Parents’ school closure survival guide

Yet again in 2021, many families find ourselves having our children at home with us, rather than at school.

As was also the case when schools closed in 2020, feeling alarmed and anxious about this is a normal reaction for both adults and children – a huge part of our lives has changed, outside our control.

We want to reassure you as a parent that you don’t need to suddenly become a ‘proper’ schoolteacher like your child is used to, replicate their full school curriculum from your kitchen with no support, or even ask your child to study for the full duration of school hours unless their school is requesting that. Learning doesn’t have to happen in the classroom, in formal lessons, or be linked to their curriculum for it to be beneficial.

When it comes to your child’s formal learning right now, you should take the lead from your child’s school. If your child is at secondary school, their school may have a structured distance learning programme already in place, enabling them to continue their studies independently online with little impact on the curriculum and (as long as they are self-motivated – read on for tips if not) little requirement from you.

The same may apply if your child is younger, or their school may have only provided loose guidance on how to occupy their days during the school closures, leaving you looking for ideas on how to structure their days so they include a mixture of formal learning (linked to school subjects) and informal learning (general play, exercise and exploration).

So, here are our 23 top tips for surviving and even thriving during school closures – from starting off, to what to learn, and what to do away from formal learning.

Starting off

1. Look after your mental healthIt’s more important to look after all your mental health right now than it is to keep up your child’s formal learning. The mental health charity Mind has some useful pointers to support adults during the coronavirus pandemic, and Young Minds has some excellent tips for children and teenagers.

2. Talk about how you’re feeling about school closuresBe as honest as you can be with your child about the current situation, in a way that’s appropriate to their age – Unicef’s article How to talk to your child about COVID-19 has some helpful pointers. Encourage your child to communicate honestly how they’re feeling – whether that’s to do with coronavirus itself, being ‘schooled’ from home or anything else (if they’d like, they could always draw a picture that they then describe with you). Answer them as honestly as you can, while also aiming to be positive and reassuring. If they don’t want to talk about it that’s fine, but ensure they know you’re happy for them to talk to you about any worries they might have.

3. Set expectationsWhether you need to get involved closely with your child’s formal learning or not over the next few weeks, you’ll be wearing a ‘teacher’ hat at times and you’ll need to set boundaries from the outset for when you’re asking them to do formal learning. When you say they need to sit down and pay attention, they need to do so – just as if you were their teacher at school.

4. Aim to keep (loosely) to a routineYour child may well be following a timetable laid out by their school and following it remotely. If not, then knowing in advance roughly what you’re doing with them, and when, helps both you and your child manage the day. Try to establish a daily structure that works for your family. You can either set a routine (maybe involve your child so they have some input) and see how it feels, or play it more by ear and see what routine naturally emerges (as long as it’s a positive one!) before deciding the framework for your weekdays. It’s fine if it takes a week or more to work out what works best.

5. Follow a daily structure that works for youSome families find continuing to get up at the normal time works, while others – especially if your child is older and enjoys a lie-in – rise a set amount of time (say 30 minutes or an hour) later than their normal time – after all, there’s no commuting time to school involved now!  Some prefer to do ‘formal’ study in the morning, leaving the afternoon free for unstructured activities, while it suits other families to keep structured learning going in short bursts through the normal school hours, mixed up with play. Either approach is absolutely fine – it’s about working out what works for your unique family. Even when you do decide on a rough structure, you can be flexible: if your child is fidgeting at the table, you could let them do something else and come back to the table later.

6. Create a working spaceIf it’s possible, aim to set aside a designated place to study and learn – even if it’s simply a kitchen table that you clear it away later on and it reverts back to being your normal kitchen table again. If you’re working from home at the same time, consider whether you need to be near your child so you can communicate easily, or whether you need a bit of distance so you can both focus more clearly.

Things to remember

7. Be flexibleIf, after a few days, you feel your routine isn’t working, sit down and discuss how you could change it. Could it be improved by changing the place your child works (such as moving from a bedroom to the kitchen), do you need to factor in more breaks or downtime, do you need to let them work more independently, or do you need to review the balance of formal and informal learning?

8. Don’t try to do a full dayHome learning is more intense than in a full classroom, so your child won’t need to spend as many hours formally learning as they do at school.

9. Keep things balancedTry to ensure things are mixed up. Even if your child is older and is following their school curriculum online, discourage them from studying all day without a break, or from studying the same subject all day. Do a bit of number work, say, followed by a bit of reading. Factor in break times to eat, relax, chat and exercise.

What to learn

10. Encourage independent play and studyEven if your child is young, you don’t need to be in ‘teacher’ or supervisory mode all the time. Independent play and learning will help them develop into children who are confident and self aware. Schoolchildren of any age can play independently with Lego or do crafting, and online programmes can be followed with less parental input. If they can read by themselves they can use our Bedrock Vocabulary technology (currently available on a free 14-day trial). This introduces children to a wide range of engaging fiction and non-fiction texts and provides a programme of learning tailored to their ability. Choices such as this can help improve your child’s confidence as much as their formal knowledge and understanding, putting them in the best place for when they can return to school.

11. Read what your school suggestsIf your child is following their curriculum via distance learning, they’ll need to carry on with the normal study. If they have been emailed suggestions of things to do by their class teacher, unless stated otherwise these are likely to only be suggestions, not instructions. They will know that you aren’t a qualified teacher, that you may have multiple children of different ages at home and may also be trying to complete a day’s paid work at the same time. When stripped back to the bare bones, we recommend that every day you should aim to do some reading, some maths (practical maths counts, such as measuring and weighing when baking) and some exercise, plus ideally some writing too.

12. Make up your own ‘lessons’Use topical events as inspiration for discussions that can stimulate learning. For example, when the BBC announced the closure of McDonald’s restaurants in the UK in March 2020, it linked to an article about how McDonald’s grew from a single restaurant to a large chain. As McDonald’s is something many children can relate to, you could read and discuss the article with your child and tailor a discussion to their interests. Based solely on the information in the article, you could explore academic subjects such as history (when did fast food became popular, and why may that have been?), geography (where did McDonald’s start – can you find it on a map?), economics (how did they expand?) or maths (the article refers to ‘three decades after 1954’: what year was that?). You could also explore universal themes such as family (the founders were brothers – would your siblings consider working together?), ambition (at first they felt they were rich enough just with one restaurant and had to be persuaded to open more – what would your child do?) and talent (the founders were good at making food quickly and consistently, but it took someone else with different skills to help them expand into a chain – what are different members of your own family good at?). Finally, you could even use the opportunity to improve your child’s vocabulary (entrepreneur, vetting, franchise – all words used in the article) or spelling (restaurant, efficiency). Your child doesn’t necessarily need to write anything down formally like they would at school – just exploring these themes verbally is enough.

13. Discover a passion!There could be unexpected positives and opportunities amidst the shock and uncertainty: imagination and creativity can flourish when thoughts have more space to develop. You could suggest your child is lucky that they can now use some time each day to study something of particular interest to them, in more depth than their school curriculum allows. Isaac Newton apparently developed his theory of gravity when the University of Cambridge temporarily closed in 1665 because of the plague! Even if your child chooses to spend an hour a day, say, improving their Minecraft expertise, it can still be valid because they learn resilience, patience and confidence as they build their new creations. Equally, they could choose to focus on something connected to their school studies – mastering a new score on an instrument, nailing their times tables or perfecting some other skill. All of these will be useful when school returns to normal, and will boost their confidence.

Away from formal learning

14. Talk, play and read as a familyOn the positive side, school closures allow families to spend more time together than they normally would. Use this time together to talk and play together more – you’ll build stronger bonds as well as improving your child’s vocabulary (a strong vocabulary is associated with good exam results, more confidence and greater success as an adult). Our article 21 fun ways to improve your child’s vocabulary has plenty of suggestions that are easy to incorporate into your daily family life.

15. Keep activeSpend time playing or exercising outside while it’s daylight, if you can.  If you’re stuck at home, check out The Body Coach TV channel on YouTube.  The Scouts have published The Great Indoors – a guide to various indoor activities to challenge, entertain and educate 6-18-year-olds.

16. Keep in touch with friendsIt’s inevitable that your child will miss some of their school friendships (and wider family) during school closures. However, you could keep in touch via Skype, WhatsApp or email.

17. Ensure your child helps out around the houseInevitably the normal household ritual of cleaning and cooking must continue. In fact, your home is likely to need more tidying and cleaning than usual! Ask your child to help keep it tidy so it’s an enjoyable place to be in. This is the perfect time to ensure older children know how to make a cup of tea, load the dishwasher, unload the washing machine or cook some pasta, and younger children can enjoy tidying up and baking.

18. Eat wellEnsure you stick to proper mealtimes and eat nutritious food together as a family when possible. These will help keep the normal daily structure you’re used to and be a natural time to share successes and highlights from day, as well as air any concerns or worries – helping you all to keep mentally healthy as well as physically healthy.

19. Stick to bedtimesEven though there’s no physical school to go to, try to all continue to go to bed at normal bedtime and aim for plenty of sleep – it’s good for both physical and mental health.

20. Enjoy downtimeAfter formal learning is over, make sure your child (and you) do something every day that you enjoy, whether this is together or separately. It doesn’t matter what – it could be watching TV or gaming, baking, drawing, building Lego, watching a film, doing a puzzle, or painting a picture.

21. Look after yourself tooYour child can only thrive at home during the school closures if you look after yourself too. If you have a partner, make sure you share childcare and ‘teaching’ responsibilities fairly and talk to them about how you’re both feeling. Also keep in contact with friends and family, even if only by phone. Find out any local live streaming from nearby clubs or libraries by joining or following any groups on social media. Search ‘COVID-19’ or ‘coronavirus’ plus your area to find any. The Government-backed Money Advice Service has information on coronavirus and your money which is regularly updated.

22. Have weekends offWhen there’s no externally set structure to your days it can feel a bit like it’s still the period between Christmas and New Year, when you wake up not sure what day it is. So try to keep learning for week days only and make weekends as ‘normal’ as possible.

Finally

23. Stay in touch with your child’s schoolDon’t forget, your child’s teachers will still be working, so do remember you can contact them via your usual means, whether that’s email or communication app. They’ll be wanting to support you to ensure your child is ready to return to school as soon as they’re allowed to.

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