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Wearing more than a few hats: A mother’s perspective on balancing new tasks

I married Charles, the love of my life, at 25. Our childhood homes were about 2 Km apart, his home being at the bottom of the hill where mine stood atop. He once said that one morning, while sitting in his father’s compound, he looked up towards the hilltop and saw the most beautiful thing he would ever set his eyes upon…me (hahaha). Charles’ brother was a close friend to my brother, James (RIP), who brought many of his friends home. That’s how Charles and I met and became friends.

One sunny afternoon, back in the 1980’s, Charles invited me to his home for what he said was his niece’s baptism, but it later turned out to be our engagement party! Charles was that kind of guy: very daring and very loving. He traveled for studies shortly after our engagement and we married a year later, after his graduation. He then worked as an entomologist at a research lab about 100 meters from where I worked. Charles and I literally did everything; we walked to work together, did house chores together and shared so many interests. Ours was a very special bond. When Charles passed on (God rest his dear soul), a part of me thought I would never smile again. On top of the emotional duress from losing my closest friend, I had to deal with the psychological and financial stress of becoming a single mother of three at just 33. I was suddenly cast into so many different roles!

Aside from my usual mum duties and being an 8am to 5pm worker, I was now the sole bread winner, the disciplinarian, the doctor, the chef, the sports coach, the private tutor, the counselor among other roles. By the grace of God, my children have grown up to become brilliant and amazing individuals but while I was in the thick of things, it seemed almost impossible to pull off so many roles.

The COVID-19 pandemic reminds me of that tough time. It has affected all of us in so many ways. So many parents have been forced to add teaching to their already full plate of responsibilities. Because schools have been closed for the past 5 months, some of us (parents) may be worried about our children falling behind in their studies. We’ve tried to buy as much study material as possible; we’ve surrendered our TV sets and computers for online tutoring and done our best to stay on top of things by refreshing our minds with primary school algebra or secondary school chemistry (which we thought we would never need!).

As parents, we want the very best for our children, but unprecedented (and unpredictable) times like these have forced us to take each day one step at a time. While this is good progress, the education system in Uganda is structured in a manner that requires children to grasp certain concepts and move on to the next class, each year. As what would ordinarily be the beginning of term three of the academic year is upon us, now may be a good time to evaluate and possibly polish our home-tutoring to boost the learning experience for what could be the end of the academic year.

I have served as in the education sector for more than 30 years and thought I would share a few pointers on making the most of home-schooling, from my own experience over the years.

So here goes:

· ‘Healthy mother, healthy baby’ is the equivalent of ‘enthusiastic tutor, enthusiastic learner’

They say teachers don’t age, and rightfully so: we spend our days acting like children just so we can be on the same frequency as they are. Children tend to imprint; when you’re in a low mood, your children will sense this and probably ask ‘what’s wrong mummy?’ in an equally solemn manner. Staying at home with your children during the pandemic should not only be viewed in a negative light only as this will bring bias and mental stress. It’s important to get in the right mood if you intend to help your child with their school work.

Sometimes it helps just to affirm your child or simply sing a song or take a walk together, before you engage in class work. Researchers point to physical activity like dance and sport; having an optimistic outlook on life; physical contact such as hugs and getting adequate rest as some of the ways to exercise the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for reasoning, problem solving, comprehension and creativity). Beginning school work the moment you get out of bed may not be as effective as allowing for a snack or meal first or engaging in some physical work (this can even be house chores). Remember to check in mentally and be fully involved and attentive when tutoring.

· Get practical

One of the positive outcomes of the pandemic is that learning can now be made more practical. Some children have never had the chance to see things like the stages of plant growth physically. Aside from demonstrations in textbooks or videos on the internet or TV, our children can now experience transpiration or whatever phenomena first-hand. Take a few bean and maize seeds and establish a backyard garden or pot these in old tins and have your children study epigeal and hypogeal germination practically; cover a plant with a polythene bag overnight and in the morning, explain to your children the miracle that is transpiration; while you make dinner, ask your biology scholar the different parts of the fish or chicken you are about to prepare.

Some things, such as social skills may not be taught in school but rather acquired naturally. Things like being respectful of others and their property, always saying ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’ and being kind/polite to strangers are some of these things. Now that we have a bit of time with our children and more time for interaction, these skills can be imparted if we, as parents, are intentional. It wouldn’t hurt to sharpen their humane qualities or what we call ‘obuntu’.

· The home-classroom

On average, "a child’s attention span is between 3 to 5 minutes per year of their age"; meaning a 6 year-old should be able to concentrate on a particular activity for 18 to 30 minutes while a 3 year-old can only do so for 9 to 15 minutes. This calls for extreme creativity in order to keep your child engaged in whatever you’re teaching them. Incorporate as many breaks as possible when learners can go outdoors or attempt other non-academic activities such as feeding pets or domestic animals at home. As opposed to having your child stare blankly at the same page for hours, brief periods of rest will help avert Attention Deficit/ Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD).

Learning doesn’t have to be at a desk or over a book only; engaging with your infant in a more relaxed manner can equally be enriching. As opposed to restricting ‘study hour’ to the dining table, home study or kitchen floor, taking the lesson to new environments and scenarios can increase interest in school work. Use different methods of teaching such as storytelling, riddles or songs to keep the child attentive. As you work in the garden with your children, they will have the chance of incidental learning by observing things such as a cow giving birth. This also gives the chance to students who have talents aside from classwork an opportunity to shine.

Simple objects around the house (such as spoons, cups and food stuffs like potatoes or banana fingers) can also be used as teaching aid to create stimulating environments especially for infant classes such as grade one and two.

It is reported that having structure is a good strategy to keep panic and bewilderment at bay. As such, consider establishing simple routine, for example for the morning hours, for your children and family. While you don’t have to follow the usual 8am to 4pm routine, as with our current education system, structure helps to keep some children grounded and can facilitate increased productivity.

· Learners with disabilities and those in vulnerable states

It can be tempting to lump all our children in one group, to have them study at the same time and in the same area but this can prevent us from identifying those who need special attention. If you have a child with special needs for example, children with dyslexia or autism or those with ADHD handling them separately may be required in some instances. Some academic establishments have the resources to assess each child’s learning style using psychoeducational evaluation and to use such assessments to personalise academic and experiential learning to each individual. We may not have such resources at our disposal and will have to rely on our instincts as parents to gauge our children’s abilities. The more hours you spend with your child, the closer you will get to them, the more you will understand their strengths and weaknesses.

If for one reason (such as loss of a pet) or another your child is in a fragile state, take caution and be as sensitive as possible. Go slow in tutoring and when explaining things to him/her and try to engage them as much as possible.

· It might be time to have that conversation about technology.

Now that school is online, the gadgets can no longer be avoided. Extra precaution has to be taken to protect our children. So much information comes our way these days; and even for an adult, it might be difficult to know what to take in and what to block out. As much as our children are innocent parties, they could pick concepts from commercials that run between the lessons on T.V or from the videos and movies they watch, even during supervised screen-time. The language used in some programs could be ‘beyond scope’ and some of the ideas sold could influence their views on certain subjects and even affect their self-esteem. Now that our children have increased access to media, re-enforcement on what is permitted needs to happen.

Cases of child abuse have increased in some regions of the country during this pandemic. On the other hand, many children have been educated on how to avoid the vice and have also been protected by their parents who are keenly watching over them while at home. The stay-at-home period has provided the opportunity for parents to add their voice to fight against child abuse.

While the pandemic has brought loss (and caused some strain on our mental well-being), the outcomes from this period will largely depend on how intentional we become with embracing the new opportunities presented to us.

About the author

Mrs. Alice Ariho is a mother of three girls. She is an educationalist, author, counselor and child specialist with over 30 years

of experience. She is passionate about incorporating experiential learning in the Ugandan education system. In her free time she like to garden and do some crafts work.

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