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Should you worry about how much work your child is doing during lockdown?

Mother working while children play around her

Image: famveldman/

It’s seven weeks into the schools’ lockdown and for many parents the pressure is taking its toll.

If you are trying to hold down a job, while being a parent and a home-maker, taking charge of your children’s education is probably pushing you to your limits. In a recent survey by NCA-CEOP, 53% of respondents felt that their children lacked motivation.

But should parents be worrying about how much progress their child is making? Or whether they can replicate the atmosphere of the classroom in a corner of the living room?

The view of the experts

Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman told the Education Select Committee that “it would be unrealistic for anyone, including me, to expect the vast majority of children to have made the same progress they would have made if they’d been in school.”

Losing out on their education may be a significant issue but parents are not to blame if home and online learning are, as Spielman describes, “a very poor substitute for full-time, normal education”.

Sandra Leaton Gray, associate professor at the UCL Institute of Education, says, “Parents shouldn’t feel personally responsible for any of this. They haven’t decided to take their kids out of school, sail around the world, and then slot them back in the system after a six-month break.”

So, if you’re feeling the weight of responsibility, the first things to realise are that none of this is your fault and no one is expecting you to replace a teacher in your child’s life.

Changing your approach

While it may not be your fault, that doesn’t solve the problem of what to do about a child who would rather stay in bed, play on Xbox, watch Netflix or even stare at the wall than engage with school work.

Leaton Gray’s advice is to adopt a more naturalistic approach to learning: one which focuses on your child’s current interests and activities, and which is therefore more likely to motivate them.

In practice, she suggests finding “something that doesn't involve 12 hours a day on Minecraft, or just hanging out and then build on that by feeding in useful educational stuff around the edges. Focus on what helps your children be better and happier people, rather than preparing for tests.”

She uses the example of biscuit-making that could be an opportunity for introducing ideas about science or maths. And for kids who don’t enjoy extended writing, she suggests getting them to write about things that interest or outrage them, whether that’s sharks, Pokemon or melting ice caps. Perhaps substitute a protest letter for a creative piece.

Adapting to different learning styles

Children’s emotional and behavioural psychologist, and founder of Unravel, Andrea Chatten is working with families feeling the pressure of having to impose a strict regime and with children suffering anxiety from work overload.

She agrees that bombarding children with work can be counter-productive and that, “Parents need to recognise their child’s learning habits and learning styles. This is a brilliant opportunity for children who are normally shoehorned into a system which only allows for one way to learn.”

“Let them experiment, be curious, learn in the style that suits them,” she continues, “because that’s how you’re going to keep them feeling positive and well.”

If that means staying in pyjamas all day or simply not doing any work, that’s fine, according to Leaton Gray: “If that’s the only thing that keeps children calm and comfortable, maybe that’s enough sometimes.”

Learning through play

Equally, we need to appreciate the value of play – particularly with young children. Early years experts advise parents to follow a child’s lead and allow them to do what interests them at their own pace.

Paul Ramchandani, Lego professor of play at Cambridge University, said in the Guardian, “I struggle with the way learning is set up in this country, in terms of the age at which we expect children to settle down and sit in class.” He advocates playful parenting: “We know that children being able to play freely is associated with better health outcomes and potentially lower stress.”

This does not mean that you should now be devising daily arts and crafts projects involving sponge-painting the walls or creating the Bayeaux tapestry out of pipe cleaners.

As Leaton Gray remarks, “You just end up with a messy house and there are no cleaners to come in at the end of the school day. You’ve got to do all the clearing up while getting the tea on and then do it all over again tomorrow. The deal here is to all stay as healthy and happy as is manageable in difficult circumstances.”

The older students

Of course, the issues facing students in Year 10 and above are quite different. We now know that GCSE and A Level results are to be determined by teachers who will calculate grades taking into account a range of evidence and data, including performance in mock exams and non-exam assessment, before submitting them to exam boards for standardisation.

If students feel the grades awarded in July do not reflect their ability, they may be offered the chance of sitting exams at some point in the next academic year. No details of how this would work in practice have yet been announced, however.

If parents are struggling to motivate students in Years 11 and 13, it is hardly surprising. They’ve been denied the usual rites of passage that come with such defining moments in their school careers. They’ve had the goal, for which they’ve worked for at least two years, abruptly removed and many feel isolated and alone. Even the possibility of sitting an exam to improve their grades seems too distant and uncertain to provide real focus.

For these students, time would be best spent in researching courses for next year, accessing reading lists and perhaps learning something new. There are a wealth of free online courses available, from computer coding to calligraphy, screenwriting to sustainable fashion. FutureLearn is just one provider of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).

For the Year 10s and 12s, who face the greatest challenge in making up lost time in the classroom, it is as yet unclear what can be put in place to get them on track to sit a full set of exams next summer. But one thing is certain: parents should not feel they have to shoulder this responsibility. Schools will have provided the necessary materials and there is only so much you can do to provide motivation.

Learning at school vs learning from home

An important thing to remember is that learning at home is nothing like learning at school, where social interaction, rules, classroom expectations and trained teachers all play a significant role. And in the course of a school day, how much actual focused study is there, asks Leaton Gray?

“Kids are not flat out for six or seven hours: they have breaks, lunch, moving between lessons, PE and other non-academic subjects. Then a wasp flies in or there’s a rain shower and everyone’s distracted. So they probably do about two to three hours of actual ‘brain time’ a day. These aren’t laboratory conditions that kids learn in. This is real life.”

With that in mind, parents need not be a slave to the school timetable. “If the school is laying on Zoom or real-time learning opportunities, it’s polite to log in,” says Leaton Gray, “but, other than that, it doesn’t really matter – that sort of rigidity has gone.”

Parents cannot be substitutes for professional teachers who know how to engage and motivate students, are familiar with exam specifications and mark schemes and, as Leaton Gray points out, have sanctions where necessary.

“All parents have is persuasion. Well, it’s difficult to persuade teenagers to do things they really don’t want to do and not all children are naturally conscientious. And for some adolescents, just getting up in the morning is a major undertaking. So, you’ve got to hang on to that and not judge yourself too harshly.”

The key message is that in these difficult times, home is a very different place to school and a parent’s job is to parent, not teach. So, lower your expectations: you can only hope to maintain the learning habit, not achieve perfection. Instead, make family happiness and contentment your goal.

Tips from the experts

  • Be flexible in your approach to a timetable and to the learning style of your child
  • Be guided by your child’s interests
  • Look for other ways to learn beyond the curriculum or work set
  • Include your child when working out a schedule and allow them some choice over what they do
  • Allow for short, focused periods of learning
  • Have some continuity with core subjects
  • Try to minimise resistance to learning by making deals or having a reward system
  • Remember that screen time can have real benefits
  • Don’t judge yourself too harshly

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