How to support parents with home learning during COVID-19 lockdowns

The COVID-19 pandemic takes a toll on all of us, but particularly on families with young children. In an effort to slow the spread of the virus, Germany – among many other countries – closed child care centers, prohibited the use of playgrounds, and implemented social distancing measures in spring 2020. This put parents of young children in a tight spot. They had to provide education and care at home while juggling other demands, including jobs and household chores. How did the lockdown affect parents’ ability to provide home learning activities for their children?

Parents engaged in more home learning activities with their children during the lockdown than they did before the lockdown. This was the general trend in our survey (see Cohen, Oppermann, & Anders, 2020) of 7,048 German parents of 1- to 6-year-olds, conducted during the lockdown in Germany in April and May 2020. For instance, parents read more books with their children, spent more time together in nature, and played more (board) games or did more puzzles.

“The largest predictor of parents’ ability to provide home learning activities was stress: Parents who said they were the most stressed provided the least amount of learning activities for their children.”

Our study also showed that providing home learning activities during the lockdown worked better for some parents than for others. Parents with more than one child under age 6 and parents who were employed full time provided fewer activities than parents with only one child 6 and under and parents with part-time jobs.

The largest predictor of parents’ ability to provide home learning activities was stress: Parents who said they were the most stressed provided the least amount of learning activities for their children. This finding is intuitive: Parents who are overwhelmed by all the demands have fewer resources to engage with their children. And the COVID-19 pandemic certainly did not make life easier for parents. Many were juggling working at home with caring for children (54% in our survey), and some had to deal with sudden unemployment (1%) or short-time leave (7%), which often led to financial strain (41%). Moreover, playgrounds were closed and families were stuck at home, often in apartments and houses that were too small (27%).

These problematic situations caused stress, which impaired parents’ ability to provide learning activities for their children. This is not a new finding. Studies have shown that parents are better at supporting their children’s learning and development when they feel good themselves. However, the special measures taken to contain the spread of COVID-19 led to cumulative stress situations for many families. The implications are clear: If we want to ensure that parents provide a rich home learning environment during difficult times such as the COVID-19 lockdown, we need to support parents.

How can we support parents in helping their children learn?

As a parent, it is important to acknowledge your stress and take care of yourself. Take breaks, delegate tasks where possible, and seek support. Also, when it comes to supporting your children’s learning, keep in mind that everyday interactions make a difference. You don’t need to prepare learning sessions with your child. Rather, try to engage your child in an in-depth dialogue about everyday situations (e.g., by asking questions and helping children refine their thought process). Plenty of websites provide materials, ideas, and guidelines for parents to facilitate learning at home.

“If we want to ensure that parents provide a rich home learning environment during difficult times such as the COVID-19 lockdown, we need to support parents.”

As friends, relatives, or neighbors, you can provide emotional support by asking parents how they are doing or even offering hands-on help, e.g. with shopping.

As teachers, you can help parents support their children when child care centers are closed by keeping in contact with the children and proving parents with ideas or materials fit for children’s individual developmental stages. In fact, 51% of the parents in our study said they wished preschool teachers gave them ideas and materials to foster their children’s learning at home.

As policymakers, it is important to keep in mind that closures of child care centers are extreme measures that deprive children of the education and social contact they need while putting parents under immense stress. This can be particularly harmful for families living in disadvantageous circumstances. Thus, even though such closures may have less short-term impact on the economy and may be easier to implement than other restrictions, they potentially have the worst long-term outcomes for the future of our children.

Header photo: Nenad Stojkovic. Creative Commons. 

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