Thriving through home schooling or surviving it – what I’ve learnt and what my separated clients are experiencing by Claire Blakemore. Claire is a partner in Withers’ family law team and the mother of two boys.
The start of the New Year certainly was not as we had all hoped. For those of us with children the unwelcome news of returning to home-schooling on top of the national lockdown was a second blow. For once many children were actually looking forward to returning to school – not necessarily for the educational benefits but so they could see their mates who they had not been able to see over Christmas. In my circle of parent friends, there were a lot of upset kids and even those who are old enough to have developed a strong attachment to screens which is part of the growing experience for our children nowadays (I sound very old) the idea of online schooling simply did not meet the mark.
Many of us are now into our 4th week of term (which I described to my primary school children in various forms of ½ fractions) as that sounded a bit better and seemed to be in the spirit of home-schooling in which we are all suddenly having conversations about topics we had long forgotten and grappling with new acronyms (DASH, SPAG, RIG and the like). Whilst online learning is better supported than in the first lockdown home-schooling is challenging to say the least – and particularly difficult for separated parents. But now with the recent news that schools will not be going back until 8 March at the earliest (and probably much later), we have much further to do with this new additional lockdown time.
So how do we thrive or at least survive this and what about those parents who are separated and trying to do this in different homes? I’ve been advising many clients about how to manage home-schooling as it has become an area of disagreement and dispute between some separated parents as they try to work out how to manage it between their respective other commitments and the children needing to travel between homes. Here’s my 5 tips which I’ve got through my own experiences and working things through with my clients:
Be flexible and try to be patient
Be flexible and try to be patient – with yourself, your children and your partner. These things are easy to say but hard to do but the more open and non-judgmental we can be the better for all and especially the kids. I was on a Zoom call the other day, when right at the moment when my opponent’s monologue of her client’s long list of my client’s home-schooling deficiencies was reaching its crescendo, my youngest appeared at my door in floods of tears because he could not ‘turn in’ his Google classroom maths work. He knew he shouldn’t interrupt me but he couldn’t contain his despair. I was immediately guilt ridden by not being able to go to him immediately but it was impossible to get a word in sideways but after what felt like a lifetime, I said to her, “excuse me, but could I have a moment to deal with something”, to which the stern reply was that she had to go and all I had to do was relay all her points to my client so that he could change his behaviour and home school ‘properly’. At that point, I said, “well the reason I needed a quick moment was because my son was crying at my door but he’s now walked off dejected" and that sometimes as a parent you can’t do what your children needs no matter how hard we want to do so. I went on to comment that “it was probably a fitting time to end the conversation in which my only comment was going to be that we all need to be more patient and flexible and perhaps she and her client could consider that”. The fact is that as parents we all get things slightly wrong but that’s part of being a parent but it doesn’t make us bad parents and we have to put things into perspective but also be flexible and adapt. If we can’t do that then that’s where big problems are created. As it happened, I discovered that my youngest had asked my eldest to help him and that he had learnt how to ‘turn in’ his work without my involvement. That bad parent situation came good on that occasion.
Guilt and inadequacy
Guilt and inadequacy comes in all forms –whether it’s getting the long division wrong, burning lunch whilst googling ‘what’s French for trousers mummy?’, not having remembered to empty every cereal box in the house for use in the art class or dropping off an important call as your broadband can’t cope with everyone in the house using it. But we must stop ourselves immediately when that sense starts to appear. Unless you are a teacher (and if so you will be teaching other people’s children) none of us are trained to home school and we are doing our best. In many cases (but not always) that also applies to the other parent. Often problems between parents arise because of them having different parenting styles, standards, and strengths or weaknesses when it comes to home schooling. How many times do we say to our children that so long as they do their best they must not worry? We must take a dose of our own medicine sometimes. If you are separated and can see that things are going wrong, it can be hard to avoid criticising the other parent but to do so is rarely going to result in them changing what they are doing. If we can approach the situation by thinking that the other parent is doing their best (even if it is that they are not doing so) it can be easier to re-frame how we respond to being child centred and solution focused. This means the focus is shifted away from parental failures – none of us want to feel like we are failing – to what could work to make it better for your child and probably also for them.
Look at the positives
Look at the positives – there will be more than you think. Over the space of the past few months we and our children have acquired new skills many of which we would never have achieved in such a short space of time. The pace of technological development for many of our children (and for us) has been phenomenal. Although I’m hoping not to need to use my new found skills in Google classroom for very long, or in the future, I’ve learnt so many new IT skills by being responsible for their ‘classrooms’. The pace at which children have adapted to online learning literally overnight has been outstanding and rewarding in equal measures. Each day they and we are learning and having new experiences. All parents whether they are together or apart, should help our children to celebrate their successes and learn from their and our failures.
Share the load
Share the load. The good news is that for separated parents supporting home schooling can be done from your separate households. So with some flexibility and careful planning it can be shared. A lot of schools are flexible on when work is returned so it may be possible for the timetable to be flexed to enable both parents to get involved by lessons being done outside of the core school hours if needed. Since the first lockdown, my children’s grandparents have been doing ‘lessons’ with the boys. My mum does dry aqua classes (PE) with the kids, my mother-in-law has been doing music and drama – well that’s what she called it when I ran in to find out what all the screaming was about – ‘it’s Lion King – don’t worry mummy’. Challenge grandma and grandad have been a mixture of maths, English or history challenges – although there have been quite a few stewards enquires! It’s been a great way for the boys to connect with their grandparents and get some learning sneaked in. For separated parents sharing the learning with the other parent and/or other relatives is a great way to take off some pressure.
Try to have some fun times
Try to have some fun times. Laughter lowers blood pressure and reduces the stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. We all need our stress levels to decrease in these times but particularly for those parents who are separated. Sometimes we also need to see the funny side of things to help us put things into perspective and doing so teaches our children to be resilient by them seeing we are not infallible. I’m not suggesting that we poke fun at others – especially not at the separated parent – but learning to laugh at ourselves is a powerful coping tool for us and our children. My youngest is a perfectionist who gets very upset if he makes a mistake. So I showed him a funny work video of out-takes in which some of my fluffs appeared. Initially, he couldn’t understand why I was laughing at my own mistakes. I told him sometimes we have to see the funny side of things as we all make mistakes and we learn from them. ‘Oh ok. I get it mummy’ he said smiling. ‘That’s great’ I said. ‘Yes, I’ve already got a good example’, he said. ‘I did my artwork on the new dining table with those permanent sharpies and …….!’ ‘Argh’…. I said dashing over to it!!! As I say, we don’t get everything right!