Lockdown doesn't really need any introduction for parents – we have been here before and know what to expect. It's tough on us all for so many reasons. But there are things we can do, and areas we can focus on, to try and make the best of a pretty poor situation.
I talked to two prep school Heads to try and help find the silver linings among all these clouds. For Tim Smith, Headmaster of Hampton Pre-Prep and Prep in London, the right approach for parents lies in trying to maintain as positive an outlook as possible, regardless of the difficulties we all face: 'I think staying terribly cheerful all the time is terribly important...! It is a bit grim, so I think it's incumbent upon us to stay as cheerful, positive and upbeat as we can, sincerely, of course... I think that makes a big difference and goes a long way to keeping kids involved and motivated.'
For any parent who thinks back to the last lockdown, motivation was a a key problem. Schools have learnt a lot about remote learning since last March and many will be approaching this term in a slightly different way. One area – which also helps motivation – is the importance of structure to the day. 'Most children like structure, even though they may say they don't!' suggests Andy Falconer, Head of St Peter's 8-13 in York. 'They like the reassurance and almost the safety net of structure. I think most schools in the country will now be operating on some form of timetable... so I think trying to maintain structure to the day, particularly in the learning part, is really important and helps to make parents' lives an awful lot easier.'
Motivation will be tough until we get lighter evenings. But parents need to be kind to themselves: 'Lots of parents beat themselves up because they think they are letting their children down with their home learning,' Andy explains. 'They're not teachers! Our teachers didn't become amazing teachers overnight... they spent years on their craft becoming better and better – and that's why they are amazing... Parents can only do what they can do.'
Tim Smith agrees and feels parents must do their best to avoid the home environment becoming too pressured. And if it gets too much one day, everyone should stop and reset: 'Do something else. Go and forget all about it and it might be you forget all about it until you have a nice fresh start tomorrow... Far better to come at something fresh, with a fresh mindset, if it's all turned to custard.'
All parents are mindful of the impact the national situation might be having on their children and it can sometimes have an effect on their work, Tim suggests. 'Prep school age children might even subconsciously mask it a bit more than perhaps adolescents or indeed adults,' he says. 'They will have worries and a few troubles about the current national picture. They might not bubble to the surface in as obvious and easily identifiable ways as they would with older children but they will be there... That anxiety does sometimes manifest itself in their ability to concentrate on work.'
Home schooling can offer some surprising upsides however by giving children the chance to gain some extra skills. 'When things go glitchy with the technology resist the urge as a parent to step in and fix it,' Andy Falconer recommends. Children, he explains, need the opportunity to solve issues for themselves: 'The children... are brilliant at problem solving when things go wrong and if they can't work it out themselves they will probably send a message to one of their friends who will tell them how to sort it. And of course that massively empowers them so next time when something goes wrong, they are not running to find Mum or Dad to fix it...' Resisting the urge as a parent to step in too quickly also has another advantage, he suggests, as it helps reduce stress levels.
Working from home means we lose the time during our commute where we can prepare mentally for the day ahead – and even more importantly, wind down and psychologically put to bed the issues we have dealt with at work. For children, as Andy explains, it is exactly the same issue and they should go through a process to help this: 'At the end of the day, pack everything up – which seems counter-intuitive...', he says. 'But there is something psychologically very important about packing everything down and closing it up... putting your pens and pencils back in your pencil case, and having a clean desk. It tricks your brain basically into closing down...' The next morning, the child has to go through the process of getting everything out and setting it up again but 'you are almost tricking your brain into that commute to work – or commute to school,' he argues.
How long home schooling will last is anyone's guess. But we must all spare a thought for the teachers who, almost overnight, had to switch to plans for remote learning whilst continuing with in-person teaching for key worker pupils. 'The only thing we could be certain of was a bit more uncertainty' reflects Tim Smith. And, sadly, that's the defining aspect of life in 2021 so far.
Tim Smith of Hampton Pre-Prep & Prep and Andy Falconer of St Peter's 8-13 were talking to Attain's Editor, Matthew Smith.