Imagine your ultimate, ultra-productive working environment: What do you see? Dark bookshelves and comfortable armchairs? Sleek, minimalist furniture with spacious, clean surfaces? Precarious piles that only you can navigate?

Whatever you are picturing, it probably doesn’t include a tornado of toddler destruction or a slouch of surly teens demanding attention at unpredictable intervals.

Working from home with kids in the house is not easy, but we’ve collected some advice, practical tips, and useful resources to help you make it through.

Activities to keep your kids busy while you work

If you’ve landed here in desperation because you’re getting nothing done, we’ve got you. Here are our favorite “Give me 20 minutes to get something done, please!” ideas sorted by age group.

3 years and under

  • Bubbles are cheap and easy for even very small children to enjoy, and you can make your own bubbles with dish soap and water.
  • Grab an old keyboard and let your toddler bash away on it next to you so you can “work together.”
  • Make screen time more interactive with educational phone or tablet apps from your kids’ favorite TV shows.
  • Sidewalk chalk can turn your paths into an easily cleaned canvas.
  • A decent sized cardboard box can be a spaceship, a house, or just about anything else.
  • Check out the zoos and aquariums that are streaming live video of their animals.

4-7 years old

  • Fun yoga for kids with lots of different themes for any interest.
  • Give them an old paintbrush and a bucket of water and have them paint fence palings or other surfaces that change color when wet.
  • If you have a trampoline, a swing set, or even a jump rope, have kids create a “show” to perform for you.
  • Check out your local library for digital borrowing options like ebooks, audiobooks, and movies. Apps like Libby can make for a better experience.
  • Art for Kids Hub is a fantastic resource for learning to draw almost anything you can think of!
  • Author Mo Willems is doing Lunch Doodles for kids, where he shows how to do his famous drawings of Piggie, Gerald, and Pigeon, and he talks about what it’s like for all of us to be isolating and social distancing. Here is a list of other children’s authors who are doing similar things.

8-12 years old

Teens

  • Playing cooperative games like Dungeons & Dragons online involves socializing, storytelling, and strategic thinking, and it can last hours!
  • Code Academy is offering learn from home coding resources.
  • Encourage them to use free website editors to write and design fan sites for their favorite bands or shows.
  • Set them up with a bodyweight training app for some exercise without equipment needs.
  • Have them search for appropriate podcasts related to their interests; help them find their people!
  • This is a great time for teens to experiment with cooking, baking, gardening, decorating, DIY, and myriad other interests they might develop.

If you have a little more time, read on below for more in-depth suggestions from folks who are right there with you.

Tips and advice for working from home with kids

When you’ve burnt through all your best ideas and are looking to create some sustainable improvements, read on!

First, acknowledge reality

When working from home with kids — or managing people who are trying to work and parent at the same time — it’s important to remember that no two individuals have the exact same responsibilities and demands.

Every family is different:

  • Different numbers of children, at different ages, with different personalities and needs
  • Different spaces to work in
  • With partners working at home, or not working but still at home
  • Single parenting
  • Caring for other people’s children

Every job is different:

  • Some are inflexible around time and availability
  • Some are very meeting-heavy
  • Some are consistent and predictable, while others have bursts of activity and downtime

So if you have a colleague who is homeschooling 5 organic, free-range children while pursuing a second PHD, take a breath and remember that you are not in the exact same situation.

In the rest of this article, we’ll provide a range of ideas, tips, and advice. Pick what suits you right now, and ignore the rest. Nobody knows your needs better than you do.

Set expectations

Communicating clearly about what you have on your plate to the people in your life will help everyone understand what is happening for you, what you can deliver, and how they can be helpful.

Set expectations with:

  • Your manager — It’s better to be honest up front about new limitations on your capacity than to drop the ball on things and then explain later. Hopefully you will have supportive and understanding leadership, but even if not, an early warning is the right way to go.
  • Your colleagues — They will be facing their own challenges, too, and they’ll need to know what to rely on and what to let go of.
  • Your children — Depending on their ages, your children may be able to understand why you can’t be available to them at every moment. Try to give them an idea of when you will be available, and set them up for success when you won’t be (snacks, a specific activity or school task, and a time-frame of how long you will be busy).
  • Yourself — If you aren’t honest and reasonable with yourself about what you can really do in this new situation, you’ll only end up setting inaccurate expectations for other folk in your life.

Add the right level of structure

Working and living at home can blur the existing structure of your life and make it feel like every day is the same. Adding some structure to your work day can help you regain some control, give you and your family something to look forward to, and give you a sense of progress.

If you are trying to balance work and caring for young children, a simple chart or spreadsheet can really help give everyone an idea of what is critical work time and when things can be more flexible.

If that sounds helpful, check out our sample daily planning Google Sheet and make a copy for yourself.

If your children have devices, a shared family calendar can help everyone know what they are supposed to be doing. Add your key work times, family fun times, chores — whatever you need your children to know.

Of course something much simpler might work better for your family, especially with smaller children. Ask them to help you write a big “Today” checklist, showing the things you all want to do, and let them check off each one as you go.

Structure doesn’t have to mean rigid lists or charts, either. Amy Panza sets up weekly themes for her children, who are 9 to 12 years old. Tying the usual school activities into a theme like “Ancient Egypt” can create some creativity, fun, and independent learning for kids.

Be flexible

One of the great challenges of parenting is that when you think you’ve finally got everything sorted out and the routines are working, your kids will suddenly change in some unpredictable way and bring it all down.

Working at home with kids will be no different; what works today might not work tomorrow. If you expect to be re-making the schedule and experimenting with new ideas, you’ll be less stressed than if you try to rigidly stick to the “perfect” system.

Take a moment at the end of the day to review what worked and what didn’t, and decide if you need to try a different approach the next day.

Use the resources available

If you find yourself struggling, remember that there are resources you can call on for help. For example:

  • Does your company offer an Employee Assistance Program with someone to call if you need to talk things out?
  • Do you have friends or relatives who’d love to jump on a Zoom call and read a story or play a game with your kids for 20 minutes?
  • Use some of the educational-but-not-tedious apps or websites that you can share with your children without worrying that they are learning nothing.
  • Connect with your local school or pre-school and see what help they can offer.
  • Arrange digital play dates for your children and let them entertain each other for a while.
  • Talk with other parents to learn how they are getting through the days, and steal their best ideas. At Help Scout we have a parenting channel called “cubscouts” for sharing challenges, ideas, and successes.

Practice self-care

Help Scout’s Anjuan Simmons says, “Healthy people do healthy work.” Taking time to invest in your own mental and physical health is not being selfish, it’s doing what is required to prepare yourself to be the person your family and workplace need you to be.

So give yourself time to make a coffee, pop out for a run, do a puzzle, or whatever else you need to do to recharge. It’s not always easy, especially if you don’t have a lot of space, so you might need to be creative.

Parents of young children know how much difference just a few minutes of personal space can make — moments stolen away in the bathroom or hiding in a kitchen pantry. Do what you need to do, even if that means a little extra screen time or breaking into the Strategic Cookie Reserve.

Further resources

Mathew Patterson

Mathew Patterson

After running a support team for years, Mat joined the marketing team at Help Scout, where we make excellent customer service achievable for companies of all sizes. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.