Top tips for parents also going back to school
One of my favourite jobs was as programme manager on Bath College's "Supporting Teaching and Learning" BTec. It was the place in which I rediscovered the joy of my original experiences with teaching - being inspired every day. But this time it wasn't my year 7's whose drama ideas were out-of-this-world creative, it was my groups of adult learners some of whom were returning to study, others were choosing to change career, a few were just looking to do something for themselves. They brought a wealth of knowledge and experience - the sort you don't get in books - to their observations and their assignments, and despite the constant pressures of teaching - the marking, the standards, the targets, it was one of my most enjoyable and rewarding times in front of a class.
However, returning to study as a mature student brings with it it's own challenges. In some ways, for those entering academic year 20/21 one or two of these old issues may be addressed, others may just have started.
- Because of the move to online classes, there is a lot more flexibility for those with other commitments. Sessions are sometimes even recorded, which means it's also possible to access them at a time more convenient.
- Overall there is a need to prioritise time, and this can be effective no matter what your responsibilities. One extremely helpful method is the Urgent/Important quadrant - a fantastic way to visualise your "to do" list and decide whether it's a case of Do, Delegate, Delay or Delete. (I use this constantly now).
- You become a positive role model for your children if they too are studying. You can explain why you are putting in the work and what you are looking forward to as the outcome. Learning can become something the family does together.
Put in the discipline now and the rewards will come
- Relating to the above points, if you are working from home, it is wise to distinguish areas of study from areas of living. (This holds true if you are also working from home). Blurring the lines can mean you are never fully focused on your work, and never fully focused on your family. Being able to "go home" - mentally - is key to being able to feel better about both.
- Build in boundaries
Some people (especially mature students because of the efforts to ensure their place at university) may believe they are invincible...helped in part by working from home - eg they focus on the fact they don't need to commute in (a time saver!), but may not realise that they could instead be inviting more encroachment on their time. (Just because you don't need to commute, it doesn't mean you need to take on more responsibility, or become slack with your routine!). Further, there is sometimes a mindset which grows in parents seeing self-care as “unnecessary”, and by association mindfulness as “selfish”. They prefer to “keep giving”, sometimes believing that it is essential to always “put others first”. However this approach can be misplaced. If you are not physically, emotionally and mentally healthy, at best you will not help others successfully, at worst you will contribute to the problem. When you are healthy and energised your performance for yourself - and others - will be of higher quality.
Tips to include self-care into your routine
Practice “boundary setting” phrases, especially if you are working too eg:
1. How would you suggest I can best support you?
2. I will let you know on [later date]
3. Who else can support you?
1. Set “office hours” and stick to them
2. Do not answer the phone or engage in anything work-related after a certain time
3. Have template/procedures/answers prepared for common questions – ready to give out rather than having to explain it all (again!)
Engage in informal self-care/moments for yourself:
1. Make sure you go to the toilet when you need to!
2. Take a proper lunchbreak – even if it is short – step away from your desk physically
3. Find out about the wellbeing events on offer - even online!
- Remember "multi-tasking" and "attention switching" are two different things
A parent studying at home may be able to listen to a lecture and cook a meal (multi-tasking), but if they are "switching" between the lecture, a conversation with their child/children, work emails and texting a friend - the amount of attention (and care) that can be given to each is saturated. Worse still, constant attention switching retrains your brain to struggle to focus. If you recognise that you attend to a notification or email while in the middle of doing something (like writing an article for instance) - you are already nurturing a brain that is primed for distraction.
If you are going to focus on a task, turn off distractions and perhaps negotiate time with your children...maybe they too can be reading or writing?
- Your choices must be right for you
Everyone will have an opinion on how best to return to study. This article is no exception. However, you know what works best for you. You may wish to "thank-then-ignore" any unsolicited advice, but also, you don't necessarily need to seek affirmation by posting your routine on social media either. (Incidentally, social media is not the most helpful way to spend what little time you have for you...if you're interested as to why, please see my article on "breaking up with my phone".)
- Keep some time as adult time
Remember who you are outside your studies, and outside your role as a parent. One of the things I used to notice when I delivered sessions in situ (seems so long ago now) was that my mature students would often "look after" the younger ones, almost because this is how they are most comfortable in interacting. No-one needs that - neither of you. Education is about developing independence at all levels. As Shakespeare wrote men and women in their time "...play many roles." - never forget the most important one of all - you. Within your week make sure you spend time for something that is just for you.
- Make family time proper family time
With technology being used as a tool, it is easy to spend a great deal of time on devices - of which only some is productive. One of the common questions I get asked is "how do I get my children off their phones?" Unfortunately, few like the answer...get off yours!!!
If a baby is always exposed to a parent on their phone rather than interacting, they may grow up wanting their "own little handset of joy". Our technology, while wonderful in that we have been able to "see" each other during lockdown, and keep working remotely is also packed with little apps and programmes that steal our time less usefully...and each of those apps is programmed with one outcome in mind...keep you engaged with that programme so that you might buy more from the creators or advertisers (The Social Dilemma, 2020).
This means that when you do spend time together as a family, make sure that you are fully present in that time! (This is the only way to be more engaging than Fortnite...or insert game here...).
Yes, as a parent you are "competing" with a whole world of bright lights and attention stealers - each of which keeps ringing the dopamine bell, the reward centre in your child's head - but, with a little bit of effort you still retain the advantage. True connection is more powerful than anything an app can create. (When you compare
like for like, a "live" coaching session will far outweigh the value from an app, if nothing else because of the sense of connection...the same is true of a theatrical experience which is why a live show is not as pleasurable as a stream.) Finally, along with this point, if you do have the opportunity to go into your university or college - even with social distancing restrictions, consider taking it!
A "buzz" of reward cannot beat the long term warm and fuzzies of real life bonding.
This poem, sent to me by a dear friend - written by his 8 year old daughter Lily on being able to go back to school - acts as a reminder of how technology allows great advances but always fit in time to connect...in real life :
Lockdown was a tricky time,
Nothing real, all online
Finding ways to connect
All our playdates, they were wrecked
Then at last we’re all together
Hope it stays like this forever
Seeing friends face to face
A lot better than being in a different place
Hide and seek, please don’t peek
This has been a lovely week.
(Lily Goldwyn, aged 8)
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; watch her psychology & coaching masterclasses on YouTube Or catch her hosting Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV where she and her team discuss how psychology affects our behaviours in the workplace and what we can do about it.
Follow her on Twitter/IG @draudreyt (but she doesn't check it regularly anymore!)