Advice for accidental home educators

So home education is having a bit of a moment.

The Coronavirus pandemic has caught us all unawares, and all over the world families are facing unexpected extra time together. As someone who’s a bit more used to organising my weekly schedule around the needs of two little people I have been asked by a few friends now if I would share some tips here about how we do it…

It’s worth noting that on many levels we are actually, like most non-school learners I know, in the same boat as everyone else. Contrary to popular opinion we do not really spend very much time at home at all, and most of our week is spent hanging out with friends to play, explore and learn together. Bringing our focus back into the family unit brings with it lots of challenges, but I have realised that there is much I have learnt over the past few years that is making this feel like an opportunity rather than a threat.

(As an aside I feel I should mention too that I am a qualified English teacher and spent over ten years teaching and leading in secondary schools. I don’t believe this makes me any better placed than anyone else to home educate, but it does mean I have a pretty good idea of what goes on in schools and what research has to say about how children learn in different contexts.)

There are many, many ways to make home education work, but these are some of mine: I hope you find them helpful.

Slow down and connect

This is an anxiety-ridden time for adults and children – allow yourselves to name that, and sit with it together. You may find that everyone needs more cuddles, and that older children’s minds are swirling with questions about what exactly it is that’s going on.

Try not to dismiss these very real needs for connection, and recognise that just being together and doing things that make you feel good might be all you can manage some days, and that’s ok. In fact I’d argue that it’s really what we should be striving for every day…

Make lists of things you want to do

If you’re anything like us you’ll have a tonne of plans that never quite seem to come to fruition, from playing more board games to sorting out the kids’ old clothes. And with several months of disruption to ‘normal’ life ahead of us we might finally have a little bit more of the oh-so-precious commodity that is time to tick some things off that to do list…

You might feel you have enough to keep you occupied with your own goals for yourself and your family, but make sure you talk with your children about the things they might like to do too. Their answers might surprise you!

As well as the big lists you might also find that daily lists are a handy tool. For me the juggle of working from home whilst facilitating my children’s learning would be made much harder without a daily check in with my plans and goals: it helps keep my mind clear, and stops days from blending into one another – especially at the moment.

Find your rhythm

Different people will need different levels of routine, but having a sense of rhythm can be really helpful with long days at home. For us something that can help hone harmonious mornings is for me to set up a couple of activities the night before that I know the boys will be able to engage with independently so I can drink a cup of coffee and get my own priorities straight for the day.

You might want a clear timetable for your planned activities, or you might prefer a more freeform approach, keeping a range of different ideas up your sleeve so you can weave them in when spirits are drooping. Be prepared for this to evolve as you all get more used to learning together at home: if things feel too stressful or too much like hard work then stop and ask whether you could be doing it differently. And don’t forget to involve your children in the reflection and planning: they will always offer useful perspectives, and having ownership over whatever approach you end up taking will make them much more likely to be invested in it.

Don’t get too hung up on tasks from school

This one’s a bit controversial and will depend on the age of your child to an extent, but honestly – don’t get into battles over completing school work if it’s not what your child wants to do. Learning is way bigger than the national curriculum and this could be a real opportunity for you both to discover some passions.

The moments when learning happens in our home are very rarely during the odd occasions we are focused on a formal task. More often they come through a game, or a conversation, or a household job that needs doing, or a mistake.

I understand that you might be anxious about your child falling behind if they don’t keep up with the tasks they’re set, but my experience as a home educator has taught me that it really doesn’t work like that: learning is not linear or incremental, it happens when it needs to – and leaps of progress can be made when to the naked eye it doesn’t look like there’s any learning going on at all.

The situation we are facing is beyond compare, and I very much doubt that the world is going to be quite the same when we emerge from our respective periods of isolation. It is a once in a lifetime chance to reflect on what our true priorities are for ourselves and our children. If that’s completing worksheets then go for it – but if it’s not take this as permission to try something new.

Get outdoors

This might not be possible depending on your situation, but if there is any way that you can then make sure you get outdoors as often as you can. Breathe the air, look up at the sky, feel the sun (or the rain) on your skin. Our everyday life has reduced the amount of time that children spend outside to less than one hour a day: let this be the time when that changes.

Grow some food

If you have a garden then you can really get stuck in with this, but even if you don’t you can still enjoy growing your own food inside. It is a rich source of learning, and might actually come in really handy if the current food shortages are anything to go by…

Easy things to start with include cress, sprouted seeds and micro greens – there’s a great selection of seeds available here. You could create your own indoor herb garden, or you could even experiment with using kitchen scraps to grow your own supply of vegetables.

However you decide to do it there is something immensely satisfying about nurturing a plant into life – and even better if you get to eat it.

Get creative

Another fantastic source of learning, and one which can also bring lots of enjoyment to you and your kids, is making things! Every type of creativity counts – from junk modelling to lego, from drawing to knitting, from baking cakes to writing poems. It can really help to while away the time and give you a sense of purpose.

Awake your inner activist

Something else that can help lift you up above the stresses of the day to day is to shift your mind to the bigger picture and use your time at home to work on making the world a better place.

It might not feel like it now but we will get through this current crisis, and we will be left with one which is going to take similarly Herculean efforts to turn around: and that is the climate and ecological emergency we are facing. Lots of the lessons we are learning as we focus in together and simplify our lives will be enormously valuable when it comes to facing up to this challenge, and it is a challenge we must face up to for the sake of our children.

Whether it’s learning more about the crisis and what we can do about it or writing to politicians and big businesses to ask them not to forget about the health of our planet, any time you dedicate to this cause will be time well spent.

Make time for yourself

This may seem like an impossible task faced with the prospect of weeks in isolation with your children, but it is an essential one if you are to get through it with your spirit intact!

If you possibly can, create times in your day when your children can occupy themselves independently and you can get a breather – time to get some work done, enjoy a bit of yoga, read a few pages of a book, or even just drink a cup of tea in peace.

My absolute favourite time to do this is first thing in the morning: I am not naturally a morning person, but when I manage to get up when the house is quiet and take a bit of time to write it completely transforms the rest of my day. Admittedly more often (like now) I end up tapping away at the keyboard in the evenings ignoring the dishes that have piled up in the sink… But even that makes all the difference to my own sense of wellbeing, and helps me hold on to my own identity which is key to surviving the madness.

If you are finding it completely impossible to carve out those moments for yourself (and even if you’re not) then finding the things that bring you all joy is immensely valuable. One of my favourite bloggers, Lucy AitkenRead, describes them perfectly as ‘Sites of Mutual Fulfilment’: things we all need more of in our lives, now more than ever.

Keep moving

This one’s important for you and your kids, and is definitely one of those things that you should be able to do together. Keeping active will help to boost your mood and your immune system, improve sleep, and generally (hopefully) reduce the amount of bouncing off the walls that’s going on.

There are lots of inspiring videos online – from family yoga to dance classes. Or you might want to take it in turns to lead a workout – if you can keep up with the kids that is! Personally I will be mainly dusting off my hula hoop, and shadowing my toddler as he puts his ever-expanding climbing skills to the test all over the furniture…

Don’t be afraid of screen time

It gets a bad rap, and none of us want to be spending the next couple of months glued to a screen (note to self…), but the digital world has such a tremendous amount to offer – for learning, for enjoyment, and for respite.

I believe that teaching our children to be digitally savvy, and to appreciate the wealth of resources they have at their fingertips, is an essential part of their education. We don’t do set screen time limits in our household, but I do encourage my boys to check in with how they are feeling and tempt them towards another activity when I sense they have had enough – we have shifted away from using screens first thing in the morning and in the couple of hours before bed because the impacts were more negative than positive.

Most of the time though the world inside our screens is just a fantastic resource – and over the weeks and months to come will be an essential communication link too. We’re already using video calls to keep in touch with friends and family in isolation, and are looking at using Zoom to create group meet ups with the children in the home education groups we’re part of. It won’t ever be the same as physical interaction but it’s a hell of a lot better than nothing.

Rediscover favourite books

Both of my boys love books, but what they love most of all is being read too. Since having my youngest I have realised that picture books have way more longevity than I previously gave them credit for – my eldest (who’s seven) will happily listen to chapter books but absolutely adores cwtching down with his two year old brother for a story.

When the challenge of meeting everyone’s needs gets a bit much I find it’s a lovely way to reconnect and ground ourselves again – they are calm and content, and however much my mind might be whirring the act of reading a story aloud cannot help but bring me back into the present.

(And if you find yourself doubting whether you’re doing enough ‘academic’ work with your kids, take solace in the fact that studies have shown that reading has more impact on children’s academic achievement than any other activity – and listening to stories is just as powerful for children’s brain development as reading them independently.)

Embrace a bit of boredom

There will, of course, absolutely be times when you find yourself approaching the end of your tether: when you’ve run out of ideas, when nothing seems to spark interest in you or the kids, and when you would do anything to have someone else entertain them for a while.

When those moments happen it is well worth remembering that boredom can be one of the most powerful forces when it comes to pushing kids to be creative and finding things that truly interest them.

From experience with my eldest it is usually a few minutes after he has declared himself to have absolutely nothing to do that he comes up with an idea for a totally awesome project which keeps him entertained for ages. It can be a bit of a test of nerves at those moments not to give in and allow him to zone out on his iPad – especially because it often coincides with times when I am caught up in something I absolutely have to do – but it is almost always worth holding out for that lightbulb.

Be kind to each other – and yourself

Whichever way you look at it the next couple of months are going to be a testing time for us all. Tensions will be running high, with the anxiety induced by the rolling news only exacerbated by personal stresses around illness, household finances and the lack of interaction with colleagues, friends and extended family.

Our children will inevitably be affected by all of this – I know that despite my best efforts mine already are – and their behaviour will no doubt become less predictable than normal. We can choose to come down on them hard for every digression from our plan, or we can redouble our efforts to connect with them, as human beings and be gentle and forgiving in our interactions.

Personally I will be endeavouring to do the latter. But I will also try to remember to cut myself some slack, and recognise that I too am only human. Embracing our imperfections and continuing to love each other fiercely in spite of them is what I believe will give us all the strength to weather this storm unscathed.

If in doubt, add water

If all else fails and tensions are running high then I can heartily recommend water as the cure for everything.

Drinking it, sitting in it, showering under it, playing with it, even doing the washing up: water seems to have magical properties when it comes to channelling my children’s energies into a more positive place. There is something about this particular element that has never let me down yet: and on a personal level I will be continuing to jump in the sea as often as is humanly possible!

So that’s it. That’s how I will be hoping to make it through the next few months, and I hope that wherever you are you find your own rhythm and find fulfilment and contentment in these strange times for you and your family.

Keep in touch! I would love to hear what’s working for you, and am always happy to answer questions if you have any.

3 thoughts on “Advice for accidental home educators

  1. Thank you so very much for this incredibly well timed, necessary, calm, insightful, practical, intelligent advice. I will be passing it on far and wide!!

  2. Thankyou. This has made me feel very calm after a frantic day of trying to create lessons and failing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *