TOP’s Message to Parents: It's ok to let go

Children develop healthily when the adults in their lives are well. Yet parents are unfairly expected to take on three jobs during this lockdown: teaching, working, and parenting. On top of all that, they must also become IT specialists as they sort out connection issues between home, work, and school. Many families/whānau are stressed, going into survival mode, and working ridiculous hours to get everything done. For these families, these four weeks of isolation are miserable. I encourage government, society, and families to adopt a different perspective of lockdown, education, and society in general.

Although this advice may seem to be too late in light of the government’s recently announced learning from home package, it’s still worth considering for the future of education in New Zealand, and in light of this package itself.  In my view, the government shouldn’t be directing children towards more screen-time. Let parents do that as a completely understandable sanity measure.  Government should be leading the way to better education in NZ, but as usual, they have failed to listen to the experts.

Evidence shows that relationships are the most important factor in children’s development.  Rather than overworking Kiwi parents, let’s give them a break and encourage them to simply reconnect with their kids. Instead of expecting them to remain perfect employees during lockdown, let’s enable them to put family first. 

Parents certainly don’t need to be replicating traditional classroom learning at home. Instead, let’s use this time to enable kids to discover their talents and passions. TOP agrees with Neuroscience Educator Nathan Mikaere-Wallis, who says: “We have four weeks now to focus on other things. In my opinion, the school curriculum doesn’t tend to value creativity enough, including dance and music. Some kids will remember this [lockdown] for the rest of their lives. I encourage people to embrace the arts during this time away from schools.”  Nathan also talks about the importance of kids feeling good about themselves as learners. If kids aren't enjoying being 'taught' by their parents, TOP says, don't do it. 

Fortunately, many schools are also encouraging a broader approach to learning. They are encouraging parents to prioritise relationships, mental health, love and comfort over academic skills and knowledge transfer. For example, some secondary schools are suggesting cancelling NCEA L1 for 2020. “We might need to tear up our perfect schedule, and play outside, go for walks, bake, paint, read together, and play board games,” one intermediate school principal said to his community. While that's hard for parents who are also trying to work, the expectation of teaching school work as well is both unrealistic and unnecessary. 

The COVID-19 lockdown is a chance for the Government to rethink education in New Zealand.  Rather than promoting online learning as the best out-of-school alternative for learning, perhaps it’s time to listen to the education profession and change its messaging. 

A crucial message is that devices should be used to support and enrich learning, rather than driving our education model. For example, video conferencing is a great way for kids to have social time together. However, excessive screen-time has numerous detrimental effects, like difficulty regulating stress, impaired vision, depressive symptoms, ADHD-like behaviour, reduced social coping, increased craving behaviour, and brain-structure changes. Therefore, we don’t need to add to this by expecting children to do schoolwork on screens.  

We know many parents will be allowing more screentime than usual to get their own work done, but device usage should not be a directive from government.

What’s worse, the Government seems stuck on its low-trust, low-risk, over-assessed, standardised learning model. Recent changes to the Education Act mean the Government “will be able to direct education providers to [offer] education in specified ways, for example through distance or online learning.” Yet, taking this standardised learning model online only adds to the educational trauma experienced by many of Kiwi children and their family/whānau.  

By contrast, TOP draws on international research to suggest an alternative approach to education during the COVID-19 shutdown. Our approach aims to protect family wellbeing, make better use of teachers’ time, and encourage a love of learning in children of all ages. We would like to see children engaging in play-based (for younger kids) or project-based (for older kids) learning that follows their interests. These activities develop skills such as communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. 

During lockdown, parents could facilitate play- and project-based activities and simply have fun with their kids, rather than trying to emulate teachers of structured learning. Children and parents could share their real-world learning with peers and teachers via online forums. Teachers could also use school shutdown time to complete quality professional development, such as social/emotional learning, for when their students return to school.  

These are just some ideas for doing education differently during the shutdown period. Let’s get politicians out of education and give teachers and parents more freedom to encourage a broader approach to learning. And for those families operating in survival mode, let’s help alleviate their stress so they can focus on relationships.

Dr Naomi Pocock is the Education Spokesperson and Hamilton West Candidate for The Opportunities Party.