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Countless parents across the country are now asking the same question: how little home schooling can my kids do without suffering damage?
“I don’t last for more than 30 minutes without ranting about Malala Yousafzai,” says one mother I know about her daughter in year 2, who she often finds looking up “cute cats” and “cute dogs” on Google instead of attending her online classes. Cue the mother’s rants about Yousafzai, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who was shot aged 15 by a Taliban gunman for campaigning for girls’ rights to attend school. It hasn’t been the most successful motivational tool.
“I’m a nurse, I don’t know how to teach,” says Sarah Richardson, second from right, with husband Tom, left, and children Matilda, 16 months, Meg, 7, and Chloe, 8.Credit:Luis Ascui
“I get cross when she’s not doing it [her work], and everything is so shit because I want to be an ally, and I don’t want to be her enemy,” says the mother. “And if I have to home school, I have to become her enemy.”
Sarah Richardson, a 38-year-old mother of three, discovered the answer for her family earlier this year.
“I was like, ‘We’re not doing this again’,” says Richardson, a nurse in Geelong who pulled her eldest daughters, Chloe, 8, and Meg, 7, out of all classes during Victoria’s snap fifth lockdown in July for the sake of their mental wellbeing. It came after a “hideous” home schooling experience during Victoria’s 2020 lockdowns, she says, which “quite traumatised” her firstborn.
“She’s incredibly intelligent and I didn’t know how to push her; I was spending so much time with other people” – Richardson also has a 16-month-old, who was a newborn at the time, and her middle daughter has learning difficulties – “so I left her to do it and she felt really neglected. She was anxious all the time, crying at the drop of a hat. She was an absolute mess.” Still, she felt “a lot of guilt” about pulling her kids out of home schooling. Now that they’re back in a lockdown that appears will be longer than the last one, “we are doing some [school] work, but not pushing it”. They are prioritising their daughters’ maths and English lessons, when they can, and otherwise are encouraging them to go outside, and ride their skateboards or walk around a nearby lake. “I’m a nurse, I don’t know how to teach,” says Richardson.
So what are parents to do? Especially when they’re receiving wildly different advice from their kids’ schools? One letter from a principal in Blacktown went viral last week for reminding parents that “your kids’ mental health will be more important than their academic skills”. Meanwhile, parents from another school in Sydney received an email message that urged their high school-aged children to: “Put aside the grumbling, the self-pity and the ‘what-ifs’.” (“How condescending!” says one parent I know, who didn’t want to identify the school.)
“I don’t think anybody knows what the bare minimum is,” says Dr Elizabeth Berger, a Sydney paediatrician and mother of three primary school-aged children. She’s most worried about her kids’ mental health, partly because of the stress of home schooling (that is, learning at home as opposed to the historic definition) which sometimes leads her to lose her temper – especially when she gets a note from the teacher saying her kids have skipped a Zoom class.
Dr Paul Wood, executive director for the COVID Intensive Learning Support Program within the NSW Department of Education, has some advice for parents of primary school children: prioritise English and mathematics at a minimum.
“These are skills that transfer across all the subjects,” Wood says. “So the ability to be able to read, comprehend, write, read for meaning, be able to work through a text and understand what the text is telling you and how you can create meaning.”
He adds that parents would ideally be mixing in other opportunities to get kids’ “creative juices flowing” by drawing on their other interests, and encouraging them to be active.
How parents are to help kids engage in any subjects after they’ve all been crammed into a house together for extended periods is another question.
Indeed, even teaching experts aren’t getting off scot-free.“I can tell you, my kids are very quick to remind me that I’m not their teacher at home,” says Wood, whose children are aged five, nine and 12. “My household is probably like everybody else’s.”
If it’s anything like mine, then maths and English classes are sandwiched around some regretful tantrums. Like when I verbally pounced on my 12-year-old daughter after struggling to get my weeping eight-year-old to sit down to do maths. “If I could just have this one thing I love, without it being shat on from a great height!” I said, after my daughter side-eyed my dance moves while I listened to loud music in my earphones – my prime coping strategy.
If this has been you, more or less, there’s some more good news: You’re normal. As long as you are not harming your children or frequently yelling at them.
“It is perfectly normal to have an outburst, for people to have a tantrum,” says Associate Professor Monica Thielking, chair of Swinburne University’s department of psychological sciences. “A healthy family with healthy relationships will experience conflict.”
Parents, she adds, should be prioritising their children’s wellbeing over any anxieties they have about how much or how little they are accomplishing scholastically. It’s been well documented that anxiety levels among children have been rising during the pandemic, with Kids Helpline reporting a 40 per cent increase in calls from children during COVID-19, compared to pre-pandemic.
“Your wellbeing always overrides everything,” says Thielking, who is also a registered psychologist and qualified youth worker. “Without wellbeing, children don’t learn well.”
Parents should allow their children to skip days of classes, if needed, and do so in consultation with their child’s school, says Thielking. She adds that if kids are hating home schooling and experiencing psychological impacts, parents should seek outside help.
Aside from that, parents should focus on nurturing their child’s confidence in their learning ability.
“When they lose that [confidence], that’s when educators face many challenges,” says Thielking.
So, how to do it? Wood recommends parents focus on being there to help, rather than to teach.
“One of the things that I’ve learnt as a teacher is you can’t make kids do things,” says Wood. “So it is around a lot of encouragement and a lot of positivity, a lot of building up of the confidence of what kids can do, and do well.”
Thielking agrees. “If a child is working on a maths problem and they get the answer wrong, reward the effort rather than the result. If they stop making an effort, that’s when everything else will fall apart.”
And parents often have greater skills at their fingertips to help their kids learn at home than they realise, say experts.
“There’s such a fear at the moment [among parents] around this idea of [their kids] being behind, but we don’t actually have any strong research in this particular area around the effects of lockdowns and schooling.”
For younger children, just living in a “very verbal household” in which parents are answering children’s questions and getting them to paraphrase what’s happening in books they’re reading is helpful, says Professor Susanne Garvis, chair of Swinburne University’s education department. “If we keep these skills going as a bare minimum, that’s OK, because we know that these things are effective,” she says.
Younger children who are struggling to feel engaged with their classes can also gain a lot from online resources like ABC Education’s Behind The News program and Melbourne Zoo’s virtual tour, says Professor Valsamma Eapen, chair of UNSW’s Infant Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. “They’re things you can pack in without you even realising it’s learning,” she says.
For older children and teenagers, instilling hope around their future career is critical, Thielking says. “What are their strengths, their passions, what kind of career do they see themselves in that they will be happy? When children find meaning in the work that they do, they will do better, they’ll be more motivated.”
Older kids will benefit from being encouraged to teach their parents how they solved a problem at home, even if it’s something that has nothing to do with schoolwork, like cooking a meal.
“It’s actually great for the learning process that they have to think about, and restate to you, the steps they’ve gone through in the learning process,” says Thielking. “That’s developing skills to solve problems. If they come into a new problem, they can think about how they solved it previously.”
Any child who’s struggling because they are not being challenged enough, says Thielking, should be encouraged to research their interests online and speak about them with their parents.
And parents of children of any age should also be mindful of what is, says Professor Garvis, one of the greatest misunderstandings about home schooling now. “There’s such a fear at the moment [among parents] around this idea of [their kids] being behind, but we don’t actually have any strong research in this particular area around the effects of lockdowns and schooling.”
Indeed, early data from across the globe shows varying rates of academic gains and losses during COVID-19 lockdowns. One American study, of more than 4 million students in grades three to eight, found that students suffered some academic losses in maths but none in reading, while another from the Netherlands of students in years eight to 11 noted that an eight-week lockdown resulted in a loss of eight weeks of learning across maths, reading and writing.
Dr Wood says NSW teachers are already preparing to catch kids up on any academic losses they might accrue during lockdown.
For now, Professor Eapen says parents just need to do the best they can while maintaining the sanity of their household, whether that means completing most schoolwork on some days and none on others.
“Parents don’t know whether their fear [of their child falling behind] is going to come to be a reality or not,” she says. “You really can’t anticipate and do something which kills you today and tomorrow.”
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