It’s hard studying on your own – even if you have a tutor who is just a phone call away. There is no doubt that your chances of staying the course and succeeding in your studies improve if you have the right back-up team.
For most children studying at home, that means Mum or Dad. The subject tutor can play an important role at a distance but one or both parents can play a much bigger (and perhaps more important) role on a day-to-day basis. Of course, it does not have to be Mum or Dad – it could be Auntie Christine or a legal guardian or even someone from outside the family home. But for the purposes of this article, we will assume that the key figure is a parent.
The best word we can find to describe this key parental role is mentor. A mentor is “a wise and trusted adviser” according to my dictionary. In fact, Mentor was the tutor of Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, in Homer’s Odyssey. But these days, “mentor” and “tutor” are two rather different roles and, of the two, “mentor” is much the broader term.
While a tutor is concerned with the specifics of study progress, a mentor is concerned with much broader aspects of a student’s well-being. This might include all the obvious parental responsibilities for health, diet, clothing, security, etc. But here we will be concerned with deeper aspects of the student’s development and state of mind
Here are a few of the roles that the parent/mentor might play:
Let’s look at each of these in turn.
This is probably the vaguest but most important of the mentor’s roles. It is almost impossible to give too much encouragement! Every child benefits from continuous daily evidence that their parent is interested in their studies and cares whether they are successful or not.
There are no short cuts to this. There is no substitute for showing an active interest in your child’s studies, not just in general terms, but in the details. This does not mean prying into how every moment has been spent. Ideally, the mentor is interested in each and every subject the child is studying and then in each topic within that subject. In some cases it will mean covering ground that is easily remembered from their own schooldays, in others it will be a fresh journey of discovery, a new odyssey. Parents will show that they want to explore new ideas and that learning can be an enjoyable experience undertaken throughout one’s life. Such enthusiasm will surely rub off on any child.
Whether they like it or not, parents will be aware of changing moods. Some days a child will be full of enthusiasm for study but at other times they will feel much less positive. Some times the only answer is to say give studying a miss for the time being, but more often it’s up to the parent to find the right words to enable a child to pick up their books and get down to “work”. The right encouragement can take many forms at different times. It could be a reminder of how far the child has already come or of how close they are to the end of the journey. It could be a practical illustration of why the subject (or this particular topic) matters.
Some times a child will feel that the subject is too hard or that they do not feel they are making any progress. It is very difficult to offer the right encouragement in these circumstances unless you have a fairly detailed knowledge of what they are studying.
As well as the right words, it helps if you can show your encouragement in practical ways. If you find the time to take your child to a museum or an exhibition, it is a clear sign that you care. If you hunt out the right internet sites to help them through a sticky patch, it can be worth just as much as a hundred words of praise.
But a word of warning: as children become older, they become much more attuned to the difference between genuine encouragement (or words of praise) and routine or empty words. If they feel you are just offering praise in order to get them off your back so you can carry on reading the newspaper, they will begin to pick up on it all too easily – and probably long before their teenage years. You need to be able to distinguish between genuine achievements or hard work and going through the motions, and measure your praise accordingly. You can’t give someone ten out of ten for everything or it will soon mean nothing.
So you must keep finding new ways of encouraging your child. If you love them and are sensitive to their changing moods and needs, you will instinctively find those ways.
Of course, the flip side of encouragement is pressure. No one wants to be one of those over-pushy parents who are determined to turn their three-year-olds into Wimbledon champions. If you are at your child’s shoulder every minute of the day and if you do not trust them to take charge of their learning experiences, they will eventually rebel against your overbearing behaviour. You cannot live your life through your child or expect them to make up for your failings or lack of opportunities – it’s quite hard enough living their own lives! So do not put them under unreasonable pressure or show your frustration when their progress is slower than you might expect. A childhood is a long time. There is plenty of time to dawdle and smell the flowers as well as to zoom ahead in subjects that interest you. Allow your child to blossom at their own speed.
Motivation and encouragement go hand in hand – some would say they are the same thing. A motivator finds reasons why someone else should put some effort in. Ideally, those reasons are positive rather than negative, a focus on the benefits of learning something rather than any reprisals for not studying.
Benefits may include passing a particular exam and the doors that such success will open up. But on a day to day basis, it is often hard to see that far ahead and so shorter-term motivations have to be emphasized or even invented. If you do this now, we’ll play football later or you can spend half an hour surfing the internet. If you tackle this exercise, I’ll bake your favourite fruit pie for tea, and so on.
Sometimes it is possible to introduce an element of competition. We all like to show that we are doing better than the next person. Perhaps you know another child who is at a similar stage of their studies in certain subjects and a little bit of friendly rivalry can be introduced – no harm in that! Or perhaps you can measure your child against the standards that are expected at a particular age or against the work that is being tackled in a local school. We all feel happier if we have a benchmark against which to measure ourselves and this is especially true when we study in relative isolation.
There is plenty of stuff elsewhere in this book about how to organise your studies and it is true that some children are quite capable of devising and sticking to their own study plan. But most are not! Certainly, no parent should take it for granted. In most cases, the child will look to the parent to provide a structure, indeed a timetable, for their studies.
Each tutor is generally responsible for just one subject and it is very difficult for the tutor, at a distance, to see how all the subjects link together and how they should be timetabled. The parent or mentor is the obvious person for that job. It is an absolutely critical role.
All our experience shows that a child has a better chance of success if a parent decides when and what they should be studying. At school, there would probably be relatively little choice. The typical school day might consist of (say) seven forty-minute periods – four in the morning and three in the afternoon. Some might be double periods. Don’t forget PE/Games and other fun subjects!
Now, should you aim to duplicate this idea and give your child seven study periods in the day, one for Maths, one for English, and so on? Some parents do exactly that.
Some children are capable of studying for five study-hours a day but the majority are not. It is not easy to concentrate for long periods, whatever the learning environment. Kids do not concentrate on their studies for five hours a day at school. The average forty-minute lesson is filled with interruptions and irrelevancies and the real “work” that is a useful for the child might be condensed into ten minutes. The same is true at home. Even if you have assigned forty minutes to Geography, say, do not be surprised if the useful work is done in just ten minutes and the rest is spent in (apparently) less productive activity.
Thus organisation is not simply a matter of time slots. It is a combination of timetabling and study objectives. The latter cannot be done weeks in advance. There is no substitute for day-to-day monitoring and adjustment. Ideally, the child should know not only that he is expected to study English between 10.00 and 10.45 but, more specifically, that he is expected to read through x, look up y, tackle z and produce such-and-such written work, to be marked by the parent if not the tutor. It does not need to be a long list of things. Indeed it can be a programme of study which you secretly feel could be knocked off in ten minutes of proper concentration. The important thing is that it is specific and structured. It will often lead to some sort of written outcome, however brief, or some other evidence of proper application. For instance, the child might know that there will be some kind of quiz at the end of the period or the end of the day. Or the parent might check up in the most informal way by simply showing an interest in the topic at hand and talking through some aspect of it.
Of course, there will be times when this is not practically possible. But nothing is worse for the child’s motivation than to go through whole days or even weeks where there is no clear sense that their efforts are being, at the very least, noticed. They will quickly switch off if they feel they are completely on their own.
Usually the study structure will be written down. We recommend a diary or notebook with at least one A4 page allotted to each study day. This will record the times of study but also allow space for a fairly detailed record of what is planned and what is achieved – not necessarily the same thing! For instance, the page for Wednesday might look a bit like this:
|OHS lessons||7, pp. 1-4||12, pp. 9-14||14 (1st half to p. 7)|
|Activities to tackle||1-2||4-6||1-3|
|Other reading||None||pp. 194-96||None|
|Work for tutor||None||None||TMA B, Q1|
|Topics not understood|
|Marks on tests|
The parent fills in the top half of the form the previous evening or perhaps a couple of days in advance and the child is responsible for jotting down relevant notes at the end of each lesson. Depending on the progress that has been made, a suitable plan can be made for the following day and so on.
This may seem like hard work but all our experience suggests that something like this is well worth the effort. The parent must find the time and discipline to stick at it for month after month and perhaps year after year.
Of course, opinions vary greatly on how best to organise all this. What we have here is just one possible method. But whatever method you adopt, we feel that it is best to ensure that there are plenty of organised gaps in the study. There should be clear-cut breaks between lessons, just as there are at school. If a child works hard during the day, they should not be expected to study in the evenings as well. They should study for no more hours than they would do at school. And one of the great advantages over school is that the timetable can be continuously negotiable. If the child really does not want to do French on Thursday and has a good reason for doing something else instead, the parent should be happy to make appropriate adjustments.
It goes without saying that there should also be school holidays. This does not mean that the child has to spend weeks watching television while the books are locked in a cupboard – with luck, the child will wish to carry on using their time productively, perhaps even studying ain a formal way. But the pressure, such as it is, should be very much “off” during the designated holiday periods. Many parents follow the pattern of the school terms and school holidays, enabling their children to spend plenty of leisure time with their friends who are still in school.
We all need structure to our learning lives, even when we are studying something we love. Make sure your child has all the structure they need.
But that’s the tutor’s job, surely? Well, yes and no. The tutor may be a long way off and only reachable at certain times. Often a query is so small that it does not seem worth “bothering” a tutor with. If a parent knows the answer to a particular study problem and can explain it effectively, there is no harm in doing just that. In fact, this can be a richly rewarding part of studying at home, for both parent and child.
Most parents are not quite as skilled or knowledgeable as the teacher would be, in respect of specific topics but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps the parent will have to learn something for themselves in order to be able to convey it to their child and the freshness of the learning experience will feed into the child’s own enjoyment of the subject.
Most parents have their blind spots – subjects they hated (or never studied) at school. Sometimes there is nothing for it but to encourage the child to articulate their uncertainty or lack of understanding and speak to their tutor instead. This is a vital study skill in itself and if the parent solves every problem, it is one they will never have to learn! So recognise your own shortcomings and, when you genuinely cannot help resolve a problem, make sure that your child gets the tutor’s assistance in doing so. That’s what they are paid for, after all!
Some parents expect the tutor to explain a topic to them so that they can then pass on the knowledge to their child. This is not part of the deal! The tutor is only expected (and paid) to teach one person at a time and that person is the child. Teaching is far more effective if it is done one-to-one, rather than through an intermediary. So please encourage your child to speak directly to their tutors and respect the tutor’s ability to use that time effectively.
Teaching is fun, so make the most of the opportunity to fill your child’s head with new and exciting things. You might just find that you are filling your own head with new things as well!
All the OHS courses are full of activities and self-assessment tests. Each lesson may well finish with an extended test. While it is possible to mark your own work, there are huge benefits to having someone else mark it for you. It is far easier for a teacher or parent to see when you have not fully understood a particular topic. By checking or marking work, the parent has a chance to monitor progress and plan the next day’s study. The parent can judge whether further time is ready on this topic or whether it is time to move on to the next one.
The parent may want to keep the answers to SATs or even activities in a separate place to ensure that the child does not look at them while attempting the work. This is a matter of discretion. In many courses, the answers to activities are such an integral part of the lesson that it is vital that the student has the opportunity to refer to the answer straightaway. Different strategies are advisable for different subjects and different topics.
You can record marks in the boxes on the timetable you have designed or next to the activities and tests themselves. This can later be used to help you plan what you need to revise most.
There is a time and place for both incentives and sanctions. Modern educational theory would put the emphasis on incentivisation but here are many parents who feel that a well-placed threat can be worth just as much as a promised trip to the cinema. Sometimes the proverbial “stick” is the kindest way of getting past a particular difficulty but think about it very carefully. Long term, you do not want your child to be studying out of a sense of fear or because they fell they risk losing basic entitlements that they would otherwise take for granted.
More often, we hope you will want to reward your child for doing well or, at least, offer the possibility of reward if certain goals are achieved. Perhaps it will be a copy of their favourite magazine because they have scored at least 75% in that maths test. But if you have promised a particular reward, make sure you live up to your side of the bargain! Be fair, and be seen to be fair.
All children want impress their parents and gain their approval. Often you will not need a specific reward. The look of approval and satisfaction in your eyes may be reward enough. But that involves understanding exactly what effort your child has put in and what progress has been made. There are no short cuts to that!
It is not always easy to turn from being an authority figure one minute, organising your child’s studies and marking their work, to friend and confidant the next. But most parents manage it somehow! It is important that your child has someone to turn to when things are not panning out quite as they would have hoped and you’d rather that someone was you! So be prepared to listen and to sympathise. Be prepared to take things more slowly, reorganise the study plan, take a day or two off, whatever. Just be there for your child, as and when they need your support. This is all very obvious but it is all too easy to let our own cares and priorities get in the way of seeing the warning signs.
On the plus side, really enjoy your child’s successes. When they have learned something new, share their joy. Find out what has really interested them and what leaves them cold. Help them to connect their studies to their daily lives. But we don’t need to tell you all this!
Besides marking work, parents also have the wider responsibility of judging whether their child is making satisfactory progress towards long-term targets. This can be far from easy, especially if there are gaps of several years between the more formal benchmarks, like GCSE exams. How do you know whether your child is keeping pace with contemporaries? Perhaps your child is learning well but learning too slowly or not being stretched enough? Maybe he or she is far ahead of his contemporaries? It is not always easy to tell.
Of course, this is one area in which the tutor is paramount and each tutor should be able to say whether progress is good, bad or indifferent. The marks awarded for assignments should be a clear indicator. But do not be afraid to ask a tutor for an objective assessment of the child’s ability and progress in a particular subject.
Sometimes you may well have to adjust the study timetable to take account of the fact that your child finds some subjects easier than others. Sometimes you may even have to accept that a particular subject is wrong for your child and try something else instead. Your child cannot be equally good at everything!
If your child is not taking public exams, e.g. at Key Stage 3, it should still be possible to judge the level that they are expected to achieve at certain ages. Online, you can find sample papers set by all the exam boards or tests set by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority – look at the questions set at different levels.
Most study activities can be attempted at home but any child would die of boredom if they were cooped up in a little study, day after day. They need alternative stimuli. They need to go out to see things or do things. They need trips to libraries and museums. Often they need a convenient taxi service called Mum or Dad. Be as proactive as you can in organising study-related trips. Better still, think of fun days out which just happen to include a learning experience that they hadn’t necessarily bargained for.
Once upon a time, kids just went off to school with a pencil and a ruler. These days they seem to need rather more. These days it has become normal for children, even quite young children, to have a computer which is earmarked as theirs and on which they will do some or even most of their work. Muggins, of course, will have to fork out for all the necessary software and hardware. Do not fight against he march of progress or deny your child facilities which have become the norm for their peer group.
You will have to make your own decisions in certain areas and the internet is a battleground in many households. At what age do you allow your child supervised (or unsupervised) access to the internet? At what times and for what purpose? We cannot offer advice on that here, but there is no doubt that students today are increasingly expected to demonstrate the ability to use the internet as an effective learning tool. Make sure they have the chance to develop that skill. But you might also want to look out for signs that they are spending too long staring at a screen, especially if they are hooked on computer games, as so many are. Kids, who’d have ’em?
Learning is no longer a matter of memorising and regurgitating lots of stuff. It is about using your brain creatively and effectively to solve particular problems. Not just your child, you as well! When you actively engage with the subjects that your child is studying, it will, with luck, spark off a few ideas in your own head and you can use those to recharge the batteries of your child and help them to move up to the next level.
There are far too many exams out there. Indeed, one good reason for educating your child at home may well be to cut down on the unnecessary exams and assessment that schoolkids have to go through. Nonetheless, it is likely that, sooner or later, your child will go though public exams of one sort or another, e.g. GCSEs. This is not always easy for students who are outside the mainstream educational system. Parents are the ones who should take responsibility for planning ahead, finding the necessary exam centres, making all the arrangements and checking them. OHS can give plenty of help but it still has to be done.
Astronaut or quantity surveyor? Fletcher or chandler? At certain stages, you will need to think about which subjects are right for your child, in the light of the ambitions they have, and offer suitable advice. Mind you, your local education authority also has a responsibility in this area and you should be able to access professional advice. OHS’s student advisers can offer quite a bit of advice too. A clearly-formulated ambition can have a very positive effect on a child’s day-to-day motivation. A day out to a well-chosen university town may have similar benefits.
The parent or mentor has many other roles, of course. All in all, it’s a big responsibility – it may even be one of the hardest things you ever do. But if your child is being educated at home, you owe it to them to give it your best shot. Good luck!