Today marked a symbolic day – Little H returned to school for the first time since she left for her Christmas holidays. It was a day I almost couldn’t imagine happening, but as she walked through those gates today, I felt a weight lift from my shoulders. Not only was she back where she wanted to be, but the responsibility for educating her was back with the professionals. Thanks to the covid-19 pandemic, Little H has spent 100 days from the last 365 (which is actually about 196 viable school days once you take out holidays and weekends) being schooled at home by Sam, myself and (for the recent lockdown) family members within our childcare support bubble. Given she only started school in September 2019, that’s a lot of time!
I’m cautious about what I call the schooling experience we’ve lived through. In the press and on social media, it has mainly been referred to as ‘homeschooling’. But homeschooling is an active choice made by parents to educate their children fully from home. These parents plan and curate the curriculum themselves. They source all of the materials they need and they go out-and-about to aid the education journey. They structure the learning timetable around the needs of their family and either don’t work or work at a time that does not clash with their schooling schedule. What parents in the UK and across the world have been doing is not homeschooling. Instead it’s better represented by other titles I have seen on some social media accounts: Pandemic schooling, Non-elective homeschooling, Schooling in a Crisis. Because parents / carers over the last year have often been schooling whilst juggling other childcare and / or a day job. They are also teaching with materials provided by their child’s school against the school curriculum. That is not in any way criticising the support schools provide (in contrast, I know that our school have provided excellent materials for us to use), rather I just want to highlighting the challenges of “learning on the job” when taking a child through the daily lessons that we have no control over!
Every family has different demands and different circumstances which influence what they can do, but for Sam and I, Little H’s education has been paramount. Schooling at home has been a challenging, exhilarating and exhausting experience for us all. Little H has learnt a lot and it has been a unique privilege to watch and support her learning first hand. The situation is what it is and I hope that with vaccine rollouts and improved treatments that we won’t see another extended school closure. However, this pandemic has taught me not to be complacent and only time will tell. Regardless, there is something to be learnt from every situation and this is what “playing teacher” has taught me:
- Teaching young children is a real skill – I know it’s a skill at any age but when they are young they don’t even recognise the reason they are learning and you almost want to keep it that way. It has to be done in an organic fashion and that means engaging them through stories and topics of interest whilst teaching some fundamental skills in there. As we have worked through different subjects, I can see where core-skills from other subjects (especially the core subjects of Maths and English) filter into everything they do.
- Kids require a lot of repetition to learn – Everyday for the 8 weeks of schooling we have walked LIttle H through the same quick-fire Maths problems. She knows the answers by heart now but they get her brain into Maths mode. Her phonics lessons also go over sounds every single session. To be honest, it is quite obvious that children need to cover things a number of times before they remember it. The thing I have found myself asking though when teaching Little H is: why do I expect myself to know something fully after only a single “sitting”? I think more adults could do with remembering that a subject needs to be revisited numerous times before the brain can remember the details!
- A strict timetable will not work with a young kid – During the first lockdown, I would allocate a 30 minute slot in the middle of the afternoon to sit with Little H and do some arithmetic and reading. It was always a time-constrained block because I had work commitments either side and a just-two-year-old upstairs napping and threatening to wake up at any moment. The result: almost every day the session would go terribly. Little H didn’t want to just sit down and bosh through the work. She’d get distracted or get stuck or, more often than not, get upset about something she found tricky. This time round I was realistic with myself and just cleared out the entire day to be with her. It meant we could work to her rough timetable but could flex in breaks, walks and snacks where needed. Often I was able to get a bit of work done in the afternoon (on working days) when she was chilling but knowing I didn’t have meeting commitments meant I was relaxed and, in turn, helped her. Kids need time and space to learn.
- Persistence and consistency are key – We have never failed to submit the assignments due each day. Following from the previous point, that didn’t mean we have just blindly ignored where Little H had an emotionally tough period. We took breaks or juggled work around where she needed a change of scene or some time away from the desk. But setting the expectation that all tasks were to be done each day ensured she didn’t simply try and defer the work. She went away, reset herself and helped input into the best way to tick off the tasks without stressing herself. Where she found something difficult we also came back to it another time, trying different techniques. Over the weeks this helped because by the our final weeks she would start to suggest ways to help herself understand by drawing on previous approaches that made sense to her.
- Learning in a community of peers is a real motivator – There are things it takes me an age to get Little H to do which I know she would do without complaint at school. One of the main reasons: her friends. Seeing her friends do things makes her want to do them. Either they help her if she gets stuck. Or, in all honesty, the competitive part of her kicks in and she wants to do as well as (or better than them). Because it’s human instinct to try and be seen as capable and that drives young children as much as anyone else. Without her friends, and her beloved teachers, Little H is often difficult to motivate. I’m not sure it’s any different for most adults really!