Back to (virtual) school: Monday is looming large for many but are we looking at it all wrong?  

A fretful Lizzie Gore-Grimes gets advice from school principal Donncha Cleary and organisational psychologist Leisha McGrath to try and quell the fear as the kids go back to (home) school on Monday


As the mum of three children aged 13, 11 and eight, I have a knot in my stomach when I think of Monday, which seems absurd. The thought of having to get the kids out of bed (which is challenging enough in our normal weekly routine), breakfasted, dressed and each one set up with a desk space (which we don’t have enough of), and making sure they each know what they are supposed to be doing that day. All before I try and get to my own desk. That knot is now a festering ulcer. 

“I have been teaching for 24 years and even I’m finding it a huge challenge,” says primary school principal Donncha Cleary, who is currently looking after his two young daughters, aged seven and four, while his wife, a public health nurse, goes out to work every day.

“Children, and parents, are being asked to do something entirely unprecedented,” continues Donncha. “No generation has ever had to do this before, so please bear that in mind. Any proper home-schooling plan would take months (even years) to set up properly. Neither teachers nor parents had any time to plan for this eventuality.”

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Unprecedented times

The official email from the Department came in to us at 1.06pm, with school closing at 2.30pm, we had no time to plan

Donncha remembers with a wry laugh the day Leo made his announcement that the schools would close. “March 12th is my birthday, and it was also the day of our school confirmation, so I was in the church and I could feel my phone pinging like mad in my pocket, I thought how lovely so many people have remembered my birthday! Needless to say, it was all my teaching pals telling me the news. The official email from the Department came in to us at 1.06pm, with school closing at 2.30pm, we had no time to plan.”

Donncha believes strongly that while teachers are doing their absolute best to create daily and weekly workload plans for their students, each family must assess their own situation, and only do what they can. 

 

Every family is different

I’m rowing with my own sons, still slobbing around in their pyjamas, glued to their phones at 11am. I don't care about grades, but if this is what Tuesday looks like - where’s the sense of relief when Friday rolls around? The days lose any kind of definition.

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Every family is different, and every home is experiencing different pressures right now. Some children are desperately missing the structure of school; they are self-motivated and want a plan. Others are the exact opposite.

I’m finding it much harder with my son. So far there has not been enough work for him, his personality is such that he badly needs this structure

Aoibhne Hogan, mum of two teenagers, Chloe (16) and Remy (13) is experiencing this clash at home. “After two disappointing TY terms, with trips and exchanges cancelled, Chloe seems to be welcoming using her head again with proper school work and just gets on with it.

“I’m finding it much harder with my son. So far there has not been enough work for him, his personality is such that he badly needs this structure," continues Aoibhne. “His school haven’t introduced any online classes or check-in times yet, so he’s free to do the work at any stage of the day. This means I’m really battling to get him up early and try and enforce some kind of structure and it’s really hard.”

I would never bring my kids to work, and yet here we are. That is what we’re being asked to do. It's incredibly difficult

“I don't want to lose my work ethic and self-discipline,” continues Aoibhne. As a single mum and freelance graphic designer Aoibhne’s home is also her office  “My work is my passion and sanity and I am holding onto it for dear life for when this all might return to normal. I would never bring my kids to work, and yet here we are. That is what we’re being asked to do. It’s incredibly difficult.”

 

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Making a loose plan

Leisha McGrath, organisational psychologist and coach and mum of two primary school children agrees that, “Next week will be looming large for some, and can not come quick enough for others, and that’s ok. The key piece here is not to compare. There is a lot of well-meaning advice out there which states that you “ought” or “should” be doing X,Y and Z – whether that is setting a rigid schedule or wake up time. I wholeheartedly disagree with this generalised approach, which does not take into account individual differences.”

“What works for one family will not work for another,” Donncha agrees. “What is working for me and my girls at the moment is a very simple – and loose – routine; the first thing we do is check the weather, then over breakfast I produce a blank A4 page and we make a plan for the day. With schoolwork from 9.30-11am maybe, then they pick whether they’ll watch the Home School Hub or do art, then we plan lunch and pick an activity for the afternoon (the park for a cycle or playing in the garden). If the weather is poor in the afternoon but good in the morning, we flip our plan for the day, to make the most of the weather. This is working for my girls, at their age.” 

Instead of thinking of what the children are missing at this time, let’s look at what they are gaining

Don’t stress about falling behind

“I think it’s important for parents to remember that children will catch up. Don’t stress about them falling behind,” says Donncha. “If you think about it, a child, in primary level anyway, attends 80 months of school over the eight years, so if they end up missing three months now because of the virus, that is only 4% overall and if they manage to cover 50% of the work at home, that reduces to 2%. Once the children are back in a structured school environment the teachers will be able to help them to make this up. I would be confident that by the end of October 2020, we will all have caught up – regardless of how much work an individual child did at home.”

Other ways to learn

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“Indeed, instead of thinking of what the children are missing at this time,” continues Donncha. “Let’s look at what they are gaining – life skills of cooking, cleaning, repairing, engaging their imagination. Over the Easter break our trampoline broke. It survived Storm Ciara, Brendan, and Dennis but one of the netting bars broke last week. I spent two hours showing the girls how to repair it. So often in the past, I would never have  involved the girls because there just wasn't the time.”

Do you want your kids to look back on this time and remember stressed parents who were shouting at them to get schoolwork done

“Where possible, for parents, meeting your own needs first in the day, can really help us to cope,” advises Leisha. “So as you plan how next week may shape up, try and carve out some “me” time so that you do not feel that you are pouring from an empty cup. It is so important to try and manage your own stress. 

“Do you want your kids to look back on this time and remember stressed parents who were shouting at them to get schoolwork done, or to remember a time when we all hung out, ate meals together and had a laugh as much as possible?”

Donncha and his teachers are making sure to check in with all 210 families in their school.“We are all too aware that there are families worrying about the financial implications of this lockdown and families with children who have health or special educational needs. These are children we need to worry about and do everything we can to support and help.

“If you are lucky enough, as a parent, to be able to offer your children a loving and safe home at this time - you are doing everything you should be – don’t worry about anything else.” 

 

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Childline and Barnardos are working around the clock at this time to support children and families most in need. They rely almost entirely on private donations. If you can support their vital work, with any donation no matter how small, please do - simply click on either of the links above or text BARNARDOS to 50300 to donate €4 and/or text CHILDHOOD to 50300 to donate €4 to ISPCC. (ISPCC will receive a minimum of €3.60. Service Provider: LikeCharity. Helpline 0766805278)

Read more: How are the kids feeling? We hear from three different families across Ireland

Read more: 'Bedbound with suspected Covid-19, I had to adopt a new style of parenting'

Read more: ‘Little people are now watching’: 15 lessons in self-love every mum needs

 

 

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