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The school bell, and why you need one

It turns out there’s a reason schools have bells – they’re an excellent idea, and you should have them for home-school too. Their advantage is that your kids don’t need to ask if they’ve finished yet – if the bell hasn’t gone, then they’re not done. Period.

To avoid partial reinforcement, you cannot end classes early, and most definitely not when your kids ask. If they ask to leave before the bell and you say ‘yes’ even once, then they will keep pestering you for ages after that. No. Every class continues ‘til the end. Give them colouring. Make them write it out again more neatly, set them reading the next page. Anything, but the lesson is not yet over. But you can cheat…

Personally, I used the alarm on my smart speaker, which lets you set it via an app. If I saw that the lesson would reach a natural conclusion four minutes before the end of class, I changed the bell to ring four minutes early. Ta-da! Flexibility, and yet you still avoid the scourge of partially reinforcing the idea that sometimes you end early.

Conversely, if they are loving what they are doing, then push the bell out by a few minutes to let them keep going. Only the sharpest eyed will check the clock and spot that the times don’t look quite right, and you can always wing it: ‘we started a bit late, so we’re finishing a bit late…’ etc.

Be careful. With all the moving it backwards and forwards, switching it off at weekends and back on for school days, sometimes I’d fail to set the alarm. Then at three minutes past your kids asks you if is the lesson over yet, and what should you answer? No. Absolutely not. The alarm hasn’t gone, so the lesson isn’t over. Get on your app and fix it to ring as soon as you can. If you finish the lesson when they ask then, even if they’re correct, they'll bug you repeatedly in case they get lucky again.

To keep it simple, and because it gave enough time, my lessons and breaks were mostly half an hour. That way, I could tell at a glance when this lesson was supposed to finish and didn’t confuse myself, which was easy to do when you’re in the middle of the action.

Are you juggling work alongside home-schooling? Then set your lesson boundaries at quarter-to and quarter-past the hour. Everyone else in the world schedules their meetings on the hour, so being out of synch gives you lots of time to get your kids working before your call starts.

My kids' next most popular question, after ‘is the lesson over yet?’, was ‘how long is left?’ This is another excellent chance to apply the rule that if they can do something, then they should. Don’t tell them how long is left. Point to an analogue clock and help them to work it out of themselves. All our clocks were minimalist with no numbers around the outside so, to give my seven-year-old a chance we bought a nice simple one with twelve big, clear numbers. Give them all the help you can. Then let them do it for themselves.

Learning to tell time so your kids can see how long is left makes learning natural. They're motivated to learn so they can answer their own question. This isn’t a dry set of rules they have to learn from a book; it gives them a new ability they can use every day.

So set an alarm. The lesson isn’t over until it rings, ever.

See also

Timetable tricks

Getting it wrong

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