Back to school (virtually)

Do you remember as a child that end of holiday feeling of dread at the start of a new school term? Well, who would have thought parents across the land are getting that same sinking feeling at the prospect of starting a new term of home schooling?

And it’s a mixed blessing for children too as they are now well aware that school wasn’t that bad after all and teachers are sometimes much nicer and better at helping them with maths than a cross or worried mummy or daddy. I’m heartened to report that many of the parents I work with are coping brilliantly with the pressure of teaching long forgotten subjects to distracted or unmotivated children.

But there are some crucial developmental stages which are being missed as lockdown continues which no amount of home tuition can provide. In Kent, many year fives will be preparing for the 11 plus and the summer term for year sixes is the final carefree few weeks of primary school before embarking on the huge transition to secondary. For them, it’s a term of the PGL trip, for many the first time staying away from home, and the laughter and tears of leaving celebrations.

Then for older students, no GCSEs, no prom, no A levels. No incentive to study. No help with mastering difficult subjects for a confident transition to university. No birthday parties, no friends to hang out with, no reason to get out of bed.

When I work with school refusers, who are typically suffering from some extreme form of anxiety, it is often their social development that suffers more than their academic progress. If they end up being home schooled, they lose out on the social contact that’s vital for them to develop good interpersonal skills, particularly if they are too anxious to be able to engage in the many clubs, classes and activities available to support home schooling. And that goes for all our school-aged children who are not in school during lockdown.

Of course, school refusers are untroubled by missing their schooldays. And I wonder how many more school refusers there will be when lockdown is lifted as some children dig their heels in if their preferred option to stay at home is no longer available? With both adults and children, there will be some who won’t find returning to ‘normal’ easy at all.

Family relationships in these extraordinary circumstances are being tested in many ways. Both good and bad will be magnified in the confinement of lockdown. Any kind of crisis can create reconciliation and co-operation in the face of a shared enemy. So many families will find the bonds between parents and children strengthened and appreciated more.

If pressing the pause button on the pressures of life in the outside world is a positive experience, then it’s important to make sure that, when the reset button is activated, those positives continue post lockdown. When back to school means back to the school run and the pressures of playground and classroom instead of lessons in pyjamas at the kitchen table, let’s hope that parents and children have a renewed respect for the sterling job our amazing teachers do. Children may appreciate the schooldays which have been so rudely interrrupted more and parents may be grateful to have had the pleasure of so much time with children who will all too soon be off leading their own lives.

Here are some very general tips which I hope will add to the resources and services available from schools and online to help parents cope with the challenges of home schooling and children get the most out of it:

● If your child’s school reports say words to the effect of ‘must try harder’ or ‘lacks motivation’, expect to have those issues with teaching at home. Not all children are super compliant or academic. Focus on their strengths and you’ll get less opposition. Most children respond better to approval and reward than threats and punishment. If you weren’t a high achiever at school, remind yourself of how you’re doing okay and your children will too.

● Children can learn more quickly and efficiently without the many distractions at school and they don’t need prolonged intensive tuition to do so. That may be exhausting and unsustainable for you and them. Make it fun (but not so much fun that they don’t want to go back to school).

● There’s a theory that the short term memory can retain seven bits of information plus or minus two. Stuffing your children with too many facts at once will simply overwhelm them and they’ll forget them anyway. If you’re attempting to emulate the school timetable then break it down a bit further with movement every 30-40 minutes. Bottom wiggling, face pulling, song singing, star jumping or dancing followed by a drink of water helps you all to refocus on and stay hydrated (which helps with concentration).

● Encourage independent learning. If you’re overseeing your children all the time, they may struggle with returning to the classroom where they don’t have a teacher’s exclusive attention. If possible, stay within earshot so they can ask questions about specific tasks, give them time limits and the means to check how long they’ve got and check their progress.

● It might be an idea to set up a ‘study buddy’ group of, maybe, the children they sit with at school or their friendship group so they can chat about the work they’ve done at scheduled times agreed with other parents. This will emulate how they talk about learning amongst friends at school.

● Bring teachers into discussions about lessons to help the transition back to school. Their approval is important to children and they will want to go back to school showing their teacher how well they’ve done.

● If you’re working from home or can’t give home schooling your full attention for whatever reason, know that you’re doing your best and that’s as much as anyone can do.

● If there are problems at home, they are likely to affect everything and everybody more during lockdown. Shielding your children from those effects is important and your responsibility. We know that most children are unaffected by COVID-19 but their mental health can be affected by its consequences.