The past several months have presented many of us with new challenges: stress and uncertainty, eroding boundaries between work and the rest of our lives, new and often not ideal workspaces, isolation, and more. Add kids to the mix, and things get even more challenging. Graduate students who live with children face additional pressures and complications that can make it even harder to make progress.
While none of us have the one right answer for how to make it all work under these circumstances, each of us is trying things out and seeing what helps. In that spirit, we asked Graduate College staff who are working from home with kids to share their experiences and ideas. Here’s what they had to say:
To Schedule or Not to Schedule?
No matter the age, it is important to put them on a schedule that you and they can manage between work and the time spent with them. During the hours spent with the kids, find something constructive, educational, and/or entertaining to do with them. Depending on their age, give them some daily responsibility or responsibilities that they can assume that is/are appropriate for their age (e.g., feeding the pet, straightening or cleaning their rooms, helping to prepare lunch or dinner, etc.).
When we started working from home, I tried to create a daily schedule for my child, similar to what she would have done at preschool. It quickly became clear that it wasn't working for anyone! We have a few things on the daily schedule (breakfast, lunch, and dinner as a family and video calls with grandparents), but otherwise, she chooses her activities. It has been fun to see her creativity and independence develop over the past weeks.
I have been working from home with four kids under ten years of age. We are fortunate to have two parents who are both working from home and we have been able to juggle our schedules so that at least one of us is available to look after our one-year-old while the other participates in Zoom meetings, online teaching, etc. I have found one of the most important things is to try to remain flexible. Overscheduling the kids doesn’t work for us. It leads to a lot of tension and anxiety. We try to spend some time each day doing more academic things like reading and writing in journals, but we also play a lot! Our kids are becoming experts in Nintendo Switch, but they are also playing outside on the trampoline and on the monkey bars. Some days are easier than others, but overall it has been an interesting and stimulating experience that has bought our family closer together.
If you are working with school kids and they have homework (or you plan on homeschooling them this summer), please realize a full school day at school looks much different at home. The school needs long days due to interruptions, bathroom lines, passing periods, lunch, PE, more interruptions, etc. There are guides online for how many hours of homeschooling a child needs by age. Very young students (like preschoolers) often need only a half hour where 7th/8thgrade often are homeschooled for five hours. It is not important to mimic the classroom at home. Homeschooling allows you to give the kids individual attention and a full day is much shorter. The guides readily available online will help - but a young 2nd grader may only do schoolwork for 1.5 to 2 hours per day. Because of the focused time and lack of interruptions, this is sufficient.
Get Them (and You) Moving
I have a 6 year old and 3 year old so they require a lot of attention and energy throughout the day. When the weather is nice, I make a point to spend one hour outside with them in the middle of the day (right after lunch). It's a great way to take a mental break and stay active. It's like having recess again!
I cannot underscore enough the benefits of some good exercise. If you find that your children are really experiencing some heightened emotions, I try to take a break, if possible, to go for a family walk, hike, bike ride—anything to exert some energy and allow the kids to blow off some steam. You might be surprised at some of the conversations that you'll find yourself in during these walks as your kids start sharing things on their minds.
Think About Space
If possible, set up their own "workspace" next to yours so they can be close to you while they work on their own stuff. My child has most enjoyed the child-sized table and chair we got her to put next to my work desk. Here she can sit close to me while I work/attend online class and she can color, type on her own keyboard (we used a spare keyboard to give her), or even just stack all her animals for fun. The table we got even has a reversible chalkboard/whiteboard built in for extra fun! It was a good investment as it is very useful now during working at home times, but will continue to be used even when it's time to return to life as normal.
My 3-year old granddaughter loves taking care of her pet fish, working on puzzles, learning to read and write, coloring, and watching YouTube while I am working. All of these activities, except for YouTube shows, take place in an office/playroom that we share.
Be Kind to Yourself
As someone who has been working full time remotely from home and taking two online classes at the same time with a rambunctious 2 and a half year old (and another due in June!), I understand the unique challenges it can bring. While there is no perfect answer and every situation is unique, the most important thing to remember is that this whole situation is new and strange for your kids, too. Taking breaks and making time to focus on your kids throughout the day is the best advice I can give (going for a walk even in your own neighborhood can make a big difference!). Trying to add new activities and things to do each day while you do your work can help your kids stay occupied while you are busy. Most of all, be patient…this is likely new to both of you!
The only advice I have is this: if you are a student, a parent, an employee, and a person with your own life to boot, there just is not enough time. There are not enough hours in the day to care for a child, have a social life, be a student, and work (even part-time). So you have to prioritize what matters most, and give yourself permission to put a pin in things that matter a bit less.
These responses were collected by Derek Attig, Director of Career Development for the Graduate College. After earning a PhD in History here at Illinois, Derek worked in nonprofit communications and instructional development before joining the Career Development team. A devotee of libraries and all things peculiar, Derek is currently writing a book about bookmobiles