For most states in Australia, we are about a week into the new working parent or carer ‘normal’ – yet nothing feels normal about this situation. With many of us now working from home, things have gotten a whole lot busier with our brand new role of home-schooler. Kids are learning their school curriculum at home – with us – while we try to continue our working day and adapt to working remotely.
Add to this already stressful situation the lack of external entertainment, limited socialisation, and anxiety around COVID-19, and it comes as no surprise many of us are feeling increasingly overwhelmed.
Parents At Work chatted to Chantal Mamo, Principal at Thornleigh West Public School in New South Wales, to put together some tips and strategies for working parents that will provide support and ease some of the pressure for parents to be ‘doing it all’ at this time.
Get the kids involved in the process
This is a new situation for not just us, but for our children. Most of them have never seen us work and don’t understand adult working environments. So when it comes to creating a new routine (for schoolwork and household chores) that works for both us and our kids, it’s important that we keep in mind the ‘newness’ that they are adapting to too, and involve them in this process. Ensure you’re communicating with them daily, and reassessing what works well for them and for you. This will help to not only create a routine that works for everyone, but a sense of unity within the family.
Chantal suggests creating ‘family norms’ together, and to start by asking children what their fears and hopes are.
“A fear might be that the child is concerned that they cannot ask for help if the parent is on a call,” Chantal explains. “So then you would set up a ‘norm’, such as they can interrupt by holding up a sign or they can play a game while the parent is on the call until the parent can help them. Put these family norms on a poster and have them visible and shared as a family.”
Mental health over maths
It’s only natural to worry about our child’s education, and it can be easy to feel pressure that you should be making your child’s day as similar to their normal school day as possible, including keeping up-to-date with their curriculum. But these are not normal circumstances and now more than ever our mental wellbeing, and that of our children’s, is even more important.
“Children cannot learn if their wellbeing is compromised. Lessening the load is okay, and lowering our expectations is okay. Try and maintain the perspective that how they are feeling right now is more important than academics, and that will always fall into place.” - Chantal Mamo
Look to the experts
Even though virtual learning may be a new concept for most children, it was the norm for around 20,000 Australian kids before the COVID-19 pandemic. Home schooling has been on the rise all around the world for years, which means - thankfully for us newbies - that there are many fantastic online resources for parents to access for ideas on teaching at home, aside from what your school has already sent home.
With the primary school week being 32.5 hours long, many parents may be thinking that that’s how many hours they need to be doing at home. But when you consider the administrative tasks and general organising of a class of 25 children, as well as recess, lunch, sport, the handful of ‘line up’ times each day and more – you realise that the actual learning hours are a lot less than this. In fact, many home schooling parents allocate 2-3 hours, four days per week, for the average Grade 3-4.
Alongside this, we need to remember that there are many learning activities outside writing and maths worksheets that can be counted as educational. Walks around the block, searching for insects in the backyard, or building a fort or playing shop with play money are all positive learning activities.
Kathryn Tempany has three young boys and has been home schooling for more than three years. “You can piggyback your new study habits onto an existing habit in your daily routine to make things easier,” Kathryn says.
”You could read to the kids during breakfast, listen to an audio book in the car, or scatter sight words around the dinner table and then all try to sneak those words into conversation. Eventually these new habits end up feeling more like family traditions than school. They don't take much extra time this way either.”
Find the routine for you
This will be a different learning experience for everyone – some families have children in kinder, some in high school. So it make sense that routines will vary depending on age, and depending on individual children. What works for your neighbour may not work for your children, and that’s okay – it’s about finding a routine that is productive and working well for your family.
Fiona Hitchiner, Parents At Work’s Strategic Partnership Director, is working from home alongside her husband - a primary school teacher who is running classes remotely - and their two sons who are doing virtual school classes.
“We make the boys wear school uniform so they know it is a school day and they are expected to behave as if they are at school,” says Fiona. “I try to have breaks when they are on morning tea or lunch. I’m also only planning the next day ahead - it’s too hard to plan far ahead at the moment; work and school is changing so quickly. This is what works for us, but I know others who are managing things very differently and that works for them.”
Create the right space
The space in which we work is incredibly important and conducive to our productivity, and the same goes for kids. The type and size of space that is available for each member of the family will of course depend on where we each live, but even just defining a physical space as their own can help both parents and children to feel calmer, more positive about working or learning, and more constructive.
“It helps if you are able to ensure you have to good internet access,” Chantal advises. “Make it easy to get online so that they don’t get frustrated, and consider using a chalkboard or mini white board or poster to write up a timetable in their area, so it’s a visual reminder of their day. Lighting and fresh air can also make a big difference in a productive space.”
And for families who may struggle with internet access, handwritten homework packs may be an option and will ensure children still receive their curriculum to work on at home.
Remember that there’s no one way to get this right – do what works best for your family. If your child learns best on the deck, their bed, or the backyard, then let that be their space for school work – just make it tidy and comfortable for them.
Think outside the (school curriculum) box
It may be particularly difficult for younger children to get spend more than 2-3 hours per day on school assigned work. This is where parents can use some creativity to find out what learning activities work best for you and your family, as each family unit is different – with different ages, attention spans, home space, and parent occupations and work hours.
Consider setting up activities that feel like play but actually involved learning, like Lego, says Chantal.
“Things like puzzles, blocks or games make children feel like they are relaxing at home but they are actually learning. Working together on a 1000-piece puzzle helps their visual learning, for example. At the same time, this helps to embed self-directive learning – if you’re playing board games at home, get them to design their own board game, which is fun but still learning as they write the rules, play and collaborate.”
Remember – we aren’t home schooling, we are COVID-19 schooling
Even with all the handy resources and useful tips for productive home schooling, Australian parents need to realise right now that this isn’t home schooling as it usually is. This is schooling at home during a global pandemic, with parents working at home, the family mostly isolated at home, and with many of us experiencing high levels of stress and for some, even physical or economic hardship. Normal home schooling usually involves a dedicated home schooling parent or carer, as well as trips to the park, museum, library, playdates and more. Our current situation is completely unique.
So parents, go easy on yourselves. You are not going to be an expert home-schooler in a manner of weeks, especially while you’re still managing your professional job at the same time. And you don’t have to be. These are extremely unusual circumstances, and we’ve all been thrust into this at a fast pace - for some in a matter of days. Take each day as it comes, and learn from each day – what has worked well, and what hasn’t? Change up your family’s routine – whether that be a strict or flexible one – if something isn’t working, and expect to fail sometimes. Don’t be afraid to discuss schoolwork loads with your child’s teacher – this is a new situation for schools also, and open communication between parents and teachers will ensure that expectations are realistic.
Let’s take the pressure off, and do what we need to as parents and employees to look after the mental wellbeing of ourselves and our family at this tumultuous time.
For some more resources on schooling at home during COVID-19, see the links below.
- Remote learning guidelines for students and parents (PDF)
- Learning from home – advice to parents and carers from NSW Government
- Learning environment checklist (PDF)
- Home schooling support groups and networks (PDF)