Coronavirus Lockdown with kids: Setting a steady pace for home learning

with Lisa Thomas, Angela Kelly and Marguerite Haye

In the previous post, we discussed meeting the challenges of home learning. In this article, we're going to look at what we mentioned as the marathon, not the sprint.

If you or your loved one has a chronic illness, you'll know all about the benefits of pacing. Doing too much one day means you are likely to be less able to keep the pace up the next day, because living with illness saps fatigue. This means you need to look at your day and the days to come overall, decide what you can manage and make sure there are plenty of breaks.

In the same way, it takes more out of children with SEND to make sense of the world before even starting to engage with learning, so they are prone to tire easily. If they're hypermobile for example, just keeping their body steady when they have stretchy collagen takes more energy than the average child. This is also very true when disabled children are coping with something new, particularly if they're not big on change to start with.

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Start gently with home learning

The novelty of being at home where all their fun things are, with a bit of online school thrown in, is not likely to be as much fun in the longer term as the kids may think. Although many children will feel excited by being off school, lots of children with SEND may not feel so relieved or understand it. Even if you had always wanted to try home working or home-schooling, this sudden enforced change is probably not the ideal you had in mind.

Pace out the day with plenty of breaks and manage your own expectations. Allow yourself time to grow into lockdown living and distance learning, especially if work and other matters are simultaneously occupying your mind. Don’t expect things to fall into line immediately. And if it all goes into educational meltdown, just call it a day. Then don't dwell on it; be like Tay-Tay and 'shake it off'. Better a happy house and sofa cuddles than being stressed out by English comprehension.

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Explain what’s happening and stress self-action.

It is important to reassure our children of any age that eventually, this too shall pass. Until then, you are all safe at home together. Some will want to know more about what is happening and why they are home learning. Social stories can be useful to explain coronavirus issues and there are links to several, in a variety of media, in our SEND Essentials Lockdown Essentials. There are also easy read hand-washing and hygiene resources so they can feel like they have some control in the situation. You can also ask schools and speech therapists to provide social stories suited to your child. 

Keeping up contact with school

By now, your child's class teacher is likely to have made contact with online lessons and activities. Some are even asking for photographic evidence of work carried out. If this is going to cause huge stress, remember reasonable adjustments still have to be made. Once you have a good idea of how your child is coping with distance learning, have a think about what's working and how things could be improved. Drop their teacher a line with feedback - even if it's all going well. It's new for them too and they should welcome constructive and especially positive feedback. They're probably feeling pretty overwhelmed too, particularly if they have their own children at home.

Ask too, if school can facilitate contact with class peers if required. Suggest using Zoom or similar for whole class meetings if they're not already doing this. We know some teachers are being amazingly innovative!

Now, more than ever you need to work as a team. If your child has written learning goals or an Assess, Plan, Do, Review plan, ask how you can help to support this during home learning.

If it's all going pear-shaped, get in touch with their teacher and see how things can be rearranged to help. If it's going to work, everyone needs to be flexible - and it's almost the Easter holidays anyway.

Lisa's own college have sent home familiar resources and charts for continuity and useful online resources. We have explored these very steadily together, over a week of testing, and she has now formulated a gentle and flexible distance learning plan that I feel able to cope with. No one has asked for proof and we skyped with teachers at the end of week one for a show and tell experience. It was certainly an experience!

Plan for everyone’s needs

While being uber-organised is ideal, some of us just aren't the organised type and #coronaviruslockdown ain't gonna change that. Work with your strengths and what you know about your children's own capacity, ages and capabilities. Be realistic about what you feel you can achieve and plan carefully to ensure both your own work and wellbeing are catered for to some degree whilst churning out food for your brood and laying on learning and entertainment activities.

Use notice boards, make lists and use times like lunchtime when the children may be more settled to check and reply to emails or work when the children have gone to bed if you can. If you think having a visual home learning schedule may help, we've made a basic one here you can copy. You can't write directly in this one, it's a template. You will need to click "File", then from the dropdown, choose to make a copy (in your own Google drive, if you have a Google account, or download as your preferred format, or email it. You can then edit as you like, changing times, words and colours, make the boxes bigger, or have fewer time rows - it's up to you. Then print it off or share your own version. You can even, if you're a bit clever, use icons or pictures instead of words. There are free PECS cards here and here. Or free icons here. If you make the schedule together with your child, even better.

weekly planner image
Click to go to the planner

You may need to flex usual times, days of work and study entirely in order to meet everyone’s needs. Everyone will need to be flexible, including employers

Clear the decks when home learning

It may be necessary to plan where everything happens too. Lisa tried online school activities one morning but ended up writing with three kids running around her – time to relocate the desk! If you're blessed with space, think about rooms, where will you play, learn and work? If you have only one room, make sure you get the children involved in tidying up activities into one corner when finished with. If you have boxes or crates handy, use them to contain the mess.

Again, if you have the space, think about furniture layout to allow for different family members to achieve their goals. De-clutter for a while and try to create a space that is for certain tasks, so that boundaries are clear and distractions reduced. If you have a garden, utilise it as an extra room and even a garage or shed can be re-purposed to provide extra space! Lisa's three teens have suggested dusting down the tents of old as possible bolt holes in the garden from the crowd indoors. It may well become the most desirable location for their next ‘weekend break!’. Use mobile phone timers so you're not all clock-watching too.

If you're a flat-dweller with no garden but your kids have a pop-up play tent, this could be used as a quiet space where no one else is allowed in if it's in use.  

Home learning routine

All children will need new boundaries and clarity about the daily arrangements you are making for them. For some children with SEND, changes in routine and environment will impact on mood, anxiety and energy levels. However, most children will benefit from routine, even a new one, at this time. Try to build your home learning routine with the ordinary and familiar in the first instance. A routine doesn’t have to mean a full programme of learning either; it’s more a means of ordering proceedings which many of our young people need to be able to order their thoughts and cooperate in uncertain times and the planner would be ideal for this. For those children who struggle with demands, you will need to think about how you try to create a different set of non-negotiables at home. 

Distinguishing between weekdays and weekends will preserve feelings of normality readiness to transition back to more ordinary lifestyles later. It will be useful to try and factor in long breaks each week too, at least one whole day per week if possible, to give everyone a rest, especially the carer-home-educator! Don’t forget the Easter break either – you may or may not want to run with the notion of no education at all for a spell. If you can get them, hide some mini-eggs or creme eggs around the house or garden (but out of reach of from pets) for an Easter-egg hunt.

Use our SEND Lockdown essentials compilation to find links to useful resources for tick lists and visual charts at ‘do2Learn’, and now and next resources produced by Cardiff Vale Health Hub. Ask school too – you may be able to borrow the resources they usually use with your child.  

Home education resources for learners with SEND

How much is enough for daily home learning?

You are not under pressure to replicate what teachers do! There is a difference between schooling (which even the schools have stopped doing) & home learning in lockdown. As parents didn’t get a ‘how to do distance learning’ manual when the children were checked out of classrooms last month, you will have to do it your way. Hopefully, the school will have passed on some guidance but if not, don't be afraid to ask for advice.

You will know how much your family can sensibly do and this may be different to school, especially if you have a number of children requiring different support and work too squeeze in too. It may be necessary to reset the clock and redefine what you think your child needs in the light of what you can deliver over the next few weeks. If you spend more time resting, cleaning, or playing than educating, that’s ok too - some boredom can promote creativity (within reason!)

Be active indoors

Fortunately, there’s a rapidly expanding array of learning tools, forums and virtual experiences, live online community events specifically for children and young people with SEND and fun activities to suit all whims.

Whatever space you have, physical activity will be important to body and minds. Whether indoors or out, there are a raft of videos and apps to support you to keep the kids moving whilst confined. We have included several of these in our SEND Essentials Lockdown essentials resource If your kids are fed up of PE with Joe Wicks, how about dance? Sadler’s Wells ballet is presenting a series of online workshops and movement activities available from today, specially created for families with younger children. Be prepared to shift the furniture, often if need be.

Be imaginative

Remember when you were a kid and a box was a castle or a car? Now's the time to resurrect your childish imagination. In one Facebook post, children were using a Nerf gun to shoot bullets at phonics pictures stuck on the walls. Anything that works will do. 

Food is also an excellent motivator. Cooking and preparing meals with siblings is still a useful source of learning. Spring is springing so try growing plants indoors or out and fostering hope of a ‘Good Life’ revival, especially if you can find some seeds and grow what you have.

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Cut everyone some slack

Build in little rewards for everyone - even a cup of tea for you, while they have some TV down-time. Reward yourselves too with cuddles and a couple of PJ days a week. Saves washing too!

TV, film, music and digital books on tap are a fantastic way to learn and escape. Even non-readers will love being read to so look out for online reading and digital book retailers may well have offers in the weeks ahead. Audiobooks, story-telling performances online and recorded in-theatre are fantastic too, especially for those who struggle with reading. Audible has free children's stories for the duration - no account needed. Your area's library may also have an online selection of ebooks, magazines and audiobooks too.

Escapism is very good for the soul right now and quiet space will be at a premium so personal devices have much to offer. You might want to try sharing amusing videos with the kids yourself or finding a game you can join in; try to participate with screens rather than fight about them all the time.

Don’t feel disheartened if learning seems curtailed; Lockdown is a lesson in life; values, physical and mental wellbeing. Initiative and life skills are taking on a new and important lease of life. If all parents did until September was create a balanced routine, read every day, hug, watch good TV together, Skype grandparents and send a card to a friend, you would be setting your kids up very well. Be kind to yourselves, pace yourselves and be assured you are doing a fantastic job under the circumstances.

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anne B

This is a great article. I have been an involuntary home educator for 13 years to two young people with high functioning autism, one of whom also has epilepsy, ODD and limited speech, so could I add a couple of things I’ve learned the hard way? 1) Audible have some free children’s books. David Walliams is releasing a free short story read by him each day. The BBC Radioplayer has some interesting stuff. Build these into your schedule and insist on an hour’s quiet time after lunch. They can colour, draw or build with Lego etc while they listen but… Read more »