It’s a truly humbling moment when your child asks you to help diagram a sentence or solve a grade-level math problem and you, a functioning adult with a diploma and years of experience, draw a complete blank.
Anyone with school-aged children can probably relate. And as many schools start the year with virtual learning, parents are trying to summon even more of that long-forgotten knowledge.
Helping your child navigate Zoom tech support can be daunting. So can balancing work and household duties with making sure your children are engaged and learning.
But the single biggest challenge, many parents say, are the math topics taught through Common Core – a standardized teaching method rolled out in 2010.
Making it through math class
Lisa Cantrell, a marketing director in Douglasville, Georgia, says math is the biggest challenge for her nine-year-old and 12-year-old – and for her.
“I’ve just set the expectation with them that I will teach them the way I know and they’re going to have to translate it to the way they’ve been taught in school,” she says. “They still get angry when I don’t understand what they’re trying to explain to me.”
For the blessedly uninitiated, Common Core math methods require children to group numbers to solve arithmetic problems, rather than the vertical “carry the one” method most adults are used to. The approach goes beyond simple computation to emphasize deeper mathematical concepts.
“Our son in second grade was learning math using the ‘grouping method,’ and my husband had to learn it. He said it was counterintuitive,” says Monique Owens of Mableton, Georgia. “I refused to do the math portion of anything.”
Some parents, like Brian Federico, a director of product management from Atlanta, have taken this problem into their own hands.
“I taught my fourth-grader algebra to solve some problems because the other way was a pain to learn,” he says.
Others rely on outside help to get them through .
“I don’t know the answer to 99% of what my six-year-old asks me,” says Suzanne Cala, a business operations director in Atlanta. “Thank goodness for YouTube, Alexa, and Google.”
“YouTube was my best friend,” agrees Tracy Glanton of Mableton, Georgia, whose son finished fifth grade last year by learning online from home.
Casey Blackwood, a mother of two who also lives in Mableton, points out that math class isn’t the only time parents have to dust off knowledge from their school days.
“I also know parents with kids in distance learning programs are sweating their high school Spanish skills,” she says.
When mom or dad becomes tech support
The actual subject matter isn’t the only thing parents must pay more attention to now that part of their house have been transformed into full-fledged classrooms.
For one, there’s navigating the technical difficulties of online learning: Complicated course software, internet issues and audio-visual equipment failure have parents playing tech support before the first class of the day gets underway.
“You become everything for your kid, and that includes keeping track of eight thousand Zoom passwords,” says Amy Persinger, a nurse practitioner from Bethesda, Maryland. While talking to CNN, she had to pause to help her fourth-grade son log in for one of his classes.
For schools that use online-meeting software, children may need to join a different video call for every class. If they can’t log on or get kicked off because of connection issues, that can cause disruptions – and sometimes, tears.
Persinger says she learned from past mistakes and now keeps the most common login information – homeroom, major classes – on a laminated sheet in case one of her three children has issues while she or her husband are busy.
Distance learning can also be expensive. At the very least, a child needs a reliable internet connection and a computer with some sort of camera. That setup is not always easy to come by.
According to a recent study from Common Sense Media and the Boston Consulting Group, about 15 to 16 million K-12 public school students in the US live in homes with inadequate internet connections or don’t have access to devices needed for distance learning.
And – surprise! – keeping kids engaged at a computer screen for several hours a day isn’t exactly easy.
“Keeping my nine-year-old on task has been the biggest challenge,” says Sareh Baca, a portfolio manager from Atlanta. “I get her set up and then jump on a meeting, and about 75% of the time when I go back to check on her she’s watching YouTube or playing video games. I’ve had to solicit her older sister to help but that doesn’t always end well, and she has her own work to do.”
Parents in 2020 must juggle even more than usual
Indeed, if having one child in distance learning is hard, the job gets even more complex when you add in more children and equally scattered work situations for adults.
Persinger, the nurse practitioner, has recently returned to work part-time. That means she and her husband have to juggle both of their work schedules, plus the schedules of their three children, who all go to different schools and each have a different combination of distance learning and in-person classes.
How does she keep it all together? Aside from the laminated passwords and tons of organization, she says it’s important to remain as level-headed as possible.
“Of course, try to get a little exercise, sleep and keep a good diet,” she says. “And you just have to take it day to day. Because if you look too far into the future, you can easily get overwhelmed.”
For Persinger’s family, that also means teasing out any positives from an objectively challenging – and sometimes impossible – situation.
“I think some parents are getting insight into how their children learn and where their deficits and strengths are,” she says. “And the kids have had to learn a lot about resilience and flexibility.”
But even the most prepared parents have bad days. Your child just started a confusing new math unit, the internet’s out again and the bills are piling up – all while you’ve been trapped in your house-slash-school-slash-quarantine chamber for months.
When it all becomes too much, plenty of parent support groups will suggest a more off-label remedy: A glass of wine and a good cry.