Emma Kennedy is Deputy Director, Educational Psychology Training and CAMHS ASC & LD Team Manager at the Tavistock Clinic. Emma talks about some of the challenges parents who are working remotely or outside the home may have when supporting their child with schoolwork. She highlights the benefits of prioritising contact with friends, and not feeling like you now have to be ‘teacher’ too. She talks about balancing up routine and predictability with being responsive to the moment; and most of all, advocates giving ourselves permission to just do the best we can and to try and have fun with our children at home.
My name is Emma Kennedy and I am a teacher and an Educational Psychologist working at the Tavistock Clinic. I am also a parent and like many others, am continuing to work whilst my child is at home. So like lots of people, how I can best support their education at this time is on my mind. Listening to colleagues, I am conscious of the range of feelings parents who are working remotely or outside the home can have: guilt that they aren’t doing as much or as well as other parents, worry that their child may fall behind if they aren’t supported properly, frustration with juggling work and home demands, and sometimes sheer puzzlement at what their child is doing in school and how far removed this can be from how we ourselves as children were taught.
One starting point in thinking about this is what to call it. A much valued former student, Dr Kasia Williams, has pointed out that parents trying to support their child with school work at home are not ‘home educators’ – home education is a discipline all of its own, just like teaching is! She has noted in the past how different the parent-child relationship is from the teacher-student relationship, and that in her experience this is often not recognised as well as it could be. No one should be expecting to teach their children in the same way a school does. Indeed, there is much in the current school system that is problematic for many students anyway. Undue exam anxiety and stress, zero tolerance approaches to behaviour, serious issues regarding the meaningful inclusion of all children and young people – these aren’t things we would want to replicate at home anyway. Now is an opportunity to do what some educators highlight works well for many students: follow their leads and interests, be as creative as you like and have some fun. Although it may be more recognised that online learning is not a suitable approach for children in the early years, learning through play can be just as effective for older children.
One thing that school does give many children is space and time to be with their friends. We know how important positive friendships are to resilience and well-being: prioritising children staying connected to friends at this time is beneficial. This may be by phone, through messaging services or videoconference; or even reviving the art of letter writing! Many parents have had understandable concerns about the use of devices such as smartphones, PlayStation or X-Box; and consequently wanting to set reasonable limits on screen-time. For now, because of the social component particularly, having a slightly more relaxed attitude towards so-called digital living may help. If it allows your child to stay in touch with their friends, it may actually help relieve some of the tension and worry they could be experiencing. So long as you and they keep basic safety principles in mind, an online game with friends may if nothing else normalise what is such an abnormal experience, helping your child to notice that they and their friends are in a similar situation.
Coming back to school-work at home…ultimately, schools are still responsible for your child’s education. Just like they always have been. And a school timetable is exactly that: for school. Schools are sensitive to the fact that giving lots and lots of paper or computer-based tasks for the length of a typical school day doesn’t work. Indeed, it may more likely lead to greater levels of stress and tension between children and their parents. This can be particularly the case when there is more than one child at home – juggling two or more sets of expectations for work (or co-ordinating across different schools) is just not possible. However, it may open up possibilities as regards your older child getting the chance to be the ‘more capable peer’ for a younger sibling; fostering the development of both. Rivalries aside, taking opportunities with the children together to do something that stimulates everyone –like taking a virtual tour through Kruger National Park and then compiling an illustrated book of favourite animals – may give your older child a chance to experience being ‘teacher’ in a helpful way!
Having said that, for some, such ideas can make the whole experience even more stressful – what if my child is an only child? What if I can’t mediate between my son and daughter who argue constantly at the best of times?! How do I help them with their schoolwork when I have so much work of my own? How do we as a family do all of this school work when we are feeling stressed, worried and plain worn out? The professional guidance is hopefully reassuring: your children’s and your own wellbeing is paramount. Not educational activities. Giving them and yourself the permission to focus on coping and staying well, rather than cramming the day full with tasks, may hopefully lift some of the weight. There is much made in the media of using routine to help make things predictable; and structure is undoubtedly beneficial. However, it does not need to be perfect: educational psychology colleagues have highlighted that if parents find that planning and sticking to a routine is causing conflict, then it’s not a problem to be more ‘in the moment’. Finally, the recommendation is to avoid putting too much pressure on academic work. Most parents and carers are not teachers. It’s totally OK not to be doing ‘school work’ for six hours a day. Indeed, instead of perfection, we would all do well right now to aim for ‘good enough’: spending time together doing things we enjoy, focusing on our relationships and having some fun.