Like all Australians, teachers hold our national COVID-related concerns front of mind. As teachers, our resilience is tested again and again, knowing that with a moment’s notice, we must be prepared to support our students with remote learning and relational connection. We also know both intuitively and from the emerging research that vulnerable students struggling to engage with learning before COVID-19 are now further disengaged; and for schools contending with the equity gap, there are increased barriers for students to overcome barriers including poor access to on-line learning systems, breakdown of home-school communication, and family needs which make it difficult to complete at-home learning tasks.
As teachers, we have been diligently meeting the unmet learning needs of students who struggle with healthy social and emotional development to address the estimated 72 per cent of Australian children who have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience. These can be adverse events within the family, or in communities including the cumulative impacts of chronic stressors that students face each day.
Advances in trauma-informed teacher practices, in addition to greater understandings of how to increase wellbeing for students, have provided teachers with effective strategies to build stamina for learning and to stay with the task – even when students resist or give up in frustration. The promise of these strategies is that every adult can learn them to support our children and young people, whether they are learning in the classroom or at the kitchen table.
The first step is to breakdown often held myths that parents may have around home learning in order reset our expectations for what is possible and beneficial for students as we collectively work toward our new normal.
Myth 1: Being a “teacher” at home is just another parenting skill
We empathise with parents who believe this, and we want to mitigate their feelings of inadequacy when their children struggle to complete their assignments. We want parents to know that teaching and parenting are two distinct skills requiring two distinct mindsets. As it’s difficult for adults to parse these definitions, imagine how difficult it can be for children!
Teachers can def relay these messages to parents with empathy and compassion, to reassure parents that we know getting a rapid-teaching qualification is not possible nor necessary. And instead, bolster them with the clear expectations to redefine what successful home-learning can be and what we hope to achieve when classroom learning is disrupted.
Myth 2: He just needs to make better choices
When a child resists staying with the task, it’s tempting for adults to escalate themselves and launch into the ‘choices lecture.’ That lecture often sounds like: “If you don’t complete this, you won’t get the marks, and if you don’t get the marks, you won’t get into right maths group next year…” Although this line of reasoning is logical, both child and parent can get escalated to the point of relational rupture. The rationale for this lecture is: I care about you too much to let you fall behind.
Instead of this choices lecture, we encourage parents to ask more questions to co-create the conditions of learning for their child. As teachers, we know that students feel included when their voices are heard and their own recommendations are utilised. We have learned that every learner is unique and requires differentiated supports to meet their unmet needs for learning strategy by strategy.
Some students need ownership over where they sit; for how long; and to move to a new location every 20 minutes. Some students in the classroom succeed when they create their own learning environments through personalised decorations, regular breaks from learning, and choices around what to prioritise first, then next.
Thus, this conversation with children can be reframed from “You need to choose to learn” to “Let’s keep talking about how you learn best.” We want to empower children to identify and articulate their own best learning conditions, whether that be in the classroom or the living room, so they can make better choices for their education pathways of choice.
Myth 3: If we don’t get through all these assignments, she will never catch up
Teachers are well aware of the developmental trajectory of their students, and we know that as a country, we must invest in ambitious resources nationwide to make up for lost learning time. This is a burden that can feel crushing to parents, and we want them to know that we will move forward together.
We want parents to revision what success in home learning can be. In our research, we know that when students begin to coach themselves to notice the impacts of classroom stress in their own bodies, take a mindful breath, and proactively seek support, they renew themselves for the next 10-minutes of on-task learning. These skills require years of repetition for students to practice and teachers to support consistently throughout every classroom in a school.
Home learning can be a valuable extension of this learning. If it works in the classroom, it can also work in many other learning environments; but only if adults stay the course and remember: When a child resists, we can support them by a predictable routine of stress-management always ending in a personal strategy that can de-escalate, smile and get back on track.
Myth 4: As parent, I don’t have enough expertise to teach the content in a credible way
Show empathy to parents when they hold this myth. While they do not have the pedagogical understandings that teachers have (i.e., scaffolding the tasks, breaking down big goals into manageable ones, supplying learning supports before the student realises that she needs them), they can model proactive learning behaviours.
As teachers, we know that learning all content in human history is not possible. But learning how to learn is our goal. Restated from above, part of learning how to learn is knowing what to do when you reach a speedbump, when you don’t get your own way, when someone on your team wants something that disagrees with your own goals.
All adults can play a powerful role in children’s lives by modelling how we respond to everyday adversities. In our research, role-modelling for children is a laudable aim with dual-outcomes: it allows children the opportunity to witness a self-care skill in action (without the choices lecture); and helps the adult stay empowered to increase their own wellbeing.
Children are non-verbal sponges. While they may struggle to listen to us, they are mirroring and modelling our behaviour. This is a valuable opportunity to teach life skills that we all have the capacity to share.
Myth 5: If we don’t address a student’s struggles, they will never learn
In our research and practice, the students we support can have complex unmet learning needs in the classroom. These needs can be significant barriers to on-task learning, and we don’t shy away from that to address them with urgency and unconditional positive regard.
However, we are inspired by research which suggests: We don’t improve our strengths by focussing on our weaknesses. This powerful mind-shift can transform the question of “what is wrong with this situation” to “what is right here?”
All children and young person have strengths. Sometimes they are used effectively for learning; sometimes they are over-used in times of resistance or underused in times of disengagement. Teachers know that it is our responsibility to shift the classroom environment to allow these strengths a chance to develop one day at a time. For struggling students, whose acting-out or acting-in behaviours make it difficult to maintain a focus on their strengths, they need adults to keep identifying and goal-setting using a strengths focus as an imperative priority in their support.
Together, when addressing all five myths around home learning, we can begin to reshape parent expectations for what is both possible at home – and a significant contribution for when students are back in the classroom. We suggest that a strength that’s emerged from the need for at-home learning is increased home-school partnership and increased relational connections from parents to teachers. Together, we are taking one step at a time on the journey to collective resilience.
Dr Tom Brunzell (MST, EdM, PhD) has experience as a teacher, school leader, researcher and education advisor. Currently he is the Director of Education at Berry Street and Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne Graduate School of Education. Tom presents internationally on topics of transforming school culture, student engagement, trauma-aware practice, wellbeing and positive psychology, and effective school leadership. His research at the University of Melbourne investigates trauma-informed wellbeing classroom strategies; and both the negative impacts of secondary traumatic stress and the positive impacts of wellbeing on teachers and leaders working towards educational equity in their communities. His new book: Creating Trauma-informed Strengths Based Classrooms, is now available through Hachette/Jessica Kingsley Publishers, UK and booksellers world-wide.