Homework: Tips for Working from Home with Kids

Smartsheet Contributor Becky Simon

September 27, 2020 (updated November 18, 2021)

Today, more people than ever are juggling parenting duties with working from home. In this article, you’ll find the most useful expert advice for maximizing everyone’s day.

Included on this page, you’ll find tips for being productive at work with kids at home, activities for kids by age group, and information on mastering the home school schedule.

How to Work from Home with Kids

Whether you’re well versed in working from home with kids or you’re learning under pressure, you’ll want to produce for work while keeping the peace with your kids. (You can also check out our general, expert-tested guide to working from home.) That means relying on routines, rewards, schedules, and a little empathy from your boss.

Even once pandemic-related restrictions end and schools reopen, more Americans than ever will work from home, and they’ll need to weave family life and child-rearing responsibilities into the fabric of their workday. Here’s how parents can set a course for success:

  • Start with a Conversation: Have a conversation with your family about the fact that you’ll all be working from home, and note that there will be times when you need privacy to focus on work. Let your kids know you’ll be co-creating a routine, so they can complete their homework or tasks, spend time with you and as a whole family, and give you time to get your work done.
  • Create a Routine: Kids do well with schedules, especially when it comes to meals, naps, and bedtimes. They maintain schedules at school; indeed, much of their “workday” includes a commute, assemblies or home room meetings, meal breaks, and some recess or free periods. 

    For kids, a good schedule allows windows of time for academic activities or studies (or school district Zoom chats). Typically, half-hour blocks are effective for kids of all ages, according to the Yale Child Study Center. 

    While younger children may need their day spelled out in explicit detail, older kids are better suited to a daily routine that includes some flexibility. Make sure to bookend the day with morning and afternoon or evening routines, specify meal or snack times (kids lose focus when they’re hungry), and schedule breaks for independent play (for kids as well as adults) and family check-ins.

    For adults, a good schedule includes work time, family time, and breaks without kids. Depending on your family’s size, your children’s ages, and your ability to swap off with a partner, it’s wise to offer yourself a personal daily ritual. Creating and sticking with this daily ritual is essential both for maintaining your sanity and for reinforcing to kids that parents need their own time. Whether you can wedge in 30 minutes for a quick meditation (Headspace and Calm are useful apps) or yoga session, head outdoors for a walk with a friend, curl up with your sitcom, or lay in the tub, be sure to schedule a weekday ritual. 

    The Yale Child Study Center recommends including kids in the schedule-making process. While you might set a routine for the week, it’s helpful to hold a quick family meeting or conversation each day to go over tweaks to the schedule. 

    If you and a partner both work from home, consider creating “hours” or “time blocks” between yourselves. For example, maybe one partner rises at 6 a.m. and works till noon while the other cares for the kids and does “work lite.” Then, the duo might switch roles from noon until a 6 p.m. dinner time. Because your kids may be confused by you and your partner moving around your own schedules, you should focus on keeping them in a routine. As long as they understand which parent is actively or passively available, all should be well. 

    Post the schedule where everyone can see it. Using a write-on/wipe-off board in the kitchen or home entryway is simple. Set a Monday-to-Friday routine for the kids and for yourselves. Don’t forget to schedule physical activity for the kids, both during the weekdays and as a family on the weekends.
  • What to Include in an Effective Schedule: 
    • Start and End Times to the Day: By keeping kids’ bodies on a clock, you can establish a sense of routine and normalcy.
    • Blocks of Time for School Studies: Pay attention to favorite and least-favorite topics, as well as your child’s energy fluctuations. In other words, don’t schedule study time for their most challenging subject during a window when they might be hungry or tired.
    • Meals: Meals are often family or break time, and it’s nice to spell out lunches in advance. Make sure to include the occasional surprise or wild-card day (i.e., a picnic, a vote-on-your-favorite drive-through day, or a night of takeout).
    • Chores: Include and assign any chores, and schedule them for the morning (e.g., make bed), for the end of the day, or during the free time before dinner (e.g., pull trash to curb on X night of week, unload dishwasher on alternate days, put toys back where they live, etc.).
    • Parent Block-Out Times: These are the times of day when key work meetings typically occur or when you need to focus on other aspects of your work. During these block-out periods, kids need to know that they must be self-sufficient or rely on the other parent.
    • Windows of Self-Directed Activity: Unstructured time allows kids of all ages to explore their own creativity, to socialize, or to exercise. Little children may need you to present them with options (e.g., blocks, dolls, objects), while older children may enjoy screen or phone time, video games, books, or physical activity.
    • Outside Support: Scheduling family Zoom chats or borrowing a neighboring parent/kid combo for some outdoor time, while you tackle a complicated call, can work to your advantage — as long as you return the favor now and again. 
    • Self-Regulation: Families working from home may find that meditating or finding a silly ritual (i.e., a weekly pillow fight or Silly String battle) together helps reduce tensions. MindYeti is an app designed to help children and parents reduce stress together through a meditation practice that is accessible to people of all ages. Practicing meditation as a family reminds each person that they can play a part in keeping the environment calm and supportive by practicing techniques for self-calming.

      Use the following daily schedule template to organize your WFH schedule alongside your child’s school schedule. The template comes pre-filled with the sample schedule elements listed above, but you can customize it to fit your needs.
Parent and Child Work From Home School From Home Schedule

Download WFH/School-from-Home Daily Schedule

Excel | Word | PDF

  • Check the Routine Weekly: Check in periodically (say, Sunday) to review plans for the coming week. Doing so creates a united sense of purpose among everyone in the house (“we’re all in this together”) and can help children develop expectations for the week ahead or think of ways they might like to contribute. 

    Because the intensity of a job tends to fluctuate, parents should do a weekly review of their work schedules. Perhaps one parent plans a part-time return to the office, or each parent lets the other one know about key meetings or deadlines when they can’t focus on the children. When a child’s block of study within an academic track starts winding down, it can be a good time to look at how to approach the next steps in their study, based on a school district or home schooling agenda’s lesson plans. When the weather’s nice, perhaps the schedule can include family field trips or outdoor adventures.

Tips for Working from Home with Kids

Working from home presents challenges even for solo acts, and it gets even trickier when coworkers of varying ages and maturity levels vie for your time. The trick to working from home is to find a way to focus and then stick with it. Below are some helpful tips for working from home with kids:

  • Set Expectations with Coworkers and Management: You’ll need to be realistic about how much you can accomplish (and how you plan to accomplish it) when you’re working from home while also caring for kids. 
  • Talk to Your Team: Whether you’re working from home with kids temporarily or permanently, let your employer and team know that you’re caring for children while also working. And tell them that you may need to adjust how you work. Let them know your child’s age and whether that child might make the occasional toddler cameo on a video meeting. In addition, inform them of any times of the day during which it will be particularly difficult to focus because of parenting demands.
     
    Glenn Fleishman
    “Every boss, manager, and CEO is in the same boat right now, given the pandemic,” says Glenn Fleishman, a parent of two and the author of Take Control of Working from Home. “Employees have more leverage than ever before to negotiate with their companies about how they can accomplish working from home.”
  • Take a Proactive Approach: Take some time to think about how you work best, the rhythm of your workdays, and your children’s abilities regarding self-sufficiency. By answering these questions, you’ll arm yourself with a concrete sense of your scheduling needs. Then you can discuss these needs with your employer in order to make the necessary adjustments to your schedule. Be realistic: If you and your partner alternate parenting shifts during the day, don’t assume you can offer full productivity while it’s your turn to supervise your child. That said, you can likely return texts or quick emails or possibly listen to a low-demand meeting (with you on mute) amid parenting duties. In other words, when your attention is divided in this way, you can still be available enough for work in order to at least keep things moving.
    Kate Lister, President of Global Workplace Analytics, encourages employers and managers to think in terms of a “results-only work environment,” as opposed to one designed with headcount, a manager-as-babysitter, or an employer eyeing clock hours in mind. Using this concept, she encourages companies and their from-home workforces to think in terms of an employee’s “core hours.” Together, the employee and employer establish these core hours during which the former is solidly available (note that core hours might not necessarily be sequential).

    How might this results-only, core hours-based schedule work? For instance, take a parent of a child in a half-day school or a parent splitting the day with a partner. The parenting employee might work core hours of 8:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., perhaps assigning tasks or massaging projects with direct reports, spend the afternoon “in background mode” while caring for their child, and then return for more core hours (from 3:00 to 6:00 p.m.) to wrap up projects. While these hours aren’t conventional, they allow an employee to focus, go into “ambient mode” (perhaps answering quick questions), and then resume focus. The parenting employee would use electronic alerts (e.g., email signature reminders, online/offline alerts on platforms like Slack, etc.) and regular communication to train the team on their workday’s pattern.

    Other parents might rise before the rest of the house, work from 6:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and return for another hour or two in the late afternoon in order to catch up and prepare for the next day. Others might spend time with their kids from midday through dinner, work late, and then sleep in. 
  • Outside of Core Hours, Take a Proactive Approach to Managing Your Time: When you have a meeting with an agenda coming up, ask your boss if they can slot you in to speak early on in the agenda. Also, alert teammates when there’s a specific time you’ll need to duck out.
  • Define Your Physical Space: Children respond to physical cues, so you should designate a kid-free workspace. Ideally, you should use a room with a door that you can close. And consider using age-appropriate signs. With younger children, for example, you can use red to mean stop, yellow to denote caution, and green to say come in. Or for older kids with better self-control, you can use a chalkboard with the day’s blackout hours. Communicate to your kids that there are times when you absolutely must be left alone. Use a “do not disturb” cue to let them know.

    If you aren’t fortunate enough to have your own workspace, consider converting a closet, creating a room nook, or adjusting furniture in order to configure a workspace.

    Fleishman says flexible solutions, such as a three-panel or Shoji-type screen, are ideal. You can easily set up one of these flexible room dividers to signal that an area is “currently workspace.” And you can just as easily dismantle such a divider or return it to its resting place when work is done. Curtains or shelves that double as room dividers are also useful, he notes.

    “We’re using our entire house in a very different way,” says Fleishman, who now works in the basement. His kids, ages 13 and 15, are also working at home. “Everyone has noise-cancelling headphones.

    ”Some parents also work from their bedroom during the day, as most kids already consider that space a “do not disturb” zone or “parents only” area. 
  • Troubleshoot: Here’s how to sidestep the many issues that can arise when everyone works from home together: 
    • Hit Mute: When on conference calls, use the mute button until it’s your turn to speak. You may also have to mute your end of the line during some family members’ noisier activities. “One of our bigger scheduling issues is my son’s trombone practice,” Fleishman notes. With everyone working from home, the family must determine hours when everyone can continue their own practices without disrupting each other’s workdays.
    • Check the Broadband: Check your Wi-Fi speed before anyone is online (perhaps first thing on a weekend morning). Then test it again during the middle of the day, when broadband use is at its highest. If your family is simultaneously streaming shows, playing virtual games, making Zoom calls (for work and pleasure), and, therefore, taxing your bandwidth to the point of inefficiency, discuss adjusting your schedules in order to preserve bandwidth or consider investing in more of it. 
    • Opt for Multi-Platform Communication: Make sure that you and your team have multiple choices for communicating, including video, mobile phone, IM or chat apps, email, and instant messaging, and that you can access these media from your phone as well as your desktop.
      Katelyn Reilly
      Katelyn Reilly, Chief Operating Officer at Steyer, a content services agency based on Bainbridge Island, Washington, says that with a two-and-a-half-year-old son at home, she’s had to learn to grab moments of concentration when she can. Due to that limitation, she can’t always craft and compose emails as carefully as she used to. “The point is to get the work out,” she says.
    • Get Creative When You Need Privacy: If you don’t have your own office and need privacy, don’t be afraid to use a closet, the bathroom, the car, the garage, the basement, the backyard, the porch, or a walking meeting to get the job done.
    • Keep Tricks up Your Sleeve: Knowing how long your children can engage in self-directed activities is helpful if you need them to occupy themselves during meetings. Keep abreast of shows they can watch or books, activities, or creative projects they can work on while you’re otherwise engaged — and tell them you can’t wait to see their work or hear about their experience as soon as you’re done.

Can You Work from Home and Look After a Child?

Parents must balance moments of presence with being around for their kids. Use the following principles when working at home with your kids, and offer them self-directed and choose-your-own-adventure activities. Set rules in order to protect your productivity, and reward the kids when they obey these rules.

  • Consider Daycare as well as Staycare: Daycare centers and schools offer children the chance to socialize, eat, play, and learn among peers, while trained adults supervise and protect them from harm and unnecessary conflict. But for parents who must work from home with kids underfoot, a flexible approach is a must. While the adults (parents) are trying to tackle separate tasks, the kids are participating in age-appropriate activities (albeit without their friends or teachers enforcing authority). Sheltering in place with kids, aka staycare, looks a bit different from schooling or daycare. Here are some best practices: 
    • If You Can Get Help, Take It: Whether it’s from your partner, a screen, an available online educational activity, or a low-contact athletic outing (e.g., a bike ride with a neighboring family), leverage any help you can get.
    • Make the Screen Your Friend: Many parents spend time prying their children’s hands and eyes from screens, but screens can provide valuable social context. Consider scheduling reading time with a grandparent, a dance party or magic trick hour with cousins and friends, group games for teens, or a cooking demo with an aunt or godparent. Reilly says that she and her company’s CEO arranged for her toddler son and the CEO’s tween kids to chat on Zoom while the adults held a one-on-one meeting. “The kids chatted for a full 45 minutes,” Reilly notes. “They read stories and played music for each other. Now, my boss’s kids are celebrities to my son. And their Zoom chat also kept her kids occupied.”
    • Schedule Shifts with Your Partner: Some partners work in four-hour shifts, with one partner tackling work while the other handles parenting. Others use shorter shifts of 30 minutes to two hours, which is what Reilly and her husband do. If children are very young (under three) and unable to understand that a parent at home is working, consider “leaving” and sneaking back in or asking your partner to take the child for a drive or exercise break.
  • Plan Activities That Don’t Require Supervision: 
    • Make Nap Time (or Quiet Time) a Must: For younger children, nap times are routine. However, if they claim they’re not sleepy, a child can still practice routine quiet time in their room. This quiet time can include a selection of soothing or self-directed activities, such as listening to music, reading a book, or perhaps lounging with a mellow pet. Depending on your child’s age, nap times can offer a lengthy time window of 90 minutes to two hours or more.
    • Create Activity Boxes and Fortune Boxes: Group activities in boxes, so kids can choose one and engage themselves if you need to take a quick call or handle a sudden work issue. Such activities might include dressing up in costumes, crafting, or making art. Additionally, you can create a “box of fortunes” that contains suggested activities, like deciphering a scavenger hunt clue, responding to a creative writing prompt, or painting a pet rock. With a wide variety of activities to choose from, kids will know they can keep busy.
  • Keep Kids Engaged: 
    • Set Up Virtual Playdates:
      • Kids can use Zoom, FaceTime, WhatsApp, Caribu, and Marco Polo to share screens and see one another face to face.
      • Apps can let kids share games. Pogo, for instance, allows multiplayer versions of Monopoly and other popular board games.
      • Netflix subscribers can use a Google Chrome extension to enable screen-sharing for movies.
    • Offer Screenless Activities: If you have a limited number of home screens, have the kids work on old-school skills, such as learning cursive, writing postcards and letters, knitting, gardening, cooking some basics, or setting up scavenger hunts, obstacle courses, or the occasional science experiment (e.g., pinhole cameras). If you have middle or high school kids with phones, geocaching can be a fun activity. Additionally, putting on a show (including playwriting and/or songwriting) or memorizing and reciting theater monologues or poetry can be great screenless activities. (Use library books or download texts/lyrics/lines to get started.) 
  • Don’t Forget PE:
    • Go Outside and Play: If you have a secure yard, don’t underestimate the value of letting kids play outdoors on play structures or with balls, frisbees, hacky sacks, bean bags, and so on. If you don’t have a yard or weather is iffy, create a home gym of kid-friendly physical activities and toys for indoor-weather days. Twister, jump ropes, yoga mats, pull-up bars, balance boards, and the like can help a child explore their strength and coordination, as well as work up some sweat during screen time. The Yale Child Study Center also suggests indoor dance parties using Alexa, hopscotch, or (for coordination) hula hoops.
    • Online Workouts Aren’t Just for Parents: Many online gym classes, including “PE with Joe” (free half-hour classes) on YouTube, Neo Kids (for kids ages 4-12), and Sworkit, offer exercise classes for kids as young as three and segment by age level. 
  • Keep It Age Appropriate:
    • Toddlers: Reilly says she and her husband know that their two-and-a-half-year-old son can focus for 20 to 45 minutes when he’s outdoors using his molding clay or his sandbox or indoors using his play tent. Knowing that the child is engaged during this period of time means that the parent who’s supervising him can keep simpler work moving while maintaining a nearby presence for their son.

      Dr. Katy Gregg, a professor of Child and Family Development at Georgia Southern University, suggests that toddlers have a “busy bin” with toys they can go to — a “yes” space where they can play with anything they find. In addition to traditional playthings, the busy bin should also include objects that resemble your work tools, such as old remote controls, decommissioned mobile phones, outdated keyboards, etc. This way, they can play at the work you do. Let them count, arrange, remove, and replace objects.
    • Elementary Schoolers: Drawing and shaping things with hands (like Legos, clay, and art) are excellent activities for this age group. You can also research valuable streamed content in advance, so you have go-to options that they can look forward to and watch during screen time or meetings. 
    • Middle Schoolers: Kids at this age do well with independent reading time, screen time, research or library time (to help with in-progress projects), and some junior cooking efforts.
    • High Schoolers: Give them screens and independence. “The concept of limiting screen time has gone out the window,” says Fleishman. “With the pandemic, kids are going through more trauma than adults. If they already use their screens for two hours a day, will five hurt them? No.” This is especially true if they use screens to socialize with friends or leisure-watch semi-educational content, like a documentary on a pet topic or a historical film about a region or area of interest. Self-directed exercise (walks, jogs, bike rides, skateboarding, etc.) can level out moods. 
  • Encourage and Reward Good Behavior: All of the activities above are designed to help kids feel that they have choices and personal agency at times when you’re too busy to focus on them. When kids self-direct and manage themselves long enough for you to complete key tasks or meetings, make sure to reward their good behavior.

    Reilly says that because her employer is aware that she’s working from home with a toddler (and other parents are on the team), she lets her toddler sit next to her on the sofa or in the same room. When Reilly is in internal meetings, most of the time her son plays alone. And when he’s well-behaved, she lets him say goodbye to the team at the end of meetings. By making those meetings less “firewalled” from her home life at least part of the time, she’s training her toddler to be more relaxed when she has external meetings with clients and cannot include him. He knows he can “join in” on other occasions, she says. Rewards can involve a quick break to play together, a family bike ride, or one-on-one snack time. 

For more ideas on how to focus when working from home, read “Find Your Focus: How to Make Working from Home Work for You.

Mastering the Home School Schedule

When at home, students don’t need to be “in school” or sitting at a computer every second of the day. In fact, School District Superintendent Dr. Debbie Jones of Bentonville, Arkansas, says that two to three hours of instructional activity are sufficient. Jones and other experts agree that the quality of the engagement trumps the quantity.

Laura Vanderkam, a time management expert and parent, also reiterates that even a six- to seven-hour school day is packed with activities that are interstitial to learning, including the commute to school, assemblies, roll call, recess, meals, and time between class periods. If kids are continuously at home with working parents, other activities can become part of the curriculum. Consider pursuits ranging from civic engagement to virtual field trips, as well as life skills such as gardening, cooking, or helping with handy repairs. 

Parents magazine offers schedules according to a child’s age. These schedules allow for widening blocks of self-directed time as kids advance in age and maturity. ThoughtCo.com notes that parents who homeschool full-time may use scheduling models such as a “block schedule” (allot time blocks for specific subjects on specific days) or a “loop schedule” (assign some time blocks on specific dates and leave some time blocks open, so elective subjects can “loop” in and out of the schedule or take place during elective blocks).

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