Balancing work with parenting was hard enough before a global pandemic shoe-horned its way into our lives. But working from home AND being a home-school teacher is perhaps the most challenging balancing act most of us have ever encountered. For a while, when all this started (it seems so long ago), there were confident cries of “I’ve got this” and “What’s all the fuss about?” – but as Week One gave way to Week Two, the cracks started to show, the novelty wore off and the grey hairs multiplied.
Like many of you, I feel your home-schooling pain. I have a teaching job (three days), a university job (one day) and also write for OUP… and I have two daughters at home wandering into my office to get to the loudest home printer in the world seven times a day!
But whether your home-school experience has been plain(ish) sailing, or you’ve nearly lost the plot most days, here’s some strategies and ideas to support your child’s learning, help engagement and keep them motivated.
Use the material your child’s school provides
Schools will provide work, often online through a platform such as Google Classroom or Microsoft Teams. They may have ‘live lessons’, as well as material linked to online resources paid for by the school. If you are struggling to find enough laptops and tablets in your household, simply contact the school. They will be able to provide ‘hard copies’ of the presentations, worksheets etc for you to do ‘off line’. It is also worth pointing out that both Microsoft Teams and Google Classroom can be accessed via Playstation or Xbox consoles.
Find a space
Try to provide a quiet space for your child to work (headphones might help too) and tell them to do what they can. You don’t have to become a teacher. First and foremost you are a parent – so provide what parents give best – encouragement and support. It might be worth thinking about the material the school sends as a resource, rather than as something which must be done to the exact criteria set out in the instructions. Some schools (particularly primary schools) are sending out far more material than can be realistically done – so don’t feel that it all needs to be done. Just use it as a starting point for ideas and topics. And – if you can’t help with something (I really struggle with my daughter’s Maths work), don’t dig yourself a hole by trying to muddle through it and show them “how I would do it”. In Maths, for example, the way many of us were taught is not the way they are taught today. Strategies change. So try not to totally confuse your child with your 20 year-old method of doing long multiplication. It’s best to just step away and prompt them to re-read the instructions, contact a friend or seek help from the teacher.
Try to provide a structure to the day
Some schools will require students to log onto live lessons and be there at a particular time. But they know this isn’t always possible. Most schools will provide a recorded version that can be worked on later. It’s important to provide a structure to the day, but this doesn’t need to be a strict timetable. However, the day will probably go much better if there is some predictability around when school work is required, lunchtimes, break etc. For younger children in particular, it might be worth trying to keep the later afternoons free for more fun activities – such drawing, cooking, some sort of physical activity or simply watching something with an ‘educational twist’ on TV. It’s important to note that, in ‘normal’ times, children do not spend the whole school day doing academic activities. They have breaks, lunch, tutor time, PSHE lessons, PE lessons – and they move around the schools lots too. So, if you are managing to get them to do two or three hours of academic study during lockdown, you are doing a fine job!
Let other people worry about the exams (or lack of them), rather than you
It is totally understandable that many ‘exam year’ students (and parents) are really concerned about examination grades and how they will be calculated for 2021. Last year saw a bit of a fiasco, when students were awarded moderated versions of their teachers’ predicted grades, which were then subsequently downgraded (several levels in some cases) as a result of an algorithm that disproportionately affected some schools. Widespread anger at this led to a U-turn. This year, the government have announced that they will “trust in teachers rather than algorithms”, and that there would be “training and support” for teachers to help predict grades “to ensure these are awarded fairly and consistently”. This process will be in consultation with Ofqual, the exam boards and teaching unions. Whilst we are still unsure about the finer details, it seems like the government is keen to avoid the situation that occurred last year.
Schools will have ‘lost learning’ in mind
There are also worries for students lower down the year groups, who aren’t in ‘exam years’, relating to the ‘lost learning’ that will have happened as a result of the lockdowns, closing of year group bubbles, isolation periods and so on. Rest assured, schools are well aware of this. As soon as schools get students back in front of them, face-to-face, they will unveil all sorts of strategies to help students ‘catch up’ – ranging from extra tuition to ‘master-class workshops’ with educational specialists. For those of you with particular concerns about the ‘here and now’ (perhaps you have a child in Year 10, for example) and to provide some extra focus for your child, you might consider supplementing the work they do in a subject with some specialist topic or exam material.
Use all the motivation tricks in the book
Children tend to learn best when they are engaged and motivated. I’ve been a teacher for over 20 years and one of the best strategies I’ve ever learned is to focus on the positives – the things they do right – rather than what they are getting wrong. Use lots of descriptive praise too (“I’m really proud of the way you have….”). Show an interest in the topics they are studying, praise their efforts and, if they ask for help, try to encourage them to work it out for themselves, rather than give them the answer. This might be as simple as asking them to re-read the task, or the resources provided, or use a dictionary, textbook or the internet. However, this can be a fine balancing act. If you knock back every single question, you might end up with a really demotivated child – so don’t overdo it! In short, you know what motivates your child best – is it fun? Is it a reward each day (30 mins playing Fortnite at lunch)? Or do they like some sort of competitive edge? In short, an incentive system of some kind that leads to a reward that genuinely motivates them might be just what you need to get them to plough through their maths!
Don’t overthink it all
I think it’s useful to remember that it’s more important to keep your child happy and stimulated, than it is to ensure they do every bit of work every day. If all your child has managed to do all day is to read for half an hour, do some Maths and watch two episodes of Horrible Histories – that’s OK. Similarly, if they done every bit of work the school has set by 11.30am – that’s OK too. Remember that talking about a topic with your child, or asking them to read a newspaper, doesn’t require Wi-Fi or an expensive device – but are both vital skills. Home-school isn’t school – but there are still things you can do to keep your child engaged so learning habits don’t disappear. My daughter loves to cook – so she was set the task of baking some biscuits at one-and-a-half times the recipe (just to make it tougher). If your child has a creative side, ask them to make a board game (with questions from their school topics) or create a story book about ‘Life in lockdown’.
As we take this pandemic and everything it throws at us one day at a time, remember that your child’s school is there waiting – packed with resources and experts who will be able to help fill any gaps, bring subjects to life, motivate and enthuse, and help your child to do their best. For now – my advice as a teacher, author, and parent, would be to keep going, to show interest and talk about what they are doing, praise what does get done, and don’t sweat about what doesn’t.
Aaron Wilkes is a teacher, author and parent of two daughters!
 You can find out more about Oxford’s range of revision support at www.oxfordsecondary.com/revision