Distancing learning
How to both work and school from home Image Credit: Shutterstock

Many parents who spent the spring balancing their jobs and the demands of their children's remote schooling are now back at it again this term.

It's daunting, managing the elements that add to what psychologists call the "mental load": remote schooling, as well as a career, household tasks and the invisible work that all place demands on a parent's time.

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"How do we accept the fact that there may be too many things to get done in the day?" said Lauren Knickerbocker, a child and adolescent psychologist at NYU Langone Medical Center. "People get really caught up in the idea that they're going to get all these things done and get them all done perfectly. I think that ends up being a disaster."

Here's how some experts suggest setting apart the physical and emotional space - and how families are making it work.

Carve out distinct work and school spaces

Start by structuring your physical environment so that it's easy for you and your children to switch on for work or school. Where you work, and even what you wear, helps signal to your brain what mode you're supposed to be in, according to Donald M. Rattner, an architect who specializes in home and office spaces that increase productivity and the author of the book "My Creative Space." If you can, put school or work stations near natural light sources; they help make a room feel larger than it really is. "When your space feels open, your mind tends to be more open to new ideas," Rattner said.

Work spaces can be found in some unexpected locations, though. Kristina Ortega, a teacher and parent, set up her two elementary-school-age sons in their small garage (which had previously been used as a playroom and a laundry room) with some small upgrades. As with everything these days, there are no rules. "I think the only room we haven't taught or learned from is the bathroom," Ortega said. (And for Edwin Zawadzki, an adjunct associate professor of interior design at the Pratt Institute and parent, even the bathroom is in play: His daughter, a college freshman, uses the bath as a workstation.)

If separate spaces aren't built into your floor plan, you can create them with folding screens, curtains, bookcases or modular shelving units. Just keep your work and school spaces clearly defined: Don't work in bed and avoid having lunch at your desk. If you're still constrained by your home's square footage, look for a wall-anchored desk that can stow away at the end of the day. Comfortable chairs are also worth the investment - for you and your kids - given the amount of time everyone spends seated now.

Parents shouldn't do it all themselves. "It's important to have kids take ownership of their work station," said Michele Vancour, the associate dean of the College of Health and Human Services at Southern Connecticut State University and an expert on work-life balance. Have them pick out new supplies, to continue the ritual of back-to-school shopping.

You can further emulate a classroom environment with a sticker chart to encourage good behaviour, which can help keep younger children engaged and on-task, suggested Carol Olate, a project coordinator and coach at Texas School Ready in Houston, where she helps train early childhood teachers and child-care providers. When the chart is full, reward kids with a new book or game.

Stick to some kind of schedule

In the spring, many parents noticed that their children suffered because of the lack of structure to their days. Parents need that clarity, too. Each Saturday, take a look at the work and school obligations for the week ahead, and make a schedule that works for the whole family. Consider writing it all down on a giant dry-erase board.

Try breaking the day into discrete blocks. Robert Pozen, a former business executive and lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has proposed that the optimal amount of time to focus on a single task is 75 to 90 minutes, at which point fatigue starts to set in. If that seems impossibly long, try the Pomodoro Technique, which consists of 25-minute cycles of work accompanied by short breaks.

Speaking of breaks: They're essential, even when they seem like an unfathomable luxury. Research has shown that periods of rest contribute to improved moods and better productivity for both adults and children. Set aside time for a bike ride or jog; take a walk around the neighborhood over lunch or after work with your family.

To visually signal to kids when you are focused on work, Rattner suggested hanging colour-coded tags on the doorknob or at the entry to your work space: green for go (when they can come in); red for stop (when you shouldn't be interrupted).

When you've reached the end of the day, put away all work and school materials. "Tucking things out of sight tells your brain what modality you're in," Rattner said. That includes (if possible) your devices. Hisako Sonethavilay, a social science researcher and parent of a third grader, doesn't receive email notifications on her phone. "It's not life or death by email," Sonethavilay said. Colleagues know they can reach her by phone or text in the case of an emergency.

Ask for flexibility at work

Some working parents have found themselves with little choice but to scale back work commitments. But even if you cannot alter your workload, give your manager and co-workers a heads up when you have additional school obligations, and be clear about what your workplace or your child's school can reasonably expect from you, suggested the economist Emily Oster, who has written two books on parenting.

"This moment, as school is starting, is the time to have those conversations, rather than in a later moment when you're angry and feel behind," Oster said. Vocalizing the added pressure you're under can also help validate and normalize the loads parents are bearing.

Find out whether your workplace offers reimbursements for tutoring and other educational supplements. After all, the onus should be on employers to accommodate and support parent employees. "It makes no sense for us to continue expecting the same level of output in this moment," said H. Richard Milner IV, a professor at Vanderbilt University who studies educational equity, especially when you consider the combined psychological impact of COVID-19.

Seek community and share resources

To share the burden of remote learning, Oster suggested having explicit conversations with others in your household about what needs to get done, by whom and when. This helps ensure all the tasks are clearly articulated and accounted for.

It's still possible to strengthen relationships remotely, whether it’s check-ins in via group text, or grandparents occasionally supervising schooling via Zoom.

Other families have come together in classroom-wide group texts, where they trade tips, provide emotional support and take turns bringing questions to a teacher's virtual office hours - limiting the amount of time each one spends waiting for a meeting.

Accept that you can't do it all

Be it a household chore or a morning meeting, there are certain things that might not happen. It can help to set expectations in advance about what's realistic and what's just not.

"At some point I just had to embrace it's all happening at once," said Sohini Ramachandran, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Brown University. During one lecture in the spring, her daughter, then in first grade, interrupted, having taken a spill off her bike. Ramachandran's undergraduate students chimed in with their support over chat: "I decided that that was a feature, not a bug."