Amid all the grim news about the coronavirus is a second stream of viral content being shared by stressed-to-the-gills, home-schooling parents. And the message is this:
Let a few balls drop. Let some spinning plates crash. (We’d say ‘Throw in the towel’ but it reminds us of our hideous, looming pile of dirty laundry.) One minute we’re reading messages from our beloved, heroic teachers (Zoom meet-up at 11! New writing assignment due! Don’t forget to post your virtual Science Fair project to the Google Classroom stream!). The next we’re devouring content that gives us permission to ignore them. To let ourselves off the hook. To, in the immortal words of Israeli mom of four Shiri Kenigsberg Levi, “take our foot off the gas” because “If we don’t die of Corona, we’ll die of distance learning.” Teachers themselves are confessing they hate homeschooling their own kids. Doesn’t it make sense, asks a growing consensus, with mere weeks left in the school year, to simply opt out of an untenable arrangement? But is that what’s best for our kids?
The Rebel Yell
As a parent caught in the swirl, I feel like I have an angel on one shoulder, urging me to force my children to practice Khan Academy math, and a devil on the other, telling me to simply take them for a walk in the sunshine. “But please,” the devil begs, “make it a walk with no curriculum-mandated agenda to research and then sketch the Monarch butterflies!” Or is it the reverse? Is the carefree walk in the sun the appeal from my better, wiser nature? Everything is topsy-turvy: Two months ago, I would have been horrified at the thought of parking my five-year-old in front of a computer for five hours a day, every day. Now I feel guilty if I don’t.
When my kindergartener told me last week, “If you make me stare at a screen for one more minute, I’m going to get addicted and go blind!” I didn’t know whether to cheer or bribe her to sit back down in front of my laptop. “It’s the dirty secret of parenting right now. Everyone’s pretending their kids are successfully doing Zoom calls, but that’s not what I’m seeing with my clients,” Los Angeles parenting coach Joshua Castillo told the New York Times. “Particularly for young children, it is understandable—and in some ways encouraging—that they don’t like learning through video meetings,” says Dr. Elanna Yalow, an early childhood education expert and the Chief Academic Officer of KinderCare Learning Centers. She suggests reaching out to your child’s teacher to try to “better understand what they expect the children to be learning and if they have any suggestions for another way to accomplish that outcome. The goal is to find another means to help your child explore the content that is being covered.”
There’s no question our teachers are there for us. If only they could be here with us, too. “It goes without saying that most schools and teachers have done an incredible job putting together remote learning,” says Aliza Pressman, Ph.D., Co-Founder of the Mount Sinai Parenting Center in New York. “The problem is that a lot of what it requires isn’t really developmentally appropriate for the eight and under crowd, whose attention spans are still weak. In many ways, learning in those early years of school really is social. The back-and-forth interaction kids get from being able to ask their teacher a question or play a math game with a classmate makes it easier to stay on task and to soak in the new information. Even then though, we’re not talking about doing this for big chunks of time.” On average, she says, three to four year-olds are only able to focus on a task for five to ten minutes. For five to six year-olds, it’s 15 minutes. And seven to eight year-olds typically max out after 30 minutes of intense concentration. “So you probably want to lower your expectations if online meetings are longer than that.”
Another key perspective comes from moms who are actual homeschool educators (like, on purpose) during non-pandemic times. They want us to understand that remote learning in our new normal is not the same thing as homeschooling. “Many school districts have attempted to shift schooling to home, but you cannot simply school at home,” writes Bethany Mandel, a homeschool mother and journalist, in The Atlantic. “That’s why many homeschoolers call what they do ‘home education,’ not homeschooling. Home education involves an understanding that children can learn while doing everyday tasks; baking can teach math, science and home economics. Sitting on the couch reading Charlotte’s Web to kids in grades five and three and kindergarten counts as ‘school.’ So does taking a nature walk.” Of our current circumstances, she asks, “Is this how families want to be spending the next months? Sitting inside staring at a computer screen for six hours a day? Most adults have a hard time in online meetings for that long for one day; it’s completely unreasonable to expect it of a child for months on end.” She proposes a more organic approach: “What would be the best use of a kid’s time in the next few weeks and months? If an out-of-work restaurant chef is now home with his kids, will they gain more if he helps them do busywork problems in math, or if he teaches them how to cook?”
It's a philosophy echoed by homeschooling consultant Jamie Heston, who told the education nonprofit EdSource: “This is a wonderful opportunity to not just to do worksheets. Do real life. Make a meal, make a bed, fold laundry, serve meals, clean up, do chores and do repairs around the house. This helps parents and gives kids skills in gardening, sewing and fixing things, along with reading, playing, inventing, building things, singing, dancing and experimenting. Learning doesn’t just happen with a teacher or with a book or at a desk.” Like Mandel, she advocates asking kids what they are interested in learning and then running with it. Lean into the silver lining of this crisis. “What if this slower pace is a huge gift?”
In any case, no one can learn mid-meltdown. A child who is emotionally flooded or locking horns with a frenzied parent is in no position to be educated. “When there’s resistance in our children, take a break and do something different,” said Heston. “Don’t just push through because the child probably is not learning in that moment.” Adds Pressman: “Assuming in normal times your child loved going to school, the last thing you want to do is accidentally make it aversive now. Connecting with empathy is so important. Let your child know you get it—that you realize online school isn’t the same as being in her classroom.” Experts also agree that simply reading with your child has huge benefits, both in terms of emotional connection and intellect-building. A favorite stat among educators is that children who read for 20 minutes every day starting in kindergarten score better on standardized tests than 90 percent of their peers. “While challenging, it’s important to try and keep children engaged in learning at home as much as they would be in school,” says Yalow. But in our new hybrid role as parent-educators, we have more power than we realize to decide what that looks like.