If you’re looking forward to the children going back to school, we won’t judge you. As nice as it is to be around them, it’s hard work. Juggling your job alongside full-time education is no mean feat and while most schools have done a great job transplanting the usual routine to unusual times, keeping them motivated for the long haul can be a struggle.
The good news is it’s not all on you. Professor Deborah Eyre, co-author of Great Minds and How to Grow Them says, “It’s fine for parents to encourage and support, but if a child is to succeed, they have to want to do things for themselves.”
It turns out the children need to step up too – so as part of our Wellness initiative we’ve consulted with teachers and parents on how to help the kids help themselves.
1. The importance of routine
The mention of routine might seem ridiculous at the moment, but that’s precisely why it matters so much. There are ‘passive’ benefits to routine – security, certainty, and a sense that even in the strangest times, there’s a plan. Some schools are working to existing timetables, as far as possible, to maintain that sense of continuity.
But there are ‘active’ benefits too. Routine can teach children about responsibility, time management and incremental progress towards a goal. It’s not just about work, family routine matters too. One US study found that children with strong routines at home were 47% more likely to develop good emotional and social skills.
2. Reward effort and achievement
These days, teachers are finding it difficult to give individual feedback, but that’s something we can remedy at home, by testing and evaluating the children’s efforts. The point about ‘effort’ is an important one though, because ‘achievement’ can place too much emphasis on a specific outcome. In fact, ‘achievement’ can be less about a grade, and more a measure of progress, understanding and lessons learned, about the subject and their own personality.
There’s a fine line – we’re not talking about trophies for everything, with children getting treats for phoning it in, but it’s important to evaluate how they approached a task, whether they gave it their best and crucially, to give them the opportunity to self-evaluate. You might be surprised at how lucid they can be, meanwhile they’re building skills for the future – not just learning how to get from A to B for its own sake, but understanding the process.
3. But teach resilience too
There’s a surprisingly emotional line in ‘The Places You’ll Go’ by Dr. Seuss, in which he notes, “Wherever you go, you will top all the rest. Except when you don’t. Because, sometimes, you won’t”.
There’s a wider lesson to be learnt from lockdown schooling – things don’t always go to plan. Happily, kids are resilient, and they’ll bounce back, but in the meantime, it’s a great opportunity to help them become strong, motivated individuals who can roll with the punches. You could hold their hand through every piece of homework, but you’d be completing the task at the expense of the lesson. It won’t increase their self-motivation, so guide and support without taking over. As Deborah Eyre says “Children are most likely to succeed if they choose to practise for themselves”. They may fall short sometimes, but they’ll also learn how to get up and move on.
4. Be sure to set goals
It’s a big part of adult life, but once upon a time you had to be shown how to do it. Setting goals, incrementally working towards them (and just as importantly, missing them sometimes) are vital experiences for the future. There are some good age-appropriate examples to get you started here.
It’s something you can do together, but it’s important to let the children take the lead. Goals should be realistic and achievable, but how do you know what’s realistic or achievable if you’ve never set goals before? You can of course shepherd and steer them, but generally let them plan and chase their own targets. In doing so they’ll be calibrating their own understanding of what’s realistic and how long things take.
5. Experiment with noise levels
School is noisy, not unlike the office, with competing conversations and assorted cacophony. One study found that 65% of office workers asked about background noise find it distracting. But other types of background noise can be helpful. Working to ‘white noise’ and other ambient sounds can help improve memory as well as drowning out noisy, unpredictable environments.
There are plenty of ways to generate ambient noise – www.brain.fm curates playlists to help the brain function at its best, while www.rainycafe.com reproduces the ambience of a café and a rain shower. This is something to experiment with though, the jury is still out and personality plays a role in whether or not it works for you.
6. Remember that listening works both ways
While we’re on the subject of sound, let’s talk about listening. It’s something we’re really keen on at Citywide – it wouldn’t be helpful if we just talked at you without first listening to what matters to you. It’s the same with the children – everything is new and exciting and they’ll want to share their enthusiasm with you. Of course, as they get older things change, especially in the teenage years when they’ll begin exploring their independence.
That fits perfectly with the idea of self-motivation, but as they start making decisions about things that really matter, you’ll need to be there, and the more heavy-handed you are, the more they’ll shut down. You may have to be more subtle than just firing questions at them, which could be interpreted as an interrogation, so you could start to pry open the mind of the recalcitrant teen by sharing what’s on your mind, and as they start to open up, listen.
7. Get some exercise
There are now lots of ways to exercise in whatever space you have, whether it’s yoga, the energetic routines of Joe Wicks or the slightly unhinged workouts of Tyson Fury, there’s something for everyone. But it’s not all about the internet. Even when lockdown began, outdoor exercise was permitted and now restrictions have been relaxed there’s no better time to get outside and enjoy the fresh air we’re always complaining we don’t get enough of.
Whether it’s walking, running or cycling it’s something we can do with the kids and give them responsibility for. If you’re lucky enough to live in the countryside, let them plan the itinerary. If you’re city-dwellers, get the bikes and helmets out, it’s a good lesson in staying alert and if COVID-19 leaves lasting changes it might be their future commuting preference.
8. Go off-script
While it’s important to maintain the momentum and direction of the kids’ education during this period, it’s also an unlikely-to-be-repeated chance to introduce them to new things. Sites like Sporcle are full of introductions to all kinds of subjects via the medium of quizzing, which just might spark a new interest.
You could even go more old-school and simply look out of the window. But don’t force-feed them and don’t overdo it – just 10 minutes a day of learning something completely new and leftfield could lead inquiring minds in entirely new directions. It’s also a great way to spark family conversations, you may even learn something yourself.
Remember you’re learning too
The reality of lockdown education is we’re all running to catch up, children and parents alike. The requirements placed upon you will differ hugely depending on their age and their stage of education. For example, older children may be missing out on summer work or an internship, if so, resources like Coursera, EdX, and the Department for Education’s Skills Toolkit are really useful, as are institutions like Oxford HomeStudy.
But amid the scramble to keep education rolling, make sure they’re not missing out on the unique opportunities of this period, to learn new things and develop skills that will carry them far into the future. As school slowly returns to normal, however long that takes, who knows how kids will remember this time, especially the younger ones?
It may be a hazy memory of a time when things were all a bit odd, but as we grown-ups complain about the ‘things they never taught us at school’, what a great opportunity to put that right for the next generation.