I am by no means an expert homeschooler. In fact, I am still a novice! The following tips are simply those that have helped me survive homeschool prep for this particular year. I imagine they will change in the future; I imagine that many of you have far more tried-and-true tips that have served you for years (please share!); and I imagine that there exist plenty of homeschool blogs from which you might extract much prettier bullet-pointed lists. This is just my humble take on what helps harness the chaos.
1. Plan loosely.
I can pretty much be described as OCD. Not about all things – certainly not about gardening, or dish-washing, or cleaning – but when it comes to my children, and things I can research for my children, I go all out. This can be an awesome homeschooling trait, or a horrendous one – it completely depends on perspective.
On the one hand, my kids end up with all of the “right” stuff. I am happy to research various approaches to learning (let’s say) math and, after engaging in thorough discussions with friends, to finally choose and purchase the perfect curriculum for my kids. My modest little house is proudly beaming with shelves of age-appropriate puzzles, games, art supplies, blocks, dress-up clothes, math manipulatives and more – we’ve got the right stuff around here to homeschool.
However, having the compulsion to organize easily leads to too much structuring, which then leads to having to abandon the structure in favor of reality. I have tried sketching out how the year will look – or heck, even the coming week – and what I have found, time and time again, is that real life just doesn’t look like any plan I’ve ever made. Something always comes up; something always changes; nothing ever looks how I think it will look. This was true for me as a child, more true for me as a young adult, and it is hella more true now that I’m a parent!
Life lives; plans crash and burn.
So I’ve thrown out daily plans. What I use to structure our day is an excel spreadsheet that I shamelessly stole (layout-wise) from an uber-organized BFF. It consists of a list of topics that I wish to cover regularly in our homeschool (anywhere from one to five times a week) and a grid that allows me to check off or write down what we actually cover each day after we’ve covered it.
In this way, I carefully track where life takes us. I conveniently satisfy my need to collect and analyze data without propelling us down a road of carefully planned, yet unrealistic expectations. We live, we learn, I record it.
To clarify, we are not exactly unschoolers. I do plan exactly what our long-term goals are in specific subjects and I map out a general approach to reaching these goals (we’ll read these books, visit these places, do these projects, etc.). What I don’t do is plan what we are going to do each day. This is what I call loose planning.
2. Purchase early.
There’s nothing as frustrating as having painstakingly determined the best curriculum for a homeschool subject only to find that it doesn’t work with your monthly budget. For this reason, start planning early – in May perhaps, if your school year starts in September, or in September if it starts in January.
I did not fully appreciate the financial impact that homeschooling would have on my family’s budget until I became entrenched in deciding how to approach a variety of subjects all at once. Individual books bought now-and-again are no big deal, but language programs and science sets and music lessons and swim classes – paid for all at once, during the planning month of August – definitely make an impact!
The best antidote against back-to-homeschool sticker shock is to determine your homeschooling budget well in advance. Use this as a guide to spread out your purchases throughout the year. And don’t forget to include a monthly allowance for field trips and spontaneous purchases – a good rule of thumb is $20 per family member (including babies and parents and everyone in between) for extras, such as coffee, coloring books, legos or movie tickets. Since homeschooling is full of hidden costs, it’s best to be prepared to spend a little extra so that you don’t end up spending a lot.
3. Organize your space / unclutter.
I am someone who simply cannot think when there is a mess nearby. I inherited this trait from both of my parents and – even though I organize and reorganize perhaps to a fault – I am grateful that I have the inclination to do so. When it comes to preparing for the coming school year, perhaps the first thing to do is exorcise the old school year. In other words, get rid of stuff!
Put away school papers and paintings from last year (throw out what you can – only keep what you have to); get rid of clothes that don’t fit or are never worn (your own included) in order to simplify the morning routine; clean out and organize the school space; update the bookshelves; and, in every possible way, cleanse your house and ready yourself for a NEW year with it’s own exciting projects and potential.
I personally went on a purge this Summer and set aside all of the redundant toys. (How many 1-100 counting books does a five-year-old need? Do we really need two different versions of Candy Land or ten partially colored coloring books?) After some discussion, my daughter and I decided to hold a garage sale and split the proceeds between her and her brother’s bank accounts. In this way, we’ve uncluttered our shelves and are now far more able to utilize the educational toys and games that we’ve decided to keep.
4. Be flexible … to a point.
I say this because it is easy to forget – as a sincere, committed, organized homeschooling parent – that it is okay to change things up. One of the most compelling reasons to homeschool is to not be stuck on a rigid schedule, but often we forget this! It is okay to push school back a day if something comes up, or to readdress a tricky subject later in the week, rather than push through and potentially solidify your child’s resistance. It is okay – even though it is not always comfortable – to be flexible.
That is, of course, to a point.
It is important not to be so flexible that you lose all of your momentum. I have done this many a time – taken a day off, then a second day, then a third – only to find that the plethora of “important” distractions I was attending to completely derailed our homeschool train.
I am personally working on ways to be flexible with our homeschooling routine without abandoning it completely. For instance, September is harvest and hunting month for us. It is a completely absurd month to hold homeschool sessions at a table – we need to be in the garden, harvesting. And then we need to be at the stove, cooking, canning and storing. And then we need to be in the field, tracking. Therefore, homeschool this month is entirely focused on food in our house … and I have been adapting our educational goals to reflect this.
5. Engage your kids in the preparation process.
Even at ages five and two, my kids are huge participants in our homeschool planning. My daughter, who is working on her kindergarten skills, enthusiastically sits down to write lists for me when we have brainstorming sessions. This not only saves me time (I can be chopping endless piles of tomatoes while she writes) but it gives her an opportunity to write something (i.e. do schoolwork) that is actually important and necessary.
And when it comes to organizing space, my son has lots of ideas about where his toys should go. He is a great help sorting crayons and colored pencils and he uses his tool set to fix the shelves and chairs that we use for school. He is excited to pack his backpack with toys and paper and to be in charge of getting rulers out of the drawer or bringing the markers to the table. Being useful and needed is so important to children.
I consult them both about our daily activities and welcome their modifications and input (“Mama, can we bird watch from the back porch instead of the front porch so that we can see a dove instead of an osprey?” “Mama, want flax seeds for makin’ da cookies?”) and I see how that goes a long way towards helping them feel like their educations are their own.
One thing is clear to me even at this early stage of my homeschooling career: adaptation is going to be my greatest friend over the coming years. But rather than being overwhelmed by the continuous need to reevaluate and redesign my approach to school structure, household management, and life in general, I can accept this and do my best to be a step or two ahead of the chaos.
I hope these tips help you do the same!