Waving a child goodbye at the school gate before heading off to a meeting. Racing home from a day’s work in time to hear about a child’s completely different day at school, then read a bedtime story. Long-awaited school holiday activities outdoors among friends and cousins.
With the realisation of yet another three word Borisonian mantra – ‘Stay at home’ – these socially orientated, physical separators between parent and child seem to already belong to a bygone, golden age. Parenting has suddenly changed. Children and parents are compelled to stay at home together. All day long.
Life will of course return to normal. But right now parents across the world are being forced to pause their over-scheduled and digitalised lives and focus on their children. The initial glee of being able to sleep in an extra hour or two will soon wear thin. We face the prospect of having to find productive and fun ways of spending the whole day together en famille in the same building – learning, earning and, in most cases, just getting along.
The positives of self-isolating with your kids
Bonas MacFarlane has over 25 years of experience of educating children at home. We want to emphasise some of the positives of the family time that many of us might need to spend in isolation. Although social media may amplify the fears of the pandemic, it also gives us a platform to show we are there for each other, to check in with friends and family and to inspire us with things to do with this unexpected time st home.
Bonas MacFarlane was established in the early 1990s by young tutors who saw the benefits of educating children in their family homes. Not all of these children were immediately willing participants. Their parents often sympathised. The father of one of our first tutees recalled his own reaction to being introduced to a governess who had come to stay for the holidays. With his brother, he charmingly invited the shy spinster to go boating at dusk. They rowed alongside her to the middle of a loch, whereupon they removed the oars from her boat and raced for home. But, like most children, they came round to appreciating the transformative effects of individually tailored tuition at home: they sailed through Common Entrance exams to Eton.
Educating a child at home is actually quite straightforward, provided two basic principles are followed:
We are biologically wired to follow strict routines. We all know that securing a routine for a baby results in less interrupted nights. Daily routine is just as important for older children (and their parents). Follow the mantra that it takes twenty-one days to form a habit and three days to break one. Schools run on stricter timetables than a Swiss mountain railway. Why? Because being governed by what one of the great Victorian Harrow songs called ‘the voice of the bell’ works. This is how schools control hundreds of children in a confined space. Don’t try and beat them at their own game; if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
Of course, there is greater flexibility to be had in a routine designed for a few children (or even a single child) than a school of hundreds. If one activity works really well, schedule more time for it; if a child performs better a little later in the day, respect that. One eight-year old we schooled at home in the Dordogne for six months in 1997 enjoyed reading. So she spent the first ninety minutes of her school day just reading classical children’s literature. This gave her ideas for the creative writing that was her second activity of the day (she is now enjoying a successful career in advertising). At school, reading is often consigned to the evening, when a child is tired.
But unless there is a daily schedule agreed – in writing – the night before or at breakfast, very little will be achieved.
2. Outcomes, aims and objectives
With a solid routine in place, the family can make clear and achievable outcomes, aims and objectives for their children’s learning. Understanding the expectations for each child will provide the right content and achievable goals. (An excellent resource for understanding your child’s educational expectations is through The School Run which outlines the Key Stages and the development of children in these stages).
1. Know the desired outcome
2. Be clear on the aims required to achieve the outcome
3. Prepare objectives (activities) to practice the aims
1. Desired Outcome?: Year 6 KS2 (SATs exam)
Reading and Writing exams focus on themes, character development, events, understanding literary elements such as ‘between the lines’ meanings, punctuation, and range of vocabulary.
2. Aims?: Develop vocabulary, use correct punctuation, understand elements of reading, literary techniques.
3. Objectives?: Reading and writing exercises, SATs past paper practice, reading comprehension, listening comprehension, writing comprehension. Spelling quizzes, vocabulary quizzes. Creating and writing stories. Reading passages and answering questions about the passage.
The objectives must be scheduled; each task has to have a time limit. If a child manages to complete the objective well within the time limit, there can be a reward of extra free time or favourite activity.
Every activity should have an aim, objective and outcome. And make sure the child knows the time limit and the reason for the exercise. An example: ‘In the next five minutes we are going to make a plan for an essay and write the three lead sentences for the three main arguments. Why? Because cracking the first sentence is the hardest part of writing.
Four other suggestions:
1. The best way of knowing you know something is to be able to teach it to someone else:
One of the most strategic ways a child can learn is to teach back to their teacher what they are learning. This technique can be used in any subject on any learning objective. The parent effectively becomes a classmate. And remember – just like adults, children do not like being told what to do and how to think all day. Example: ‘pretend I have never heard about Henry VIII. Tell me all you can about him in exactly two minutes’.
2. Keep a diary
This pandemic is probably going to become an episode in history. Perhaps the future for our children will hold many more pandemics. But this is the first time the whole digitalised world has been faced by exactly the same threat. Children can understand that, but writing about the positive effects should be encouraged. Parents have time to talk to children about the uncertainties they faced growing up; self-isolating grandparents can talk online about their childhoods. This is a great time for children to record their oral family history.
3. Celebrate the removal of peer groups
School communities are artificial in the sense that children spend fourteen years in the same rooms as other children who are within exactly a year of their age. Not a single adult workplace replicates or even reflects this; in all of our working lives, we collaborate with colleagues of varying ages – they might even be several decades younger or older than us.
And this is the great joy of schooling children at home. They start to see adults and younger children as contemporaries and engage with them as equals. So we encourage parents to use this time to its maximum benefit by learning together as a family. And to repeat: children do not take well to being instructed all day so engage in an activity where they might have the edge, such as learning a completely new modern language or craft.
4. Have realistic expectations
There is a limit to how much structured learning young children will accept. Remember that working individually with a child tends to be highly concentrated compared to the group activity and wide-angle focus of the classroom. Two hours per day of solid concentration on learning new material is an impressive outcome for an adult let alone a child. And the younger the child, the more these two hours need to be interspersed with less focused activities – drawing, discussing, reading and being read to, etc. This is what happens at school. Again, don’t try and reinvent the wheel. Remember: too many children are over tutored.
Online or Offline?
Bonas MacFarlane invests in researching cutting-edge digital learning platforms. With the onset of school and work closures, the digital realm will be key in developing children’s futures. While online tutoring can be just as effective as in-person learning, securing a balance between digital and non-digital delivery is vital. An essential factor in your child’s day is their ability to simply play and exercise in fresh air. Youtube exercise videos, playing music, or educational physical games are all excellent ways to keep moving to pass time, let energy out or learn through the body. Physical exercise can present educational options for memory games (learning a dance, number counting), strategy games, or simply keeping healthy.
Although COVID-19 has brought a storm of major disruptions and changes in everyday life, we can be thankful for the opportunities to reconnect with family and think creatively about our children’s futures. Children can now learn in ways that are quite different and complementary to their lives at school. They will almost certainly be working at home for much of their careers. This is the time to instill the routines that make working at home preferable to living at work. And when our children look back on this remarkable time of isolation, the fear that is rampant and thick in the air right now will be overruled by positive memories of the resurgence and regeneration of family time.