Home Every Day with the Kids? How-to Stay Sane — Tips from a Homeschooler And Educational Assistant

So school is closed, for a while. The kids are at home all day, every day. How to survive? How to have order vs. chaos, co-operation vs conflict, sanity vs. insanity?

I can’t tell you how to create a lovely always happy house full of kids, but if a tip or two might give you 20 more successful minutes in your day, then that could help, right?! What to do is a lot easier to figure out than how to do it, with all your hair intact and everyone still speaking to each other.

My first tip is one that still amazes me, every day. That is the magical neutrality of a simple kitchen timer.

The idea is simple. At the start of the activity I say “We will do this for 5 minutes. Look, I am setting the timer. When the timer goes off, we will do x.” Or “When the timer goes off, you can do y.” If the child halts the activity during the 5 minute run, I pause the timer. “Oops, you stopped, and so the timer stopped too. As soon as you start up again, the timer starts again too. Look, it says you only have 3 more minutes to go!”

So simple, in fact, I feel silly even writing this down!

But I am writing it down, because the result surprises me, every time. I figure it might surprise you, too.

There is something about the timer going off that kids respond to differently, than say an adult pronouncing ‘Time’s up!”, or ‘I need you to do this for 5 minutes.’ Maybe it’s because you can’t argue with a timer? When I say to my kids “I need you to clean up your mess. I bet you can do it in 5 minutes” I might get eye rolls, complaining, accusation of unfairness or descriptions of how mean I am, and downright refusals. But when I say “I’m setting the timer for 5 minutes of clean up time, and then you can do x. Ready? And…start!” Suddenly I have kids cleaning up! Okay, not that easily 100% of the time — it might take some persuading or my participation. And some ignoring of their voices. But I figure 80–90% of the time beats a 40–50% success rate any day.

When it’s something they want to do and I say “You can play video games for 15 minutes, and I’m setting the timer,” when the timer goes off I get sighs and some complaining and probably protests of ‘1 more minute!’ Without the timer, though, I get “That wasn’t 15 minutes! You are lying! It isn’t fair! I’m not getting off! You are the meanest mom ever!” Their protests are personal and accusatory, vs. just being upset that the timer went off. The timer seems to be like a neutral judge, vs me who they look at suspiciously as though I just want to ruin their life every time I put a limit on them.

Truthfully, that same magical neutral effect works for me. I am 1000X more likely to stay calm and neutral when they protest the timer, than I am when they push back on me! And when I stay calm and neutral, I tend to stick to my guns in a calm and assertive manner. True confessions here — when they push back on me, and I take it personally because I’m just trying to survive and be a good mom and keep them out of a homeless shelter in their adulthood and I’m tired and stressed out about Covid-19 dammit — calm and assertive can flip into mad and aggressive pretty quickly. And then everyone’s survival during this three week long school shutdown is at risk.

That magical neutrality thing works for everyone.

Just a couple more things. For an undesirable task, I set the timer for a shorter time than I think they can manage. I do this because as an adult, I usually over-estimate their capacity (or I think I can extend it by force.) But because I want them to be successful with the timer (so it will continue to be effective) I back off my own estimate by a few minutes. I try and guarantee they will stay on task for the duration of the time I set. More simply put: If I want them to clean up for 10 minutes, I might set the timer for 5–6 minutes. If they are almost done at the end of the time I will say “Oh look, you are SOOOO close! In 1 more minute you will be completely done!” Or, if their success is iffy, I will clean up with them in such a way that the mess will be cleaned up when the timer goes off. Setting them up for success is important. If they fail often they will, naturally, hate the timer.

For time limits on a task they like, I will set the timer 3 minutes short of the total time I have given them. Then, when the timer goes off (and they express their disappointment and ask for 1 more minute) I will cheerfully say “I know. I’m setting it for 3 more minutes, and then we are done.” That way, I look so kind and understanding. But I will stick to that. If I give in to 3 more minutes more than once, I have nullified the power of the timer. The three extra minutes gives them time to process that they need to stop the activity, and increases the chance that they will do so successfully. After all, few of us are able to turn on a dime, adults included. A caution here though — extra time over three minutes is too long for most kids. With a longer ‘snooze’ time while doing something they are engrossed in, they stop processing the ‘stop’ order and re-engage in their activity. And when the timer does go off for the second time, they react the same as they did the first time — with shock and horror. You don’t want that. That’s mean. And it won’t work. The snooze time needs to be long enough to feel like a real gift, but short enough that their brain doesn’t forget the end is very, very near.

Just one more thing. We all know that quitting something enjoyable to do something undesirable is difficult. So make that the other way around as much as possible. FIRST, we do this thing that isn’t that fun, and THEN we do the Fun thing. So as much as possible, a positive activity (even one that only takes a minute to do) needs to follow a negative activity. After we clean up, we will/you can do/choose something more enjoyable.

I know, this tip #1 isn’t rocket science! But every time I use it, the results make me feel like a child-care genius. And I still like my kids afterwards, too. We all know; every success matters, no matter how small, when we are home every day with the kids. We are all in this together, even though we can’t be together.

My Second Tip is How to teach the kids to fight fair. And by fight I mean battle over something they both want. You can find that here: https://medium.com/@shelleylittle.maw/home-every-day-with-the-kids-a96c58b40a9

My Third Tip is directly linked to Care-giver survival: SPACE. You can find that here: https://medium.com/@shelleylittle.maw/home-every-day-with-the-kids-bea0bed8757a

And here is Tip Four: Not a martyr or a tyrant, but a calm and assertive leader. You can find that here: https://medium.com/@shelleylittle.maw/home-every-day-with-the-kids-db42f354321d

And Tip Five: I’m BOOORRRED…https://medium.com/@shelleylittle.maw/tip-5-im-booorrred-6900c2cae0b3



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Shelley Little Maw

Shelley Little Maw


I am an educational assistant in an integrated, faith-based school system. I write about various topics related to faith, education, & challenging students.