Prep for school-at-home: Routines for Busy/Available Parent Times

Practice “busy/available” routines. Establish how to get independent help before school resumes  

Welcome to the EF Podcast! I’m so happy you’re here, tribe, because we’re starting a four-week crash course in all things distance learning. So many of you have reached out to say that you’re dreading having your kids do school from home—not because you don’t love time with your kids (duh), but you’re dreading the wobbly balancing act of running your own life, your own job, and managing your kids’ school on top of all of it. Then there’s the whole surviving a pandemic we all have to contend with as well. I can’t make the pandemic go away, but I sure can help you get ready for the upcoming school year with some routines and strategies to practice NOW so you’re ready for the school year.

Most school districts are considering models for the opening of the 2020 fall semester that include some type of learning from home. This could be a few days a week to full time. So, while we can’t predict exactly how it will roll out, we CAN get ready and strategize the upcoming struggle.

Our first strategy was inspired by my good friend Tiffany Marquez (told you I’d do a shout out!) She shared that while she is truly enjoying time with her kids, she struggled to balance her own teaching job while her kids were learning at home and she still had a household to run. Her very honest accounts of this struggle are reflected by so many parents right now. I have friends who work at night, sleeping only a few hours, so they can take advantage of the quiet time while their kids are sleeping. This is a short-term great idea, but long term it just won’t work. But I know something that will…

Build busy and available routines!

Here’s what I mean: Develop a system that shows your kids, through a visual, whether you can respond or not, whether they can bother you or not. Give your kids ways to help themselves or things to do while they wait for you…then practice and reward the heck out of them!

Let’s say you choose a system that shows your availability like a stop light. Red is “absolutely no interrupting,” yellow is “quietly let me know you need me, and I’ll get to you asap,” and green is “come on in. I am available to take a quick break to help you.” You develop the visual and talk it over with your children. If you have littles, who maybe don’t read words yet, you can achieve the same thing by using printing images like a stop sign, a photo of someone waiting, and a photo of people talking…or you can even take photos of you and your kids acting out the different levels of expected behaviors. Photos are particularly powerful because they capitalize on the brain’s tendency to rely on visualizing to create future behaviors. Our executive functions of planning, prioritizing, short term memory, and organizing are very much impacted by our abilities to “make movies or pictures” in our minds!

So, you have your visual system set up and you’ve discussed it. Now it’s time to practice. I know this sounds cheesy, but it’s the smartest thing to do while you probably have work at home but your kids aren’t in school yet. They may not be demanding as much of you, so it’s great timing to have some practice…you know, before should gets real. Let your kids know you have a secret reward (ok, please actually get a secret reward, like a small treat or tally marks of minutes they can earn of highly  valued activity) that they can earn by using the “parent availability” system (or, as others may call it, the “when you can and can’t bug me” system.)

When you indicate the level you’re at (by placing the visual on your door or desk, or putting a clothespin on the area of the visual you’re indicating), your children need to take the corresponding actions. So, if it says absolutely no bothering me, and they do indeed NOT bother you at all, then you reward them with the secret reward and specific praise for doing so. “Honey, what did you notice was on our system? That’s right, it was “don’t bother me.” And you did it! You helped yourself and let me work. That helps our family and my work so much. Thank you!” Make sure you’re mentioning that they looked at the visual for the system, they followed the request, and the positive impact of their choices in your praise. For the first few days, I’d recommend doing short bits of “don’t bother me” time, with small breaks in between so you can check on your kids (because it’s so suspicious when they’re actually quiet, right?) and so you can reinforce their good choices with treats (remember, food, stickers, or minutes of fun activity) and your words. After a few days, you can extend the time you’re not available and not always give a treat every time. But, when you start, be overly thankful and mindful to give them praise. You want them to get addicted to doing the right thing—then you can taper back the rewards to make them a little harder to get. Because, the rewards that take more work are, oddly, more enticing for the long term.

So, I discussed perfect children land, but what about reality? What about the kid who can’t seem to help himself and magically needs you every time you sign into Zoom? Oh, that’s our kind of kid, huh? Probably every kid will barge through without minding the system, and that’s part of learning. Don’t walk into this thinking that the system will work 100% right away; those types of expectations will lead to your resenting your kids. When your child ignores or forgets to use the system, engage as little as possible if you’ve indicated “red” or “yellow.” Continue with your focus and point to the visual. You may need to do so a few times. Once your child gives you a little space (even if you suspect they’re just taking a little breath before renewing their bothersome whining), give a reward, a thumbs up, and get back to your work. Whatever you do, do NOT engage in a lecture or physically move out of your workspace with your child. Try as hard as you can to divert attention to the visual and reward the instant your child follows suit. Even if you can hear them sitting outside the door or next to your desk, they’re giving you space, and that’s a great start. Slide them some Skittles under the door and finish your email. It’ll be awkward and humorous at times, but it will work if you stay the course.

Speaking of stay the course…here’s why I’m so steadfast in advising you NOT engage in a conversation when you’ve indicated you’re not available: intermittent reinforcement. We talked about this in a previous episode, so it may sound familiar. You know how slot machines are really hard to quit? Because just one more pull might be the big winner? How you’re so afraid if you let someone else use the machine, they’ll pull the big win right when they sit down? That’s the best example of intermittent reinforcement. When your efforts work part of the time, you’re much more likely to continue those efforts until you get what you want. Your kids cry at the check out line in the store, and once in a blue moon you let them buy some candy? They will continue to try that trick every single trip because it works once in a while. So, with that understanding, you can see why if you cave in and go against your own system, you’re setting up a battle that you will lose. Don’t give in and give lots of attention when you’ve said you’re not available.

If your brain is like mine, you’re now looking for “what ifs” and “buts.” So, here’s how you handle that. What if you actually think it’s a great need and you want to be there for your kid? What if you just forgot to switch the sign and it’s actually ok to bother you? Don’t talk to your kid, but go to the visual and switch it to green. Have your child look at the system, then go ahead and engage. But, please don’t do this often. I should know…I tended to cave in when kids come crying at my classroom door and lunch, which means they at least tried almost every day. I had to break myself of giving intermittent reinforcement (slot machine behavior) so I could make new systems with my students. It’s hard, but the healthier boundaries and clearer communication are worth it!

As you practice this routine before school starts, you’ll want to layer in some options for your kids to help themselves. Teachers do this in their classrooms by having guidelines like, “ask three then me,” meaning students should ask three other students for help or clarification before they interrupt the teacher for help. You can do the same at home by providing a menu of ways your kids can help themselves, based on the need. The top reasons for interruption are usually social-emotional (they’re having issues with siblings or peers), frustration with their schoolwork, or a physical need (most likely they’re hungry). You can brainstorm ways to solve these needs on their own. For example, your brother is bothering you: move spaces, take a break, write it down, take a deep breath…Or, you’re hungry: grab a snack from the snack basket or the fruit/veggie space in the fridge. If your child is frustrated with schoolwork, they may need some help from you…but it doesn’t mean right away. Help your child develop a plan of seeking peer help, taking a break, or skipping the frustrating work (and saving it for later, when help is available). You can make a “parking lot,” a separate space or even a piece of paper where your child can leave or write down a list of work they need help with. Again, these strategies rely on LOTS of executive function, especially self-control, so don’t expect that you can mention them once and they’ll go to quick use. You’ll likely need to try ONE at a time, practice it, tweak it, and use it a lot before it becomes natural. Trust me, there are no teachers out there who get perfect results after teaching independent routines once. It takes years for some kids, and that’s ok. But, it’s always nice to have lots of options and ideas in your toolbelt, for when you’re ready.

Today you learned…

that you can develop a system to indicate how “botherable” you are for your kids. You can start practicing that system—and getting your kids addicted to using it by giving rewards and praise—now, so you’re ready for when school starts again. You learned that caving in, even once in a while, will make their interruptions more common (so don’t do it). And, you learned that you can teach your kids how to help themselves when you’re just not available to help. I’m so excited for this journey for you! I hope it helps a bunch this fall.

f you’re thinking about how helpful ideas like these are and how you’d like your kid to have supports like these, consider coaching with me! I provide personalized coaching to help your child with school assignments and learning strategies. We record the sessions so you can watch and learn about the strategies your child is learning. I also meet with parents over Zoom to talk about how to support the strategies and answer questions about home and school. As one parent said, her kid is happier and so much less stressed; the whole household feels a lot less stressed. My coaching calendar for fall is filling up, so reach out if you’d like to grab a spot! Sarahkesty.com/coaching

Time to grab that kid for this week’s pep talk.

Hey Kid!

I hope you’re having a great summer so far! I just gave your grown up some homework. Ok, not real homework, but today your grown up learned about making a system to let you know when they’re available. Your grown up is going to make a way to tell you when they can help you and when you need to wait. No more arguing or being told to “go away.” You will be able to tell when your grown up is available for you from looking at a visual you will make and talk about together. When you follow the system, like you leave your grown up alone while the “not available” sign is up, then your grown up is going to give you a secret reward! Not only that, but because you’ll have a clearer system, you’ll both feel less stressed and more happy! And if you practice now, when you start school again, you’ll be ready with this awesome system, so you and your grown up can get work done quickly and have more time for fun! I think you’ll really like these ideas, kid! They might be hard to practice at first, and hey, you might even mess up or forget a few times, but I know you’ll get the hang of it and you’ll do a great job helping your grown up have focus time while they have to work from home.

I’m proud of you, kid. I really am. All my love to you!

Sarah