An open letter to Secondary Students, from Author, Teacher and Speaker, Sharon Witt, who has written on StartingSecondary School, on my blog before.
This letter is addressed to students in Melbourne, Victoria. However, so much of this is true for Secondary Students and Final Year students anywhere in Australia this term.
What a year they have come through. We are so proud of them!
“Dear Secondary Student,
This week is the time you have been anticipating for many months – returning to school after what seems like forever.
It has been a long road. You have been patiently waiting for your turn to head back to campus, always in the back of your mind that a further announcement at any minute could spell the completion of your schooling this year from home.
You have missed so much. Within a very short time, many of the things that brought you joy – your sporting practice, footy matches, Drama group, shopping, going to see a movie, hanging out with friends and mates at the park- all of your social activities, could no longer occur as our state battled to control an invisible enemy known as Covid19.
As you wake today, dust off that schoolbag and clean out your lunchbox (is that a mouldy sandwich you just found?!). You may be feeling anxious or really excited to be amongst your peers in real life today (as opposed to small faces on a screen for months on end.)
I know that for many, you are feeling like being in ‘remote learning’ during a world-wide pandemic has made you fall behind in your learning. You wonder if you’ve fallen so behind in your work as it seems everyone else has been navigating online learning quite easily. You fear that you have learnt so little in the past 6 months.
But what if I asked you to reframe this experience?
What if I reassured you that you have, in fact, learnt a great deal more during this unprecedented time off ‘more formalized, on campus learning’?
You see, learning doesn’t just take place within the fences of a school campus; the four walls of a classroom. What if I assured you, that you have in fact, learnt a great deal more in these past 6 months than you may have otherwise, and you may be, in fact have become a better equipped, young person, who has learnt so much more than you could possibly realise.
You have learnt a great deal of resilience over the past 6 months.
That there will be situations and events in life that can catch us off guard at any time, that we were not prepared for, and we have to learn to adapt, use the resources around us (family, friends, teachers) and those within us, to manage and cope.
You may have learnt about the use of online technology in learning in a way you haven’t had to use before. Your teachers have certainly had to adjust very quickly, and many of you helped some of your exasperated teachers work out how to ‘share their screen’ or ‘access the chat option’ in the initial weeks. Be assured, your teachers have had to learn on the run too!
You may not have understood all the math concepts during remote learning, but you have learnt a lot more about yourself. You learn more effectively in the afternoon, rather than the mornings. You have learnt that you need to put specific goals in place to be motivated to complete on-line assessments.
You may have learnt that you enjoy more time on your own, to read, write, create, learn an instrument. Maybe you learnt how to cook, write songs, build, plant, and dream.
You have learnt that you really thrive best around people. You have had to learn different ways of meeting your needs of connection with others- whether that be facetiming your friends, playing online games together from the comfort of your own homes, writing actual letters and cards to your grandparents and posting them.
You have learnt perhaps, even more-so the value of family. Of creating new traditions, like walking or riding as a family, movie nights with pizza, discovering a new competitiveness when playing family board games, the joy of caring for and looking out for neighbours or those most vulnerable within your community.
You have most definitely learned more about epidemiology (even if you don’t know how to spell the word!)- how a seemingly simple virus can threaten not only our health, but affect your community and country in ways that we will continue to see for perhaps decades.
You have learnt how state versus federal politics work. How a state leader relies on other professionals to make important daily decisions that then affect our everyday lives.
So, as you head into school this week, may you reframe the significance of today.
You have not fallen behind – you are exactly where you are meant to be. In fact, you are much stronger, wiser and resilient that you may have realised.
And remember this – your teachers are nervous too. It has been a long six months for them as they have navigated remote teaching whilst also perhaps caring for their much older parents, other vulnerable relatives, young children, helping their own kids at home learning whilst doing their very best to manage their classes for you. They too have had to learn to put their own coping mechanisms in place when they can no longer go out, visit friends, travel for school holidays, and make plans.
As you enter those school gates this week – whether you are feeling anxious, nervous or just plain excited- remember to use grace. Everyone is in the same boat. You have all experienced a (hopefully) once in a lifetime event.
You will learn from this and have grown through this.
Look out for those that may seem anxious today – those who may have forgotten how difficult it was to socialise with others. Those that actually might have preferred to stay at home to continue their formal learning because the classroom noise and activity can be so overwhelming for them.
Have patience for your peers, and your teachers. They may need a few extra coffees to get used to managing the extra noise and energy in the classroom again. There is no ‘mute’ button anymore. Your teachers are beyond excited to welcome you back to school. They too have learnt so much over these many months of lockdown.
Enjoy being back at school. This term will be over quicker than you know it.
And from your parents and teachers – we think you are amazing!”
Sharon Witt is a secondary educator of over 28 years and author of 12 books for children and teens including ‘Surviving High School’ (for children) and ‘Starting Secondary School’ (for parents), which is co-authored with Dr Michael-Carr-Gregg. You can find out more at www.sharonwitt.com.au
There is a staggered start to online learning all over the country this month – as school holidays officially end. Like many of you, I am picking up this next plate to add to those already spinning in the air. I am actually a teacher as well as a psychologist and let me reassure you, this is not homeschooling. This is not even normal schooling for schools!
When schooling comes home, it will look quite different for each household and even each child at your dining table. It will look different for tweens and teens, compared to younger primary aged children who are less able to work independently.
I don’t want any of this to become a guilt trip or something burdensome. I don’t want you to look at this post title and think about what you are not doing. Things will happen according to your child’s abilities, interests and even your own available time. What you need is to feel supported.
There are fantastic tips and pieces of advice online right now, so I don’t claim to have come up with every idea below. Teachers work well as a village and I have gathered some great ideas from that village, for you (Spoiler alert – it’s not all about worksheets).
As a start…
Some have said, “This is not home schooling – a better term is crisis schooling.”
Many tweens and teens are grieving right now. Grieving the loss of face-to-face socials with friends, their sports, arts, parties, events, part-time jobs, independence…
The best thing we can do to support struggling kids, is to honour that grief process, by doing a lot of listening.
Expect our kids to act out. Expect some back chat. Expect some withdrawal. Expect them to not want to get out of bed. Expect them to not have words to express their inner frustration.
Give yourself a lot of grace too! Some of you have lost jobs, or your partners have lost their jobs. Some parents who are working outside of the home might be afraid of going out right now. This whole way of living has parents feeling frayed and frazzled too.
It is okay to NOT be amazing at everything. Especially at supporting your tween with their learning. Don’t try to be a Pinterest parent. This is not Pinterest School. This is not a competition!
Principals and teachers have been at pains to say that they do not expect you to be your child’s teacher. Your job is to be your child’s parent, and then just do the best you can.
What are the Most Important things you can do?
Your child will likely need two things from you. You already have all the tools within you, as a loving parent, to do them. You are probably doing them already.
They need to feel that their home is a safe place and that you believe in them.
The Safe Place
We can create a sense of safety in our homes by establishing routines (see below and in my last post here). But also by ensuring our children feel heard. Let them name and express their feelings, without providing uninvited solutions.
“If core emotions are continually suppressed, they put stress on the mind and body. Too many emotions, coupled with too much aloneness, in persistently triggering environments, make it difficult, if not impossible, for a child to feel safe and calm.” (Hilary Jacobs Hendel, Psychotherapist.)
Touch your teens in ways that feel loving to them, because touch is known to help soothe a stressed nervous system.
The Cheer Squad (using the 3 E’s)
Find an opportunity every day to Engage, Encourage or Express belief in your teen’s abilities.
You don’t need to use shallow praise (which they will see right through anyway). Rather, catch them doing something good/ fulfilling/ helpful/ worthwhile/ caring…
For example; Thank them for helping with a chore after their online learning time, Praise them for their effort at sitting down to do online work, Ask them to show you what they learned that day (and give your undivided attention if they do), Tell them you believe that they can get through this time, Reassure them that this will end and, Make your face light up when you see them enter the room.
Where Online Learning Comes In
Set up a Learning Space
Help your child set up a learning space which is separate from a chill or leisure space. i.e. At the corner of the dining table, in a study or at a desk.
Not on their beds or on the couch. This helps their minds to mentally prepare for and get into a learning zone for a period of time.
Help your Teen to Maintain a Routine
Routines help anchor us. They reduce stress by providing some predictability (something we all need currently) and give us a sense of control over our day.
We know that routine and connection are important for our young people‘s mental and social health at this time. Having to get up, dressed, connect with teachers, classmates, and yes, even do some routine schoolwork can be good for them. It can help minimise the daily blur.
Teachers also understand the importance of routine and accountability. My own children’s school, like many others, has scheduled an early morning online check in. Students need to log in to the school’s chosen online portal and send a thumbs up or comment that they are ready to start the day.
Teachers immediately become concerned about the students who regularly miss check-ins. The ones they feel might watch Netflix until 3am (as an attempt to drown out the Covid noise) and then sleep until lunchtime each day. Teachers worry about how to keep these kids engaged and connected.
During their ‘school’ week, help teens to stick to regular routines like; wake up times, morning rituals, scheduled breaks, meal times, leisure, exercise and bed times.
If your child’s school doesn’t send a suggested routine, set up a visual schedule with your child. Having them be part of creating their schedule helps young people take some ownership of their own day.
Things will move More Quickly than in a Regular School Day
Parents will be surprised at how fast things get done, compared to a regular school day. It is important that we don’t put pressure on our teens (or ourselves) to artificially create work to fill some sort of 6 hour ‘school’ day. The bulk of the day’s lessons might be done within 2-3 hours for some tweens and younger teens.
Former chair of NESA, Tom Alegounarias, reminds us that it isn’t appropriate to be in concentrated and engaged learning all day, while at home, because that isn’t actually what happens at school. Students don’t remain in a focused state for prolonged periods.
I know from my teaching time that a chunk of my lesson included getting Joe to take out his pen, reminding Sera to turn to page 6, giving Mel ‘the look’ to stop nudging Ben, or calling extroverted Liam back to his seat to do his writing – for the 6th time.
The school day also consists of line up times, year meetings, assemblies, break times and all sorts of other great socialising. All part of the stuff that makes up the social fabric of school life. That which is not part of an ‘at home’ or online learning day.
What is essential to cover?
Apart from our Year 12 students (another blog post entirely!) who need to remain engaged, parents keep asking what their children ‘should’ cover.
This is not easy for me to answer, because I know that every family and child will be different. While some students will happily engage in all of the tasks set by their teachers, others will find this really difficult.
For working parents or those with tweens and teens who need more supervision at home, stick to the basics. Take advantage of the mornings, when young people’s minds are fresher. (Unless of course you have a teen with sleep issues, then chat to the school and adjust their schedule as needed.)
The Basics – Literacy and Maths
I’m not going to spend a lot of space giving you links to online educational content. Your child’s school will provide what works best for them. Besides, there are so many blog posts and websites with fabulous recommendations already.
Try for some:
Reading: Schedule in 20 minutes of free reading time every day. There are some amazing authors who have recommended books for tweens and teens. (Side Note: Authors need all the support they can get at this time too!).
If you have a child who doesn’t enjoy reading, let them listen to audiobooks. This absolutely counts as literacy. (Audible recently announced their launch of Audible Stories. This is a new service, providing free audiobooks for small children and teens, for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.)
Writing: My son loves writing – so I will be approaching his teacher to ask if he can rather develop his own short book or story series, in place of writing topics set for him each week. Jo Ong, a teacher friend of mine, developed the Super Toilet Paper comic series, which I think some creative tweens and teens would enjoy. Jo’s own kids are writing Super TP adventures to contribute to their comic each day.
Maths: Get your teens to do at least some of the Maths exercises that their teacher sets. Alternatively, both Khan Academy and Eddie Woo’s Woo Tube provide great content during this time.
However, if it all feels overwhelming or as if there is too much content to get through, contact your child’s school. This is new territory for teachers too. They are also trying to figure out the what and how much. They really want to support your child.
Learning does not end in a worksheet
It has been said that children can develop their broader knowledge by watching historical movies, discussing ideas over dinner, or listening to and then talking about podcasts. My nephew’s High School set the students a Minecraft building exercise for History. How amazing is that?
Teach practical skills like building a fire, changing a light bulb, changing a tyre, getting kids to read a recipe and cook once a week.
But don’t force it – some things will happen organically.
In our case, we don’t make elaborate crafts, work on old cars or bake as a family (my daughter does the baking). We do what fits for us. As an example, my husband has been extending our deck for some time. My 12 year-old son has been fascinated and asked to use the power tools recently. He now drills the screws into the demarcated spots, on his own, a little bit every day. He is meticulous. And he loves it.
Don’t forget either, that delivering care packages to a neighbour’s doorstep teaches empathy and Emotional Intelligence.
Alternatively, ask your children what they are interested in and then encourage them to learn about that.
These all count.
Also Part of Mental Health
Plan some Fun
Down time and chill time need to also be part of your child’s daily routine. Getting some exercise and socialising are usually very much a part of a young person’s week.
As I mentioned in Part 1 – Housebound Families, “This is not the time to overly restrict screen-time.” (Although, I don’t mean all boundaries or age restrictions go out of the window). A large chunk of their screen time will be for socialising too. Gaming or social media are great sources of connection with friends that your teens are missing dearly.
My youngest doesn’t usually get game time during the week, in term time. But currently, he needs to connect with and chat with his friends after ‘school’. He doesn’t own a phone, so his Xbox (in the lounge room) is a wonderful way for him to do that right now.
Look after YOUR Mental Health
Be real with yourself about what’s actually happening. Perhaps journal or mentally list all the things you and your child accomplished in a week – no matter how small it seems to you – to remind yourself that they are learning. That you are doing a great job.
But, Some Days…
Some days I know that none of the above is going to go as planned. Maybe the best thing, some days, will be that our children simply feel safe and loved.
Some days, we will lay down the plates and hug and chill and go for walks. To just be together. The plates aren’t going anywhere. We will pick them up again tomorrow.
Our lives will never be the same after this. One thing I can promise you – your child will learn something new things during this time. This is life and we learn from all experiences in life!
You’ve got this parents!!
If you prefer to listen along, here is the link to my podcast on this topic. It is part of a 4 part series called, ‘The Mental Fitness podcast’. Available on Spotify, Apple podcasts and more.
‘Wellbeing with Collett’: Quarantine Homeschool Help.
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About the Author
My name is Collett Smart. I am a psychologist, qualified teacher, speaker and internationally published author. I have 25 years’ experience working with young people and their families, in private and public schools, as well as in private practice. I am also ‘Mum’ to 3 children (12, 17 & 19 years old). It’s great to have you here!