How COVID opened our eyes to the role of parents as primary educators.

By Lucy O’Keeffe (previously published in the the Rhodes University Inguquko Newsletter)

“Quality time together made us see differently.”

It may sound like a truism to say that parents are their children’s first teachers. Yet in a South African context, many parents have not recognised their role as educators and have assumed that they hand over responsibility, (and power), at the school gates. Has COVID-19 and the experience of lockdown changed this? Thrust into the role of teachers, have parents and caregivers gained a new sense of agency as their children’s first, (and most important), educators? The Centre for Social Development works with Early Childhood Development (ECD) Centres and Primary Schools across Makhanda and had the opportunity to follow the journey of group of parents involved in its Ezinkwenkwezini Quality ECD project as they grappled with the joys and frustrations of home suddenly becoming the primary place of learning.   We suggest that while the right to education has traditionally been seen as being deliverable through formal schooling even in the early childhood space, COVID-19 presented and opportunity to re-imagine and re-empower parents as perhaps the most important partner in the realisation of this right.

A wealth of research on concepts such as ‘serve and return’, (the back and forth adult-child interactions that shape a brain architecture and support the development of communication and social skills), demonstrates the critical importance of the parent or primary caregiver’s role in supporting children’s wellbeing and development, and laying the foundation for lifelong learning.

For many South African adults,  neither their own schooling nor the changing landscape of education in subsequent years has filled them with confidence in their ability to nurture the growing brains of their young children. Many did not have the chance to attend pre-school themselves and feel disempowered or uniformed regarding the ‘educational development’ of children.  Many of the skills that children need to develop, however, are easily modelled and developed by parents.  Research by the Centre for the Developing Child at Harvard tells us that there is a core set of capabilities that adults need to succeed in life and to develop the next generation. These include planning, focus, self-control, awareness, and flexibility. Equipped with these skills, parents can play a powerful and positive role in nurturing their children and, quite literally, in moulding their brains. However, if education is seen as the preserve of the school and if parents lack a sense of their own agency as educators, (and brain architects!), this is a lost opportunity.

In March 2020 South African schools closed as the COVID-19 pandemic hit around the globe. With no preparation, families were ‘locked down’ together; many parents were unable to work and instead were asked to become ‘home-schoolers’. In May and June, CSD interviewed 42 such parents whose young children had been attending local ECD Centres in Makhanda. The way they reported their experiences was deeply real, heart-warming and inspiring.

There was an overarching theme around strengthening of family relationships and, (although it is very important to acknowledge that that this was not a universal experience – rates of domestic violence increased shockingly during lockdowns around the world), the words of respondents speak poignantly to the significance of the bond between children and parents. Parents appreciated the chance to ‘become very close and give attention to each other’. One mother wrote, ‘We have more time together and they are more open than before. We share and the mother-and-kids’ relationship has grown more’.

The time together at home also seems to have allowed parents to gain insight into their children’s lives, their learning and development. One parent commented, ‘I’ve noticed things that I didn’t notice about them, and we became more close’. Another explained how she enjoyed ‘being able to motivate my son and seeing him try new things’.

Getting to grips with their new hands-on teaching role was a challenge for parents. ‘I don’t know how teachers do this’ was a common refrain. However, it also led to a recognition of the existing knowledge and strengths that they could contribute. Parents spoke of appreciating and using the resources provided by their children’s school, sometimes trying to recreate the school environment and structure, and then adding their own knowledge and expertise. ‘I have used the work that I receive from school to help my child and I have used my own skills to be helpful’. Many parents highlighted activities such as cooking, doing household chores, reading the newspaper and watching children’s programmes on TV together, and how these activities gave rise to questions and conversations. There were also references to drawing on the knowledge of older relatives, playing indigenous games and teaching children things from the ‘old generation’.

Living through a time of pandemic has wrought havoc on South African families. However, as we reflect on the experience and start to look forward, there is an opportunity to build on these moments that families shared together. Parents got a glimpse of their ability to contribute to their children’s learning and development, which will perhaps allow them to step into their role as primary educators with a little more confidence and sense of agency. For organisations like CSD, working in this space, this offers an important window of opportunity to support parents in this journey and to give greater recognition to the fundamental role that parents play in growing children’s brains. 

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