Maria Steen’s guide to home-schooling your children
I have home-schooled my four children. Don’t panic and try to enjoy it
Home-schooling: No one knows or loves your child like you do. This goes a long way. Photograph: E+/iStock/Getty
The present extraordinary circumstances - unprecedented in living memory - are affecting people’s lives in ways we could not have imagined even two weeks ago. One of the many challenges facing parents with young children is finding that, all of a sudden, they have full responsibility for their children’s education.
My husband and I home-school our four children and have done so since their infancy. If you are a parent who has not chosen home-schooling, but has had it thrust upon you and may be worried or struggling to cope, I would like to offer some words of hope and encouragement.
Every family is different; everyone’s circumstances are different; children have different temperaments, talents and challenges. It is the same for home-schooling families. The home-schooling community of which our family is a member includes families from different cultures. There are children with physical or educational challenges and a range of ages and abilities, personalities and temperaments. Yet we all manage to muddle through somehow - and are happy to continue to do so for the benefits we see to our children and our families. I offer the following in a spirit of solidarity, based on observations I have made over the past 13 years, what I have learned, what I have found works well for us and what does not.
First, don’t panic at the thought that your children will miss school for the next few weeks - or even longer. This does not mean that their education will suffer. In fact, it may even help certain children, who will benefit from more one-to-one attention, and give an opportunity to others to pursue subjects or interests for which they would not otherwise have time.
Secondly, don’t think that you’re not qualified to teach your child. No one knows or loves your child like you do - this goes a long way. We all want the best for our children in life: be confident that you can provide what is needed for their education too. Most of all, children need attention: someone who is patient with them as they struggle with reading or maths or other concepts; someone who is willing to fight their corner, encourage them and stay with them until they get it. There is no-one better placed to do that than you. Many excellent teachers around the country admit that, with the best will in the world, they simply cannot give the kind of individual attention that they would like to give to each child. In these extraordinary times, you are able to do that.
Thirdly, one of the things I like most about home-schooling is that I get to witness for myself the children’s efforts and their successes: when they grasp concepts and make progress. These are precious moments in their development that most parents do not get to see, as they happen in the classroom. Now, you have the opportunity to be present for them. Enjoy them when they come.
No perfect way
All families are different - this goes for home-schooling families too. There is no one, perfect way to educate your child. Try to find what suits your personality and your child’s the best. Some home-schooling families opt for a unstructured “unschooling” approach, others adopt different educational philosophies. If you have been used to the structure of work and school, perhaps a structured approach will suit you better - but don’t be afraid to experiment. I was trained in the Montessori method and have adopted a reasonably structured approach, while allowing for flexibility, as I find it suits our family best. Maria Montessori described learning as children’s “work”, and our children have come to understand that, like their parents, they too have work to do each day.
You might choose to let the children spend the next few weeks as if they were on holiday, but you will find - especially with the current restrictions on social interaction - that everyone becomes tired and cranky quickly. With any home-schooling effort, it is important to know that it begins with you, the parent.
For things to run smoothly at home with a full house all day, it is important to keep things as normal and regular as possible. Continue to get up at the same time as usual, as if you were going to work or going about your normal day. Resist the urge to stay in your pyjamas; dress, shower and, if you wear makeup, put it on. These things are important psychologically if you are at home all day. Keeping as far as possible to your routine will make you feel more in control. Remember too, that although it is unlikely anyone will be calling at your door, your children have to look at you all day, and they will take their cues from you. If you look like you are operating normally and are in charge of the situation, they will be more likely to respond well.
Design a loose structure to the day that you would like to achieve. If you are working remotely from home, or have other chores that need to be done around the house, it can be genuinely challenging if you have little people (and not so little ones) demanding your attention. Figure out the easiest part of the day for you to carve out some quiet time for yourself, so that you can do your work uninterrupted. Then build the school day around that. Don’t feel that you have to be tied to a 9am to 3pm schedule for learning. The chances are, your children will get their work done much more quickly than in school (if the atmosphere is conducive and you are available to help and answer their questions). Morning times are the best for learning in our house - it may be different in yours. Our children begin their work before breakfast in order to be done before lunchtime. I find that if I give the children my undivided attention for those hours, I have a better chance of getting some quiet time later while they play or do their own projects.
Bring the children into your confidence. Include them in a family meeting to discuss the situation in which you find yourselves. In school, children aren’t normally part of executive decision-making, but they can be included in an age-appropriate way at home. Explain that while you are together at home, everyone needs to continue to do their schoolwork and that you’re depending on them to do their part. Your school will most likely have made resources available to you, or given guidance as to what the children should be doing. Children from the age of 8 or so may find it helpful to have a list of things that they have to do that day, that they can tick off as they complete their tasks. I use a similar system at home, explaining to the children that so long as the work gets done, it is up to them when they do it and in what order. They learn that the quicker they do their work, the more free time they have afterwards. They are also - to a large degree - in control of how they do their work. This has the added benefit of instilling a good work ethic, in which they take control of their own tasks and work relatively independently (depending on age).
If you have a few children of different ages, you will want the older ones to do as much as possible independently, as younger children tend to need more attention - but try to make time for each one. You may want to include other things on the list, such as making their beds, tidying their room, practising music, etc. However avoid making the list too long, or impossible to achieve. Once they have completed their list, they should be free to play. Children will comply with rules generally - so long as they are fair.
Little and often is better
As regards lessons, with primary school education in particular, remember that little and often is better. Doing a little bit every day consistently will pay off in the long run, rather than trying to push children to get a huge amount done in any one day.
For emergent readers and children with Dyslexia, being at home with you for the next number of weeks is a real advantage. These children benefit hugely from one-to-one attention when it comes to reading. Find somewhere cosy and quiet to snuggle up with your child and a book, and read with them. If you have other children, let them know that each will get his or her turn, but that they shouldn’t interrupt each other’s work.
Depending on the age or ability of the child, aim to read a couple of pages a day. The rule is: stop before the child tires. If you are finding that your child is really labouring with reading a page of text, it may be a good idea to go back a level or two until it is easier to handle and the child can read without too much effort. At this stage, it is about building confidence and fluency in reading. If it takes a child so long to read to the end of the sentence that he has forgotten what the beginning of the sentence said, reading not only becomes tedious and frustrating, but utterly non-sensical. If your child is having difficulty reading, try to be patient and avoid becoming anxious about it. They will get there in the end - in the meantime, for the next few weeks, keep things ticking over, give them lots of praise and encouragement, and make the experience as enjoyable as possible for both of you.
Being at home, with no extra-curricular activities going on, opens up new possibilities for children. Share with your children the things you love and are enthusiastic about. If you remember your own education, the teachers that impressed most were those who were on fire with enthusiasm for their subject. If poetry is your thing, introduce some poems for them to memorise, taking a stanza or two a week. If it is gardening, introduce them to the different species of plants in your garden or wildlife in the area. If it is art, spend some time showing them how to draw. Perhaps you could tell them stories from your own childhood, or about your parents and grandparents, or discuss or read Irish history with them. Even in these times of obsession with technology, children respond to the love and attention of their parents, especially when they feel their parents are taking them seriously as individuals in their own right.
Last Saturday, I received a nostalgic message from a friend, saying that it reminded her of Saturday mornings as a young child, with Dad out washing the car, Mum cleaning up after breakfast and the children playing. This enforced period together offers an opportunity to all of us to slow down, reclaim time for our families and to rediscover simplicity. In our busy lives, there are few opportunities to really talk with and listen to our children. Now we can.
Silence is important
One thing I have learned over the years while at home with the children, is that silence is an important part of the day - and often I was the worst offender, with an ear to the radio during school hours. Turn off the radio or other background noise while the children are doing their work. Quiet is important for their concentration, but it is also important to give them your attention during the time that they need it. As difficult as it can be during the current crisis, try to put your phone away, so that you aren’t distracted with every WhatsApp from the parents’ group chat. I have also found over the past week that in order to maintain any semblance of normality during the current crisis, it is important to filter the news. Listening constantly to coronavirus updates is not only a distraction, it is more likely to raise your anxiety levels, which in turn will be picked up by the children. It is important for us all to seek as much peace and quiet as possible at this time.
If the children begin to tire of not being able to see their friends or play sports, don’t be afraid to talk to them honestly about the present situation. Explain that while children are not really affected by the virus, they may transmit it to others who are older or sicker, for whom it could be very serious. Let them know that by doing without their normal activities, they are helping to play their part and save lives. If you are Christian, you can suggest that they can offer these things up during this time of Lent, knowing that others will benefit from their sacrifice. If you are religious - and perhaps even if you are not - take some time with your children to remember and pray for all those who are suffering because of the coronavirus, for health workers and others providing essential services and their families, for those who are lonely, for those in difficult circumstances. Encourage your children to count their blessings, to be grateful for the good things in their lives. In encouraging our children, it is a reminder to us all to do the same.
Be honest with your children about your own needs and expectations. Let them know that you need help, e.g. you are depending on them to keep their rooms tidy, or help clean up after dinner, that you need everyone to play their part. You will find that with everyone home all day, it is more difficult to keep your home tidy. We introduced a revolving “leader” system some years ago, whereby the children take it in turns to be leader for a day. This avoids the situation arising where the oldest is always called on to help or be the responsible one, the youngest always excused, and the others get lost in the middle. Each child gets to be leader, which means that each has the responsibilities that go with leadership (setting and clearing the table, helping out when asked to etc) but also gets the privileges (having first choice of dessert, sitting beside me for story time, choosing the film to watch). It has helped to stop (most) squabbles.
It is tempting during the current crisis to resort to allowing the children screen time - and a lot of it. My own observations over the years have led me to conclude that too much screen time leads to problematic, moody behaviour and poor concentration. Children tend to be cranky after binge-watching television or screens - which is the last thing you want while everyone is cooped up. Instead, agree to a film, video-calling friends or other screen access at a set time, once other things are done, whether it be schoolwork or chores. That way, there is a structure to the day; the children get their work done, chores completed and, importantly, they get to relax and look forward to some entertainment or social interaction with their friends.
In all of this, don’t lose sight of your own needs. It can be intense being at home all day with young children - and we all have our limits. While the current situation poses real difficulties in this regard, figure out a way for you to get a break during the week, and set aside time for it, whether it is to get out for some fresh air or exercise, chat with a friend, have a romantic dinner with your spouse, or a lie-in at the weekend. This is a stressful time for everyone, so be kind to yourself and others.
Understand that squabbles will break out and tempers will become frayed - it is only natural during tense situations. If you lose it, or the children have too much screen time, or don’t get their work done, or you have to resort to bribes, don’t beat yourself up. Start over tomorrow. Remember that there are lots of families out there who home-school all year round, and have survived to tell the tale. You can do this. And who knows? You may even enjoy it.
Maria Steen is a writer and commentator. She has home schooled her four children since infancy