With Dr Junaid Mubeen, Director of Education at Whizz, mathematician turned educator and former Countdown winner.
Q: My son Oli is in Year 6 and is now at home due to Covid disruption and his school has sent him lots of work to complete on google classroom. I cannot supervise him all the time as I have to work. What advice can you give me on implementing a learning schedule? (Sarah, Portsmouth UK)
A: I think 2020 will go down as the year when parents officially became superheroes. As a parent myself I know how demanding it is to juggle our various commitments right now. My first piece of advice is to give yourself grace – nobody I know is dealing with this perfectly. That said, there are a few steps that might help you restore some stability to Oli’s education.
I’d encourage you to work through this challenge with Oli – you can come up with a schedule together and pin it up on the wall. Perhaps you have a work schedule that could go up alongside it, to reinforce a shared sense of commitment. Just having a plan will give you peace of mind. Then, of course, there’s a matter of following through. You know your child best so think about what rewards or incentives might help motivate Oli in these less-than-ideal circumstances.
Your school is a key partner, as always. Raise any concerns with Oli’s teachers. Make sure you’re clear on which pieces of work are essential, and which are optional. You can then plan for the week ahead by prioritizing each piece of work. I like to start my days with ‘quick wins’ – tasks that don’t take much time. It’s a confidence boost that fuels the rest of my day. Not every assignment will be equal in its demands and Oli will find it instructive to evaluate how much effort (and enjoyment) each one will bring.
Make sure Oli takes regular breaks – excessive screen time is already a concern for us parents, and it’s important that children are able to step away from time to time. Whether it’s going for a walk, kicking a ball about in the backyard or having a snack, also make time for these breaks in Oli’s schedule. The breaks will help to re-energize Oli, as well as giving him something to look forward to.
Also have Oli review the schedule at the end of each week – what worked well? What needs to change? The aim is to build up to steady routines. Ask yourself what a bad week looks like – what’s the minimum amount of learning Oli can get done? Then aim to achieve at least that every week. By sticking to simple routines, you will help Oli form powerful learning habits that will benefit him long after Covid-19 has passed.
My daughter seems to have lost confidence in math since moving up to middle school. Do you think a private tutor would be appropriate at this stage to get her back on track? (Donna, Newcastle UK)
A: A tutor may be appropriate, but it really depends on where this loss of confidence stems from. The transition to middle school is so challenging – not just from a learning viewpoint but also the social demands of adapting to a new environment (I joined my middle school a semester late and remember how hard those early weeks were). Covid-19 has hardly helped matters! Quite often, when students struggle in math it’s a knock-on effect of these other factors. I suggest a heart-to-heart with your daughter to give you both a chance to dig into the reasons behind her struggles.
It may in fact be that the middle school math content has become more challenging compared to elementary school. It’s worth speaking with your daughter’s teacher – seek precise feedback on which topics in the math curriculum are proving a challenge. If it turns out that your daughter is behind in the curriculum, then a tutor might be helpful. The research is very clear that one-to-one tutoring is the most powerful way of addressing students’ knowledge gaps. Struggle often emanates from a particular misconception – if a student struggles with adding fractions, for instance, it can hold them back in so many other areas. A tutor can help pinpoint any misconceptions and support your daughter in those specific areas.
Tutoring takes lots of forms these days – you might consider hiring a private tutor, or a virtual one like Math-Whizz. Whatever your choice, be clear on your aims – is the tutor there to address knowledge gaps, build confidence, or perhaps both?
Finally, and most importantly, assure your daughter that we all struggle from time to time – it’s a natural part of learning. The key is to have a plan for identifying and addressing that struggle. You’re already well on your way by asking your question – I hope this advice gives you some practical next steps.