Coping with a Wide Age Range During Lockdown
Guest post by Katie Finlayson from Learn What You Live – Because we learn from every experience – so those experiences matter.
The lockdown is affecting us all, but for those with a wide age range it throws up its own challenges. Teens who may be used to a lot of outside contact with friends are suddenly stuck with younger siblings all day; kids who need regular time running wild are sometimes literally bouncing off the walls and the whole house knows it. Meanwhile parents are trying to navigate keeping up with what the heck is going on with GCSEs, scrabbling for food, helping out friends and relatives who can’t go out, balancing another parent working from home or just being around when they’re not normally, and being just a little distracted by the whole deal… yeah. For home educators, it might look not too different from business as normal, but all those regular sibling issues are being magnified 100x. On the flip side, you’ve got the whole family together without constantly rushing out to the next activity, and you want to make the most of it.
So what’s a home edder to do?
The first thing to bear in mind is that everyone’s family setup is different, so take the ideas that speak to you and leave the rest. What works for a family of ten with a big garden in the countryside may be different from a single parent balancing a four and a fourteen-year-old in a flat in a city. You do you.
Doing something all together is the dream, and lots of activities – traditionally educational or otherwise – can be approached at different levels by a wide age range. Don’t think everyone needs to be doing something ‘age appropriate’, and don’t feel you always need to aim in the middle – little ones will take their own tack to whatever the older kids are doing, and teens might enjoy helping out a younger sibling and getting a chance to sneakily relive their lost youth. You’ll probably get better buy-in all round if at least one or two children are really keen on an activity, and the others get an option to participate, than if you pick something on the basis they might all tolerate it.
Marie, who has seven children aged between three and twenty, has found that theme days work well – particularly if they involve food. The older children help the little ones make posters to print out, they can all cook together, and take on art projects at different levels of expertise. This can also be a good way to get in topic based learning.
Setting the older children up as experts, to help the younger children with a project they can’t quite tackle by themselves, keeps them all busy and increases everyone’s sense of competence (which may be taking a hit with the lack of sports teams and other outside classes). Larger scale building projects, filming a video for family or friends, or making up dance routines can all work well. If you’re able to, getting everyone outside also breaks down the age barriers, whether it’s in the back garden with a camp fire or out for daily exercise together.
Divide and conquer
However, it doesn’t all need to be family time, and you’ll probably find teenagers in particular are craving their own space. While you might want to have everyone going for a walk together, that could also be the ideal time for an older child to get some peace and quiet, so don’t force it (at least not all the time) if they have other ideas.
Sometimes high school or GCSE work just doesn’t mix with a pre-schooler at the table, so do what you can to find a separate space for the bits that need concentration. That might mean a teen taking themselves off to their room to work with the help of BBC Bitesize, or it might mean the toddler gets iPad or playdough time reserved for when you need to work with the older one, and you pick up the pieces afterwards. It might not be ideal, but needs must.
A little bit of focused time with each set of kids may well achieve more than hours flitting between different crowds with different needs. Be realistic though – children of all ages can spend time independently doing productive things, but it takes experience, and capabilities will vary between different kids and different days. The idea that you can throw out a list of assignments and have a child come back a couple of hours later with them all complete is – at least for me and anyone I know – not a reality. Nor is the idea that a toddler will enjoy quiet time on demand just when you need them to. However if you set a consistent routine of when they can expect your attention and when they need to cope by themselves a little more, and gently but firmly guide them back to it again and again, eventually it will start to stick.
Meeting emotional needs
Life – and learning – runs more smoothly when everyone feels loved and appreciated. None of us get this right all the time, but if the schoolwork isn’t going well and the children are picking on each other, it may be that time spent working on emotional needs and connection will pay off more than finding the perfect worksheet or family bonding activity.
This doesn’t need to be anything fancy – for younger children, who are usually quite adept at demanding attention when they need it, a smile or a hug and some interest (feigned or not) in the latest Minecraft adventures will go a long way. For older ones, you may have to get more creative, especially in a busy household where more immediate demands can take precedence over a teen who seems fairly self reliant.
Polly, of This Enchanted Pixie, has five children, ranging from ten months to sixteen. She chooses a special TV series and makes time to watch it individually with her older children when things have quieted down in the evening. This helps her keep connected and spend one on one time with them without needing extra cash or childcare. In my family, each child has a night when it’s their turn to make dinner with me as ‘sous chef’. We listen to a story together, they get to decide on dinner, and we hang out and learn some cooking skills at the same time.
The golden ratio
One of the most useful quotes I ever came across (originally from the book Nutureshock, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman) was that what predicted the overall positivity of a sibling relationship was not the amount of times siblings fought, but whether they had enough positive experiences together to counteract that. It’s net-positive we’re going for, not ignoring-each-other-but-staying-quiet. So don’t worry too much about the inevitable fights. Be fair, teach them good resolution skills, avoid flashpoints, expect respect, and don’t let it get out of hand – but ultimately sibling bickering will happen. Focus instead on fostering the times when they are getting on, and setting things up for that to happen, if you can.
Finally, while we’re all driven to do our best by our kids, give yourself some grace as well. Lots of different needs stuck under one roof with little means to break the pressure is a tough gig. As my very wise friend Claire (a mother of nine) once told me, “it’s all very well having principles. But if it’s a choice between going crazy or putting them in front of a video, turn the telly on”.