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Home-schooling during coronavirus closures: advice from experts

Q&A: What you need to know about timetables, rewards and parents’ resources

Cora McCauley, a mother of four in Co Galway, has been home-schooling two of her children for the past six years. “Ask then what do they want to get out of the experience. Don’t try to replicate school at home,” she says.

With schools across the State shut for weeks, many parents are finding themselves plunged into trying to home-school their children.

Ideally, teachers will provide lessons, whether online or on paper, to help meet children’s academic needs. However, supporting your children to learn at home — while also juggling work and other commitments — can be daunting.

We’ve spoken to experts in home-schooling and teaching to find out some of the dos and don’ts of how to best support your child over the coming weeks.

Should your children have a say in what they learn?

Assistant professor in education at Trinity College Dublin Ann Devitt, a mother of three primary school-going children, says it is important to involve your children in planning their education, as well as goals and rewards.

“They’ll be much more bought into the process if they are feeling that they have some control over what is being asked of them,” she says.

“We talk a lot in the education system about students needing to become self-directed learners. This is an opportunity to put this into action in our own homes.”

Cora McCauley of Home Schooling Ireland agrees. The mother of four who has been home-schooling her children for the past six years says giving children some control is crucial.

“Ask them what do they want to get out of the experience. Don’t try to replicate school at home,” she says. “If they are weak in a subject they might want to work on it, but let it come from the child.”

Do you need a timetable?

Devitt advises parents to work with their children to draw up plan to reach goals, with a long-term plan and short-term daily structure.

“You don’t have to stick to this rigidly but it helps everyone to know what’s next. Define and agree the timelines for the day and the week. Be sure you have timed breaks in there with things they like to do. Again, agree on this and put it somewhere visible.”

McCauley says some parents may feel compelled to mimic the school day, but advises against this.

“Remember, you can learn sitting on the couch in a more relaxed setting. When it’s relaxed , they can learn naturally without realising it.”

She says to structure the day around what works for the family.

“If your kids like a walk in the morning or playing ball after breakfast, you can do that, rather than saying: ‘Right, it’s Irish at 9am, and maths at 10am.’”

Should you give rewards?

Devitt advocates a clear reward system that everyone can buy into and which is visible to all.

“Think Hogwarts house points,” she says. “There should be a long-term reward after a week or two and short-term rewards at definite points of the day.”

These rewards don’t have to cost money and they don’t have to be edible.

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“They could be screen-time, their choice of movie, a lie-in, staying up late etc. Whatever it is that your children place value on.”

She says to keep track of this with star charts, class dojo apps, polo mints on straws, skittles in a jar, or raffle tickets.

“Focus on positive rewards and avoid negative punishments or it can become a race to the bottom when no one has anything left to lose,” she adds.

What should they learn?

McCauley says home schooling is a great chance for children to learn through an area they have a passion for — something that isn’t always possible in school. “If they have an interest in baking, they can throw themselves into it. The same goes for gymnastics or photography,” she says. “It builds their confidence and self-awareness.”

Devitt also says have your children set their own weekly and daily learning goals.

“Let them take the lead on this in areas of interest to them, but try to include a range of areas including language and literacy; Stem; the arts; sports and exercise; and the environment,” she says.

“Tie this into the work they have been given from school. If they take ownership of what they want to learn, they should be more inclined to drive their own learning,” she says. “Maybe even include yourself in this; what do you want to achieve in your day? Agree the goals and put them somewhere visible in the house.”

She gives the example of something as simple as making lunch. This, she says, can involve writing the shopping list (literacy), doing the budget (Stem), designing a menu (art), walking to the shop for ingredients (exercise) and picking herbs (environment).

Should devices be banned?

Devitt advises against banning TV or games or devices.

Instead, she says build them in to the day for fixed times. They can be used as part of the reward system.

McCauley agrees that they can play a very useful role in self-directed learning and giving children a chance to draw on high quality learning resources, as long as there are limits.

How do you get children to concentrate?

Devitt says timers are a good idea. Rewards are useful too, she says. Competition can be good but can cause fights, so she says to think about co-operative rewards where everyone’s successes build towards the successes of the group.

“Keep them motivated. If you find something is not working, change to the next activity or a different activity quickly. If you find something works, great — note it and make sure to use it again and for other topics. Keep moving. Make sure to wake up their brains and bodies with movement often — dance breaks, star jumps, cartwheels, goal practice.”

At the end of the day, she advises a “review, revise and reward” approach. In other words, review their goals and how they are progressing towards their long-term goal (“how far have you come so far?”); revise for the next day if needed (“so what do you need to do next?”); and give the daily reward.

What are the best learning resources out there?

The good news is there are tonnes of resources out there to meet the needs of children of all ages and stages. Here are some of the better ones:

Primary

Twinkl.ie: Created by teachers, ideal for home education, it has lots of appealing games, stories, worksheets etc. It is offering a free month’s subscription (enter offer code: IRLTWINKLHELPS)
 

Go Noodle: Movement and mindfulness videos created by child development experts.

Scratch: Learn to programme interactive games, stories and animations.

Khan Academy: Non-profit site with provides free video tutorials in maths and reading.

IXL.com: Subscription-based learning experience that provides curriculum-aligned maths and English content from junior infants up to sixth year.

National Geographic Kids: Learn about science, geography and history.

Nasa Kids’ Club: Child-friendly resource where kids can learn about science and space.

Secondary

Dublin Academy: The Dublin-based grind school is posting free-to-access classes on YouTube over the coming days.

iRevise: This Irish revision website is providing students with free study resources for a month due to the school closures.

Studyclix: One of the most popular of Ireland’s study websites, it offer notes, videos and a forum for students preparing for the Junior and Leaving Cert. The basic site is free, while the rest is paid-for.

Protutor: It is running a series of free webinars on Leaving Cert accounting topics aimed at fifth and sixth years next week.

Studynotes.ie: Students and teachers can use the free platform to share their notes and resources.

Teachers

PDST: The Professional Development Service for Teachers has an updated section on “supporting online learning during school closures” with links to resources like Scoilnet and Webwise.

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