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What’s home-schooling while working really like, and what can you do to help?

"I can't work!", written by my 9 year old

“You’re not being as positive as you normally are mama”.

Ouch. And yes, a few tears in private later! I’ve had many conversations on this topic over recent weeks, with clients and friends, but this one with my daughter who turned 9 during lockdown was the hardest. Because it was true, and it was hard to hear, especially from her.

It probably hurt most because it’s taken such an enormous effort to try and adapt and juggle work and home school. Working out when you can carve out time for the priority work that requires your full attention, and who’s going to be on hand, and when, as the ‘on-duty’ parent. The one helping translate what the teachers are asking her to do. The one desperately trying to get a few things done alongside. The one working out what she can be left doing for half an hour so you can squeeze in that call. The one on hand to answer what at times feels like a constant stream of questions!

And that’s the reality for so many working parents (not to mention the additional challenge if you have very little ones). As with the wider lockdown, there are absolutely some real positives to home schooling - an insight into what they're learning, a greater understanding of their teachers perspective and what I'm sure we'll look back on as a real bonding experience in many ways - but it's also been incredibly challenging.

Clearly a lot depends on the age of the child / children, their characters, and the level of support from their school(s). The variation in approaches by schools seems to be huge – some are sending packs home with virtually no teacher contact at all, others are doing full on live teaching via Zoom/Teams or similar, many are somewhere in between. Like adults, some children are more self-sufficient than others, and happier to get on with it. Others need more support, encouragement and interaction.

But whatever the situation, home school has added greatly to the work life balance challenge and the pitfalls have been amplified. So, whilst I can forgive myself for being a little less positive some days, as this moves from feeling like a sprint to a marathon (and with the summer holidays looming one with no clear end in sight) it feels more than ever a time to step back and see what we can do to help ourselves and each other – and for me personally it’s definitely been a time to practice what I preach…

How can you help others?

  • Don’t make assumptions – everyone’s situation is very different. Take the time to ask people how they’re feeling, what their big challenges are right now and what help they need. Better still get your team to share their experiences – I’ve seen first-hand how powerful it can be. For people to realise they’re not the only one feeling that way and to get a better understanding of how different the experiences of others in their team are. Include non-parents too to get their perspective and ease some of the tensions that are starting to emerge.

  • Keep checking in – like everything at the moment, things are changing rapidly – the same is true for the challenges of home school. School home learning programmes keep changing, often weekly, and of course some are now starting to return, but many are operating on very different timetables to what they were previously (half days, only certain days, no buses to get them to and fro…the list goes on)

  • Ask how you can help – it may sound too simple, but often it’s the simple things - just by asking the question and giving someone the permission to share a little of what they’re facing may make all the difference. Or there could be some really practical help you can offer - extra leave (paid or unpaid – many bigger firms are now offering one or both), reduced hours (on a short to medium term basis), or help talking through and managing priorities.

How can you help yourself?

  • Be clear on your priorities – many of us are reflecting on what’s really important to us right now. Take a moment to think about this in the context of home school – what’s important for your child, what’s important for you and your family? What are the must do’s on your work list? And don’t forget to put looking after yourself on this list! It will be different for everyone but to bring it to life, I’ve heard many parents realising they’re less worried about how much their children are learning right now, but interaction and routine are important – so if that’s you, when you next find yourself worrying they aren’t going to finish the English comprehension exercise, or working out how you’re going to get everything done today, remember that and you’ll probably look at it differently. And talk to your Line Manager and team if things are getting too much, work it out together – there will be a way. The point is, if you get clear on what you feel you and your family need at this time it will give you a framework to operate within.

  • Be clear on your boundaries and share these – once you’re clear on your priorities you need to translate that into practice. Use them to help you build a routine that works for you. Think about when you do your best work and how you can fit that around home school and communicate this – don’t assume people know – and consider the impact it might have on those you work with. There’s lots of talk about the culture shifting to “always on” - particularly as we no longer are likely to be on the tube, or out to dinner – if you’re working early before your children wake up or late after they’ve gone to bed because you can concentrate then and / or do your best thinking, think about the impact if you email at that time on those receiving it, whether they will feel obliged to respond, as well as what it means for times in the day you’re not available. That said, now more than ever is a time for acceptance of the commitments each of us have, and we shouldn’t be afraid to be upfront about that. The key is being open and clear about it, not making assumptions.

  • Test and learn – keep experimenting and adjusting as you go. Even small things like whether or not you’re in the same room or having a conversation if your child is old enough about what lessons they really need your help with can make a difference. It’s a new situation for all of us, and you’re unlikely to get it right all of the time (I know I haven't!) Accepting this and looking at it as a learning experience can help – so carve out time each week (even 10 minutes) to evaluate how things are going and what different things you can try the following week.

Even if you take all this on board, there will no doubt be some tough moments ahead. As a friend said recently "there are good days and bad, even good hours and bad ones!" so here’s to enjoying what you can, and if nothing else, being a little kinder to yourself - I know I'm going to try to be.

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