Homeschooling during Covid-19

29 March 2020The Straits Times published an article, “Family in isolation: Creating space and fun’ by Venessa Lee. The article included a mention by Homeschool Singapore founder Dawn Fung. Dawn says, “ST didn’t have space to fill in the details and it would be a shame not to share the full length.

Here is the full transcript between Venessa and Dawn, for our third OPINION piece at The interview took place before HBL was implemented. Parts in orange have been edited for clarity to reflect the change for the readers.

Venessa : For families with children who have to serve a Stay-Home Notice (SHN) or Leave of Absence (LOA) for 14 days, eg without stepping out of the home, the parents may have to “Homeschool” the children for the first time. What tips and guidelines would you give such parents regarding how to start homeschooling their children during those 14 days?

Dawn : 5 tips. 

  1. Read up on the differences between schooling and homeschooling. If you are not disciplined, do not love timetables or waking up early, you will tear your hair out trying to do school at home for the kids. Schools are institutions set up for mass gatherings and learning in large numbers. At home, small numbers or one-to-one is a completely different ball game. The gap is like.. having no kids and having your first kid. That kind of gap. You will not know what hit you until you try it. Since you will be facing a long, continuous, almost unbroken time with your children, and this being the first time you self-isolate because of COVID-19, be mindful of the uniqueness of your situation. 
  1. The psychological welfare of the caregiver is most important. If you are not well or happy, it will not bode well for the children you look after. Homeschooling is largely about parenting well. If you take this opportunity to learn about how you parent, you are on a good path. If you are fixated on your children’s ability to finish assignments on time before going back to school, you will be frustrated. Focus instead of outcomes that makes sense for the family. Is it time for the older children to reduce noise when the baby is asleep? Teach them to be mindful of one another so that everyone learns to be considerate. This will make it easier to cope with being indoors for a long time.
  1. Have realistic expectations. When you first homeschool, you will find that the root of the frustration lies in your expectations on what your child should be like throughout the day. It will come as a shock to you that they do not behave as you think they should, like sitting quietly for hours to do seatwork. No healthy child who moves regularly is capable of doing that so young. They simply aren’t wired to pay prolonged attention Iike adults do. For older children who are used to schooling, they will be capable of seatwork for a length of time. But be kind. They are children for a little more and then they are adults. Treasure the time that they are children now.
  1. Build a home library according to your family’s needs. Homeschooling is common sense living with your family. You do not have to be a round-the-clock teacher. No human being can. Instead, set up your home environment to work for you. Max out the library cards with reads to bring home, or use the Overdrive app to borrow online books. Choose good apps or online programs to fill your children’s time learning about the world. (There are plenty. Brain Pop is great for primary aged kids.) Fill up the kitchen larder but use the time to cook as an opportunity to bond and learn about math (baking, measuring), science (heat, materials) languages (what the items are called, and the conversations you have, recipes you read). Now your entire home becomes a learning environment. What a great teacher you are.
  1. Observe your children closely. This is a great opportunity to understand a fundamental principle: learning is intrinsic to all. No matter what your children are doing or saying, your observations will help you understand them and yourself better, even during conflicts. Did your child get upset because a toy part is missing? How would you soother her? Did your children fight because they didn’t get enough time with you? What would you do? The decisions you make as a homeschooler is as parent AND educator. You wear two hats. Do you see that your observations are bringing you somewhere deeper about education? When you think like this, you realise that the days pass by very quickly and meaningfully. You may even wish to homeschool beyond the isolation period. 

Some school teachers I meet cannot imagine that children can learn without schooling. Of course they can. They just won’t do it like it is envisioned at school. Low grades do not affect children’s intellect. It affects confidence. Building their confidence requires time and effort. You have it now. It will do wonders for your children later when they return to school. They know their parents have their back.

Venessa : To what extent should “homeschooling” temporarily in this way imitate school? To what extent should the parents be like teachers, or should parents proceed with caution?

Dawn : Homeschooling should never imitate school as we know it in Singapore. The differences are huge. The main difference between schooling and homeschooling is their emphasis. Schooling is an academic journey with components of extra curricula activities that help to build the student’s interests. But homeschooling is a family journey with some academic components. So it is not focused on academics at all, unless it is important to your family. The emphasis demands attention because the details look familiar but work differently. Take math, for example. Schools are dictated by syllabus that are bound by assignments, classes, grades, peer groups and a teacher’s direction. If you do not complete the year’s work, you may not be able to move on to the next grade. At homeschool, how much math you learn is up to how you learn best and how much you want to pursue. If math is a tool for you to get into a tertiary institution, then that will be your goal. If math is a tool for you to learn how great ideas are formed, then that directs you. There is no one way of learning a subject. The focus of homeschooling is always on the learner, the child. The focus on schooling is on the institution that delivers the curriculum experience.

Homeschooling means parents are the primary educators of their children. It is not an afterschool job or another enrichment programme. Homeschooling parents take ownership of their children’s education, within the framework of holistic development of mind, body, and soul. In this respect, homeschooling parents are keenly aware of how big their responsibility is. If this journey takes years, then you will be playing a long game. Your teaching strategies will be for future outcomes that are not based on instant results. For example, training a child up for public speaking. Since I have many years ahead of me until they are adults, I don’t need to force my kids to present something formally every week. I just need them to be confident speaking to different groups of people from various backgrounds and ages. This strategy would be tweaked as we build our family life. I do not have to document anything but I am aware of what goes on because I am a part of my children’s life daily. If MOE’s CEU was to ask me for proof of this learning journey, I would be hard pressed.

For this 14-day period, practice thinking about common sense living as a family. As a parent, you already teach your children, whether or not you know it. Your children imitate you. Sometimes you can see the results immediately – whatever behaviour you’ve been modeling is parroted by the kids. Just extend this mindset further out. 

Make small, achievable, concrete goals. Do not focus on abstract goals like “my child must study or help around the house”. Break it down. What does each task look like for you? Perhaps it means being able to sit down for 15 minutes to do a question. Perhaps it means he should mop the floor without being asked. Write it down clearly and put it somewhere for everyone to understand. Once everyone achieves the goals for the day, celebrate with ice-cream or a favourite show. It is always nice to end the day happy for everyone. 

Do not be fixated on timetables. Schools have timetables because they manage large groups of people. Timetables do not work for everyone. When you are at home, food, comfort, and people you love are within reach. Work with the strengths found in a home instead. Be focused on creating connections with your children so that they are happy being at home. If they want to eat while doing homework, nap, wake up late or work at night (especially teens), by all means. Make learning comfortable for everyone. Focus on the clear outcomes instead of running the family like a clockwork. 

Whether or not you school or homeschool, parents are the first teachers of their children. I hope this 14-day period gives you a fresh look at how important your role is, and to cherish the time you have with your children.

Venessa : To what extent is it advisable not to treat self-isolation as being about “homeschooling”? What are the priorities for the parents during this period?

Dawn : Self-isolation in the situation of COVID-19 is to maintain social distancing and reduce the potential spread of the virus. Without COVID-19, self-imposed isolation for a family with children is uncommon. It doesn’t have any educational, social and economical advantage. It heavily reduces interaction with people on a daily basis, which is necessary for a cohesive life in this world. Parents who think self-isolation is homeschooling would be missing out on a lot. It is like saying Singapore is Changi Prison. I think the word ‘home’ in homeschool is a misnomer.

For one, homeschoolers don’t stay home a lot. Many Singaporeans don’t live in big houses. We are well connected by an efficient public transport. Our amenities like the museums and libraries are excellent. It doesn’t make sense to stay in. Homeschoolers who choose to stay in for a short duration have very clear reasons, like health issues, or a new baby. If you are part of an active homeschooling community, or a tight co-op, fellow parents will usually extend help to make sure your children are looked after.

The priorities for parents during self-isolation is to read widely about child development, homeschooling (the internet is full of resources), and enjoy their children. Since 14 days is almost like half the June holidays, why not just make it a home holiday? This way, you reduce unnecessary expectations on yourself. Be kind to yourself. If you’re not happy and always upset, your children will be affected. Remember, homeschooling is not doing school at home. It is a different ball game, with different rules.

Venessa : This question is regarding unusual and creative projects to keep children occupied if the family is under self-isolation (eg SHN or LOA): Pls provide tips for 5 unusual and creative activities to do indoors with one’s children? 

Dawn : Those on LOA can leave the house for brief moments. Those on SHN cannot leave the house. Because most of us live in HDBs which are quite small, cabin fever will be very real. Those who are able to bring their families out to get a meal will welcome the time to stretch. Those who are unable to get out of the house must prepare some essentials. Besides food, try a noise-cancelling headphone. I hear it does wonders. You will be dealing with your children’s noise, energy, constant demands for attention, conflicts (between family members) and your own mental state while taking care of the family. 

Here are 5 unusual and creative tips to do indoors with one’s children. I did not segregate according to ages because homeschooling should be an opportunity for everyone to bond as a family. Underlying these tips is a simple solution : produce content together. Change your mindset from being consumers to producers of education. Consumers receive. Producers create. When you’re wearing the producer’s hat, it will invigorate the adult mind, and develop the child’s critical thinking abilities. When both adult and children’s needs are met, everyone is learning well. 

  1. SCAVENGER HUNT MEMORIES! 20 minutes per round, depending on how many kids you have. Each child must look for 5 items in the home that remind them of something special with mummy. (If your child pulls a huge blanket from the room because it has mummy’s smell, let her.) Then have each person share why the item was chosen. This will really warm your heart. You can keep going for a few rounds by having each child determine what the scavenger hunt would be. It could be anything, from colour-coded items (e.g red only) to “things with feathers”. Remember, there should be no losers. Everyone deserves a hug afterwards.
  1. LET’S BUILD A ______. 30 minute to an hour. Children’s imaginations are fantastic. You will need catching up, but this is a great opportunity to play with your children and practice your creative muscles. Focus on 1 area of the home to redesign. Have each child suggest what to build in the space. It could be a tent, a circus, a spaceship. Put the ideas in a bag and pull out the first one e.g. a treehouse. Everyone should focus on designing that space together. Allow the family to shift furniture and move items from different rooms. Children love exploring. Once you’re building the space with them, they would want to role play and pretend in that space for some time. You can buy some time to yourself by suggesting that you should prepare some special treehouse drinks. Sneak to the kitchen for a 10 minute breather while the children play. 
  1. WATCH AND LEARN FROM SHORT CRAFT VIDEOS. 30-40 minutes. Know the BuzzFeed type? The one that teaches you how to use a bottle cap to make 100 things? Have everyone sit together to watch interesting, short craft videos instead of the usual movie. Allow the children to test out the methods. This is a great opportunity for art and science learning using cheaply available resources. Preschoolers love exploring how things work. My oldest kid started using the Ipad since she was 5 to make rainbow looms (remember that one?) for sale. She spent hours teaching herself. As long as you use screen time to learn and produce content, rather than consume mindless entertainment, the children will associate screens as tools for learning. It’s a win for everyone.
  1. MAKE A REWARD CHART FOR MAMA AND PAPA. 45 mins to a few days. Instead of you making a reward chart (which is really to manage their chores and study list), have the children create a reward chart for YOU. Sometimes you forget how much they want you to notice them and do things with you. Have each child create a reward chart for you to earn stars. Make it a joint effort between the spouses (or just yourself) to complete each child’s chart! Have the charts hung outside their door or together on a common wall. This will keep you thinking about education – just how realistic am I about my goals for the children?
  1. CREATE AN ONLINE PRESENCE AND ENGAGE OTHER HOLED UP FAMILIES. 14 days. The world is so connected online now. Why not meet other families online who are going through the same thing? Have the kids say hi to one another on Zoom. Share tips on how each family is coping. Make a date to meet everyday for 15 minutes. At the end of the 14th day, get everyone to post a  ‘I survived the siege’ presentation. Have one child take photos, another style a shot, and another to prepare something to write about it. This is a great learning opportunity for the family to have their voice out there and engage with other families. Documenting these memories can be a lifeline to another family who might be starting on theirs! Way to go on producing wholesome, family content.

The team at Homeschool Singapore produced a Learning at Home Series (helmed by Valerie Tan) for the covid-19 situation by helping caregivers with ideas for home learning. It contains authentic insights and tips from different families. Feel free to adapt the information to suit your family’s needs. Follow our IG and ask us questions. We will do our best to help.