8 Tips For Balancing the Roles of Parent and Teacher During Virtual Learning

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Remote learning has its advantages (no more rushing to the school bus stop in the morning!), but it definitely has its challenges as well. Parenting is hard enough during a pandemic, but add in the role of teacher, too, and it’s enough to boost your stress levels sky high. Plus, many parents report that their kids don’t seem to listen to them in the same way they would listen to their classroom teacher, making things even more frustrating. It’s hard to know how to balance the roles of parent and teacher these days.

If you’re juggling teacher and parent hats (not to mention a regular job), these simple solutions may help your balancing act.

Use what you already know about boundaries.

You can switch between the roles of parent, teacher, principal, and employee, but it’s hard to wear multiple hats for long before one eventually falls off. The tricky part is that you’re always the parent, no matter what, so when the “teacher” part of you needs to get tough, it can be hard to draw boundaries.

Boundaries, however, are necessary when parenting. Dr. Laura Markham, of Aha! Parenting, helpfully reminds us that we already have experience with this. Every single day, we set boundaries for our kids’ health and safety, nutrition, house rules, and more—we are both the “snuggly parent” and the parent who corrects them when they hit their sister. Rather than being a whole new skill we have to learn, acting as their teacher is simply an extension of something we already know how to do. Reminding them that it’s time to sit down for remote school is a boundary similar to telling them they have to go to bed at a certain time or that they can’t eat junk food for dinner. It’s a relief for many parents to realize that, in reality, we’ve already been juggling roles all along!

To make it easier, Dr. Markham suggests setting a foundation of bonding before learning begins—whether it’s having breakfast together, roughhousing a little bit until you’re both giggling, or listening to a favorite song. Then tell your child it’s time to sit down and focus on learning for a bit. When children feel connected to us, it’s easier for them to do something on their own—plus that connection decreases stress hormones while increasing bonding hormones, which also makes it more likely they’ll listen. 

Create a cue.

Still hearing cries of, “But you’re not my teacher!?” If your child still has trouble accepting your help, listening to your lessons, or focusing on their work when you tell them to, a visual reminder could help (and be fun!). One homeschooling mom told us that using a prop, like fake glasses, and even changing from Mom to Ms. [last name] can show kids you’re wearing your teacher hat. Our kids are missing their usual transitions into the school day, so providing a physical cue that you should both be in “school mode” can be a useful strategy.

Make a schedule. 

A schedule does wonders to manage everyone’s expectations. If your child is little, placing a visual calendar somewhere near their learning space is ideal, as younger children tend to do well when they can see exactly what’s coming next (no surprises!). Include time for breaks and check-ins with you, depending on their age and how much help they’ll need. One mom told us she sets multiple alarms throughout the day to signal when it’s time to switch tasks, eat, or take a quick break. This makes it easier for parents to get things done, because you can schedule meetings, calls, and other tasks around those times. And the more a schedule can remind kids of what’s expected for school, the less you’ll have to manage them as the “teacher.”

Use lunch time to reconnect. 

If you’re home during the day, lunchtime is the perfect time to reconnect with your kiddo about “the big stuff”—that is, anything they can’t solve without you. Teach your child to save up any questions or concerns for lunchtime (or after-school snack time, if that’s easier), and when they’ve got nothing to talk to you about, use the time to cuddle, giggle, and bond for a bit. It will fill their love tank (and yours) so they’re ready to transition back to learning again.

Take frequent breaks and allow them to move around. 

Depending on the age of your child and the way their school is choosing to handle remote learning, frequent breaks may be necessary to keep your child from growing bored. Research shows that students who take short, frequent breaks throughout the school day are better able to focus and less likely to get distracted, increasing their productivity and reducing stress. Schedule at least one break of 5-10 minutes each hour, especially if your child is young, and If you’re able to join them, do the same. Those benefits extend to adults as well, so it’s a habit that can benefit everyone. Again, the easier we make it for our kids to focus and destress, the less they’ll fight our attempts to keep them on track.

Use your energy where it counts the most. 

One mom we spoke to was so upset that her second grader didn’t hand in his assignments on time, she lectured him and took away his playtime privileges. But after she thought about it, she realized that reaction probably didn’t help him figure out the math problems that got him stuck in the first place. The lesson for all parents: Before you get bogged down in disappointment over something your remote learning child may or may not be doing, think about where you want to channel your energy. Spending most of it helping them out with a problem and the rest talking about why it’s important to speak up when you’re stuck rather than wait until you get a bad grade, is generally a better use of your time—and won’t result in your child resenting the fact that their teacher suddenly has the authority to take away their fun at home. 

Use flexibility to your advantage.

While the lack of a regular schedule can be tough, there are also upsides to not being confined to traditional school hours. One mom told us that she successfully balances her home and school roles by being the “cool” teacher. She surprises her son with fun activities sometimes during breaks, calls half-days when there are no scheduled live classes, and squeezes in extra work throughout the week so they can take an occasional Friday off. Treats like this promote bonding, and reinforce the idea that you and your child are on the same team, whether you’re the parent or the teacher.

Speak gently but firmly. 

No matter what you do, some kids will have a hard time seeing you as the teacher, especially if you tend to be a bit of a softie. How you react when they say something like, “You’re not my teacher” is key. If you immediately put your disciplinarian hat on, you may end up escalating the negativity, which isn’t likely to lead to the outcome you want. Try saying something like, “I’m not here to make you do your work, but there will be consequences if you break the rules.” 

If they’re constantly insisting their real teacher allows various unwanted behaviors, you can rest assured that’s probably not the case. In those moments, the words you choose and the way they’re delivered can make a big impact. For example, saying, “Stop interrupting me!” sounds a lot harsher than, “Thanks for coming to me, but I can’t help you right now.” Softening the blow will work wonders to mitigate tantrums and hurt feelings while minimizing the frustration on your end as well. It’s in those moments that modeling self-discipline and focus becomes even more important. 

Whatever you do on the days when juggling being a parent and teacher seems too hard, just remember there are millions of parents experiencing the same frustration, concern, and worry. There really is solidarity in numbers. It reminds you that there’s nothing wrong with you or your child, these are strange, difficult times for everyone. And thankfully, these times, like all those before it, will pass eventually. 

The former Content Director at Parenting, and several other brands, Ana Connery is a writer and content strategist whose work appears in USA Today, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Cafe Mom/The Stir, Momtastic, and others.