Supporting children’s learning at home

How parents can complement the work of teachers during the COVID-19 outbreak
Image: Jacobs Foundation
Image: Jacobs Foundation

Across the world, the COVID-19 outbreak has led to the closure of schools. Children are staying home, and are expected to continue their learning remotely. Digital tools will help teachers to communicate with children, but parents and other family members will need to support this new way of learning.

Schools around the world are closing to promote public health and ‘flatten the curve’ during the unprecedented coronavirus emergency. Teachers will be turning to digital technology to ensure that children don’t miss out on learning opportunities, providing work that can be completed at home. There is likely to be a difficult adjustment period while tools are established, family schedules are instituted, and work is circulated.  It will be essential for parents and other family members to step in to ensure children are looked after and teachers are supported in helping children to continue learning.

“There is likely to be a difficult adjustment period while tools are established, family schedules are instituted, and work is circulated.”

Perhaps the first thing that will be on many minds is how to explain coronavirus to children and what it means for them in a non-alarmist but factual way. Children may feel scared or isolated in this uncertain and unusual time. Advice from educational psychologists is to keep the conversation open, remain truthful, and give practical guidance for specific safe behaviours. High levels of stress can interfere with learning, so trying to help children let go of any anxiety will help both their mental wellbeing and their ability to learn.

Keeping connected with friends and family that we may not be able to see in person is also crucial for maintaining mental health. Screens present an excellent opportunity to stay in touch. There are many fears around screen time in children, but there is no evidence screens are inherently bad – and in a situation like this there will be enormous social and emotional benefit to communicating via screen.

“It will be essential for parents and other family members to step in to ensure children are looked after and teachers are supported in helping children to continue learning.”

Parents and carers are likely to have many competing priorities at this time, such as working from home or caring for older relatives. Through it all, their children’s learning will remain a high priority.

Some schools will have good systems in place to begin teaching immediately, and parents will have a role in helping students to organise themselves. But for many, things will be chaotic at first, while teachers figure out how best to teach remotely, and families figure out how to cope. A rigid structured day of learning is unlikely, and schools will have to allow for flexibility.

Although this flexibility is challenging, it may also be a good opportunity for adolescents to acquire healthier sleeping patterns – getting up early for school can lead to sleep deprivation with negative consequences for learning, so embracing a later start to the day may enhance learning.

During this time of increased uncertainty, parents will have to play a larger role in ensuring learning happens at home. There are plenty of reliable websites that can guide parental approaches to facilitating learning at home. The Learning Scientists provide six evidence-based strategies for learning, with free downloadable materials, videos, and a podcast. These can be used to guide an effective learning and revision schedule.

“There are plenty of reliable websites that can guide parental approaches to facilitating learning at home.”

One particular strategy for parents who are helping their children to learn new material or new skills is to think aloud and show the working of a problem – this supports the learner through developing metacognition, the ability to think about our own thoughts and strategies.

There is also the Education Endowment Foundation website, which hosts clear summaries of evidence, and of course the BOLD blog, which you are reading now! The Centre for Educational Neuroscience has a ‘neuro-hit or neuro-myth?’ page, bringing together the evidence of different topics relating to learning that may help when it’s not immediately clear what the scientific consensus is. It is important to be wary of any technique for helping children to learn that claims to be a quick fix – it is almost certain that this is a neuromyth. Learning happens when things are hard.

“Even unstructured play helps children to develop and learn, so breaks that are longer than normal should not be considered wasted time.”

Remember that teachers are highly trained, schools are specialised settings for learning, and nobody is expecting learning to be just as effective at home – especially at the start. This is a difficult time for many, and each family will have their own priorities and needs. Even unstructured play helps children to develop and learn, so breaks that are longer than normal should not be considered wasted time.

“Reassurance and support should be the first concern.”

Reassurance and support should be the first concern, and for those who have the time to help their children to learn, this is a good time to embrace technology and use free online resources which will no doubt develop as learning at home continues to be a necessity for the foreseeable future. To support children’s learning at home, ongoing close collaboration between schools and parents will be essential.

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