The School of Mum and Dad: A Simple Survival Guide

How parents can stay sane while children are learning at home during the coronavirus outbreak 

The homepage of School Guide has a picture of smiling pupils sitting in a classroom with their hands up. I think a pupil with their hand up captures the essence of happy learning. It says I’m curious –– but it also says I need help.

So, dear parents, hands up if you need help.

Right now, I’m the kid at the front of the class who dramatically arches their back as they fling their hand up to get the teacher’s attention. The one that makes a little ‘me... me... me...’ squeaky noise under their breath to show how desperate they are to say something and get help.

I love my two school-age boys beyond measure. I also love my job as CEO of School Guide. But combining the two is one of the biggest challenges I have ever faced. Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate hugely that we are currently fit and well but, day-to-day, life has changed dramatically and it feels hard to stay sane.  

I started the week looking at colour-coded schedules circulating on social media with neatly set down periods of work, extra curricular learning, exercise and family time. Honestly, I didn’t find them inspiring – they made me want to cry.

(Oh, and cry I did, by the way. I thought: why don’t these people factor into their beautifully printed off spreadsheets 30-minutes of shutting yourself in the toilet and have a good old sob?! IT’S HARD.)

So I had a little talk with myself. I suspect there’s a lot of me, myself and I conversations going on at present. Had I, in the matter of a few days, become one of those people who talk about these people? This had to stop.   

We can’t have over a quarter of a million NHS volunteers stepping forward in less than 24 hours and the most wonderful community initiatives popping up across the country and not see that we are all in this together.

Okay, so there are as many different styles of schools of mum and dad as there are toilet roll TiKToks doing the rounds. But we cannot compare ourselves to others.

If we do one thing, we have to stop worrying what other families are doing to keep their children on track. Social media is always a filtered version of life. Remember: the mum with the artful homemade tuck shop on Instagram –– cue matching stripy popcorn bags, lemon sherberts in miniature Le Creuset and the Gingham phone filter –– may well have sat on the bathroom floor covered in snot with mascara down her face at some point in the last 24 hours. It’s okay not to be okay.

Let’s set another very important thing straight: we are not teachers. This is not homeschool; this is distance learning.

Our children will return to school with learning loss, gaps in their maths and many, many without their hard-earned qualifications. But here’s the magic bit: when they go back to school there will be these amazing, incredible, almost mythical creatures who will be there to help them and mind the gaps. These rare beings are hugely experienced in gathering large numbers of children at different levels and working with them to help them feel listened to and valued.  

They are called teachers.

Let’s trust the process and know that one day our children will return to their wonderful schools and be okay again.

In the meantime, I’ve put together a few basic survival tips and ideas that may just ease your overwhelming load.

These are not online resources. Schools are sending out masses of these that are tailored to your child’s learning needs, and we’ll be sharing the ‘best of the rest’ in our weekly newsletter such as the brilliant Joe Wicks PE sessions (high-fived in last week’s newsletter) and our current fave: an online visit to the secret WW2 bunker in Liverpool (live streamed every day at 1pm. Find more details on our favourire extra curricular online resources in this week's School Guide newsletter).


My simple stay home / stay sane tips for parents:

This is not home school. This is distance learning

This is the most important thing I want to say to you. Homeschooling is a huge choice – it’s a lifestyle choice ­­– and those who embark on it, spend many months deciding to follow this path with their family and researching how to execute it. We have been thrown in the deep end and have had just days to get our heads around schools closing. Most of the communication in the first few days amongst the parents I know was around log ins and access to materials. Then it merged into questions about PDFs being missing, links broken and the frequent, ‘Does anyone actually understand what my child is meant to do in THIS task?’ If you started a new job, you wouldn’t expect to turn up to your desk with no manual, training or IT support. This is hard. No-one knows what they are doing. We are living through an unprecedented global crisis. It’s not your responsibility to teach your children for the foreseeable future. It is your responsibility to keep them safe and well, and keep some learning ticking over whenever you can.


It's a marathon not a sprint

None of us know how long this will go on for, and it’s okay if you have found the first few days – or even the whole first week – a struggle. I feel like we have only chipped away at the edge of a ginormous iceberg of school work that has been set for my Year 7 son but when I panic, I remind myself we probably have at least eight weeks of this. Maybe twelve. Maybe more. Try and look at the distance learning time as a whole and tackle what you can; when you can. Try and save energy and preserve a love of learning. My twelve year old son and I are currently managing one hour of school work in the morning and one hour of school work in the afternoon. Will my son be at a massive disadvantage when we returns? Perhaps. But he will be returning to a fabulous group of teachers who have vast experience of teaching kids at different levels and bringing those who have learning gaps up to speed. I am not saying don’t help keep them on track; I’m just saying do what you can. 


Life is a whiteboard

While life takes on a different hue and normal schedules go out the window, keeping a sense of routine can help. The first thing I did was buy a small, cheap whiteboard online and this is the basis for our daily timetable. It’s important to note that most whiteboards come with pens but also a lovely chunky eraser. This may well become your new stationery best friend. So even if you start the day with listing out timings and activities, you can change it as the day evolves. If a work call gets in the way of the 10.00-11.00 activity; shift it to 10.30-11.30. Honestly, it makes me feel like I’m reacting positively rather than failing. Plus – and here’s the real joy – if you have a bad day and feel like you got through very little, have a good old wipe and it’s all gone. Tomorrow is another day. Tomorrow will be better. Keep on scribbling, erasing and trying again and your good day will come.


Act like you have a new baby

Remember when you first had your precious baby and people used to say, ‘If you do one thing on your To Do List each day, you are doing brilliantly.’ Lower your expectations on what you can achieve each day and know that you are doing this in honour of keeping other small human beings alive.


Eat the frog

Eating the frog means to get the one task done first in the day you don’t want to do. The one you will put off all day and hang over you and worry, and feel less able to cope. This may relate to school work: attempting to help your daughter crack ratios with a calculator when you haven’t tackled mathematics since 1986. It may be ringing the mortgage company to ask for a payment holiday. If you get it off your To Do List and out of your mind, your day will feel more manageable.


Embrace the weird stuff   

I remember as a child having our kitchen refurbished and my family pivoting meal times to cooking on a camping stove in the living room and rummaging behind the sofa to find a box of cornflakes. I’m sure my mum was tearing her (1970s) hair out but I remember it so fondly as a different time; something we shared as a family. It was a bit bonkers and I liked it. I’m not comparing the coronavirus outbreak with changing your dodgy kitchen but we need to let go of the comfort of the ordinary and embrace the weird stuff. Right now our children are adjusting massively to not playing out and not seeing their friends but they are also NOT GOING TO SCHOOL and spending A SHED LOAD OF TIME ON THE XBOX and TAKING THE DOG FOR A WALK AT 10AM ON A TUESDAY. Our children’s lives are all too often scheduled to the max with activities and expectations. Remember your offspring may be relishing this off-schedule era. I highly recommend you embrace the silly stuff too. I did some English with my son earlier in the week and he asked me to spell out confusion. I started: 'c...',  'o...', 'n...', 'f...', 'u...'  ''FU?!,' he shrieked! "Eff  you?!" And we both had a good old laugh. Daft but needed. 

Say yay for the bored brain

On day one of working from home and my son off school, he sat in the garden and proclaimed ‘I’m bored.’ I’d cut screen time during school hours (this lasted approximately one day, by the way), he’d finished his science task and had nothing to do. He was in the garden, literally kicking his heels, when he informed me of his dull state and I realised I hadn’t heard him say that for a very, very long time. Good, I thought. All the research suggests our children’s activity- and screen-packed lives don’t give them the healthy downtime their brains need to recover and develop. While I wouldn’t welcome self-isolation and all its associated worries and challenges, it may have some positives. Ditto the lack of exam stress our GCSE and A level offspring will be spared this summer. Yay indeed.


Look for little life wins

Education is not just about school. I had to smile when I saw a photo on Facebook earlier in the week with the title ‘My Homeschooling Schedule,’ It started with ‘9am – Home Economics: Learn how to make mummy a decent cup of coffee.’ This was swiftly followed by ‘10am – Geography: lesson in where to find the washing basket.’ Both my boys do some things around the house but by no stretch would I call it pulling their weight. In the last week, one son has started to make me a cup of tea and bring it up to me in bed. I have a friend who swears this simple act carried out by her husband each morning is the secret to their 20-year marriage. So I am training him to be a good housemate and partner. Secondly, my other son has started to load the dishwasher. The first time he did this I couldn’t quite believe it when I saw the way he approached his house work. He’s Dyslexic and his brain thinks in creative and different ways. Each section of the machine was quite beautifully arranged by scale and type of dish, and the cutlery basket looked like a prop from an Elle Deco magazine shoot with forks in one area; knives in another –– all perfectly angled in the same direction like stainless steel flowers straining to see the sun. I had never in all my adult years loaded the machine in this way and made me realise I could learn from my son too.


Grab a Granny Tutor

So many families are missing connecting with grandparents and many grandparents are feeling lost and lonely. Why not ask one of the grandparents to become a Grand Tutor and help your stay-at-home pupils with their school work? Setting up Facetime, Skype or Zoom can be a great way to have a lesson-cum-chat. Resources can be emailed in advance to the grandparents and I guarantee Grandma will show up super well-prepared and ready to talk through questions. It could be a hugely positive hour for them; and an hour ‘off’ for you. An important win-win at the most difficult time. 

Do you have survivial tips you would like to share with School Guide? I’d love to hear from you and pass them on to help others.

Email: [email protected]

School Guide Newsletter 

If you would like to get the latest news and updates including our blog straight to your inbox, please sign up for our free newsletter.