Home learning headache: Advice on managing your work schedule AND your kids learning

How can parents effectively support their children in home learning during this period of isolation, especially when they’re trying to hold down vulnerable jobs or help multiple siblings?

home learning advice for parents working at home
Dr Selina Samuels Chief Learning Officer BA(Hons), LLB, PhD, MEd Friday, 1 May 2020

Cluey Chief Learning Officer, Dr Selina Samuels, has been asked this question repeatedly ever since the first rumblings of Covid-19 were heard in Australia. Here she speaks with writer and mum-of-two Marina Cilona to discuss how much we should be monitoring students at different year levels and whether it’s actually possible to motivate our children to learn at home.   

I have a job and two school-aged kids who are young enough that they still need plenty of help. How can I dedicate time to my work while monitoring my children? 

I completely understand and I know that it feels hard to navigate your own work schedule without having to log on while everyone else is asleep. It’s a good idea for families to set up proximate workstations so that you can easily offer quick, “just in time” support without too much interruption to your own work. It’s also important that younger children are working in a public space so that you can glance across and see what they’re up to and what’s on their screen. 

What we’re hearing from many parents at Cluey is that it’s sometimes not possible to keep an eye on all their children to make sure they get their school-allocated work done. Some parents are booking their children in with us on days or at times when they know they can’t provide them with the necessary level of attention. They’re also looking for the comfort of knowing that they will be receiving expert instruction and support.

Although I’m currently envious of any parent with older kids, monitoring high schoolers does seem like it comes with its own complications. What advice do you have for parents of senior students? 

For older students – and particularly those who may be working on their own in their bedrooms – establish specific points during the day to check in with them. For example, you can sit down and have something for morning tea and look at what they’ve been doing in the morning, or perhaps ask them to teach you what they’ve been learning over afternoon tea.

Our school has introduced online lessons to help support day-to-day learning. How much monitoring does my child need during a video call?

Rather than think in terms of monitoring children, it’s better to think in terms of understanding and showing an interest in what they’re learning. That way your interaction with them feels less like surveillance and more like support and encouragement. This might be a good time to work alongside them so that you can maintain a level of involvement without appearing to be looking over their shoulder. 

Seriously, though, I need some tips to help keep my children motivated…

No child will remain motivated if they’re sending work into a void or they feel that no one cares about what they’re doing. The best motivation is proper, useful feedback – feedback which is specific to a task, rather than related to the child, and focuses on process and application, rather than outcome. 

For example, praise your child for the way they tackled a task or persevered with a difficult problem, not for the fact that they got the right answer.

Another way to motivate a reluctant learner is to use “first this, then that”. Establish that first we’re going to read the passage and answer the questions. Once that is done we will go outside and throw the ball for ten minutes. This isn’t bribery – it’s setting up expectations that will teach them to understand their responsibilities and how to set priorities.

Right now, our family schedules feel like a game of Tetris in which no one wins. How can parents like me structure their day to work and homeschool?

Structuring the day needs to be a collective family negotiation. I suggest that all members of the family input their meetings into a shared calendar (online or perhaps on a board or wall calendar with different coloured pens for each member of the family). Include your children’s scheduled school or tutoring lessons as their meetings. At least then you’re indicating the times when specific people should not be disturbed.

If there’s more than one parent or adult at home, formally share the responsibility for being the key learning support person: one taking morning and the other afternoons perhaps, or each taking different days of the week.

You may need to accept that even without the commute, the working day may be longer and more complicated than usual. Try to use your child’s downtime – when they’re watching a movie or playing a game – as more productive time for you.

Even with the best strategies in place, some days are definitely more productive than others. What should I prioritise in terms of schoolwork and learning if we can’t get through it all?

I recommend that parents prioritise the fundamental literacy and numeracy skills that are the foundations for all learning. 

A lot of our parents at Cluey are booking a couple of hours of English and Maths with us per week so that they can be confident those fundamental skills are being developed and they can be more relaxed about the other learning that takes place over the week.

For those of us who are feeling a little frazzled and fatigued, what is a realistic amount of schoolwork to achieve in a day?

You may find that the amount of time spent on schoolwork is not the same as the usual school day. You can cover more in less time and focus on specific areas of weakness and interest, rather than your children having to work at the same pace as the rest of their class. 

At Cluey, we place a great deal of emphasis on the value of individualising content and coverage, setting goals and reflecting on learning. 

Rather than thinking solely about how much time you spend on learning, I recommend that you set clear learning goals at the beginning of the day and then encourage reflection on these at the end of the day. Ask your child to explain what they’ve learnt so you can assess what needs to be done next and to promote a sense of metacognition (understanding their own learning). 

Focusing on goals and learning, rather than time spent doing stuff, sets the right expectations and allows students to work at their own pace.

Like many parents, I often need to work at times when my child needs help. What should I do?

For older kids, I suggest giving them a set of instructions for what they need to do if they get “stuck”, which means that you’re not their first port of call. You might suggest that they read the question again, consult a dictionary or even ask one of their friends if they’re in contact with their peers. In the classroom, we call this C3B4ME (see three before me) and it teaches students collaboration and communication skills and how to solve their own problems.

However, we’re hearing from our parents that often they really can’t help their child with their learning, and without expert assistance children can become frustrated and disengaged. We’re finding that our students are asking their Cluey tutor to explain the concepts and how to go about tackling their schoolwork so that they can get on with it and leave their parents in peace.

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