Even before Covid-19, most working parents were already at full tilt trying to balance work and parenting – and not always feeling like we were succeeding. Being a full-time teacher on top of working from home (with kids, dog, distracting partner, one laptop between you and variable Wi-Fi) just isn’t realistic. For a while, it looked like homeschooling had become the latest arena for competitive parenting, with social media packed with complicated craft projects and 8-hour homeschooling schedules. But now the novelty has worn off and we’ve realised that we might be in this for the long haul and, for many of us, motivation is waning. So, I thought this might be a good time for some sensible homeschooling tips for parents working from home.
Whether your homeschooling attempts are going just fine, or you’ve given up completely, here are some ideas to help children learn that you can fit around the edges of working from home.
Don’t panic, don’t compare
Don’t be fooled into thinking that every other child in the country is completing hours and hours of Maths every day. Or that every other parent has got homeschooling down to a fine art. Stay away from social media. Or, if you can’t do that, remind yourself that people post on social media in order to seek validation and a sense of competence. So, when another parent posts a photo of some amazing homeschool craft project they have completed with their child (on top of running a company or a full day’s work), remember that they are most likely posting it because it is the one thing that has gone well for them that week. And that the rest of their days were just like yours – simply trying to do your best in difficult circumstances. Your best is good enough. The kids will be fine.
Have a homeschooling routine
Yes, I know I am not the first to say this. But your homeschooling work day will go much better if there is some predictability around when you will work, when the kids will be learning, some regular food breaks and scheduled down time. A routine will also help you to chunk your workload to fit in with the kids (and them with you). And just because a particular routine succeeds for a while doesn’t mean that you have to stick to it forever. If the routine you started out with is flagging or you have drifted off track, tweak it or try something new.
We talk about a ‘school day’. But children never spend a whole day doing formal academic learning at actual school. By the time you have taken into account their break times, lunch time, assembly, PE/Sports, PSHE lessons, Art, moving from lesson to lesson and generally getting books and equipment out and putting them away again, children only spend about 2-3hrs a day engaged in academic learning at school. (The younger they are, the more likely they are to be at the lower end of that range). So if your child is doing 2 hours of academic study during lockdown homeschooling, you are doing brilliantly!
Use the material school sends
Secondary school children should try and stick as much as possible to the guidance and materials being provided by school. Your main job is to help them have a structure to their day that will get some schoolwork done. If they don’t understand the materials, you can help. But as much as possible encourage them to seek illumination through independent study skills (e.g. from the teacher, from reference materials such as BBC Bitesize, or from other pupils). Prompt them to self-evaluate rather than trying to mark their work.
For younger children, use the materials sent by school as a resource rather than sticking to them slavishly or trying to get through it all. Most Primary teachers are sending out far more material than you can complete just to make sure parents have lots of ideas and support. So use it as a starting point.
Learning through play
For younger children, play is the main way they learn about the world and build their intelligence. It is also great for their emotional health. So, step away from the online Maths quizzes. Maximise their opportunities to learn through high quality play by turning off the tech and providing lots of learning-rich free play time using simple multi-purpose materials. Intersperse short snippets of formal learning with self-led learning through play. Provide water play or paper aeroplane kits for science. Give them playing cards or pretend money for practising numbers or sums. What they choose to do with those materials is their choice, just leave them to it.
Follow their passions
You know your children best and what interests them. So go with the grain and harness their natural inclinations to engage them in learning. Does your child love drawing? Then get them to do a drawing that explains the key learning point from a particular lesson or topic. Maybe they like making films or stop animations or flip-o-rama or powerpoints (seriously, my tween loved making powerpoints!). Or perhaps they could design a game or do a dance or perform a play that illustrates a key point? Give them choices in order to maximise engagement. Don’t worry what the final product looks like, it’s the learning process that matters.
Mini projects for applied learning
Has your child been learning about measuring? Or maybe about shapes or plans or how to use grid paper? Could they apply that learning in a homeschooling mini project that occupies their time while you get on with some work? If they have been badgering you to redecorate their bedrooms, this is the ideal opportunity to get them measuring their wardrobe and seeing where else it will fit, or making scaled models of their furniture. You could even give them a budget and ask them to draw up costed plans. How could they transform their room with £50? What would they do if they had £3000? Or maybe they could come up with two different plans for the same imaginary budget which they ‘pitch’ to you Dragons Den style?
Children are much more likely to get on with an activity unaided (while you work!) if it excites their interest. So use their passions and talents, whatever will engage them, and let them fly with their ideas. Their project could be planning a future holiday (make believe or otherwise). Or just a day out for when lockdown finishes. Or they could take a learning point from their history lesson and do something practical with it, like planning a menu for a family of four using a wartime ration book and what’s in your cupboards. Just set them off on a project and leave them to it as much as possible. Could they set up a blog or a fanzine? Projects work especially well with older kids. (And, you never know, they might even discover the very thing they want build a whole career from).
Real world activities
Home-school isn’t school-school. There are more opportunities to learn through real-world activities at home. If you want your younger child to practise writing, get her to write a real letter to someone who is shielding. Could you give your teenager a budget and get him to plan your family meals for the week? Can your 5-year-old be in charge of making a simple picnic lunch every ‘school’ day? Could your tween make a batch of cookies (at one-and-a-half times the recipe to make it trickier)?
Getting children involved in household tasks not only teaches them valuable life skills, it builds their self-esteem and helps them to feel like they are making a contribution to the family. So, don’t add to your own stress levels by running around after your children doing things they could be doing for themselves on top of working and homeschooling. Extend their skills, expect them to contribute, and get them involved and learning at the same time.
Novelty and challenge
If you want to encourage your children to play creatively (perhaps while you get on with some work), then a room full of toys is less likely to do it than a few novel items. Or some familiar items presented or arranged in a novel way. Raid your wardrobe, or the kitchen cupboards, or the garage or recycling box, and put together a daily collection of items that they don’t usually get to play with. Then set them a challenge. You have these items and 30/45 minutes to invent a game / prepare a theatrical performance / build a model that illustrates the principle of gravity / life in Victorian England / the position of the planets and then show it to me. It won’t feel like school (and it might buy you time for some work). You won’t win every time but the successes will help you know what sparks their imagination.
If we want children to learn, they need to be motivated and engaged. We can’t force learning into their heads. Work out what will motivate your child to complete their schoolwork. Is it fun that motivates them? Or a competitive spirit? Or daily rewards? Use lots of descriptive praise to positively reinforce when they are engaged in learning. And accept that they won’t be up for 100% effort every day (and nor will you).
Reading counts as homeschooling!
Seriously, if you do nothing else, get them to read. However you can. Whatever topic or genre they will go for. Alone, or to each other, or with Granny via FaceTime. It doesn’t have to be books even – recipes, reviews, jokes, all reading counts. (See Ways to boost reading skills that don’t involve books)
©Anita Cleare 2020