'It’s a shock to all of us': UAE parents on the realities of homeschooling their children

Parents and a psychologist share advice on how to make online learning work

epa08333442 Six-year-old Oscar studies from home in Sydney, Australia, 31 March 2020. Many families have resorted to homeschooling and on-line learning as students were asked to stay home in an attempt to curb the spread of coronavirus amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  EPA/DEAN LEWINS AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT
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For many families, the challenges of staying safe amidst a global pandemic, while running a household, adapting to new remote-working protocols and trying to keep businesses afloat, have been compounded by the need to steward their children's educations as they embark on a prolonged period of homeschooling.

“It’s a shock to all of us, to suddenly be teaching assistants,” says PR consultant and mother-of-one Kelly Harvarde, echoing the feelings of many parents around the world.

For many, this added layer of stress can feel overwhelming – and that’s OK. “I’m obviously grateful that our kids have been given a structured way to keep learning, but I think there's a good reason that not everyone's cut out to be a teacher, especially me,” says Dina Butti, a TV presenter and mother of two.

“It's already difficult to keep them at home, and getting them to focus for even 30 minutes can be mind-boggling. Between chores, work and settling their tantrums, as well as our own anxiety, I think most parents will agree there's very little of anything left over for homeschooling or the gazillion emails and apps that come with it.”

So here are some lessons being learned by parents across the UAE – and advice from experts to help you through. If you take only three things away from this, let it be the following: find a system that works for you and your family, as everybody’s approach will be different; don’t be too hard on yourself or the children; and take your victories where you find them.

“Remember, you are not a teacher, but you are teaching them, so adjust your expectations of yourself and of them, and when this is all said and done, the most important thing is not going to be how they did on that test, but how loved, supported and safe they felt going through this time,” says Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and managing director at Lighthouse Arabia.

Create a dedicated learning space

“The first thing I did was go on the Ikea website and order two nice desks that the boys helped me choose,” says Pallavi Dean, who has two sons, age seven and nine, and is the founder and creative head of Dubai design firm Roar. “They are younger, so didn’t already have desks at home. That was quite an exciting process – getting them involved – and now they have a dedicated space that is not their bedroom. The second thing I did was help them accessorise their desks; they both chose a live plant. I also encourage them to involve our puppies in their home learning. So each of them sits with a puppy as they work. They are missing their classmates, so this is quite a nice touch. I know these are small measures, but they work.”

Pallavi Dean created a dedicated study space for her sons. Courtesy Pallavi Dean
Pallavi Dean created a dedicated study space for her sons. Courtesy Pallavi Dean

And have a safe space

“Have a calm down or sensory corner – a special area for children to go to when they feel stressed is so important during this uncertain time,” suggests Afridi.

Show trust

Digital copywriter and mother-of-two Fiona Falconer says: “With my son Charlie, who is in Year Nine, at first I insisted that he work downstairs so I could keep an eye on him, but after a week he realised that all his classmates were working from their bedrooms, so he's moved himself upstairs. He still comes downstairs when he's doing his art or more practical subjects, as it gives him a bit more space. And I'm showing him trust, which is a big thing in the life of a 13 or 14-year-old.”

Maintain a routine

“I am very strict with the times they get up, have breakfast, shower and get dressed for the day,” adds Falconer. “They have to make their beds, tidy their breakfast dishes and make sure their desk is ready before the 8.15am start time. It's so important to keep up some normality and encourage a daily routine, otherwise I think we would all become quite miserable.”

Break it down

“Young children are not able to sit in one place for a long duration of time,” says Zeyna Sanjania, founder of lifestyle and parenting blog, Mommy on my Mind. “Therefore, I have broken down my son’s learning into chunks, so that he gets a break in between to let off some steam and run around, before getting back and completing any written task. This is working out much better for us. I’m taking every minor win as a great victory these days. Staying positive is the only way we can get through this.”

This sentiment is seconded by Dr Vandana Gandhi, founder and chief executive of British Orchard Nursery. “Do it in short bursts: teachers don’t expect children below the age of 5 to work at a stretch for more than 30 minutes. So, parents can divide the activities, giving their children about half an hour rest between each activity.

"Try to use as much hands-on material as you can. While it’s true that we’re all having to use web-based and online-based material, do try to use as many hands-on tools as possible since it’s the nature of young children to understand that better.”

Staying active

“I insist my sons have at least 30 mins of exercise a day in the garden,” says Falconer. “This is usually boxing, weight training or HIIT. I do get a lot of resistance, but it's amazing what happens when you switch off the Wi-Fi!”

Dean is doing the same. "We are all doing the Joe Wicks PE lessons, and the kids love that we are doing this as a family. It gets my daily workout in as well. It's a real positive to be able to do some form of exercise with them."

Staying social

“I’ve been setting up virtual play dates for them, because I think the social aspect is something that’s really important for them at this age,” says Dean. “We have online lego-building play dates, so they can see each other and they are parallel playing.”

This social element is as important for older children. “My 11-year-old wanted to go on a group chat, Verbal, with his friends during class,” says Falconer. “I said no at first, but then, after speaking to the secondary head, I realised he needed the social aspect of school as much as the academic, and being on a live chat with mates while he is working is a bit more like being in class. It's working really well.”

Patience is a virtue

“Presently, the biggest challenge is being a guinea pig for the school, while they try and fail at different teaching methods,” says Harvarde. "They have gone from an online learning platform to Google Drive, to Microsoft teams, to Google Classrooms, and it is very challenging to navigate this. Logistically fitting this in when you have a full-time job is challenging. Many parents are also trying to cling to jobs or hold businesses up at the moment. Additional stress of any kind is magnified 10-fold. Thankfully, we’ve pulled together as a family to take on different elements and lots of communication has helped us to navigate our way through.”

Complain less

“Realise that we are all facing the same issues – complain less and enable more,” Harvarde adds. “Positive energy and mindset are crucial. Be organised. We prepare everything we need the night before, including the lesson work and school uniform. Our daughter puts on her uniform every morning and is excited and ready to face the day.”

Recognition is important

“Shower the children with praise for all their work,” says photographer Alex Jeffries, whose daughter is 6. “Make sure that everyone who is involved knows how valued and appreciated they are – including the teachers and anyone who helps at home. We have an amazing nanny who is helping us while we work. We prepare for the day and begin the class, and she supports us.”

Ghandi suggests using praise and stickers to encourage children to complete activities. “Do send the evidence of the activity back to the teacher so that children understand that their teacher is looking at their work, too.”

Learning comes in all shapes and forms

“I've decided that homeschooling doesn't just need to be about math or phonics," says Butti. "On days we all need a break we teach them new skills that can also benefit them in the future. My 4-year-old just did his first batch of dishes as well as his first attempt at a voiceover and I couldn't be more proud."

Keep it fun and be kind to yourself

“We are not teachers and never will be," adds Jeffries. "And with the best will in the world, teaching Arabic and French ourselves isn’t going to be easy. Be kind to yourself. Do what you can. Keep it fun or children will switch off completely."

My biggest fail so far is when I found myself under my dining table with a chocolate egg, apologising to my son who I had just gotten upset with over a writing assignment

"My biggest fail so far is when I found myself under my dining table with a chocolate egg, apologising to my son who I had just gotten upset with over a writing assignment. I mean, similes and metaphors can wait ... until tomorrow at least," says Anar Ebrahim, who has two sons, age 13 and 9, and is the founder of Beach Babe Dubai. 
"My biggest victory was convincing my 9-year-old that learning the choreography to the first few verses of Shrek's I'm a Believer is an important part of his physical education curriculum. We got there, one booty wiggle at a time," Ebrahim adds.

Rearrange your day

“What I’ve done is start my working day at 10am,” says Dean. “I wake up at the same time, download all their assignments for the day and set them up, so I have a stress-free first two hours dedicated to teaching my children. And then I get on to my work a little bit later. Obviously this means I work longer hours, but at the end of the day, I have to be mindful of the fact that this is not just stressful for me; it is extremely stressful for them. I did an online learning programme when I did my Masters and it was stressful, and I was 32 at the time – so I can only imagine what these little guys are going through.”

Relish the victories

“The first time the whole class attended a lesson in Microsoft Teams was a huge victory," says Jeffries. "Watching their eyes light up and hearing their excited squeals as they saw one another and got to chat and catch up was absolutely wonderful."

Try to enjoy (at least some of) it

"The most important lesson I’ve learnt so far is it's far more important to use this time to connect with your child than to spend it in frustration," says Ebrahim. "This is not homeschooling, it’s an emergency measure to make sure children continue to have a semblance of normalcy. Have fun with it!"

Butti adds: “I don't think I ever acknowledged the extent to which we rely on others when it comes to our kids' development. They drive me crazy sometimes, but I'm not sure I'll ever get the opportunity to be as involved in shaping their little lives and minds as I am right now, and there's something very beautiful in that."