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Working From Home With Kids: Tips for Families During Social Distancing

By Kat O’Brien

Originally published 3/14/2020 | Updated 3/30/2020 at

So, it’s been two weeks since most school closures and the burden and strain on families with kids during this time of social distancing to “flatten the curve” … has been a lot. For everyone. And especially for the most economically vulnerable populations, and essential workers on the frontlines.

But we’ve seen how it’s working in China to slow the spread of the disease. Hearing directly from friends there (on day 60+ of social distancing), health professional friends here in the U.S. — not to mention our local government and Public Health Advisors — it really is the most critical thing we can do right now to give our hospitals and health care professionals the best chance to prepare for and care for others during the peak demands on healthcare. This piece on Social Distancing by Asaf Bitton, MD, MPH lays out clear guidelines and rationales for how to practice social distancing effectively and provides an essential context for what’s happening now. A must-read.

When I first published this piece two weeks ago, the idea of working from home while engaging the kids was still that — an idea, for most. About to happen. I’ve been working from home for 14 years, seven of those years spent with my two young kids underfoot, so I figured I had something relevant to share, and did so.

Since then, this global crisis made landfall, so to speak. It’s unprecedented for our generation. And that is overwhelming. My original essay explores tips and strategies for parents working from home while engaging their kids. I’ve edited it below to incorporate some of the new discoveries I’ve made in my own experience, and in supporting friends on this journey as well.

First, I think it’s essential to understand that the transition for many families to “School at Home” is not Home Schooling. This piece calls it Crisis Schooling and I appreciate that distinction. A great read.

Even though many of us understand the magnitude of this, we’re still striving to respond in a way that is measured, reasonable, and not panicked. We’re striving for normalcy. To cope with the psychological effects of social isolation for our kids, our pediatrician recommended building a routine as soon as possible that includes a host of structured activities throughout the day to keep kids occupied and parents able to work from home while sharing their “office” with their kids. Think: house work and chores, active play outside (with certain precautions), indoor play, and varied screen time to promote online learning and engagement.

I think it’s important to consider how a routine is different from a schedule. Routine is just finding ways to embrace consistency, however vague. To apply the routine to a schedule that adapts to the evolving needs of your family due to your work and your kids’ moods, requires flexibility and reminders to be gentle and patient with yourself, and them.

Here are some strategies that consistently help me follow a routine with our family, schedule our day, feel productive at work, while also feeling as though I’m striking a solid balance of QT with the family.


This not only helps with building a routine, but it also builds-in flexibility for you to adapt to life necessities while still getting the critical work done that you need to do. I like to break up the day in 3 hour modules, but you should find a rhythm that works for you and your family. I also sometimes rely on the Pomodoro Technique as a way to curb distractions and help power through tasks in shorter amounts of time.


Decide three priority levels for your work:

  • High: hours where you need uninterrupted attention and quiet

  • Med: hours where you can be interrupted if necessary

  • Low: you can be multi-tasking


For work that requires your ideally uninterrupted attention during business hours, make those mods your highest priority windows when you can have your kids out of the house for a bit of socially distant fresh air, or supervised by someone else.

  • In our two-parent household, we take turns working in shifts that we prioritize by who has more energy to focus on what and when. This requires advance communication between partners of the expectations each has for work they need to accomplish in a given day, as well as notification of new priorities as they come up.

  • Letting the kids watch a movie or a few episodes in a row is a solid last-resort. Get them snacks at the start, empower them to get their own refills as necessary, and ideally you’ve got 1.5–2 hours to get something done.

  • Comedy On Call is a newly launched online social engagement service where local artists impacted by the shutdown are offering to entertain kids from PreK-high school in tutoring and coaching in core subjects and performing arts.

  • We also try to work and get ourselves ready around their sleep schedules: during naps (when they still napped), after bedtime, before they’re up in the morning —so that we have more time during the day to play.

For work that can be interrupted, schedule your kids for independent play or online learning activities.

  • Many schools have their own classroom subscriptions to various apps and online learning services. We’re working with Rosetta Stone, Raz Kids, Freckle, Pearson Realize, IXL Math, PBS Kids, Waterford UPSTART and more. One of our school’s language teachers recommends watching the kids’ favorite movies on Netflix — in the foreign language they study — as most are ready to stream in multiple languages: French, Spanish, Italian, Mandarin and more!

  • There are also multiple virtual classes running now. You can enroll your child in these rad STEAM-oriented classes for enrichment and engagement: Khan Academy, Digital Adventures, and Second City.

  • Create contained / designated spaces for making/building/doing — art projects, crafts, building things with found materials, LEGOs, writing, reading, drawing, worksheets, workbooks, flash cards, board games, music and more.

For work that is lower priority, tasks that can be interrupted, schedule yourself to task-blast while you’re in the same general area as your kids to more closely supervise their activity. As I’m writing this, my kids have been building a fort inside a tent and gathering “supplies” from around the house to make it cozy.

Ultimately, the key is to stay flexible and expect interruptions so you can help manage your own expectations. If you lose time during that “school day” window, try to make it up at night or on the weekend or the next day — and be kind and patient with yourself and your kids, as you all adjust to this new family routine. Take it day by day, and roll with it.


We try to create overlapping activities to maximize our efficiency. If parents need to work out, the kids should get exercise too. We all went out for a walk together and since the park was full of soccer players, we played a tag game on the sidewalk running around our neighborhood. Takes breaks together. Eat together. We also set the screen time routine so we know when we can expect that window for med-higher priority work.

So, with modular scheduling, you can decide if it’s a priority work time for you, how high a priority, and then arrange a routine of activities for the day for the kids as well.

The bigger challenge is keeping their routine as consistent as it might be at school, while giving yourself the agility to adapt to the demands of your job. This is another reason why I really like the module-idea. It allows me to create enough of a structure to the day where we get it all in, but we can flip morning and afternoons, while keeping the family on a consistent routine of meals and allowed screen time.


Deputize older siblings and younger siblings with different — but equally important roles. Have olders teach youngers, and help youngers find something to teach olders. Hunkering down for the long haul, we had a family talk about patience and kindness and use that reminder to empower our kids to dig deep and try a little harder to control their frustration.


Boredom is often heralded as a key to creativity. Embrace it if you’ve got the time for it! But if you’re trying to get work done, you might not have the patience to wait for kids to grapple with their own boredom. So if you’re not sure how long a specific activity will last, save it for lower priority work flows and during your medium priority time, keep an eye on the clock and monitor activities to ensure you wrap them up and transition to something else before boredom (and conflicts, fighting) set in. Making time for wiggle breaks, stretch breaks, snack breaks and other transitions can be really helpful, too.


Make a list. It’s easier to scan a list and find that thing! versus search online or try and come up with something in the moment. There are a lot of posts going around social media with endless lists of resources and activity ideas. Alumni of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education have started to organize them all into a database here, and I really like this list from Common Sense Media on how to navigate at-home learning online and other screen-based entertainment resources. My husband and I are both educators, and we’ve taken this opportunity to engage our kids (1st and PreK) in theme-based, project-based, play-based, and self-directed learning activities with a focus on social connection to celebrate the individual work done. Here are some of the fun things we’ve tried, to varying degrees of success:

  • Reading new books on our own, together, and watching video read-alouds from family, friends, and teachers

  • Writing stories and drawing pictures, making comics, sometimes doing this with friends on Google Hangouts

  • Creating social art projects (like the Rainbow Project), making trailers in iMovie, building things, doing “how-to” videos, inventing new games, and turning that into virtual “show and tell”: texting videos to our friends.

  • Playing math games and doing science experiments, sometimes doing this with friends on Google Hangouts

  • Tackling on a new recipe together, documenting the project with photos and turning it into a powerpoint “story” and sharing the PDF

  • Using a French dictionary to translate our stories to French (the language we study at school), practicing reading aloud together

  • Finding isolated places to play outside, get fresh air, go on nature walks and turn those into outdoor “scavenger hunts”, e.g: finding signs of Spring

  • Free Family workouts with Skip & Scoot

All of these activities can work in 30–45 minute windows, and stacking them, varying between individual work and social engagement, can help build out those mini-modules in your scheduled day.


We have family and friends that live all over the country, and so we use video conferencing to engage in playful games, to read aloud, perform, sing, dance, and more. With social distancing, you can try “virtual playdates” through Face Time, Zoom, Evite Video, and Google Hangouts so that the kids can still dine, play games, or hang with their pals. For connecting consistently without disrupting others’ schedules, we also send video texts. Especially for families isolating from grandparents, great-grandparents, and other at-risk populations, the connection through live video can really be powerful.

If you have any ideas to share, please comment or share on social media and tag me. Be smart, safe, and socially distant out there! Wishing you health and the strength to get through this. I think we can — together.

Kat O’Brien is a work-from-home parent of two; writer, filmmaker, story consultant, educator and community organizer. She is also running for Local School Council in Chicago.

You can read more about her work at and connect on social media @uknowkatobrien on twitter.

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