Everyone is home schooling now, not by choice and definitely by surprise. To keep the kids on schedule, take a six-hour day and break it up into 30-minute increments on a color-coded chart, right?

“No, no! It’s too much,” says Kayla Helenske, a home-schooling mom in West Seattle. “It’s too much for the parent, it’s too much for the kid, it’s all going to fall apart. And that’s going to set you up for failure.”

Helenske worked as a public school teacher before having kids, and is now an art therapist. “I feel overwhelmed seeing all these schedules people are putting out,” she says. “As a therapist, I’m thinking about all these children and how their world is totally shifted right now. Navigating the emotions of what is going on — the fears, the panic — is way more important than getting their math or their science lesson done.”

Seasoned teachers will tell you a six-hour school day does not equal six hours of academics. There are two recesses, lunch time, snack time, time for all the kids to get out their folders, time for kids to line up, time for walking in the hallways ….

Helenske’s first grader gets all his official school work done in one hour in the morning before his two younger sisters (ages 1 and 4) wake up. The rest of the day is life lessons: learning fractions by helping cook, working on the family garden, reading aloud to his sisters. “It’s just a lot of things we do in normal life,” Helenske says.

Phoenix Smith has been home schooling since 2009 — his kids are now 14 and 9. Their learning isn’t scheduled around periods in a day, but rather a theme for the week or the month. For example, his 9-year-old is studying detectives and spies. From that springboard, they’re incorporating building spy gadgets, a bit of science, engineering questions. Smith sets up a free work time with various different projects. It’s up to his kids to pick what they want to do, and if they want to spend 4 minutes or 4 hours on it.


“The beauty of home schooling is you get to custom tune it,” Smith says. “The idea is that your love of learning is your most important curriculum. And if you have that, that can take you anywhere, in any subject or curriculum.”

Smith, who lives in North Seattle, teaches theater in schools, and is a member of the leadership and advocacy group for the Washington Homeschool Organization. He talks about the concept of “deschooling,” where parents let go of all the rigor of a mainstream school, and let the child’s interests lead instead. Some kids flourish with structure, some do not. The point is to tailor each child’s education to that child.

“Let the parent and child reconnect and build that trust and get that link back together again,” Smith says. “And that’s the big secret of home-schoolers. It isn’t about setting up a desk in a room. What it’s about is that connection between you and your child.”

Lauren Pineda and her husband both work full time (she’s a doula, he’s a handyman) and they home-school their five children, ages 18 months, 4, 6, 8 and 11.

Four of the Pineda siblings — Elijah, 4; Joel, 6; Selena, 8; and Gabriel, 11 — help prepare the soil in the greenhouse for spring planting, as part of their homeschooling. (Courtesy of Lauren Pineda)
Four of the Pineda siblings — Elijah, 4; Joel, 6; Selena, 8; and Gabriel, 11 — help prepare the soil in the greenhouse for spring planting, as part of their homeschooling. (Courtesy of Lauren Pineda)

“It’s such a wonderful time we have with the kids and it’s short. We’re grateful to be part of their day-to-day,” says Pineda, who lives in Shoreline.

But home schooling five kids with two working parents? How?!

For starters, everyone has a job. Everyone 5 and up has basic produce-cutting skills and can make eggs and breakfast, at least. From age 6 and up, kids are learning how to cook other meals. And there are compromises, like (compostable) paper plates.


“I’ve relinquished the idea that everything has to be glass,” Pineda says, laughing. “The house is not always clean either, but you have to let that go. Our standards before kids were so much higher. It’s definitely not the model home, but it’s a happy one.”

4 tips from veteran home-schoolers

1. Let go of the expectation that you need to build your own personal school.

This is the time to hold your children and keep them safe, not the time to worry about GPAs.

“The times we’re in, it is so much more important to have the EQ [emotional quotient] to tune in empathy-wise,” Smith says. “There’s a lot of uncertainty. You bet that’s what our kids are hearing, too. Hold them. Tell them it’s a hard time, but it’ll be OK.”

2. Choose one thing that your child absolutely loves about school, and figure out how to bring that home.

If your child misses a friend from school, hold a virtual playdate over FaceTime, Helenske suggests. Or maybe your child loves gym class — set up some fun physical activities. Find what your kid needs from school and add it back into your new home routine.


3. Focus on what your child is struggling with at school.

Veteran home-schoolers know that the key is to adapt the curriculum to their kids’ interests. If your kid loves painting, incorporate art into math. Or maybe it’s gardening, which dips into science and literature. This is the time to help kids with the areas they’ve been having a tough time with at school. You can find online resources, worksheets and hands-on activities.

“Try to make it creative and fun and one-on-one,” Helenske says. “If they get that one-on-one attention with what they’re struggling with, they’re going to thrive. It’s about finding confidence.”

4. Find things you enjoy doing as a family.

Figure out how to connect as a family. Maybe work on the yard and plant spring starts. Or if you like puzzles, tackle a 1,000-piece puzzle together.

“Let down the bar,” Pineda says. “Lower it and allow yourself to have fun. Enjoy your kids and listen to them tell you what they’re interested in. Creating a positive and welcoming environment is key. If it’s rigid and you’re stressed out, focus on what is fun. What did I enjoy as a kid the most?”