The COVID-19 pandemic has presented unchartered territory for everyone to navigate. For parents, the territory has come fraught with uncertainty, frustration, and worry. Homeschooling, adapting to online learning and caring for the physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing of children in lockdown have been, and remain, sources of tremendous strain.
Then came the reopening of schools, with different grades to go back in phases over the course of weeks. Some children are already back to school, some are still at home, some are waiting to go back, and others won’t be returning.
“Whether you have decided to send your child back to school or you have chosen to continue homeschooling for the remainder of the year, it is stressful for you and your child. There is no clear answer to what exactly is the right thing to do, and it depends entirely on your context. Parents are under a lot of strain to find new ways for their families to cope with the situation.
“Uncertainty about the future exacerbates parents’ stress levels, and this will have an impact on children’s coping mechanisms. If you are overanxious and on the verge of panic, you can be sure that it will rub off on your child. You cannot expect a child to cope with their anxiety and fears if you as an adult are unable to control your own,” says Ilse de Beer, a psychologist at Ilse de Beer Psychology.
Going back to school will be a whole new world after weeks of isolation. For those who have decided to send their children back to school, she has this advice: “Realise that there are different sources of fear. There are anxieties relating to readjusting to the routine of school after such a long period of isolation, catching up on schoolwork, reuniting with friends and teachers, wearing masks all day, and adapting to new social distancing norms.
“Then there are the fears of the virus itself. Parents are afraid for the safety of their children, and children may be anxious about catching COVID-19. It is essential to acknowledge your fears and those of your children. This validation is crucial for children. Talk about what is worrying your child. Try to address their feelings of anxiety with rational solutions.
“Normalise your child’s stress, don’t overemphasize or disregard it. Make sure your children feel heard. Be empathetic and don’t make unrealistic demands or false promises. For instance, you should acknowledge that yes, there is a lot of schoolwork to catch up with, but one day at a time, they will get through it, and you will be there to assist as much as you can.
“Get organized, make lists, stay connected with your children and with what they are covering at school, and have a homework routine. If there is one thing that parents had to do in lockdown, it was to be involved in their children’s schooling. Don’t lose this when they go back to school.”
On quelling fears of the virus, itself, De Beer says parents should provide their children with age-appropriate, basic knowledge of the Coronavirus. Rather than instilling more fear, children should be encouraged with solutions for keeping themselves and others safe, such as wearing a mask, washing their hands, using sanitizer and observing social distancing.
De Beer acknowledges that the decision to homeschool for the remainder of the year is a difficult one for parents who have chosen that option. Their focus is to limit the risk of their children being infected with the virus. This, she says, is understandable. However, parents must consider that the sustainability and success of this choice depend on several factors such as the level of support that they will receive from the child’s school or education institution; the child’s age and whether they are able to work independently; how many children in the home will be homeschooled; parents’ employment situations, and time available for teaching.
“If, as a parent-teacher, you do not have the appropriate amount of support from your child’s school and if you do not have enough time to give your children equal and enough support, you should consider that this choice might not be right for you.
“Remember that most parents are not teachers. Taking on a new job that you are not trained for can be highly stressful. Certain subjects are challenging for children to study on their own, for example, mathematics, science and accounting. They need someone to explain these subjects to them in a language they understand. As a parent, this will become your responsibility. Make sure you are equipped and ready for this.”
She stresses that parents should also take into consideration their own and their children’s temperaments. If the parent is a “doer”, it means that they need things to happen fast and efficiently, but if they have a “dreamer” of a child, this situation can lead to conflict and frustration. Additionally, children who are introverts or loners don’t mind being on their own, while children who are extroverts need to be amongst and do activities with other people. For these extrovert children, homeschooling could prove to be a battle.
For those who have carefully deliberated homeschooling and deemed it the best solution for their families, De Beer offers these tips:
- Keep a proper timetable. Schoolwork must start at the same time every day and follow a structure. Don’t let children play around when it is time to work but give them sufficient breaks.
- Encourage children to work as independently as possible. Schoolwork is their responsibility in the first place. It might seem easy to do some of the work for the child or to give them the answers. But, in the long run, this will not help the child.
- Make sure that you do fun and enjoyable things together like baking or playing board games. There should be time for work and time for play. Families need downtime too. As the adage goes: “Families that play together stay together”.
- Make sure that all the family members have some time for themselves. Everybody needs some “me time”.
- Make sure that all the family members get some physical exercise, playing with a ball, taking a jog or walking the dog. Too many hours locked up inside is not good for anyone’s mental health or relationships.
- Do not be too critical on yourself or your children, this is an abnormal situation, and everyone is doing the best they can.
She concludes with a few words of encouragement: “Parents, try to give your children hope for the future. Continuously encourage your children by confirming that things will be alright and that as a family, you will be able to get through this unprecedented time. Keep talking to your children so that you can help them find solutions when they are feeling overwhelmed.”