Homeschooling: How can I make it work for me and my children?

Q: I have two boys in third and fourth classes and this new phase of homeschooling is not going well. My eldest in particular is struggling with the work the teacher sets and is often upset about it – feeling he can’t do it. The teachers just send out lists of formal school work to be done which makes it like homework all day.

The school offers two 30-minute Zoom sessions a week to “catch up”, but this is nowhere enough for my son who needs much more support to get through all the work, especially maths. Their cousins seem to have a much more involved school which offers a more structured day, with two or thre hours of Zoom classes a day. That seems to be working better for them.

It is a real struggle for me and my husband, and we are both trying to balance working from home with supporting our sons. Because my work is part-time, most of the homeschooling is falling to me. I sit for hours with my son but it is real battle to get him through the books and homework. I worry about him falling behind and my own work is beginning to suffer.

A: While schools generally have been better prepared to support homeschooling during this lockdown, the supports provided to families have been mixed across the country. While some children are receiving regular Zoom classes and extensive lesson plans, some are getting only minimal support and few if any online classes.

Further, many families don’t have access to digital devices or don’t have the space and time to set up structured homeschooling. In addition, some children aren’t responding to homeschooling and miss being taught directly by their teachers and being physically present in schools. Even when their parents put time and effort into teaching them, formal learning can become a struggle and even a negative, counter-productive experience.

Below are some tips to try to make things work better for your family:

Contact the teacher and explain that your son is struggling with the work. They may be able to provide adapted education plans, extra supports, more creative homework and potentially extra Zoom classes. Discuss with the teacher the priority areas in the curriculum for your son and focus on one or two key lessons from these areas.

Set small realistic goals
Be realistic about what you can achieve in a day where you are balancing work and homeschooling. Focus on establishing one or two short formal learning periods a day where you are there to support your children. Set them up with a piece of learning, take a step back to let them have a go and then review how they got on. Within an hour of homework, the ideal is that you spend about 20 minutes supporting your child, with the remaining time being largely self-directed with you nearby as back-up.

If the learning becomes a struggle or overly negative, do not persist and instead take a break and try something different. Never increase the time spent if your child is struggling and instead reduce the amount they have to do.

Share the homeschooling with your partner
Involve your partner in the homeschooling. Even if he is working full-time, setting aside a couple of 20-minute periods a day when he can review maths or English composition could make a real difference in sharing the burden. Having a second person doing the teaching provides a different style of input and may break an impasse as well as give you time to attend to something else.

Focus on creative, fun learning
Don’t over-focus on the formal curriculum, instead make homeschooling largely focused on creative, fun activities that match your children’s passions and interests. For example, the best learning might occur during quizzes, doing a jigsaw, taking a nature walk and watching documentaries and movies. Get your children to identify three things they want to learn and find documentaries and movies they can watch that cover these subjects.

Create a good routine
Set up a routine that is built around time spent doing an activity rather than tasks being completed (as this is too pressured). Within the routine include lots of free time and child-directed activities which allow you to complete your other work. During free time, have a selection of activities that your children can choose from (reading, crafts, music, etc) and schedule in extra screen times. As well as working alone, it is nice to plan for shared games and projects for both children together as well as for the whole family.

A sample routine:
8am – breakfast and free time.
10am – school time (parent spends 30 mins supporting this).
11am – break.
11.30am – creative time (kids choose from selection of agreed activities).
1pm – lunch and then walk with parent.
2.30pm – school time.
3.30pm – screen time (kids choose from agreed games/programmes).
5.30pm – dinner.
6.30pm – family games time.

Put things in perspective
This is a stressful time but try to take a long-term view. You can only do what you can to help your children, and getting over-stressed about it creates a bad experience for you and them. Schools will, hopefully, be reopening in a few weeks so it is a case of keeping going day-to-day and surviving with the least stress possible.
Prof. John Sharry, The Irish Times, originally published in January 2021. Read more of his articles here.