As the UK joins many countries across the globe in school closure, parents may find themselves not knowing what to do or where to begin. Dr. Marie J. Hill, Chartered Psychologist and Educational Psychologist, and Dr. Michelle L. Byrne, Counselling Psychologist, give practical advice in how parents can navigate these uncertain times.
Children look to their primary care-givers for support and leadership. Spending 24/7 with our children can be difficult for us, but also for them. Before looking at the schoolwork provided, first plan and prepare how you are going to look after yourself during this uncertain time. It will be imperative for you to consider when you are going to get alone time and plan for who will supervise the children. If more than one adult in the household, negotiate some uninterrupted time so you have a chance to collect your thoughts, feel relaxed, and engage in some activities you enjoy. Make sure you stay connected with your social circles through the use of technology where possible. After all, we are social creatures, and maintaining those social relationships will continue to be important.
Children have to be in a state of ‘readiness’ before they can learn. Sudden closure of schools and changes within routines may have resulted in our children not feeling ready to learn. Do not worry about immediately starting into academic work provided by the school. It might be more important in the early stages of homeschooling to connect with your child. Take this time to bond over activities they enjoy and help your child to feel more relaxed. Only once your child is in a state of ‘readiness’ then start into academic work.
Some schools may provide distance-learning packs for your children to complete at home during this temporary period of closure and some may not. There is no need to panic either way. This is just another new direction in your family’s routine for the next while. Use this time with your children plan their workload in ‘what has to be completed/attempted today’. Doing schoolwork from home will bring challenges for your family to adapt to, but you will find your new flow.
Finding this flow may include:
- Establishing a suitable area in your house that your kids can use as a shared learning space. Practice flexibility here, as you can learn sitting on the couch in a more relaxed setting. When it is relaxed, children can learn naturally without realising it.
- Kids need routine and structure and respond to limit setting. Protect the time and boundaries around this space as it will be essential for their educational development. If your kids like a walk in the morning or playing after breakfast, let them. Don’t be rigid with timetabling and find a timeframe that works for your family.
- Supportively track and manage time around completing tasks (i.e. homework, study, projects). It is okay if they do not complete all they set out to finish in one day. Allow for flexibility by understanding some subjects may be tougher for them than others.
- Work with your children to draw up a plan to reach goals, with a long-term plan and short-term daily structure. You do not have to stick to this rigidly but it helps everyone to know what is next. Define and agree on the timelines for the day and the week agree on this and put it somewhere visible. By doing this, you are establishing direction and orientating your child’s focus and concentration each day.
- Set up a reward chart that everyone can buy into and make it visible for all. (Think Hogwarts house points) – There should be a long-term reward after a week or two and short-term rewards at definite points of the day. These rewards do not have to be money or edibles. Agree on them with your children and find what works for your family.
- Make yourself available if your kids need support or guidance with some subjects. If you are unsure how to help them find the answers, be honest with them about your limits and seek external educational support to help aid their learning. Remember schools have not ‘shut down’ during this time, as they are still responsible to educate your child. You will still be able to contact senior management in schools, and/or in some cases even teachers.
What is important to remember is that being flexible and creative with how you maintain your child’s educational boundaries will help them succeed in feeling a sense of achievement and boost their self-esteem. Reaching goals, receiving praise and expanding their self-directed learning styles will help improve their sense of agency, reduce stress and anxiety, and improve self-confidence in their abilities.
Purposefully Paying Attention
During uncertain times, when our family routine turns upside down, we may experience difficulty concentrating, sleeping, focusing on completing everyday tasks, and regulating our emotional states may feel a little more tricky than usual. These are normal reactions to abnormal events, and we are not alone. What is important to remember during this time is that what we choose to pay attention to is always within our control. Shifting our perspective on what we pay attention to in life around us helps us foster a sense of control over our mood and sense of wellbeing. What we decide to allow our minds to pay attention to has the potential to free us from being weighed down with unrelenting worry.
So, the question is how do we strengthen our capacity for present moment awareness? Firstly, it is about increasing our sense of connection that we have with ourselves, people around us and our environment. Ultimately, this gives us a more fuller-enjoyable experience of everyday life. All children and most adults have difficulty being patient, focused, and managing emotions. This is perfectly normal but can also be very frustrating. Through the understanding and practice of yoga and mindfulness meditation practice, your child and you may gain valuable life skills that can be used in school, at home, and in social interactions. These guided meditative and child-friendly yoga practices are freely available online and easy to incorporate as part of your family fun day or new everyday relaxation routine! (see links below for some examples).
Practice deep breathing when your mind goes off on one. But remember, mindfulness, meditation, and yoga aren’t for everyone – and that’s ok! Find what works for you and your child. Movement of any type can help with anxiety and stress. A walk. Kicking a ball. Anything to move your body!
In today’s modern world, our children’s, and our own time is jam-packed with activities and competing stimuli. Between attending different clubs, social gatherings, increased workloads, and even checking social media, we have forgotten what it is like to be bored. Boredom is not a negative experience. When I was a child, some of my most creative thoughts/ideas/games were cultivated from “being bored”. When we constantly and consistently give our children activities to engage with (including technology) we are, in essence taking away their learning opportunities to be creative, to self-soothe, to be inquisitive, and to become independent. Try and not fill all your child’s free time with activities, allow them to explore their imagination and cultivate how to entertain themselves, away from technology.
Being a Good Listener
Look for windows of opportunity, ask direct questions, comment on what you see, be aware of body language, ask how you can be of help and most importantly, encourage help-seeking. Ways of fine-tuning how we respond and listen to our children include a trip back to basics!
- Listen more than talk – It may sound obvious but being a good listener is a skill and takes effort – it does not necessarily come naturally.
- Give people time – again this may seem obvious but it is critical to really give young people time and attention if you want them to experience you as a good listener. We have all had the experience, at one time or another, of trying to say something important to someone who was not listening to us. They may have given this away by fidgeting, looking at something over our shoulder, checking their watch, interrupting us. Can you recall how it made you feel? I’m guessing it wasn’t a particularly pleasant feeling, that you didn’t feel listened to, understood or even important at that moment. If you are not in a position to listen attentively to a young person it is better to tell them and try to find a better time.
- Don’t judge– you’d be amazed at how often we are all guilty of doing this. Young people often feel judged by adults or fear that they will be judged by adults so they don’t tell us what is going on in their lives. A related trap we can fall into is jumping to conclusions. Once we start jumping to conclusions, we have stopped listening. Instead of hearing the story from the young person, we are making up the ending in our own minds. Don’t fall into these traps – keep an open mind and allow your ears to hear what is being said not what you think is or might be being said.
Increase Sense of Connection
The ability to form and maintain relationships with others is key to making us feel good about ourselves. During these unusual times, you can encourage your children to maintain their training routines if they were part of clubs that have temporarily suspended their usual arrangements. Losing this outlet will naturally cause them to feel discomfort, but, you can help them keep up their fitness levels and enjoyment levels by joining them in safe distance exercising in the park. Activities such as these where they can meet like-minded people, find their tribe in a sense and share their interests are of paramount importance for young people to feel connected. Keeping these channels of connection open in a safe manner will greatly help decrease stress and maintain a trusted sense of normality. Reaching out for help if needed is another important message to communicate to your young person. We know that many young people who may need help are not getting it or not asking for it, for a variety of reasons, so encouraging help-seeking is important.
Positive mental health links into the notion of a Healthy Body – Healthy Mind. When we exercise, the brain releases feel-good hormones called endorphins, which make us feel good so getting active can make us feel better. Many young people are living very sedentary lifestyles, sitting in front of the computer screen for hours on end. So, when encouraging them to get active we should start small and suggest baby steps. It could be walking to a friend’s house instead of taking the bus or getting a lift, walking the dog or going for a cycle. If young people can find an activity, they enjoy doing – even better as they will be much more likely to take part in it.
The good news is that there are many ways to cultivate creativity and have fun with getting active. Some useful suggestions include: Being out in nature, going for a hill walk or hike, cycling as a family, skipping in your backyard, playing old street games, gardening / preparing meals together, or a personal favourite of mine – recreating a school/family sports day! Yes, this means getting the egg and spoon race set up and the three-legged race, maybe even a tug of war would go down a treat too! This kind of group activity allows our inner child to play and is essential for boosting morale. (Careful not to sneeze on each other).
Encourage Young People to Give
Doing good helps make us feel better. Have you ever felt more relaxed, content, and generally happier in yourself after you have done something kind, considerate or thoughtful for someone? Research shows that ‘doing good is good for you’, this experience has been termed the “helpers high” and is produced when your brain releases endorphins, the feel-good chemicals of the brain. When you do something good for someone else, your brain’s pleasure centre lights up, releasing endorphin and producing this high. Not to mention, doing good generates feelings of satisfaction and gratitude. So perhaps inspiring your young person to find ways to lend support or help another person will make them feel good about themselves. They might do something nice for a friend or neighbour, thank someone or even just smile. Getting involved in volunteer projects can be a good way for young people to meet new people and learn new skills while giving something back.
Take the school closure as an opportunity to connect and enjoy time with your child. You never know, maybe your inner child might want to come out to play too – and that is something to really get psyched about!
Cosmic Kids – https://www.cosmickids.com/
Sitting Like a Frog – https://soundcloud.com/gretaver/sets/sitting-still-like-a-frog
Yoga For Children – http://www.yogatherapyireland.com/teach-yoga-for-children/
Mindfulness for Children Activities – https://positivepsychology.com/mindfulness-for-children-kids-activities/