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Making the grade: How parents can go back to school

Parent with children studying in kitchen

If the phrase "going back to school" makes you think about both your kids and your own unfinished education, it might be time to return to college and get a degree. However, if it’s been several years since you were in school, or if you’ve never tried adult learning, you may wonder if you’ll be able to succeed.

The short answer is yes! You simply need to (re)develop helpful study habits and master time management.

But how does a dad or mom going back to school develop good study habits? How can they improve their time management skills? And what tips for going back to school should they master ahead of time?

The answers to these and other questions will help you form a strategy for your success at home, at work and, yes, in the classroom.

The unique path of adult education

A parent going back to school has several specific obstacles to overcome on the way to academic success. Parents may not be able to study for long hours like a traditional student typically can. Moms and dads might have to find daily child care, which could be difficult or expensive, especially for single parents.

They may also need to continue to work, even full time, while other college students have their expenses covered by their parents or with loans they’ll pay off after graduation. (Without kids, it may be easier for such students to budget and repay their student loans quickly.)

Parents do have unique advantages, as well. They often have real-world experience that can inform their learning. And, unlike most college students, parents have juggled child-rearing and other responsibilities (including work), which makes them better prepared for managing a career while raising kids.

Plus, by going back to school to switch or advance their career, adults can become role models for their kids and possibly even inspire them to succeed in their own education. Watching parents work for a long time toward a dream or other major goal helps teach children the crucial, positive concept of delayed gratification.

"Children of adults who are in school see that long-term goals sometimes take decades," says Dr. Pamela Roggeman, dean of the College of Education at University of Phoenix. "Parents returning to school set a positive example for their children. They are not only investing in their own education; they also equip their children with the same tools to tackle theirs in the future."

Tips for going back to school

The first thing you’ll want to do before signing up for school is to chart a road map for yourself. What changes will you have to make in your life to clear room for school? How much budget can you set aside each month/year for classes and other education-related expenses? Who might be able to handle your typical child care needs (and which days of the week can they do so)? Do you have family or close friends who can help out?

Think asynchronous

Asynchronous learning can make school possible for the busy parent, Roggeman says. Asynchronous learning refers to instruction that is facilitated outside of the constraints of a set time and place, so people juggling busy schedules can access education whenever it is convenient for them.

"The beauty of asynchronous learning is that it can fit into 20- to 30-minute increments of free time," she says. "Everyone can carve out those."

When you have that mapped out (and know which classes you’ll be taking and when), you can break down your schedule into individual days. For example, each Monday, you might have 8-8:30 a.m. blocked off for breakfast, 8:30-11a.m. for classes and then 11 a.m.-noon for studying.

Pro tip: If possible, make lunches for the week, such as a large salad or bowls of pasta, on Sundays or another "day off."

Create a balance

This is also the time to line up financial-aid packages, set up your study space/desk, and secure any materials you’ll need (paper, a laptop, etc.) for your new educational goals.

It’ll be significantly easier for some parents if they take online courses instead of in-person ones. The benefits of online classes can be profound, especially for those juggling parenting, employment and other demands. Online courses are often available 24/7, meaning you can review lectures and course materials at your own speed.

This can be greatly beneficial for parents as they attend to daily life. Children, after all, have school holidays and (sometimes lots of) sick days. Work can require you focus all of your attention to meet a short-term deadline. The demands, in other words, of life outside of school need to be met without negatively impacting your education.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of attending classes online is that online classes fit into individual schedules because class is always there, "always on." Attention to class can vary according to a busy parent’s schedule. Maybe on one day, an adult learner can devote time in 30-minute increments, but other days allow two-hour blocks.

"Everyone has the same 1,440 minutes a day; online adult students make the lifestyle changes to carve out some of those 1,440 minutes for their classes," Roggeman says. "This is done while sitting in the car at the school pickup line, or waiting for baseball practice to end, or limiting social media scrolling, or avoiding binge-watching shows, or waking up an hour earlier. Online classes are always ready when you are and you have time."

How to master time management

The biggest issue some adult college students, particularly back-to-school parents, face when starting up school is managing their time.

According to a Parents Magazine article, "Many students (of all ages) commonly underestimate the time or effort involved in a college course or program. The school should be able to give you an estimate of the amount of time you should expect to devote to your course(s), both in and out of the classroom."

The article goes on to note that most online colleges offer extraordinary flexibility, making it potentially easier to juggle commitments and available time each day.

Before (re)starting the adult learning process, you might want to improve your chances for time management success by brushing up on good time management and study habits. Most experts note that signing out of social media accounts, creating daily to-do lists/checklists, setting breaks for relaxation and making time for exercise are key. Another option is to use time-tracking or distraction-blocking apps like Freedom to keep you on task.

It’s easy to advocate for "self-care" when telling parents to go back to school while raising a family and working. The fact is your self-care may take a backseat now and then. That’s OK when it’s a short-term goal. But don’t lose sight of the fact that going to school is a means to an end. That end is a better life for you and your family.

Build in an occasional day when you and your family spend time doing activities together. Consider it motivation to make that grade.

When you decide to take the plunge and enroll in adult education courses online, get ready for a challenging but ultimately rewarding new adventure.

If you’re ready to enroll, you might have some transfer credits to help save time and money toward your education. Read more about how transfer credits work.

Need to brush up on your available financial aid options? Read our blog on what’s out there and how to apply.


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