We’re all familiar with the expression “thrown in at the deep end” and certainly that describes, for most of us, what happened a few months ago, when life as we knew it changed almost overnight. With little time to process how life under lockdown might be, we were presented with the choice given to anyone thrown in at the deep end, we could either sink to the bottom or swim for dear life.
As a teacher, I’m well accustomed to working before my own children wake up in the morning, after they’ve gone to bed in the evening and right through the weekends, so the idea of juggling working and home-schooling didn’t faze me at all. Armed with all the resources I needed to work from home and support my children with their work, I was optimistic. What could go wrong? And I wonder how many of us made lists of things that we were going to do over this period? Passion projects that now stood a chance in the absence of everything else that usually occupies so much of our time and energy?
But eighteen weeks in and I’ve not transformed the garden, I’ve not got into running and I’ve not started half the books I eagerly downloaded to my kindle. Why? Because, strangely, this time has actually left me feeling just as wiped out as my normal routine does.
The thing is, I couldn’t “just” teach. Aside from being a full-time single mum and teacher, I had to take on the roles of teaching assistant, learning manager, reprographics assistant, cook, secretary, fitness coach, diplomat, bad cop, good cop, you name it … the list was endless. So when we’d finished with the work, I had neither the energy nor the will to do much more than collapse on the sofa.
And what’s more, the memory of my naïve enthusiasm continues to feel like a self-imposed weight dragging me kicking and screaming back to the bottom of the deep end.
I know I’m not alone. I’m hearing all the time that friends are experiencing similar feelings. Additional weights include feelings of guilt and shame over deadlines not met and missed opportunities to pack absolutely everything into these long days. Throw into the mix hormones, financial worries, relationship difficulties, feelings of being disconnected, worries about loved ones, bereavement… It’s hardly any wonder that several months down the line, any of us are starting to doubt ourselves in so many different ways.
When I explained to a friend that I felt I was being dragged to the bottom of the pool she told me that she also felt as though she were in a pool, except for her it seemed that while everyone else was using perfect strokes to power up and down the lanes around her, she was simply treading water, unable to do anything else other than just bob up and down to stay afloat. She has become so focused on questioning her own ability to handle the situation, and dwelling on the areas in which she feels she has failed during this period, that she is now unable to muster up the energy to do anything at all.
This friend’s greatest feelings of failure were around supporting her three children with their schoolwork and it forced me to draw upon my own teaching experience to share some tips about works well in the classroom and can also work well in the home. None of this is rocket science. We can all do it and it’s just a matter of having the confidence to give it a go.
It’s never too late to establish a routine. An organised routine is key to better productivity, as both the format and the expectations are very clear. It doesn’t have to be quite as rigid as the routine provided by the school bell, and there are times when it may be changed for good reason. But routine is really healthy, it leads to better progress and importantly it cuts out the need for endless conversations with our youngsters about “why” they need to do whatever. It’s simple. “It’s what we do”. End of. There has been much concern over how much sleep our youngsters have been getting while they’ve been off. Again, this needs to be balanced and bedtime routines will look different in different homes. But establishing a routine that works for our own home and circumstances eliminates the need for endless discussions about when to turn the light out. Minimising opportunity for arguments with our children, has to be better for us all, doesn’t it?.
2. Plan around what works best for the child.
At home this is so much easier than in the classroom where there are some thirty individuals, all with slightly different learning styles and preferences. At home it should be more straight forward. We will have noticed now, what times of day our children are most productive, and which their most and least enjoyed subjects are. We will have noticed how long they can work effectively, before needing a break. We know whether they benefit from silence or whether they so genuinely work better with music or other distractions in the background. We may have noticed that they need to get up and move around to maximise their ability to stay focused, or that they can concentrate better after a vigorous jump on the trampoline. Perhaps they need our help with a certain subject but another one is something that they can tackle completely independently. This wealth of knowledge and understanding is like gold! Armed with this information, the very best timetable or routine can be devised. It doesn’t have to be a 9am – 3pm day. The larks among us may prefer to start earlier. Many teens are really not good first thing in the morning and may be genuinely far more productive later in the afternoon. That’s all fine and we should allow ourselves and them to work with what works best.
In their strive to gain independence, young people like to feel that they are in charge and it is in their nature to challenge decisions and push boundaries in a bid to get their own way. Any weaknesses will be spotted a mile off and jumped upon with glee, and before we know it, we’re agreeing to something that we never intended to allow! In the classroom, discipline is far more straight forward because the rules never feel personal. It’s easier to say “no” to a class of thirty because individuals can’t argue in favour of special treatment. It’s harder when you have your home-school class of one or two, and with no threat of detention or loss of break for backchat or eye-rolling either! Youngsters will only continue behaviours that work for them though, and if we can hold out with our own children, and let them see that “no” definitely always means “no”, they really will get bored of that behaviour and change.
4. It’s really is OK not to have all the answers
Many of us were feeling the pressure of believing that we needed to be experts on everything on the curriculum, trying to teach our youngsters subject matter that we ourselves may have forgotten many years ago or never even learnt. If our children are stuck, it’s perfectly acceptable to admit we don’t know, and it can sometimes be reassuring for them too. We can validate their feelings – “Yes, I can see why you’re finding this so tricky” – and then to try and find the answers together. There’s so much help online for learners of all ages and stages; explanations, videos, specific revision sessions. An email to the teacher may help to clarify. Our youngsters may be able to contact someone else in the same class for help. Certainly many older children are in touch with their peers anyway, so why not encourage them to trade knowledge and understanding with each other in this way too?
5. Choice is power
Its part of young people’s wiring to desire power. They resist, push and constantly try to prove to us that they are in charge. So why not let them think that they are sometimes? By offering carefully planned choices, we can steer their decision-making whilst hopefully keeping them on side as well.
“What would you like to do? Get your essay finished now or take a break and then finish your essay?”
“Are you going to watch the History film first and then do your Maths, or would you prefer to do it the other way round?”
“Yes, that’s great that you want to go outside and when you’ve done another hour, you can go outside for as long as you want. So what are you going to choose to do first – Art or Geography?”
“You want to play that game? Yes of course you can! As soon as you just finish this Science task you can do whatever you like”
We say all of this in a super-friendly tone and with smiling eyes, of course, and never have to resort to “You have to …” or “You’re not doing anything else until you’ve …” It’s clear from the questioning that the work needs doing, that bit’s not negotiable and we’re affirming that, but the language sounds so much less confrontational that it’s much harder for them to take offence and rebel. When the potential for resistance and confrontation is removed, it’s so much calmer for us too. Win-win.
6. Kids love praise
Of course they do. Who doesn’t? Though they may try their hardest to hide it, even the sulkiest or most angry teen secretly just loves to be told that they are valued and have done well. By providing real opportunities to show our genuine admiration, awe, gratitude or enthusiasm for something they have done, we are allowing our youngsters to know that they are thriving and this, currently more so than ever, is vital for their emotional well-being. When we schedule into the routine activities which we know will give them a chance to shine, to impress us and feel that they are successful and brilliant, we are encouraging them to stand tall and proud and enjoy that feeling. This may be good results in a school subject or it may be their help with a chore, a DIY project done well or success at a creative or sporting activity
7. Taking time out
These times are certainly unprecedented and trying to navigate our way through them with our mental health intact can feel hugely challenging at times. Whilst routine is important, so is taking time out and sometimes this has to be scheduled too, to so that it’s not forgotten about. Engaging in passion projects together, enjoying mealtimes together, watching a film that has nothing to do with the school curriculum but just because it makes us laugh and it makes us feel happy, going for a walk together … all of this is equally important to completing the school work. We should continue to allow our youngsters down time to be alone or spend time with friends, however and whenever that might be; whether it is at certain times each day or whether there are days on which nobody works. Our children, however big or small, need the reward of that relaxation, as do we. Schools worked incredibly hard to provide work for their pupils but those in education also recognise that the mental and emotional well-being of our youngsters is an extremely important factor in how well they are developing and progressing over time.
Despite recent guidelines, what the next academic year will look and feel like is still unclear, and no doubt the picture will keep changing due to factors beyond our control. Very important will be to help them to prepare for and adapt to ongoing changes and uncertainty as we move forward. Exactly how we do that will differ for all of us, but we will all have gained a wealth of insight into our children’s emotional and learning behaviours which we can now use to support them going forward. Although many of our young people will have told us “You don’t know. You’re not the teacher”, actually that may well be wrong. Whilst we may not always have the answers, we probably have a much better idea about how to manage this than we did back in March. Many of us will have become much more familiar with the curriculum and its opportunities and challenges and will be therefore better placed to support with future homework. We may also have noticed something about our children’s learning needs that we can now discuss with someone at school, in order for these needs to be accommodated in the classroom.
Remembering to take care of ourselves
It’s completely understandable that during this time we have begun to doubt our ability to juggle everything and it’s no surprise that sometimes it can feel like a challenge just to keep going. We all feel better when we feel that we’re in control and clearly that is tricky in times such as these. By stepping back, however, and reviewing the things in our lives that we can control, we begin to empower ourselves which in turn will lead to feelings of greater competence and confidence that then allows us to regain the control that we desire. So when we feel like we’re sinking, we would do well to remember that simply breathing and treading water is ok. And once we’re treading water, that means we’re surviving and waiting for the next step. And if we’re surviving, we should allow ourselves to be brave enough to remember in these extraordinary times, surviving is a good place to start.
Kirsty Fulford, trainee Ollie Coach
I am foremost an incredibly proud mum of two fantastic children, whose well-being is the most important thing to me, and whose neurodiversity continually pushes me to challenge the ways in which we raise and educate our youngsters. 25 years of teaching in secondary schools in the UK and in Europe has taught me that whilst sharing our knowledge and expertise to help children pass exams is our duty, it is still only part of a much greater responsibility. Only when we fully value and nurture the emotional well-being of our children, and show them how to do the same, do we begin to equip them with what they really need to fulfil their potential and realise their dreams.
To get in contact with Kirsty, email firstname.lastname@example.org
To find out more about Ollie and his Super Powers and how to become an Ollie Coach go to www.ollieandhissuperpowers.com