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Danica McKellar: 10 Tricks For Schooling At Home

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I’ve homeschooled my 9-year-old son his entire life, so when this pandemic hit, I felt lucky that schooling at home wasn’t much of an adjustment for us. Sure, some of his extracurricular activities came to a screeching halt, and others moved online. But in terms of academics, we’ve been in a groove for a few years now. As we approach a new school year filled with uncertainty, I’m grateful for the opportunity to share my homeschooling hacks with you!

When schools first went online mid-March, many parent friends began reaching out to me. They’d ask which of my McKellar Math books would be most helpful, request advice on how to keep their kids focused on their schoolwork at home, and of course joke about how early in the day they’d started drinking wine… Let's face it, parenting can be stressful! It can be so tempting to give in to impatience, frustration and even anger when kids don’t do exactly what we want them to do in the moment we want them to do it – we’ve all been there. For so many parents, this is exacerbated not only by the added responsibility of teaching our children (and for some, adjusting to working full-time jobs from home) but also by the stress of the pandemic itself. And if we’re stressed, our kids will be stressed. Not a good combination! It’s not surprising that child abuse – mental, emotional and physical — is reported to have skyrocketed in the U.S. and elsewhere since the start of the pandemic, alongside a rise in childhood anxiety. It’s a harsh truth, but one worth acknowledging when we ourselves begin to lose patience with our kids. We need to take a breath, give our kids a real hug, and figure out how to make it better.

After texting my tips to friends individually, I started creating videos on the highlights section of my Instagram page — some with my son! — to help demonstrate some of my methods. And now I’m thrilled to share them with you:

1. Take away distractions.

It’s best if toys are not in the room where kids are schooling, if possible. Even for my son Draco who is accustomed to schooling at home, toys can pull focus if they are around. It’s like putting a dog treat where your puppy can see it, but he gets in trouble if he touches it!

2. Try using a timer — not to make them work fast, but in a way that encourages focused, methodical study.

Here’s how it works: Decide you’ll do two hours of quality homeschooling that day. Start the timer, but whenever your child begins to lose focus, pause the timer, and let them know calmly that you’ve paused it and that you’re looking forward to restarting it when they get back to work. They’ll be motivated to get the two hours done as quickly as possible, and will learn that staying focused means they’ll be done much sooner. By the way, if you’ve got work to do (even housework!), try getting some of it done alongside your child during part of these two hours. It’s a bit of a balancing act, making sure they are focused while we are answering emails or folding laundry, but we have our own stuff to get done, after all!

3. Have them teach their stuffed animals, action figures, dolls or a younger sibling.

This is one exception to the “no toys” rule. My son might seem bored and not engaged with a lesson, but if I ask him to teach the topic to one of his stuffed animals, suddenly a light turns on. I’m always floored by how much more he was listening than it seemed.

4. Have your child write a list of goals — your schooling goals and your child’s goals.

In addition to enjoying the satisfaction of checking items off the to-do list, your child will see that his/her goals are also important. We have a little swing set in our backyard, and there’s a car racing video game he likes, so a recent list of ours looked like this:

Today’s Goals

Mom: Math, waterfall essay, Spanish workbook

Draco: Swings, 10 mins of car racing game, watch funny videos

After we get one of my items done, we’ll do one of his. He gets excited to check things off, and his items are usually relatively quick. Plus, these can be good opportunities for us to take care of small tasks of our own, whether for our jobs or even housework.

5. Snuggle for even just 10 minutes of your homeschooling time, reading a book together or talking about an assignment.

A little snuggling goes a long way. You can even set a timer for the 10 minutes as you read together. I bet your little one will look forward to it each day… and so will you!

6. Fake it till you make it.

Try earnestly learning some of what they are learning. A trick I’ve used to get interested in “boring” work is this: Instead of saying to ourselves, “Ugh, I have to read this paragraph about ants… we could say, “Wow, I get to read this paragraph about ants! This is the most amazing thing ever!” Get silly, and have fun together with it. Keep moving forward with the reading as you make each thing more and more “fascinating.” You’ll be amazed at the memories you’ll create. And speaking of getting silly…

7. Act things out, and get outside!

My mom used to help me study for tests, and I remember being maybe 12 years old, reviewing for a history test that included Amsterdam. I can still remember my mom getting up and saying, “It’s not Amsterdam, it’s Hamsterdam!” When studying astronomy recently, I was teaching Draco how people used to think the Sun revolved around the Earth. I took him to the backyard and told him he was the Earth and I was the Sun. We had fun running around each other, comparing what people used to think to what we know now. You could even try acting out a character from history that he/she is learning about! It’s so much fun to get up and moving, and a little silliness goes a long way. There’s no question about it: Humor and levity help concepts stick in the brain (indeed, that’s my strategy when writing my McKellar Math books!).

8. Use reverse psychology.

Raising a little boy, I’ve learned a thing or two about reverse psychology (thus the title of one of my books: Do Not Open This Math Book, haha). So, when Draco gets really stressed or frustrated with a particularly tough task, whether working through a new math concept or an essay’s tricky conclusion, I’ll bring a stuffed animal out and have it get enraged at the indignity, using a cute little voice to say things like, “How could your mom do this to you? This is torture; she’s so mean! You shouldn’t have to do this! This is horrible!” The further I go, the better. This gets him giggling and saying things like, “No, she isn’t mean; this is sharpening my brain, it’s actually good for me. I’ll be fine.” And then he gets back to work!

9. Be present.

This one is simple but challenging when we’ve got so many responsibilities and distractions of our own. Decide to just watch your child for a few minutes each day, during homeschooling or any other time. Really take him/her in, and appreciate his/her sweetness, without needing a result in those few moments. It’ll alleviate the “drill sergeant” dynamic that we parents often get stuck in: “Do this homework, put your toys away, take a shower, go to bed,” et cetera. Sure, we all gaze lovingly upon them while they are sleeping, but let them see how treasured they are. They need this little oasis — and you need this — more than you know.

10. Take a breath and be patient — with them and yourself!

Kids feel our fear and anxiety. We owe it to them and to ourselves to express patience and kindness wherever we can. As difficult as this pandemic is for us parents, it’s also extremely difficult for our kids, and this can result in misbehavior — more so than usual. We are their primary role models. If they see us lose our tempers, should it be any surprise that they mimic that behavior? Nothing they are being taught in school is as important as learning the power of kindness and patience… a lifelong pursuit, as we all know!

This pandemic has thrown us all into the deep end, navigating new rules and regulations, wanting to keep our families safe but also maintain as much normalcy as possible. With the right mindset, our kids can be our partners during this time — providing us with the levity and love that we need, when we give those things to them. None of us is perfect, but if we approach schooling at home with as much humor and patience as we can, I just know we’ll get through it together — and be stronger on the other side of it.

Danica McKellar is an actress (The Wonder Years, Hallmark movies) and New York Times bestselling author of humorous math books for ages 0-16, all of which can be found at McKellarMath.com. Her latest book, The Times Machine, teaches multiplication and division for ages 7-10 using cartoons, comic strips and humor.

If you or someone you know is at risk, contact The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline on 1-800-422-4453 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Professional crisis counselors provide assistance in over 170 languages.