student needs in terms of support.
Even if you don’t know your child’s previous teachers well, you may still have a resource in your circle of connections. I am personally connected with several teachers, and I know they would be happy to answer questions from families wanting to better support their homeschooled or virtual learning students. Many teachers have experience either completing classes online or teaching classes online, which means they have a wealth of information that can help you navigate the new school year.
Remember, just because many students are learning virtually doesn’t mean there’s no one to ask when questions arise. So don’t hesitate to reach out. That’s what the school system is there for!
8) Practice, practice, practice.
As organizers, we know there’s no guarantee the organizing systems and solutions we create will actually work – until the client test-drives them. For exactly that reason, we highly recommend practicing setting up and working in the new space, ideally before the school year begins.
Is the morning sunlight too bright in the dining room to see your computer screen? Is your student sitting too close to the HVAC vent? Is your neighbor’s weekly yard work louder in the family room than the spare bedroom upstairs? Is morning rush hour too distracting for your student to sit in the living room? These questions, and so many more, will be quickly and easily answered through practice.
Practicing and fine-tuning your approach will help you learn how to smoothly transition between activities (especially if your school space is in a functional room, not a spare room). Finding trouble spots and correcting them before the start of the school year will help make the new learning curve (on all levels!) less stressful.
9) Cut yourself some slack.
There’s no doubt about it: We are living in historic times. Anxiety is through the roof as we all scramble to adapt to this new normal.
Everything is new right now, so prepare yourself: There are going to be days where things just aren’t going to go smoothly. Your student, or even you, will have a meltdown. Your plans will get derailed. Something is going to go wrong.
And that’s okay! All of it is absolutely, positively, 100% okay! Nobody is perfect, and even the best laid plans go awry.
As you figure out how you and your student(s) will navigate this unknown path, go easy on yourself. Go easy on your student. Both of you are in completely uncharted territory, so be kind to yourself. It will definitely take some time, but eventually the virtual world will become just another way your student learns. Guiding them through virtual learning will be just one more way you support them as they grow up.
10) Call the pros for help!
If you’re still feeling overwhelmed, and you’re just not sure you can successfully transform your space into a homeschooling haven by yourself, that’s okay, too.
If you want someone who will work side-by-side with you to make sure your student is truly set up for success, our experienced organizers are happy to help. We can all benefit from a little outside perspective. Plus, taking action now means less stress later!