Spring is here.
As I write this, the sun is shining in through the window, blossom garlands the trees outside, and birds are perched on the fence, singing merrily. Obviously, it has snowed this week and there have been torrential gales as well, but hey, that’s the Great British Springtime. I’m choosing to concentrate on the sunshine. After what’s been a difficult year for everyone, spring is a time for optimism, a time to look forwards. So, in an optimistic mood, let’s look forward to the school term ahead.
The great majority of primary-aged children in England returned to school for a few weeks at the end of last term. Every school is different, but for most the focus was on children socialising with their friends again, getting back into routines, and for teachers to run some assessments to see where children were and what they had learnt while they were at home. In the summer term, the focus is likely to move to learning, with teachers using the results of their assessments to decide what they need to teach next.
So, what can we do to help our children to make lots of progress over the term ahead?
1. Don’t tell children they’ve ‘fallen behind’
There’s a gloomy narrative that has pervaded the newspapers and wider media at times that says this generation of children have missed out on so much schooling during the pandemic that they’re doomed never to fulfil their potential. They’ve fallen behind and if they don’t catch up quickly, they’re in trouble.
As parents, I think we should do everything we can to resist this point of view.
First of all, it’s just not true. Most children will have carried on learning lots of things at home – perhaps because of the online learning offered by their school, perhaps because parents have stepped in and worked wonders with them, or perhaps just because of all the incidental learning children do all the time. Whether it comes from reading, watching interesting tv programmes or films online or from playing, children are hard-wired to learn new things and it’s really difficult to stop them learning, even when they’re stuck at home during a global pandemic.
Secondly, even if the things they’ve been learning at home are more closely-related to the Xbox or Lego than maths or reading, and there are some parts of the school curriculum they still need to master, telling someone they’ve ‘fallen behind and need to catch up or else’ is unlikely to be terribly motivating.
If we can frame the return to school positively, as a chance to learn lots of interesting new things, then children are far more likely to be enthusiastic learners.
2. Don’t try and do everything – pick some priorities
Of course, there might be some areas of the curriculum where your children would benefit from a bit of extra focus. These might be things that are difficult to teach online – discussion and debate in English lessons, for example, or practical subjects like PE or music. There might be things linked to the core subjects that your child finds particularly tricky, things they would have had a bit more support with had they been in school.
The trick here is to focus on the really important areas so children’s attention and energy isn’t spread too thin. It might be that you’ve spotted these areas while children have been working at home – perhaps you’ve noticed that they find working with fractions hard because it takes them a long time to work out their multiplication tables (they’re not fluent yet) or that they find it difficult to answer questions about a book because they’re using all their energy sounding out the individual words (a different kind of fluency). The At School page of the Oxford Owl site has lots of information and ideas for how you can support your child with their next steps.
If you’re not sure about where you might best focus your efforts, the first thing to do is to talk to your child’s teacher (perhaps putting your new Zoom skills to good use). Hopefully, they’ll have a good idea of where your child is in their learning at the moment, based on any assessments they’ve carried out, and they can point you in the right direction.
3. Make use of ‘stealth learning’
If you do want to help your children in a particular area, perhaps there is a way of building the skills and knowledge without having to make it seem like extra schoolwork. Fun activities like cooking or going for a walk can be effective, enjoyable ways of developing children’s maths. Likewise, there are few more enjoyable ways of learning than curling up together with a good book.
4. Keep everyone’s wellbeing at the heart of things
Things are slowly starting to open up again at the moment and, all being well, there’s the chance to meet up with family members that we haven’t seen for a while, spend time with friends at the park and in gardens (and before long inside their houses – just imagine!). We’ll be able to go and do many things that have been off-limits for the winter: the sports clubs, dance classes, and trips to wildlife parks and museums. Now might be the time to embrace the world opening up again, rather than spending every day after school ‘catching up’ on schoolwork at the kitchen table.
And I use the word everyone’s with good reason – it’s not just children’s wellbeing that’s important, but parents’ too. The last year has been hard and home-learning has probably been difficult at times. For the sake of everyone’s wellbeing, the summer might be the time to focus on getting some other aspects of life back on track before we start worrying about fronted adverbials and simplifying fractions.
5. If you feel like they’re not on track at the moment, don’t panic
As any teacher will tell you, learning is a messy process. It doesn’t happen in a neat straight line, with every child mastering the same things at the same time. Even in a normal, uninterrupted school year, every child will have a spell where they find something difficult, before it suddenly clicks and they make a flurry of rapid progress. For most children, we can think of the pandemic as one of those slower spells – if circumstances mean that they haven’t had the chance to learn something over the last year, what will hopefully follow next will be a sudden burst of learning now they’re back at school.
Also, it’s very possible that children will find learning something new easier now than they would have last year because they’re that little bit older. This is especially true of younger children where a year makes a huge difference. Something that is difficult for a 5-year-old to understand will hopefully be much easier for a 6½ -year-old to pick up simply because they’re that little bit more mature.
And where that doesn’t happen automatically, we’ll be there as parents to support and help our children. As I said at the start, Spring is a time for optimism!