I work for the Chartered College as a Research and Learning Specialist and I’m also a mum to three sons aged 1, 7 and 10. Up until last Autumn, I’d been a teacher and Assistant Headteacher in Primary schools for 15 years but I recently left my job in school to start a part-time PhD.
Like so many others, what used to be my weekly routine has now been thrown up in the air by COVID-19. Having left teaching, I quickly find myself becoming a teacher once more. This time, a home educator to two children who definitely don’t listen to me as much as my pupils in school used to, and to one toddler who has an insatiable drive to chew phone charger cables and grind food into the gaps between my laptop keys.
This post aims to combine my experiences as a teacher and a parent in order to try and begin answering the question – ‘How can we best support parents in homeschooling their children?’ It also considers what this situation means for education as a whole and where it might lead us in the future. These thoughts are based on my own experiences and may not reflect the views of the Chartered College.
My phone bleeps constantly with messages from the parents of my children’s classmates. Some are asking me for help and advice as they know I have a background in teaching. Some are loving it so far and others have locked themselves in the bathroom for a cry. Despite my teaching experience, I don’t feel well-equipped for this situation at all, I don’t think anyone does. However, I am lucky to have some skills and strategies I’ve honed over the years which I can use to try and make each day run more smoothly. My challenge is deciding what to share with fellow parents and when. How to condense the years of behaviour management, curriculum design and classroom organisation into handy tips for friends without overwhelming them. Most of them have been told what the children have to do, but they have no idea how to go about achieving that as painlessly as possible. So much of what we know and understand as teachers is accumulated gradually and unconsciously. Articulating it via text message or phonecall to someone without a background in teaching feels almost impossible.
Teachers across the country are facing the same challenge. Handing over the reins to parents is scary and unsettling for many teachers. What do we need to share with parents to help equip them for this challenge? What do they need to know ASAP and what can wait until later? How much can we really expect of them and how much should we try and dictate what they do?
When school closures were announced, social media rapidly became awash with posts offering free resources, videos and advice to support parents with this unchosen career change, as well as groups to join for moral support and idea swapping. Many schools have provided pupils with activities to do, both on paper and online.
Some parents I know are already feeling overwhelmed by the amount of schoolwork that’s been set, others think it’s nowhere near enough. Available guidance ranges from waking kids up as if it was a school day and keeping to a strict timetable of lessons, to letting each day vary and encouraging children to learn more organically through play, social interactions and family activities such as cooking. But whilst some parents can devote time to delivering a taught or child-led curriculum, others are still carrying out their paid work and need their children to work independently for as much of the day as possible. No single solution can work for all families.
For many people this week is predominantly about adjusting to new ways of living and keeping their children occupied, but in time we will need to consider how children can continue to learn and make progress in the coming weeks and months. ‘Staying busy’ won’t be enough if we want quality education to continue.
Whichever their chosen approach, most parents are looking to teachers for guidance in how best to organise home school for the foreseeable future. The issue of course, is that most teachers have never experienced home schooling before and are also busy getting to grips with what it means to be a distance-learning educator, perhaps using technology they’ve never tried before. Many are also still teaching as part of a rota in school, supporting vulnerable pupils, often in mixed aged groups and sometimes alongside pupils from other schools.
We can look to existing research and guidance on home schooling, but the circumstances we find ourselves in now are very different to the usual conditions in which home schooling takes place. Parents haven’t chosen to home school their children at this time, they haven’t got the opportunity to meet up with other homes schoolers as is commonly done, and they may not have the time, space or resources to deliver a home school education. Similarly, whilst we might learn something from research projects on distance learning, in any other situation schools would have ample time to learn and integrate distance learning technology and approaches before completely moving across from face to face learning.
We are entering the great unknown. As time goes on, both teachers and parents will undoubtedly adjust and refine their approaches as they learn what works best, both generally and for their specific circumstances but for now this is unchartered territory. Maintaining positive relationships with parents and enabling them to feel supported, but not too pressured, will be key in building the foundations needed to tackle the steep learning curve we are all about to embark on.
The stress of the situation aside, for me there is an element of excitement in knowing we are all taking part in the biggest informal education research project of all time. Throughout this, we will be able to ask and explore – how do children learn most effectively? How can we maintain social relationships from a distance? How can students best develop their independent learning skills? And so many other questions. There is surely much to learn from teachers overseas who are already a few weeks ahead of the UK in facing these challenges.
Over the coming weeks and months we will learn so much about how children learn and what parents can uniquely bring to their children’s education. We’ll find new appreciation for the opportunities that schools and classes offer, but also learn what we spend time on that turns out to be unnecessary. We’ll find that much of what we do, can take place from a distance after all. We may choose to use our face-to-face time in class in entirely new ways once this is over. It is a chance to rethink everything which has been set in stone for so long, a chance to rebuild what education looks like in the 21st century. It’s unlikely that education will ever be quite the same again, once we’ve seen how it can work when all of our usual routines, practices and structures are stripped away.
However, before we can redesign education – for the time being we need to support parents in getting through the days and weeks to come. Here are a few pointers which you may want to use with parents who are looking for guidance on home schooling.
Maintaining positive relationships with parents and enabling them to feel supported, but not too pressured, will be key in building the foundations needed to tackle the steep learning curve we are all about to embark on.
Six ‘learning at home’ tips for parents and carers
1. Prep time – Time well spent in the morning, can set children up for the rest of the day
If you are working from home alongside home-schooling, to avoid frequent interruptions throughout your work day, invest time each morning in helping your child/ren get prepared. Ensure they know what each of their activities is for the day and that they have the equipment they need. If activities are online, check they know how to find the websites/apps they need, log in and upload work if needed.
If the school is using software to communicate with pupils, ensure children check messages from teachers and understand any instructions. If your child is working from a timetable, make sure they have a copy of it, and access to a clock so that they know when it’s time to change activities.
Over time, children will get better at managing this preparation themselves but to begin you may need to allow 30 minutes for this.
2. Social time – Maintaining contact with peers will help boost morale and wellbeing
Try and ensure children have time each day to chat with friends. For younger children who don’t have a phone, consider messaging other parents to set up calls or video chats using a parent’s device. With parents’ permission, children could also swap postal or email addresses and send each other messages.
Through this communication with peers, children can help one another with school work but also maintain friendships and talk through new experiences with other people going through the same thing.
3. Independence – supporting the cultivation of independence now will pay dividends later
More than ever before, parents now need their children to be able to learn and problem solve independently. Spending time on this now, will save time in the longer run. Consider teaching your child to take responsibility for something new. Depending on age, this may involve making their own lunch, marking the school work of a younger sibling, or creating a tick list to help them keep track of what they need to do each day. Initially this may need help and encouragement from you, but most children will enjoy taking control and will be keen to lead their own learning rather then be micro-managed. In class, many teachers use a ‘3 before me’ rule, whereby children should try 3 things to solve their own problem before coming to the class teacher. This could also work well at home. So if a child is stuck on a piece of school work, they could try 3 of the following strategies before asking you for help:
- Have I re-read the instructions?
- Is there a picture or example that can help me?
- Is this something I could google or ask Alexa/Siri?
- Do I have a resource (book, equipment) that could help me?
- Can my sibling help me?
4. Getting outside – breaks and playtimes are a necessity not a privilege
Regular breaks throughout the day will be key in helping children maintain focus and motivation. For young children, opportunities for free play are vital and they will need time which is unstructured where they have a choice of what to play with and how to use it.
Exercise and nature have both been shown to improve physical and mental wellbeing and attention, so where possible, outside activities such as walks and jogging in green spaces are ideal.
If you’re working from home and able to take a break too, a family walk or run can be a great strategy for reducing stress and improving energy levels.
Feedback on learning is key in transitioning from activities to keep children busy, to activities which will actually move learning forward. For now, this might not be an immediate priority, but in the future you may want to think about the opportunities children will have to reflect on their work, make improvements, receive feedback and try again. Teachers may be marking work submitted online, in which case you will need to earmark time the following day for your child to respond to that feedback by making corrections and additions to their work. If it’s not possible for teachers to give feedback on work, consider whether they could receive peer feedback from siblings or friends, or whether you could look through their learning and give feedback on what’s been done well, and any areas for improvement.
In school, children are used to having conversations about what they’re learning and how it’s going. The opportunity to articulate what they’ve learnt, what was challenging and what went well, helps children to consolidate their learning and think about what to do next. If possible, try and have these discussions with your child at some point during the day.
At times like this, when everyone is adjusting to new ways of living, it’s also beneficial to reflect on how it’s going so far and how you feel about it. Share your own thoughts on what you enjoyed each day, what’s gone well and what the challenges were. Encourage children to say one good thing about each day and something they might want to do differently next time. If you’re setting up a timetable for home schooling, this might be a good opportunity to discuss how the timings and balance are working and whether you want to make any adjustments. Whilst consistency and routine will help many children feel secure during changing times, having enough flexibility to take on board children’s ideas and reflections will also help them to feel part of the process, reducing oppositional behaviour and resistance.
What do you think is the most important guidance we can give to parents at this point? Please head to our online forum to discuss with other members (coming soon).