So, here we are again. Lockdown first time round was a baptism by fire for families forced unwittingly into home classrooms while juggling remote work. To our dismay, we’d forgotten our Pythagoras, subordinate clauses and photosynthesis. “What is a verb?” was googled 40,500 times a month on average, while searches for “what is a factor in maths” surged 2,500 per cent. Needless to say, we all breathed a sigh of relief when schools reopened.
But the new year has brought with it school closures and the threat of even tougher prolonged lockdowns, meaning parents are facing the whole messy experience of homeschooling once more, and they’re quaking.
There are many things parents wouldn’t do again – from allowing free rein on the Xbox to rigid timetabling. Here are experts’ views on navigating the home-school minefield once more.
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Many parents regret not setting a routine from the start last time round – apart from those who stuck too rigidly to one. “Like anything in parenting, it’s easier to go in with too many rules and take them away rather than keep adding them,” says Elizabeth Tweedale, a former teacher, founder of Cyphercoders and mother of three (aged 11, 9 and 2).
Every Sunday, she’d go through her children’s timetable for the week ahead, fixing pop-up reminders on their shared calendars for forthcoming Zoom classes so she knew they’d be on track. She and her husband – who also works from home – kept an hour free for a family lunch, flagging clearly to colleagues when they were offline.
Try to engage a child in creating a routine, whatever their age, says James Egan, parent and chief executive of the Shaw Academy. Get a whiteboard to write it down, to help create that elusive feeling of control.
Prioritise core subjects in the morning to make the most of morning alertness, advises Simon Barnes, former teacher and founder of online tutoring service TLC LIVE, and save less taxing stuff for afternoons. Last year, some parents swore by working out with Joe Wicks at 9am; others allowed their kids’ days to drift from midday to midnight – not fretting so long as work got done.
Don’t try to be school
Kids spend just 15 to 20 minutes learning during a lesson – and without chit-chat and exercises, it becomes too intense. Even teachers admit they’ve struggled to manage their own kids at home.
“School is a vehicle for so much more than education – you can’t replicate it,” says former headmaster Leon Hady, founder of Guide Education.
Schools don’t expect parents to become teachers. “Think of yourselves more as ushers,” says Hady. “Find a rhythm to the day with perhaps two chunks of learning in the morning, two in the afternoon.”
A constant source of family conflict, screens became the bane of parents’ lockdown lives last year, with many rueing a lack of ground rules from the start.
From a distance it’s hard to know whether kids and teens are playing games or studying – it all happens on a screen. If you are setting limits, then differentiate between activities, says Tweedale – and beware that they can get distracted by the chat function during online classes.
“Kids are acutely aware of the different types of screentime – passive, creative, social or interactive such as gaming,” she says. When they are doing homework online, they shouldn’t be on social media and so on. “We shouldn’t expect children to be able to police themselves, but they should be able to stick to pre-agreed limits and activities.”
She enforced downtime for the whole family “to just relax. I had to keep a close eye on mental health”. Her son, in year 6, “met” his friends gaming at the end of the day – “it was an amazing way for him to keep in touch” – and she allowed YouTube only at weekends. “But my daughter can go online as she likes, so long as she is creating something – not all children are the same.” Reassess rules regularly, she says – children adapt easily. Spend time getting to know the tech and social media your kids enjoy – that’s mostly TikTok – and talk to them, she says “that’s the equivalent of sitting in the sandpit with toddlers.”
It’s harder to set rules for older children, who are reporting higher levels of depression and poor mental health since lockdown, says Professor Robert Winston, who’s written advice on better social skills for the likes of Zoom – one of his tips is “smile more”. “It’s easy to get worked up about the risks but we don’t yet understand these properly.”
Latest research (Andrew Przybylski published in the Journal of The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Sep 2020) reinforces previous studies that an hour or two a day of screentime are associated with slightly higher levels of emotional and psychological wellbeing. “Overall the computer is a positive device – but we have to learn how to use it, and we don’t know the answers yet.”
Keep talking about what they do online, is the advice of pretty much every expert, and use security to control access at home, and have regular tech safety talks. “Lead by example,” says a spokesperson from NortonLifeLock – don’t be glued to your own tech in front of the family.
These can take many forms, says Barnes – gaming, live chats, food, fresh air. “But exercise is crucial and a walk or kickabout must be timetabled into the day.” Little and often works best, as do short breaks between lessons. “But try not to plan activities and instead let your child decide how they would like to spend their time,” says Barnes.
“You might find 30 minute blasts followed by 10-minute breaks helps maintain concentration, says Greg Smith, head of operations at Oxford Home schooling. Sleep suffered too during the first big lockdown – children aged five to 11 need 10 to 12 hours, while 11 to 18 year olds need 8 to 10 hours.
Since last year’s lockdowns, many schools have switched to platforms such as ShowMyHomework, Google Classroom or Microsoft Teams, so that parents can enjoy a bird’s eye view on assignments – though it doesn’t make nagging any easier.
But in terms of content, there’s a bewildering range of resources out there, from celebrity lessons to niche websites – small wonder parents feel like rabbits caught in the headlights.
You can ask your kids’ schools for curriculum advice and links – remember parents aren’t teachers – the school must guide them. There are age-specific government guides.
So much engaging lesson content is free – PlanBee, set up by primary teachers, offers free printable resources for primary years, while Teach Active has launched isolation packs for parents (from Oct 19 at subscribing schools). BBC Bitesize offers support on motivation and wellbeing as well as resources.
And for almost everything, “YouTube is a life saver,” says Hady. Subject videos are interspersed with questions and quizzes to keep students engaged.
If chunks of text are too intimidating, try using free text to speech software so your child can hear it read aloud.
Some other top resources, according to Oxford Home Schooling, include Geography Games, Science Journal For Kids, National Geographic For Kids, Fun Brain, Quizlet, Carol Vorderman’s Maths Factor and Seneca.
Go off piste with young children
“I tried to make it silly and fun,” says Nicky Rudd, managing director of Padua Communications, who shared the education of her six year old daughter with her husband.
“He’d do worksheets on Africa, I’d do dressing up, the full immersive stuff.” They made themselves up as Cleopatra, went French with bread and cheese, painted the Mona Lisa and made pasta, and lay around like Romans. On VE day she had a field day with cakes.
“I found it easier to do themes. My daughter loved it. We definitely got tighter as a family unit.”
There’s an online treasure trove of ideas to spark fun for younger children. “At the start it was the only way to get my child to put pen to paper,” says Georgina Durrant, former science and special needs teacher who put her ideas – from homemade volcanoes to wordsplat – on a video blog (The SEN Resources Blog). “I put far too many demands on us at the start with a timetable and routine. We were far happier and productive if we followed his lead.”
Don’t worry too much about spending an equal amount of time on each subject, says Smith. You’ll naturally know more about some than others.
Engaging with teens
Work on your relationship first, then find common ground, says Hady – a shared interest to lead into a subject. You don’t need to be an expert. Try to think of a few open-ended questions to ask a child after a spell of learning – along the lines of “what was most interesting, what was it about?” “The quality of these questions is important – it gives the child a chance to summarise and synthesise, which is vital for learning at any age.”
Squeezing everyone together can be hellish, particularly if space is tight. Teachers clearly define some peaceful classroom space – a book corner, or a peaceful library seat, and kids need this at home, no matter how small, says Oli Ryan, manager at PlanBee. “Even if it’s just a worktop corner, respect that space,” he says. “Keep it clear and try not to disturb the child.”
Don’t overlook the obvious things, says Egan – a comfy chair, good light, snacks and drinks.
“Play around with how you and your child study – sitting, standing, lying down, inside or out – find a method that helps them concentrate,” says Smith.
Children need to be able to work independently without you looking over their shoulder, says Ryan. “But make sure they know they can always come to you for help.” Decent stationery is relatively cheap but worth it “to show you value the quality and presentation of your children’s work.”
Tweedale’s children sat in the same room “my husband in his lair,” her in her headphones, with her baby throwing toys in the background. “It was challenging. Once we’d built up trust, I allowed my son to learn in his own room.”
Older children prefer privacy. “Wherever they are most comfortable is good,” says Hady, whose 10 year old daughter learns well lying on her bed listening to music. “Often there’s little benefit to sitting at a desk.” Try sitting back to back while reading out loud or stare side by side out of the window as you chat. “Organise the learning more than the physical space,” he says.
Lara Pechard can hardly believe she began her home-school days in the park last year – as head of St Margaret’s School in Hertfordshire, she was juggling care of her two young children with her husband. “You might be busy, but your four year old is still four. An hour outside meant I felt less guilty at carving up my day later. And I knew they’d not been short changed.”
As Pechard knows, young people need an hour of physical activity a day but during lockdown, exercise levels fell among under 16s (Sport England). Exercise, as former teacher and founder of Teach Active Jon Smedley reminds us, benefits sleep, memory, learning, energy levels and wellbeing. No child should sit still all day, and research shows they learn and concentrate better after physical activity.
He’s talking about not only short bursts of football, trampolining, but active lessons – reciting times tables when kicking a ball or running upstairs for instance, or building a clock with stones and twigs. “It doesn’t have to be vigorous to the point of sweating”. He works with thousands of teachers to help them build in physical activity to the likes of maths and English lessons. “We do know that 20 minutes after physical activity is when children are most likely to learn.”
Ditch trying to be perfect and settle for “good enough”, says Kirstly Lilley, mental health specialist at wellbeing charity CABA – parents have enough on their plates. Try to grab personal time to recharge your batteries – your family needs you. Steer clear of parents’ social media, especially if you’re working full time, says Judy Wing. “I used to feel so dejected when I’d see what other parents had achieved.”
Be specific when you praise your children’s efforts, say Lilley. “This lets them know that you’re noticing what they’re doing and that you’re interested.” And praise their efforts as much as outcome.
Lay the groundwork for the working day, says Lilley, and again, be specific – I need 20 minutes to do this call rather than “go away, I need to work.” “Negotiation is key here. Being honest with your children may help them to see you value their collaboration and opinion.” Resist the urge to multitask. Keep in mind children are like sponges – they soak up events and your own response, so look for ways you can stay calm and centred as possible.
‘Kids love a challenge’
Fleur Prime, life coach and former deputy head teacher lives in Earlsfield with her husband and their three girls, Jewel (13), Pearl (12), and Bo (11)
I went into lockdown with the mindset that we’ll work this out together. We chatted and set a routine and boundaries – if it went wrong, there was loading the dishwasher or cleaning as penalties.
We’d always eat lunch and dinner together – meal times were when we all connected as a family. They had online lessons from 9am. But for a kid, sitting at a computer filling in a worksheet isn’t necessarily appealing. As parents we have to be creative, especially if your children have different learning styles. But it wasn’t all easy – as parents we put pressure on ourselves to be perfect but we can be good enough.
I told my children I trusted them to get on with it until they gave me reason to doubt them – I’d go in sporadically so I could hear they were on task. Children like choice – sometimes they chose to work together in the kitchen with headphones if they needed a change.
I could see one of my girls was struggling to understand weights and measures; we did some cooking at lunchtime to get the hang of it. Another daughter had to study a play, so we acted it out.
I tried to be as creative as possible without too much extra work. Parents might feel anxious that they’re not doing enough, but children are learning all the time.
I got them to go through things they didn’t understand with some teenage neighbours on Zoom; that was a great way to take the anxiety out of a subject.
Children mostly want to do the right thing – I’ve always believe in ‘connect before you correct’, and try to understand what they are struggling with.
Over lunch I was really strict about tech – no television or phones. I gave them a list of brain friendly activities. They had to do something creative or be physical – we had hula hoops, and juggling balls, a family puzzle. We bought a trampoline that filled the entire garden. One daughter would listen to audio books as she cooked – it would help keep her mind calm. My oldest often just wanted to chat.
They did tie dye, my oldest upscaled old clothes and sold toys. My youngest cut the hair of her barbies. I’d try to get them to finish work at 4pm every day and prevent them spending hours on one piece.
Kids love a challenge and they’re familiar with school reward systems. If they were on task, we’d let them choose a film on Friday or where we went on a picnic.
They were allowed television for an hour before my husband took them to the park. I’d prepare dinner and this was the most difficult part of the day for me.
I’d walk our dog every morning – this time was essential. As we were both working from home it was important to have time in nature and exercise. Parents need to look after their wellbeing.