The Work-at-Home Parent Conundrum
For so many of you, working from home while caring for your children will undoubtedly bring challenges.
While I cannot promise it will always be comfortable, I can say that if we focus on modifying some key points, you can manage.
One up- one down
If there are two of you at home, then obviously, you have things easier. Not easy, mind you, but easier.
If need be, I’d suggest working with your partner to schedule meetings so one of you is available to be more accessible to children while one partner is in a session. In the studio, we call this one up- one down, meaning one person is up, making sure children are safe and answering questions while one person is engaged in lessons.
For our purposes, I’d shift this. I suggest one person is more available to answer questions or support your children while the other is engaged in work meetings. You can take turns. I am not suggesting, nor do Montessori teachers practice always being the keeper of the key, so to speak. We are not engaged continuously with children.
We give lessons or connect children with materials, we are in the space should someone have a question no one else (including other children) can help with before we become involved. At school, some teachers have a rule like “three before me,” meaning that the child should try to solve their struggle on their own, then ask three other people before coming to an adult. Often other children can help if a child is unable to do something. We want to be the person of last resort because we know that people learn things more deeply if they figure it out themselves.
But what if you are the only adult? Well, there are many Montessori schools like that, too!
Preparing the space
What we do in both cases is to make sure the environment is prepared so children have the supplies they need available and can access them on their own as their level of independence and ability allows.
We make sure that there is a supply of paper, pencils, and sharpeners, coloring crayons, paper towels or washcloths, etc., so children can be as independent as possible.
We make sure that the shelves are tidy, organized, and all the pieces are there.
We have tables and rugs; if you have one child, you’ll need one rug.
Rugs define a workspace and say to the child that this is their work.
It helps them keep work organized and track all the pieces.
If you do not have a small rug, you can use a towel. At school, children in 3-6 usually unroll and roll up their rugs. You can have children store them on or near a shelf on the floor. If it makes sense for you, you can also show children how to fold the rug or towel.
The cycle of activity
As I mentioned in an earlier post, children follow this cycle of activity:
- Get a rug
- Unroll it
- Bring work to it
- Use the work
- Make the work beautiful
- Return it to the shelf
- Roll up the rug
If it is table work:
- Choose a work
- Take it to the table
- Use the work
- Clean up the work
- Tuck in chair
- Return work to the shelf
Each is what we call the cycle of activity.
When we get something out, we put it away in a condition that makes it ready for the next user. If your child attends Montessori school, then you can and should remind them that just like at school, they can do one thing at a time, and they need to put it away before choosing something else.
The cycle of activity described will be harder at first if your child doesn’t attend Montessori school, but if they do, this will not be new. Also, Montessori teachers know that we must be super consistent if the room is going to run smoothly, so we are good at reminding children of this until they “get it.”
Consistency is key
Being consistent about your expectations will be so helpful. If children push back against it because they may want to test boundaries, I’d say something like, “you can put it away or I can, but if I put it away, it isn’t a choice anymore until we can agree.”
Then get “busy” doing something else for a little bit.
Children may wait for a minute before they decide they want to put it away. If they end up putting it away, great. If they don’t, calmly pick it up and put it away in a closet. If they don’t ask for it, it doesn’t come back out. If they do ask for it, let them know, calmly and without snark, that you’ll get it out for them when they can agree to put it away when finished.
Getting attention and waiting
In a Montessori class, it will happen that the children will want the attention of the teacher while the teacher is engaged. If a child comes to a teacher while the teacher is involved, the child has to…. Wait for it: WAIT.
Yes, your child can wait IF you are consistent.
If you ask a child to wait but respond if they whine or plead, you teach them that if they complain or beg, you will react. Instead, learning how to be kind but firm will be helpful to help children learn how to wait.
If you are working and a child comes to you while you are finishing some task, you can give them the sign for wait (which you can look upon an ASL website).
If they whine or plead, you can ignore them until you finish the task, or you can say, “I will let you know when I finish, and this makes it take longer. I promise to come to you as soon as I’m at a stopping point.”
Then do that. If you don’t do that, you are telling them you are teaching them you don’t follow-through and that they need to plead to get your help.
It is going to be different for you to work from home with children there, no doubt.
You’ll need to adjust to working in perhaps 20-30 minute increments unless your child is super self-driven. Children have different needs, and one is not better or smarter than the other.
Don’t think of any experience you have as good or bad. Accept and cherish the child you have. Know that all behavior is communication. Know that children are getting used to this situation, too, and everyone is doing the best they can.
Entertained, no more
Children without siblings are prevalent. Also, because of parent work schedules, it is pretty standard that if you have a single child, when you are with them at night, you are often really engaged with them, whereas siblings are more likely to entertain each other to some extent.
In this new scenario, children without siblings will need to adjust to you being busy with your work. And, therefore, they will also need to engage with their work without you being involved.
You can get there. Have simple and to-the-point conversations about how things are different right now while you all work to keep yourselves and other people well. Now, while we have school at home, they will do their work, just like they do at school and you also have work to do. So sometimes you’ll be working with them, but sometimes, you’ll have to do your job, and they’ll need to wait sometimes to talk to you.
Because children want to be close, I think it may be, in some cases, easier to be in the same room rather than having a place for them in another part of the house.
Montessori writes in The Child in the Family that children love being with their parents because they love them so much! Adults, who often have so much to do for work, feel torn. They love their children, but they also can’t entertain them all the time.
In the past, especially if your child was in care full day, they did not get to spend as much time with you during the week for obvious reasons and so now, they may want to spend lots of time with you!
Wouldn’t you like to spend every waking minute with the people you love most? You can help them balance this by making sure you have time for both. I’d suggest setting time aside, maybe lunch and snack to especially prep food together, and have lots of conversation while you are eating and tidying up after lunch.
Here’s a sample conversation
“Mommy, I want you to play with me!”
“Oh, I want to, but I have to work right now. You can work while I work.”
‘No! I don’t want to! I want you!”
Here’s where I’d acknowledge their feelings.
“I know you do! I love spending time with you! And I’m happy for the time we get to be together while we do our work. I will be working on things for X amount of time, then we can have a snack together. After our meal, I will work some before we make lunch together and have a picnic in the yard/on the porch. I’ll leave a sticky note on the clock to show you where the long hand will be when it is snack time.”
Or “I’m going to work for one-half hour, then read a book to you.” After a half-hour, if your child is not concentrating, say, if you’re ready, let’s read a book together, or play I Spy, or play a game of Go Fish.” These are the perfect types of “lessons” you can do.
Montessori believed that it is essential for children to see adults going about the business of everyday life. What we cook, wash, clean, organize, etc. are all lessons.
How we interact with each other is a lesson. Everything is a lesson. Life is a lesson.
Language lessons are
- reading and talking TO your child,
- playing sound games,
- labeling things in the house,
- taking dictation of a story for a child and having them illustrate it,
- reading to them,
- reading to them,
- reading to them.
Math lessons include
- counting silverware for dinner,
- pairing socks when folding laundry,
- measuring ingredients in recipes,
- measuring the laundry soap,
- counting steps to the mailbox or the garage,
- counting the windows in each room, and adding all the windows from each room together.
You get the idea.
Lessons should be simple and concise. No need to over-explain.
I would be ok with children working on the floor right next to me. After all, at school, they work on rugs next to their friends.
If they can’t resist talking to you, you can say, “would it be easier for you to work if you weren’t right next to me? You don’t have to be. You can work in another area if that would be easier for you to remember that when I’m typing my work or having a business call, I can talk when I finish.”
They may be a little sad or pull a long face; after all, they love you!
But remember they can do this. They do it every day!
You might invite them to think of what they want to do first, color or cut playdough snakes?
Then about 5 minutes before snack time, you can let them know that you’ll be ready for lunch if they want to put their work away from where it goes and roll the rug or clean off the table.
Then after snack, remind them that at 11:45, you can both clean up to get ready for lunch.
If they interrupt you, repeat, “I will come to talk with you when I finish with my work.”
At school, teachers say this often. And it’s ok.
Be. Consistent. If you say one thing and do another, that’s the lesson you teach.
There are so many things the child can work on! They don’t have to stand there. They can watch quietly or find something to do.
You may want to write the schedule of the day on a piece of paper, nothing fancy.
I’d write in lower case letters. Write it slowly in from of them, saying it as you write it “10:00- snack” say or sound out the word, don’t spell it loud. You can also use pictures to show the processes; either drawn, from your phone, or from a magazine, put and pasted on paper, and hung at their eye level to see.
The schedule can include a large chunk of time that says “play on your own” or “rest or read quietly after lunch.” Writing in front of them helps them connect words with writing, it’s a passive lesson. These are the best kinds! When we slow down and let children observe us, they are learning, and we are teaching!
Work at home parenting will not look the same for everyone. No worries. There is no road map here. None of us has the answers, and everyone is doing the best they can. Offer grace to yourself and your child. Give yourself grace and the flexibility to do what your family needs to make it work. You’ll settle into new schedules and routines, too, and learn new skills as we go.
Big breaths and baby steps.
Jana Morgan Herman
I’m Jana Morgan Herman. I have been in Montessori for almost 30 years, as a parent, teacher, and teacher trainer. My own children started in Montessori at 18 months and attended Montessori through high school. I was a classroom teacher for most of that time and for the last 5 years have been a school director. I hold 2.5-6 credential from American Montessori Society (AMS), RIE 1 from RuthAnne Hammond and Deborah Greenwald, and a Masters in Montessori education. I homeschooled my children for several years and integrated Montessori principles during that time before working in both private and public Montessori schools.