“I could never do that.” I’ve heard that statement many times from other parents when they hear that we chose to have our children learn at home. There’s a look of certainty on their faces (I won’t say terror) that tells me they wouldn’t even consider the option! Now, however, during the Covid-19 pandemic, many parents have had no choice but to embrace the unthinkable. Some are helping their kids navigate distance learning, some are in a hybrid model, and others have simply opted for full home education outside the school system. That has left millions of parents wondering: how can I best set my kids up for success as they learn at home during Covid-19?
I’m not a home education expert. I did, however, successfully guide our triplets through 12 years of home-based learning. From my own experience and the wisdom I’ve gleaned from those who went before me, I offer you these seven tips for setting your kids up for success:
#1 Work on you. Your children will pick up on your stress, so work on your own confidence that together you’ll get through this. Identify your concerns, and write them down. Brainstorm with your partner or other parents who seem to have it together (“seem” being the operative word!). Speak with your child’s teacher, or someone who has successfully done home education. You will figure this out!
#2 Don’t buy into the fear that kids will fall irreparably behind. They’re going to be okay, really! Our home education method was, for the most part, very relaxed and learner-led. In retrospect we consider it a great success, but it did leave some gaps. When they started college work, all three realized they needed to get up to speed on writing papers. In just a matter of weeks they were caught up and doing great work. The fact that students routinely cram for college entrance exams tells me that everyone has gaps or falls behind in some way, and that when the time is right they find the motivation and means to catch up.
It is important to note that sometimes kids fall behind even when they are in school, on campus. If they don’t have the support they need at home, it can become an ongoing problem. So while they’re at home, make sure the basics are covered: encourage and set the example in supportive communication, adequate sleep, exercise, and good nutrition. Watch for any changes in behavior that could be signs of stress, and encourage your child to talk with you or another trusted adult. If you really listen without judgment, they will be more likely to be open with you.
#3 Cultivating a positive relationship with your children is more important to their development than almost anything else. Do not let school-at-home foster an adversarial relationship between you and your child. With all the uncertainty in our society, many children are feeling anxious or insecure. They need our emotional support, and that means tempering accountability with empathy, love and patience! (And possibly cookies. Probably lots of them.) As one mother expressed it to me, it’s very important to “prioritize mental health and well-being above grades.”
#4 Consider yourself a support resource for your child, not your child’s teacher. Go easy on yourself. Unless you are an accredited teacher, you’re not expected to suddenly be a professional educator! If your child’s workload seems unrealistic, don’t feel like you have to advocate for the teacher; if anything, give some gentle feedback to the school. If you do, keep in mind that they are on your team. They want your child to succeed, and they’re struggling to figure this out, too.
As a resource person, be an example by letting your child see you reading and learning new things. Ultimately, they learn more from what you do than what you say. If you really believe education is important, lead the way! This will do more than you can imagine to help your child become a life-long learner.
#5 Work with your child to set goals and keep score in creative, fun, and motivating ways. Most children are not positively motivated by grades. Were you? Your child won’t have a choice about what assignments they get, but you can help them set goals about when and how they will do them. Don’t fall into the trap of using bribery or punishment. Instead, tap into what really motivates your child. Do they like it when you read to them? Why not read some of their schoolwork aloud, taking turns? Do they enjoy playing outside? Schedule breaks between assignments and give them a chance to run off some pent-up energy. Do they like checklists? Put up a whiteboard and let them give themselves a big checkmark for every assignment done. Stars? Stickers? Pull out the whole kit if it keeps them motivated!
#6 Work with - not against! - your child to develop enough structure that they feel secure, but not so much that they feel too constricted. How much structure is enough, and how much is too little? It depends entirely on the child. My daughter created her own daily schedule from an early age. My sons were much more unstructured. All three are now self-directed and self-motivated adults.
#7 Create a comfortable environment for your child to focus that reflects the blend of “home” and “school” that feels most comfortable for them. In my view, people generally overestimate the need for a school-like environment at home. There is nothing at all wrong with letting your child read or study on their bed, on the couch, or under a tree outside, if that helps them. Yes, sitting at a desk can trigger the habit of getting down to work. It can also trigger boredom and physical discomfort (do you remember school?). We learn best when we are relaxed and have positive emotions, not when we’re sitting bolt upright and bored. Some children may benefit from sitting at a desk, but I’d a hundred times rather see the child really engaged and interested while sprawled in an armchair!
I hope these tips have helped raise your confidence that you can do this, and your kids can not only survive, but thrive with your love and support. I’d love to read your comments and questions, as well as what is working for you as you help your children through this extraordinary time.
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