By Dr Claudia Wilson
The first important bit of advice is to lower your expectations – we are in an unprecedented time – we’ve never been in such a situation before and so stress levels are running high. This is especially true if parents are trying to juggle working from home, increased household chores, their own stresses and worries as well as trying to home school the children.
Structure is the key! How you implement that structure is very much going to depend on the unique qualities of parents and children. Structure is extremely important in helping us all to feel grounded. There are many aspects to this structure
Structuring the learning environment: The learning environment has many cues which let children know that it is time for learning – they wear a school uniform which is distinct from home clothes, they have a routine in getting ready and going to school, the classroom environment is set up for learning with desks, chairs and other resources. The children have teachers who have trained for many years to become teachers. Home is where you rest, play, watch TV and spend time with your parents. In this lockdown situation the home environment isn’t signalling it is time to learn. As parents we didn’t make the decision to home school. Home schooling is a considered choice usually with lots of preparation. We are in a lock down situation that happened very quickly without time to prepare for home-schooling.
Create a home learning corner – an area where no other activity takes place except for learning. You can set this up with your child. An area where you can remove distractions. Pick clothes that are only worn during home learning. Pick a going to the school corner routine if this helps e.g. hopping to the school corner, a song about going to school, etc.
Structuring time: Do one thing at a time – it’s too hard and counter-productive to try to multi-task. When it’s learning time, it’s learning time only. You cannot do household chores or work and do home learning. A visual timetable to structure the day is important. Some children enjoy being able to tick off activities as they are completed – this gives them a sense of achievement plus they can see where they are with things which is grounding. Some parents find that preparing snacks and meals the night before takes off some of the pressure. Any learning needs to be realistic – small bite size bits of learning to ensure success.
Children are under stress in this situation. Many children are used to working at school and then relaxing at home. The boundaries between these two worlds have blurred in the current situation and this is especially difficult for children who struggle with transitions and changes.
Many children are struggling with social isolation – they miss the physical contact with their friends and other family members. They also don’t have the pull of the group dynamic to learn in the class environment. In addition, it is also much easier to protest doing work with your parent than with someone else. I certainly know the power of providing a reward for a child as someone who is not their parent.
All of us struggle to focus and pay attention when we are stressed, and our working memory is affected too. So, trying to learn when you are struggling to pay attention and remember things is very difficult.
Some schools are providing packs of work with some online learning with their teachers. This all requires the development of a new set of skills – working new technologies plus interactions are very different in a virtual classroom.
Accept that your child will need you to sit with them the whole time. It makes it much easier to accept this and not try to get them to be more independent which is likely to end in frustration. In this situation I would be accepting that many children will struggle to do things that they would normally do without any difficulty in a more normal situation e.g. reading a book by themselves.
Focus on subjects that are most important e.g. maths and English. If 10 minutes is all that your child is likely to cope with at first, then give them 10 minutes of work at an easier level than they would normally be working at in class. Work at this level ensures success! Too much challenge – trying to learn a new way of working plus schoolwork at the usual level is too much and is likely to lead to frustration. Laying the foundation brick by brick is what will get us through this as best as possible – compassion and empathy for the complexity of this situation is the first layer. The second is establishing a routine and structure that will work for your child and your family. This is unlikely to come instantly. It will take a little time to get used to this new way of learning. Sometimes “going slower to go faster” is the best way. As you both get used to this new way of learning then you can increase the difficulty level of the work and the length of time you spend on it. It is likely to improve each child’s motivation if they feel successful.
One of the advantages of learning at home is that children who need to move to keep regulated can stand while learning or wriggle a bit without it disrupting other children. I would suggest that being about to wriggle or stand while working to keep regulated is useful but if you notice that it is more distracting then you will need to change this accordingly e.g. to a wobble cushion or a fiddle toy.
Notice how your child learns best – is it by first listening to a lesson or watching a video and then doing the work? Do they need to experience the work e.g. using counters for maths or their toys to create stories, using various online maths tools e.g. Mathletics or ‘Top Marks Hit the Button’, etc. Would your child find it useful to swap roles once they’ve learnt a new concept by becoming the teacher and teaching you? Would it work to call it a game – playing schools? The more playful the activities the better e.g. learning adding by playing cafés or shops. This can be coupled with some work on paper as set by the school. Other ideas include using music to learn things like the Storybots videos on the solar system. I’m not saying that you need to spend hours on making the curriculum fun. Doing something playful like this for learning where you can is more realistic.
Some children will find a check in with their friends helpful in completing the work. For example, arranging a WhatsApp, Zoom, Skype or similar session with a classmate to do some schoolwork together. This won’t work for all children and there will be varying degrees of supervision needed for this.
Draft in help – some families are asking family members to teach specific subjects e.g. kitchen science to explore reversible and irreversible chemical reactions while baking with granny, maths with grandad, etc. There is so much on offer it can be overwhelming so best to look around a little and then go with what you think will be most engaging e.g. BBC Bitesize is a well established set of resources and they are now offering Geography with David Attenborough, History with Danny Dyer, etc.
Virtual playdates may help the children to feel more connected to their friends and less lonely. In the same way we help children to learn the rules of the playground we will need to help them to learn the use of being in the virtual world – be careful of the language you use, etc. Some parents of older children are happy for their children to play appropriate online games together like Skribbl.io, while others prefer games like Battleships which can be played with paper and pencils.
Take the pressure off to try to achieve high levels of work and speak to the school staff – we are all finding our way. How much work to set in this situation is difficult for teachers to gauge especially where there are so many different family circumstances.
Make sure that there is time for fun physical activities e.g. going for walk or a bike ride in the local woods as part of the permitted once a day exercise outside of the house.
It takes a while to set up a routine so pick the best routine you think will work and keep on going with it. As you run through it each day you will notice what seems to be working best and what needs tweaking. Be careful not to make big changes (unless it really isn’t working).
Learning reflective skills – for children who are able to do this – you can evaluate what is working and what isn’t and why together. Having a sense of humour can be key to many situations. Remember to take stock of your successes and to celebrate them. No one grows through criticism!
Remember this will end and they will go back to school!