We are two lifelong college educators who also happen to have sets of daughters about the same age. One student in each of our families is home from university while the other is in high school; all are taking classes online. Additionally, we both have spouses who are working from home, and so we reflect the new American family: “socially” isolated yet working together, externally focused but internally trying to figure out how to make everything sync for everyone’s schedules and needs.
We also, based on our professional and personal experiences, have some suggestions for parents, especially those who have a college student now striving to keep up with an education in which you have invested so much:
Construct a family schedule. The average American home cannot support four people having Zoom meetings at the same time, and not just for reasons of bandwidth! When one student is practicing her trombone while you are trying to finish a report, your spouse is hosting a video conference, and your other student is taking an online exam, it can get ornery. The first thing you have to do as a family is to sit down and put together a calendar of who needs the internet — and peace and quiet — at what time. Of course, some imposed work/school commitments may be inflexible, but you can typically plan ahead and set mutually respectful priorities. Make sure the schedule is posted on everybody’s door so that all are aware and in agreement.
Try to make sure everybody has the resources they need. This is a time when many American families are giving up luxuries but, as most would agree, your students’ education and your own work are the most crucial investment of your time and money. So, if there is a software program that will be particularly helpful, get it if you can. As a reminder, you may find, especially through the K–12 and college systems, a massive amount of software that is free or covered through school fees or tuition (or even as a perk of membership in some program). Some K–12 systems and colleges (like Texas Tech) are also offering free loaner laptops and other hardware.
Consult the internet … judiciously. You may not have an IT professional on call, but YouTube and many other sites are treasure chests of tutorials for almost any question you want to ask. While you can certainly go to Yahoo Chats, if you prefer a visual demonstration, many of the Facebook and YouTube sites will have lots of video available for you. Just be careful; the huge array of great how-to offerings is matched by booming scams and phishing attempts. So check around before you click.
Encourage professional workplace and at-school levels of self-discipline. It’s very easy when you are around the house to let things slide, whether it is in your own dress or in your schedule. Now is the time to get organized as a family, i.e.: “We have to maintain standards and good habits for ourselves.” Maybe the kids can sleep later, but they should not completely throw off the schedule to which they will have to return — we hope — someday. The same applies to you. We recommend getting out of your pajamas at a reasonable hour of the morning. You don’t need to necessarily dress as you would for the office or for a presentation in a college finance class, but putting decent clothes on will at least keep up the spirit of discipline and focus. If you have a student who’s about to graduate, encourage attending virtual job fairs. Future employers will have the same expectations of professionalism from your daughter now as they had two months ago.
Encourage your college student to appreciate this is real work with real consequences. Grades still matter; so does learning the material. It is so easy to be distracted by a thousand things in the home. A lot of classes, of course, may be asynchronous, but the deadlines will still be there. Have a conversation with all of your children about keeping up the pace of work, focus, and attention. Find opportunities to discuss the “remote” professional skills they are learning and how to leverage them in the future. This is real work for a real, more serious future.
Don’t expect perfection. This is an extremely stressful time. Whether it is a faculty member who suddenly had to transport a face-to-face class to an online class within a couple of weeks or the students who are making the same switch, it can be taxing. There are family strains that are probably bubbling up more because of being in forced proximity. We hope everyone will try to get it right, but we all need to be kind and understanding of each other.
Find time to decompress together. As important as it is to be able to have time for yourself, you also need positive family time. Your students are likely dealing with issues that are difficult to process and to communicate. Finding time beyond deadlines, assignments, conference calls, and other “work/school” things will help ease some of the stress we are all dealing with. Everybody can come out of this crisis more mature and with more sustainable habits of mind and spending — if we try.
Seek out opportunities to have some fun. Like decompressing, it’s okay to handle the circumstances with a sense of humor. Look for opportunities to overcome the stress of the situation and to help your student and each other find some type of fun each day. For example, search neighborhood locations or scenery that can serve as new virtual backgrounds on the next video chat or conference call. By all means, go outside for walks, bike rides, or just playing catch in the back yard. Set mutual exercise or fitness goals. Keep moving physically as well as professionally and intellectually.
We are in the first global crisis of many college students’ lifetimes. 2008 may have only been a pale rendering of what is coming, economically speaking, but it certainly did not have the threat of plague. No one knows how all this will play out. However, the home can be a safe place for our students if we plan ahead and think through what will work best for all our families.
David Perlmutter is the dean and Todd Chambers is the associate dean for undergraduate studies of the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University.