Ditch the routine, ignore the ‘learning space’, and don’t be afraid to go with the flow - here’s one expert’s advice when it comes to teaching your child at home during a pandemic.
Lockdown may have ended across the UK but thousands of children are still having to isolate at home following outbreaks of Covid-19 in their classroom.
That could still be the case well into next year.
Up until now, the overwhelming advice for parents has been that routine, regularity and structure is key to making children engage with work sent home from school.
But now Dr Harriet Pattison, Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood at Liverpool Hope University, says we need to re-think - and take that guidance with a huge pinch of salt – because it’s placing unnecessary pressure on families
She explains: “When it comes to discussions about pandemic schooling, we’ve heard a lot about this idea of a child needing to have a routine, regularity and structure in order to learn.
“Some of the advice has really been quite extreme, such as ‘have a whistle and call them in from the garden at 9:30am’, ‘get them into school clothes so they know they’re learning’ and ‘dedicate a special place in the house’ to teach them.
“And all of this puts enormous pressure on parents.”
Don’t try to replicate the ‘school’ at home
Dr Pattison says that we can instead learn lessons from the growing numbers of parents who decide to become ‘elective’ home educators, taking their children out of the traditional school system.
She adds: “The research tells us that when children come out of school to be home educated what commonly occurs is that they begin by ‘doing school at home’ - with parents trying to replicate the school environment, but in their house.
“It’s this idea that you need to do an hour’s maths, an hour’s English, and have a weekly routine.
“But what soon happens is that this routine crumbles, usually because there’s so much resistance from the child or it just becomes impractical. It’s almost inevitable that the routine will break down.
“We see this with the pandemic - parents commenting online saying how difficult it is, saying, ‘I can’t do this, my kids won’t sit down, they won’t get their work out’.
“And from a home education point of view, when families ditch the routine they move to a much more relaxed, much more child-led learning environment.
“This takes the pressure off parents and off the parent - child relationship but at the same time, home education research shows that learning also moves onto a new level.”
Don’t be rigid - and listen to the child
Dr Pattison: “It makes sense for parents to tune into their child’s motivation, to make the most of the responsive times and not to battle against tiredness, distraction or lack of interest.
“Going with the energy makes perfect sense in getting the best out of children and educating effectively, even if it means that some learning takes place at weekends, in the evening or at odd, unplanned and unexpected moments.
"Making the most of these times may make education less planned but also more enjoyable and more effective.”
Forget the timetable
Ditching the timetable also allows children to set the pace and lead the way.
Dr Pattison: “Children are very good at asking questions, playing, exploring and finding their own way into things. Getting involved with what is already going on is a great way to spend time together, experiment, investigate and discuss; the chances are that parents and children will end up learning something new together.
“Children have their own ideas - often very good ones - from which all sorts of learning can emanate so if they want to build letters out of Lego or read car number plates, this should be encouraged. It shouldn’t be the case that parents feel obliged to say, ‘You have to do it this way, and you have to start here’.
“It is much more fun and more successful than falling out and wasting time as you try to get something into the child’s head or down onto paper when it is simply not going to happen.
“School does not offer the opportunity to be flexible and dynamic like that - so we should make the most of it while it is available. It’s actually a strength, not a weakness of education.”
Do you really need a ‘dedicated learning space’ in the home?
Dr Pattison: “Home educators will say there isn’t this division between learning and life.
“At school, it’s very much the case that you’ll spend a period of time working and learning, and a period of time not working, when you’re hanging out with your friends or playing football.
“Home educators argue that the hard and fast distinction between learning and not learning is an artificial one.
“Instead learning and life blend into one another and just as much learning will happen in the kitchen or the garden or on a walk as will happen sitting at the dining room table with the text books out.
“As one home educating mother summed up, ‘Home education takes up all of your time, and none of your time’. It’s a nice way to put it.”
Online ‘parenting fail’ jokes aren’t helping.
Jokes about the disaster of pandemic schooling and inevitable ‘parenting fails’ aren’t helping families to cope, either.
Dr Pattison, author of 2008 book How Children Learn at Home and also 2016’s Rethinking Learning to Read, adds: “It is nice to be humorous but just assuming parents can’t cope is also seriously undermining.
“We have a very strong political narrative of parental incompetence but it just isn’t true. All parents help their children learn all sorts of things, it is a natural part of that relationship and of family life.
“Crediting parents is also a reminder that actually parents are primarily responsible for children, including their children’s education. It is a reminder to all involved that schools operate on behalf of parents and children, not the other way around.”
Don’t assume kids have had a bad time through the pandemic
“Nobody is going to forget this year. There are all sorts of things that we are going to take away from it as individuals and as families and, hard though it has been, we can also make sure that there are positives.
“Children are going to remember all the time they spent with their families, parents and siblings. They are going to remember how they looked after each other, how they became more resourceful and made the most of new circumstances, how constraints became opportunities, how they, as individuals, as family members and community members responded to this crisis.
“Those lessons are longer lasting and much more significant than what spellings were learned or what sums were done.”
The number of children being home educated is rising fast.
Earlier this year Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) data revealed local authorities reported 60,544 children as being home educated in March 2019, compared to 52,770 in March 2018.
The pandemic has also contributed to the rise.
The UK Parliament Education Committee is currently hearing evidence with the intention of changing policy regarding home education, increasing monitoring and control.
Dr Pattison adds: “There remains wide scale ignorance and assumptions surrounding home education.
“We need to be very aware of this and very careful that we do not sweep aside myriad educational possibilities and opportunities because we are stuck in thinking that learning at home is the same as learning in school; because we haven’t been able to think beyond the routines and structure.”