In these unprecedented times, we are all learning to get used to a new normal. Parents are reporting that (unsurprisingly) transposing modes of learning at school to families grappling with the realities of social distancing is adding stress to an already difficult situation. As such, I thought it might be useful to post a blog with some brief psychological insights that might help a little.
First and foremost, families should focus on safeguarding their health and well-being over this period; schools need to recognise that this is a priority and ensure that they do not send out demanding or critical communications to parents, children and/or staff. By all means ask members of staff to provide useful exercises for families to access, and to be available on email or a virtual learning interface at some points of the day to answer questions; but the core focus should always be what the school can do for their community, rather than what members of their community should be doing for the school. Myriad issues may impact on children’s ability to complete schoolwork or upon staff availability, from the serious illness of a family member to a poor internet connection. It is extremely important for the fact that stress has a weakening impact upon the immune system to become general knowledge at this time, and for senior managers to filter communications to parents, children and staff accordingly.
Children under seven
The first point to make here, with respect to Reception and Key Stage one is that the vast majority of the world’s children do not start formal education until they are six, and some do not start until they are seven. So, parents should not worry about young children ‘falling behind’; they have many years of education ahead of them. The ways in which children of this age group most effectively learn is through play-based learning which is relatively easy to provide at home, particularly if you have access to both outdoor and indoor areas. There are a growing number of sites offering free ideas for activities, see for example EYFS Home.com
Barbara Rogoff, who carried out much of her research in non-industrial societies developed the concept of ‘guided participation’, in which parents provide ongoing instruction and narrative whilst they carry out everyday tasks such as baking and gardening as joint activities with their child. Some further explanation, including video examples, form part of this free Open University resource.
Children aged seven to twelve
Children in this age group can also benefit from guided participation in rather more sophisticated tasks around the house and garden. There is an old proverb which proposes that ‘to teach is to learn twice over’, so if there are younger children in the house, reading to them and helping them with counting or construction tasks can also be useful for this age group, and possibly also remove some stress from parents. In terms of online tasks, there are many education resource providers across the world currently making online content available free of charge, some offering free access to books and maths activities online. No doubt schools will also be sending activities for children to complete. The key point is to find activities that the child enjoys (or at least does not find too boring/ difficult) and to allow children to take ‘short bites’ at them, ensuring that there is plenty of time for physical activity and play.
Teenagers are beginning to emerge as the most difficult group to manage in a social distancing situation, given that a core feature of this developmental stage is an inherent urge to socialise with the peer group. Recent advances in developmental neurobiology have pinpointed adolescence as second only to the first three years of life as a period of rapid neuronal development and even in normal times, it has been argued that teenagers’ particular developmental vulnerability is not widely recognised, or taken into account in national education and services planning. While some manifestations of teenage development may seem challenging, particularly in the current situation, Blakemore and Mills make the very useful point that ‘what is sometimes seen as the problem with adolescents… is actually reflective of brain changes that provide an excellent opportunity for education and social development’. Again, trying to encourage enjoyable activities that the young person does not find too boring/ difficult, and allowing plenty of time for physical activity and talking to friends (preferably on interfaces like FaceTime or Zoom, rather than spending long periods of time on social media) will avoid unnecessary tension.
In my opinion, the government have missed a trick in not initiating a national campaign to request the support of teenagers during the Corona Virus emergency, for example taking responsibility for tasks in the house and garden, particularly in families where parents are ‘Key Workers’. They can also entertain and educate younger siblings and possibly run (safe) errands for older people; for example via the use of an app that would direct them to pick up items of shopping to deposit on local doorsteps. One overwhelming urge in the teenage brain is the desire for peer approval, therefore many teenagers would be likely to respond to campaigns fronted by admired celebrities (for example, Stormzy) explaining ways in which they could become ‘local heroes’, and supporting them to safely post pictures of their activities to a ‘local hero’ website.
The main motivation for families at this time should be above all to avoid the creation of additional stress in the home. Children of all developmental stages have a vast capacity to make up for lost time when it comes to intellectual development-given a supportive environment, which will inevitably become an important imperative for post Corona Virus education leaders. In the meantime, smoothing the path for families suddenly pitched into a situation in which they are isolated together for long periods of time must involve minimising the rise in stress that is inevitably going to occur within such environments, rather than ramping it up by the imposition of impossible demands upon their current emotional capacity.
Blakemore, S., and Mills, K. (2014). Is Adolescence a Sensitive Period for Sociocultural Processing? Annual review of Psychology 65: 187-207.
Dr Pam Jarvis is a chartered psychologist and Honorary Research Fellow at Leeds Trinity University. She has a keen interest in a multi-disciplinary research perspective, considering psychological, biological, social and historical perspectives.
This blog was first published by Dr Jarvis on The Psychological Historian.
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