How to timetable school at kitchen table

Many parents find themselves in the difficult position of having to home school their children while also holding down jobs, writes Helen O’Callaghan
How to timetable school at kitchen table

Many parents find themselves in the difficult position of having to home school their children while also holding down jobs, writes Helen O’Callaghan

PARENTS everywhere now are being asked to step into the teacher’s shoes — at the kitchen table.

But parents are not teachers and home is not a school, so we can’t expect what happens in a school to happen at home. This has to be the starting point for any discussion on managing children’s homework during the Covid-19 lockdown, says Áine Lynch, CEO of National Parents Council Primary (NPC).

“We’ve never been in this situation before, so there isn’t lots of evidence on what should happen when children aren’t able to go to school,” points out Lynch, adding however that there is substantial research on two relevant issues.

“We know when parents and schools work together there are better outcomes. And we also know it’s incredibly difficult to learn if there’s an atmosphere of stress — so we don’t want to make doing homework so tense that the benefits are lost,” says Lynch, who emphasises how critical it is — particularly at primary level — that parents contact teacher if home-learning is challenging.

“Class teachers know all the children in their class and, with the parent, can tailor a specific plan for the child.”


There’s so much variability in terms of children’s aptitudes and learning styles, in terms of households and family commitments now and also around different school approaches to distance learning (some schools are sending lists of work to do, others are advising learning through everyday activities) that it’s almost impossible to give specific guidelines for homework management during the Covid-19 emergency.

“There’s no one plan that’s going to work right across the board for a full set of children in a class or for a full school,” says Páiric Clerkin, CEO of the Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN).

He believes it’s important we help children stay engaged with schoolwork but, as a parent himself, acknowledges how difficult this is. “Some children will see engaging with their workbooks as a fun activity. Others will need a parent sitting with them, providing constant reassurance to keep them focused.

“In some situations, parents are trying to work from home. Other parents are on the frontline caring for the sick and vulnerable. Some have lost their job. Some families have older children too, who are due to sit the Leaving Cert, and there are families living in apartments with no access to a play area for children.”

Getting the balance right and having a good structure are key to harmonious living, with regular rising and bed-times, time for schoolwork, as well as for play and rest, says Clerkin, who recommends parents see assignments lists from schools as a menu of activities from which they can choose. “We don’t want to create expectations where parents feel they should be doing more, or that they’ve failed because they’re not getting their child to finish a set of tasks.

“We’re all in a stressful situation now and what’s important is that we all support each other and ensure children don’t pick up on any parental anxiety.”


To help parents maintain a calm atmosphere around homework, schools also need to give reassurance that when children return to school, teachers “will help every single child to get back to what they need to get back to”.

When it comes to the nitty-gritty of knuckling down to homework, Lynch advises making children part of the planning process. “Point out: ‘these are the things you have to get done — when do you plan to do each?’ The child might want to do an hour and a half mid-morning and another hour around 4pm. Timetable it with them and identify what they can do on their own and what they’ll need your help with. Having choice and control will really help a child invest in the work they’re doing.”

Having no end point to the Covid-19 restrictions in sight makes it difficult to keep motivation going, says Lynch. “The uncertainty makes motivating children very difficult — so set small goals and note the achievements. Review the work done each day and point to the day’s achievements — ‘look: you finished that’ — so you recognise what the child has done rather than what they haven’t done.”

Lynch says parents should see RTÉ’s Home School Hub — if their child enjoys engaging with that — as an hour of school and part of the child’s learning. “It should be included as part of the work achievements of that day — for some children that might be as good as you can do.”

The NPC website also has daily updates (, with tips for parents and fun activities for children, as well as storytelling, fitness and cooking to name but a few. There’s also an archive of previous daily updates. “If you’re struggling to get them to do their work, going on that might help them get back on track,” says Lynch.


However you approach the ‘schooling’, the overriding aim should be to keep it as calm as possible — because home has to stay home and remain a place where children want to be.

Dublin-based teacher Martin Stuart ( has these tips for getting kids engaged with schoolwork during Covid-19.

Personalise: Tailor everything to the child — content, pace, difficulty, quantity, and learning style. Give choice. Let work lead to success without too much struggle. Use the child’s interests. Focus on developing strengths more than what the child’s weak at.

Partner-up: Listen to the child and discuss/agree on specific goals. Focus on reducing stress, increasing enjoyment, and boosting learning.

Agree on a flexible routine: Use a visual timetable. Adapt to what works best in practice. Keep work short, and have time limits. Don’t focus not on time spent at something but on reaching the goal — once the skill’s achieved, move on.

Be a model: Let your child see/hear you learn; how you struggle, persist, revise, and make progress, one step at a time. Model what you want to see: reading, writing, exercise, behaviour, reflection, prayer, attitude, gratitude. Children copy parents. n Foster curiosity: Praise effort and focus on progress not ability. React to child’s mistakes with interest, not concern: ‘Here’s a mistake I can learn from’.

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