Ground Control to Mabel’s Mum:  Finding Your Feet in a Strange New World

Guest Blog post by homeschool guru, Anna Dusseau.

Because that’s what it feels like. ‘Wash your hands with skill / Put your face mask on.’ Or am I just trying to wrangle in some Bowie lyrics to cheer y’all up? In any case, here we all are at the start of the national school closure, trying to work from home while managing families and stress levels under the new social distancing regulation which, I notice, has turned everyone from tense to tetchy as fast as you can say ‘pandemic’. I mean, I don’t know how many hours you spent on the sofa as a teenager with the Lord of the Rings boxset and a pack of Pringles, but if I could insert the Lady Galadriel meme here – where she goes green and loses her shizzle – I’m cautiously optimistic you’d appreciate it. Look, COVID-19 isn’t a laughing matter, but realistically we have to crack on at this point, plus there’s more than just the national infection rate to monitor.

If you are at home right now with your children and your laptop, feeling overwhelmed, then join the club. Because I am an experienced homeschooling mum, educational writer and founder of www.homeschoolguru.org and, I can assure you, there’s nothing normal about this for me, either. The infrastructure of my weekday routine is gone, the kids are fractious because they can’t go to the cinema or see their friends, and my husband wanders around creating a mental list of what we could wipe our backsides with if we still can’t find toilet paper on Monday. Men! What I hopefully can do, though, is provide you with some of the homeschooling basics to enable you to properly manage this aspect of your new routine and reduce the pressure by a notch or two. So, push the Nespresso button, put some Bowie on in the background, and enjoy.

What I hopefully can do, though, is provide you with some of the homeschooling basics to enable you to properly manage this aspect of your new routine and reduce the pressure by a notch or two.


Timetables & de-schooling

Last week, I wrote an article for The Times Junior all about how to study from home and it was the easiest write-up I’ve done in weeks. This is the kind of advice I would dish out on a daily basis when I was teaching, especially with tutor groups prior to study leave and – hands down, ladies – it’s not rocket science. I would suggest creating a timetable and encouraging your children to write it themselves, covering all subject areas, and balancing topics throughout the week. Blank timetables are easily printed from Google images but equally a hand-written one amounts to the same thing. Importantly, discuss with your children their expectations of what they want to achieve in a single day. The constant disruptions of school – including registration, notices, assembly, lesson transfers, disruptions, and so forth – mean that actual concrete work probably adds up to a maximum of 2 hours on a good day. It’s simply not realistic to envisage studying from home flat-out for 6 hours straight, so it’s going to be important to look at how they are going to break up their weekday routine with some downtime, hobbies, reading, fresh air and exercise.

Quite obviously, I would advise a generally healthy diet with plenty of wholegrain (if you can find it…), getting dressed by 9am, and limiting screen time to an hour or two, as a solid foundation for children of any age. You don’t want things to unravel from the start. Given that nobody knows yet how long this quarantine is going to last, it seems important to maintain the sanity of a productive weekday routine, followed by more chilled out weekends with, perhaps, more relaxed rules for screen time and pjs!

The key to successful homeschooling, whatever the age range, is to take a step back and give your children autonomy over what they want to learn. This is called de-schooling and for homework (ha, ha!) I want you to look it up and try to apply this concept to your family life. Listen up. We are in the middle of a global pandemic, people! The economy is nosediving and the Italian death toll alone is surging toward 5,000. So really, think about it, nobody cares if your son has read to Page 4 of Biff, Chip and Kipper by the summer holiday. Nor does it matter if your daughter returns to school none the wiser about the dates of Queen Victoria’s reign. What matters, and I speak as a teacher as well as a parent here, is that your children are safe, happy, healthy and positively engaged. I would argue that, if your eldest is a book worm and wants to spend an entire week chomping through Phillip Pullman trilogy, just do it. If your youngest is a – rather messy – artist and doesn’t seem too taken with Maths right now, why not let them spend the morning painting or giant cardboard modelling? Because – here’s the thing – if you get it right, you might just learn a lot about who your child really is and what makes them tick during this time. Not to mention, if they are happily engaged in what they want to be doing, then you can crack on with this whole working from home thing. Which brings me to my next point.

Model behaviour and expectations

My husband and I love homeschooling and we have gone from working full-time in corporate jobs, to both working flexi-hours from home because we want to share the fun of home educating of our 3 children. I mean, hold the phone! Are we just crazy hippies who’ve been inhaling too much hand sanitiser? How on earth do these guys make it work? And I get you, working from home with a set of ankle biters is a juggling act for sure, but it absolutely is possible and I would argue that actually allowing your children to be with you and see you working (unless you are on a conference call) assists them in their own productivity and time management.

You are, essentially, modelling the skills that you would like them to cultivate in their home studies. For more detail on this, check out my article: Heigh-Ho, it’s Home from Work We Go but for now, here are a few of my top tips.

First, if you have any flexibility in your working hours, apply them now. In our house, for example, I work from 4am to about 8am daily and that’s me done for the day; the toilet-paper policeman works night shifts from 6pm through to about midnight. Ouch! Painful, right? And if we can choose that as a way that we want to live because we enjoy homeschooling so much, then I’m sure you can fiddle your hours a bit to make it work for a couple of months.

I would also recommend that you get smart about planning what you need to do when you log in. There’s no time for daydreaming when you are working from home and sitting in front of a screen trying to organise yourself is going to feel extremely stressful with the routine you are now forced into. So remember, to do lists can be planned in the shower or while making a cup of tea; spreadsheets and emails can be mentally drafted while following the kids round the park on their scooters. Try, as much as possible, to write things down on paper and become – like me – the crazy lady with the house full of post-its, because I find that when I over-use my phone for admin, it immediately has a negative effect on the vibe between my kids and also on their expectations of how much screen time they should be allowed. So again, model the behaviour and expectations you have of your own children, if you want a positive vibe. Oh, and keep the coffee flowing. Now, is not the time to be worrying about your caffeine intake and hey – thank you, hoarders – because it turns out the wheat-free diet is now sorted for you! Who knew the coronavirus would be the global cure for gluten intolerance? Not me.

Get outdoors & get to bed

Because these are, indeed, strange times. And I can only say again that there is nothing normal or easy about this for us, either. Sure, we have the homeschooling thing sorted and are already used to working from home, but not being able to enjoy your usual activities and social life has a knock-on effect for everyone. It’s hard to keep the mood lifted, brains switched on and siblings being civil with each other. We are all in the same boat. Literally, from the rapid transformation of our society in just the past few weeks, I have noticed sometimes it’s the small stuff that make us occasionally feel like we have our old mojo back.

Every day, for example, we pull on our welly boots and head out to the park or woods near our house. We are lucky that we live in the countryside – sure – but we used to live in London which is full of large parks where you can definitely run around whilst keeping a respectable social distance from the people in surgical masks eyeing your kids as if wondering whether they would taste good on a barbeque. Haters be damned, you need to get out come rain or shine for at least 2 hours a day and come home with flushed cheeks and cold fingers, ready to curl up on the sofa. Do you listen to music? That’s a must. 

And, what I am also realizing with the COVID-19 crisis, is that bedtime has become more important than ever in our house. My eldest is nearly 7 and sometimes I let her stay up a bit later to read another chapter of Harry Potter or watch Food Unwrapped. Not right now. And I’ve been straight with her about this. With almost everything cancelled and families forced together 24/7 like some weird experiment in which we are waiting to see who will crack first and who will win a million quid, the pressure on parents is enormous. We all need a break and kids of all ages need proper sleep in order to wake up fresh and ready to read a book, draw a map, or simply dream over their cereal bowl the next morning. Take care of yourselves, is my message. Make sure the cupboard is full of chocolate (oops! I mean, 3 items per person…) and your heart is full of patience. You’ve got this.

Heads down, spirits up and it can even be enjoyable

So what would Bowie have made of all this? I like to imagine him using the global quarantine as inspiration for another whacky album, possibly wrapped in cling film with his phone flipped to selfie-mode to shoot the music video (ain’t nobody going to work anymore, Dave; you’re on your own, mate) doing some psychedelic remake of Jump Magic Jump. Bet Boris wishes he knew what kind of magic spell to use. Don’t we all? And, while we wait with baited breath for scientists to develop a vaccine and Elon Musk bangs on about making money out of colonising Mars, the rest of us need to get our heads down, keep our spirits lifted and make things work while educating from home. It is achievable. It can even be enjoyable. But, like it or lump it, it’s the state of things now and for a while to come. Mabel’s mum to ground control? Ignition, on!

Anna Dusseau is a former school teacher and examiner, now working as a freelance educational writer. She homeschools her 3 awesome children and is the founder of top home education blog site: www.homeschoolguru.org Check it out!

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