Primary and secondary schools in England will close until February half term – meaning parents across the country are facing homeschooling once more.
The decision, announced by Boris Johnson on Monday evening as part of the nation’s third lockdown, follows decisions to close schools for most of January in Scotland and Wales, and until the start of February in Northern Ireland.
For those balancing work and childcare, it marks a return to the situation in spring 2020, which left many parents utterly exhausted.
The next few weeks will be tough, no doubt. But to help us through them, we asked therapists and education specialists for their advice.
Look after your own mental health
It’s vital for parents to look after their own mental health as we approach the next lockdown, says counselling psychologist Dr Chloe Paidoussis-Mitchell.
“Looking after our mental health when living under conditions of chronic stress – which is what lockdown actually looks like from a psychological point of view – becomes increasingly important,” she says.
“Any major and chronic stress event contributes to deteriorating poor mental and physical health no matter how resilient we are. So taking positive action now, to prevent the chronic stress from having any serious and deteriorating effect on any parent is more important than ever. ”
Start off by giving yourself a break, says psychotherapist Lucy Fuller – in every sense. “You need to find a way to get a release from the children. At the very least, hand them the iPad or turn on kids’ TV. You will be a better parent for it!” Adjusting your expectations by acknowledging that “every day done is a day well done” can also stave off feelings of guilt, if you’re worried about not doing “enough”.
“If you feel down about the day, don’t punish yourself. You are going through a chronic stress situation,” says Dr Paidoussis-Mitchell. “If you feel overwhelmed ask yourself, with a compassionate attitude, what is realistic for today and how would I like to invest my energy and time given my mood, my feelings and my resources? Be led by what is meaningful, not only by what is urgent. ”
Of course, for millions of parents balancing work with homeschooling, time may be the biggest issue. Try to speak to your employer as soon as possible about what worked during the last school closures – and what didn’t. You may be surprised by how open they are to adapting your day.
Boost your child’s mental health
Worrying about your child’s wellbeing or their development during this time is also understandable. To give them a boost when they may be missing friends and the structure of school, search out the perks of this shared experience.
“Try your best to find a little time together to do something you wouldn’t normally do – possibly play a board game, do a jigsaw together or going to the woods to look for and photograph all the different leaves or animals you can find,” says Fuller. “By finding something you wouldn’t normally do together without lockdown, you are doing something special together that will be remembered as ‘something fun we did during the pandemic’.”
We can’t shield children from what is going on, so it’s best to try to talk through what is happening. During this time, many children may feel anxious about lockdown and especially their school closure, projects they can’t finish, exams they won’t sit, friendships they may lose, says Dr Paidoussis-Mitchell.
“Have regular “check-in” conversations with your child; chats that will help you gage how they are so that you can offer them emotional validation and support,” she suggests. “Hug them, let them cry, explain that it is normal and ok that they feel like this. Let them ask you any questions they have and show them you are actively listening to them. Let them know they are not burdening you with worry. If they ask difficult questions, be truthful and age appropriate.”
Get the basics of homeschooling sorted
For some practical tips, we asked two education specialists – Bertie Hubbard, the CEO of MyTutor, and Rahim Hirji, from the interactive learning app and platform Quizlet – for a refresher on the best ways to homeschool.
1. Create a timetable
If your child’s school hasn’t provided you with a timetable, create your own before day one, says Hubbard.
“Without the set structure of the school day or the engagement of peers, motivation and energy can understandably deteriorate,” she says. “Setting up a timetable can help to make sure all subjects and tasks are covered and completed. It’s also important to make sure students give themselves active breaks, which includes eating meals at the appropriate times and having offline conversations.”
2. Beware of your child’s attention span
Teachers keep activities short to keep their class engaged, particularly with primary-aged pupils. Do not expect your child to match your own focus.
“A student’s attention span is two to three minutes per year of their age, so keep that in mind when planning,” says Hirji. “For example, a teenager should be able to manage 30-40 consecutive minutes.”
3. Bookmark key resources in advance
At some point, your child is likely to run into a situation where they do not understand the lesson content. Instead of addressing this from scratch every time it happens – perhaps while you’re on a work deadline yourself – have some key resources lined up.
“Look up the specifications for the subjects your child is studying from the relevant exam boards and bookmark any online resources that can help you out,” says Hubbard.
Embracing digital tools will also help, adds Hirji. “Bodies such as
UNESCO have outlined some of the best and most effective sites, apps, and platforms to help students, parents, and teachers stay connected whilst learning from a distance,” he explains. “Connected platforms such as Google Classroom and study activity applications like Quizlet are also great as they allow teachers to monitor and keep up with students’ progress while they continue to learn at home.”
4. Set good habits around phone use
Your child wouldn’t be allowed to look at their phone all day at school, so try to set some boundaries at home.
“Teens spend a lot of time on apps speaking with their friends anyway - and isolation will only increase their desire to communicate socially, especially now they’ve become more accustomed to freedom,” says Hubbard.
“While some communication will be positive for their mental health, the opposite is true when social media fuels feelings of isolation and anxiety. It’s a good idea for parents to set some expectations for how phones are used during the day, as well as to keep an eye on the mood of your child.”
5. Consider a virtual playdate
Yes, we’re all getting sick of screen time. But if your child is still too young for social media, this may be the only way to ensure they have some interaction with other kids their age.
“Setting up virtual play dates on a one to one basis can also be a way of loosening up the scenario and feeling less alone,” says Hirji. “Parents can use secure systems, like Kast, to create virtual playgrounds, where children can come together to chat or play. This can also be a great way for parents to compare notes and offer support to one another.”
6. Stay active
The temptation is to slump on the sofa, we get it. But squeezing some physical activity into your day will boost both you and the kids (or at least tire them out a bit). If you don’t have outdoor space, check out some online, kid-friendly classes. No sooner had news of a new lockdown circulate than Joe Wicks, the nation’s PE teacher, was announcing that PE with Joe will be returning on Monday January 11. Time to dust off your gym shoes and get warmed up.