The COVID-19 pandemic is having a profound impact on the education of our children. Many of them have been unable to attend regular school for months, and many parents have suddenly found themselves in the position of their teachers, or at least their teaching assistants. How should parents, who have no formal teacher training, deal with this situation? This blog gives some high-level tips for parents on home schooling, including a few Do’s and Don’ts, which I hope will be useful to many of our readers. Whether you can allocate one hour, two hours or six hours per day to your child’s home schooling, these tips should still be applicable.
It is important for your child to have a set space for learning at home, and a set timetable too. Familiar surroundings and routine study times help concentrate minds. It would be helpful, although not necessary, if you could replicate some of the school environment i.e. a set desk with all study materials and tools, in a well-lit and well-ventilated area of the house. Study times like school timetables should also give a sense of familiarity and continuity.
You should consult with your child when designing the study environment, timetabling and agenda. Making them part of this process will help secure their buy-in and engagement.
Parents are advised to sit close-by, not necessarily in the same room, while children are studying. They should make themselves available to help, if need be, while minimizing the frequency of interruptions and amount of help to the strict minimum necessary. It is hard to see your children struggle with homework but giving too much help is counterproductive to the learning process, so resist the urge to intervene at the slightest sign of struggle. Put it this way: struggling can be key to unlocking the necessary neural activities and connections in the brain, which are necessary for deep learning to take place. That does not mean you should take a completely detached approach, far from it. You should stand by, monitor, and check on their progress regularly. But how do you provide help when needed? The next tip gives the answer.
The concept of Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) has been defined by Soviet-era Psychologist Lev Vygotsky as :
“the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers”
In other words, ZPD is the distance between what your child can do without help, and what they can do with support from someone with the necessary knowledge and expertise.
So, when your child is in the ZPD of a task, your job is to give them enough of a boost or scaffold to perform the task in hand. With gradual boost, your child will eventually build the necessary knowledge, skill, and confidence to be able to perform the task without any support. Your job is to help them get there one step at a time by giving just the right amount of scaffold (no more and no less). Each time they repeat the task, you remove some of that scaffolding, until they can perform the task independently.
Repetition is crucial in this context e.g. the skill to solve a quadratic equation might require dozens of different examples and tests. It is perfectly normal for you to give your child some scaffolding in the first few examples, after imparting them with the necessary knowledge e.g. by asking questions such as “are you sure about this?”, “Take me through your thinking process here”, while pointing to the problematic areas in their reasoning. Note that sometimes all what your child needs is a better explanation of the question or problem in hand. Overt time, your child will gradually be able to solve the following examples of the task increasingly independently, until full independence.
If you are not familiar with, or do not feel comfortable with the subject under study, it is perfectly normal to solicit the help of a tutor or a more competent peer. In fact, children learn much more from each other than they do from their teachers.
Context variation is a good way of embedding learning in one’s mind regardless of internal and external status. An advisable way to achieve this is to have regular breaks, say after 20-30mn blocks of learning. It is also advisable to test the child at different times and/or even different surroundings so that learning is not contingent on any particular time, inner status and/or external environment.
The volume of study per day depends on the subject, grade, the learning outcomes and your child’s abilities and preferences. It is important to discuss these with both a professional educator and your child.
Learning should never be dull or punishing. Use gaming techniques including quizzes, rewards and fun exercises to bring subjects to life and increase your child’s engagement levels. There are plenty of resources out there that can help you with this, including from our own Arm School Program in the subject of computing  and more widely from other sources such as BBC Bitesize .
Ultimately, however, you should help your child develop a growth mindset, whereby the challenges of learning are embraced, feedback is welcomed and acted upon, and struggle is seen as a path to mastery. Practice and perseverance will eventually lead to conscious competence, which in turn will lead to unconscious competence, a stage whereby the skill under study becomes second nature to the child. The satisfaction and motivation that this brings to the child should be intrinsic first and foremost.
I hope the above tips are helpful to you. The job of any teacher, as I see it, is to help learners build the necessary knowledge, skills, and confidence to teach themselves in the future. Your job is to give them gradually minimal support to get them to that level. As the old saying goes “give someone a fish and you feed them for a day; teach someone to fish and you feed them for a lifetime”.
Finally, I would note that a great way to master any subject is to teach it, so do encourage your child to teach and help others who are less knowledgeable/skillful than them. Everybody benefits that way.
 Vygotsky, L.S., “Mind in Society”, Harvard University Press, 1978.
 Leeman, R., “Unleashing potential: the Arm School Program pedagogical approach”, Arm Education Hub, 2019.
 The Arm School Program resource website.
 BBC Bitesize website.