Removing the unnecessary stress of lockdown remote learning

Written by: Graham Frost | Published:

In addition to laptops, we should prioritise giving parents freedom from guilt and stress when it comes to home learning. Headteacher Graham Frost explains why this is more important than you might think

During the first lockdown, social media was saturated with frequently self-deprecating comments from parents sharing their experiences of assuming a teacher role. They should never have been put in this position.

Parents are, and always have been their children’s primary educators. Years of government policy has encouraged parents to entirely delegate education to schools and therefore undervalue their role in educating their own children.

In many other countries and cultures school education is viewed as complementary to parental efforts and responsibilities. Ofsted chief inspector, Amanda Spielman’s recent comments that children had lost the ability to use a knife and fork – a domestic skill traditionally taught by parents – emphasises this point.

When schools were closed in March of last year, parents felt immense pressure to become teachers overnight. Part of the problem was a widespread misconception that teaching entails children working slavishly on narrow, academic tasks for long periods of time. Such a model of teaching is a recipe for frustration and stress on the part of both the child and the parent, and is behind parents understandably calling for greater direct, or real-time involvement from the teachers.

The reality in schools is that teachers vary the mode of delivery, the pace of instruction, and intersperse academic tasks with other types of learning from a broad curriculum, thereby exercising other parts of the brain and body, physically, creatively or manually and avoiding children becoming tired or demotivated.

Additionally, home circumstances (number of children, working patterns, access to technology) vary so dramatically that it is not possible to deliver a one-size-fits-all home learning programme. Flexibility on the part of schools and permission for parents to adapt and be in control of what, when and how their children undertake home learning is essential to avoid parents feeling a sense of frustration or failure with their efforts.

Picture the parent working from home while simultaneously supporting multiple children of different ages at different schools, all demanding access to the internet using finite equipment and wi-fi connectivity. Consider those parents with little more than a mobile phone with which to access the internet.

Further pressure on parents arrives via the internet, in the form of competitive parenting; posts by parents who habitually showcase their prowess in home learning via social media. Although it is well known that social media addicts have a tendency to put a gloss on their posts, the images they portray have a tendency to highlight perceived shortcomings in the minds of the reader.

Despite having had great success in teaching reading, writing and arithmetic a parent sees a post by another parent about nature studies inspired by tracing deer tracks in the snow, and immediately doubts what they have achieved, while the deer tracking parent worries about when the book learning will be fitted in.

Since the late 1980s, successive government ministers with a very limited personal experience of what an education can look like, have contributed to a government tendency to homogenise and narrow the curriculum. This, too, has contributed to parents having a rigid view of what to include when educating at home.

Teaching ordinarily involves constant trade-offs and rebalancing of what to include or prioritise. Parents need to be empowered to not only value their own role in educating their children, and not only in a pandemic lockdown, but also to value their own authority to decide what that education should look like for their children.

While there may be some benefits in exploiting technology, including video-conferencing, its current use may be adding to the distress of parents while they battle with tight schedules and finite or contested access to devices from the many family members working or studying from home.

The parents at my own school communicated a widespread preference for paper-based resources and menus of learning tasks from which to choose, I suspect due to the flexibility these can afford.

Responding to a letter to all our parents, one parent described her situation and how she has adapted and made home learning work for her particular circumstances:

“My husband is a key worker and I am working from home so home schooling is a real juggling act; but one I really want to be able to manage! In talking to lots of friends and parents they are feeling under pressure from the schools their children attend and I feel very lucky and reassured by the supportive, balanced and realistic messages we are receiving. The textbooks are also a real help for me as they are something I can set the children off working on and they are happy to plod on with while I am distracted with work.”

Children learn different things at different paces and at different times. Parents need to be pleased with what their children learn rather than worrying about all the many things they have yet to learn – that’s a huge amount to worry about for anyone. They need to take credit for the kind of activities and games their children normally enjoy and learn a lot from.

Most of all, parents need to feel in control and assume the authority to make decisions about what, when, and how their children learn.

To avoid home learning becoming a major contributor to mental health concerns, communication from government and schools is key and must signal permission for parents to assume a flexible and guilt-free approach to supporting their own children’s learning, whatever that may look like.

  • Graham Frost is headteacher of Robert Ferguson Primary School in Carlisle and a member of the National Association of Head Teachers’ National Executive.

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