Suddenly, over a period of just weeks, we have become a nation of homeschoolers. I keep trying to put myself in the shoes of parents who are having to adapt, often times overnight, to this new reality: what if I were told that tomorrow my kids had to attend public school, and I had virtually zero time to prepare either myself or them? Transitioning lifestyles like this, while also needing to balance work commitments, is an enormous task.
To make a small contribution to new homeschooling families, I’ve compiled a list of the most helpful tips I can think of. These tips are based on lessons I’ve learned painstakingly over the years (and watched friends learn painstakingly!) through trial and error. I hope, if you are looking for guidance, that some of these tips might help you transition from a brick-and-mortar school to homeschooling:
1 – Establish a rhythm (rather than a schedule)
While it is compelling – and almost automatic – to try and replicate a school schedule at home when you begin homeschooling, it is more important to establish a daily rhythm. The difference is this: a schedule dictates what time of day you need to transition between activities, and how long each activity lasts. It leaves no room for natural fluctuations in attention spans, interest levels, household responsibilities, etc. It easily becomes stressful – a path you feel you must follow exactly – rather than a helpful guide to your day.
Here is my first tip: ditch the schedule and develop a rhythm. A rhythm is much more flexible and can ebb and flow with your children and household on a daily basis. For example, this is my family’s rhythm on a homeschool day:
- Everyone wakes up (between 5 AM and 9 AM).
- Everyone eats (between 7:30 and 9:30 AM usually).
- Animals are fed and taken care of.
- School begins around 10 AM or so.
- Big kids (11 and 8 year old) work on math independently, with lessons from me as needed.
- Big kids transition to language arts, also with help from me as needed.
- Big kids do some “elective” work – coding, typing, music, foreign language, etc.
- Little kids and I do preschool activities while big kids are doing their independent work.
- Lunch is made / served.
- Baby takes her nap.
- During nap time, school continues with history, social studies, science or art. We do these subjects as a group.
- School ends and we head outside (usually between 2 PM and 3 PM).
I have four kids – ages 11, 8, 4 and 1.5. With this rhythm, I am able to be quite flexible. If the big kids need extra help with a topic, I set the little kids up with an activity.
I have managed our homeschool both ways over the years – with an hourly schedule and with a general rhythm. I find the latter to be much more relaxing and productive.
2 – Prioritize well-being and connection (over academics)
It’s easy to let our concerns over whether or not our children are meeting academic benchmarks to dominate our behavior as homeschooling parents. We get anxious, impatient, insistent, frustrated … we so badly want our children to thrive and succeed that sometimes we focus too much on completing chosen curriculum (even if it’s not working well), getting through a certain amount of schoolwork each day, and – in general – dotting our “i’s” and crossing our “t’s”. We forget to slow down and simply be present with our children.
Over the years, I have slowly learned that even my best laid plans are not more important than my childrens’ sense of well-being on any given day. I have finally become practiced at abandoning my carefully crafted school plans, just like a writer must edit favorite passages in order to streamline and enhance their work, so that my children feel heard, respected, connected and valued. The opposite (holding on to preconceived plans and pushing curriculum that just isn’t working) can quickly create the opposite – a child who feels separated from their learning experience, lost in the material, disconnected and resentful.
Ultimately, a solid sense of self, family connection, and belonging will serve them much better in life than a flawless ability to find lowest common denominators or master a computer code.
I put this high on my list of tips because I feel it is so important – connection and well-being should always come before academics.
3 – Start Slow (get into a flow with 2-3 subjects)
There are SO many important school subjects to teach our kids that it can feel impossible to know what to prioritize. I am constantly adding new subjects to my kids’ elective lists, only to remove them a few weeks later when our days begin to feel overwhelming. Some of the best homeschooling advice I ever received was this: layer it in.
Begin by establishing your homeschool rhythm with two or three subjects (often these are math, reading and writing). Once you are in a dependable rhythm with these subjects, choose one more to add into your routine. Every time you add a subject, give yourself a week or two – if not longer – to get into a reliable flow with the added topic.
Sometimes its wise to do these additional topics on a rotating schedule – vocabulary one day, grammar the next, and so on – so that any given day doesn’t have too many subjects to cover.
This method (of layering topics in one at a time) prevents the “crash and burn” scenario that many of us end up in inadvertently. We get so excited organizing our homeschool year that we include every possible topic in our plan. Once the school year starts, we become overwhelmed by the plethora of subjects we are teaching, finding ourselves spread too thin, and radiating stress into our homeschool.
After seven years of homeschooling, I now believe that less is more – doing a few school topics well is more valuable than covering a multitude of subjects poorly.
4 – Track progress (and avoid overplanning)
It can be hard to know if you are covering enough material, covering the right material, or adequately preparing your children for the following school year, let alone the rest of their lives. This is my tip: write down everything you do after you do it, not before.
When I started using this method about four years ago, I would look back through my planner and clearly see that we were covering enough material … and not only school subjects, but real-life skills, like sewing, baking, doing laundry, shopping, gardening, etc., etc. I felt successful, which helped me remain calm and focused with my kids.
The opposite method, which I tried multiple times when I first started homeschooling, is to plan your days and weeks in advance. This works well for some people; for me, it just didn’t when I first started out. I constantly had to rearrange my planner to account for “real” life circumstances, and I continually felt like we were falling behind when I couldn’t get to everything I had planned.
Aim to use a planning system that (1) allows you to see your successes clearly rather than your failures, and (2) keeps track of all of the awesome learning your kids are doing each day (especially if they will be returning to a brick-and-mortar school at some point. It will make life easier to have a record of all you’ve accomplished!).
5 – Define Expectations
This is part of my newest organizational system: defining clear, daily expectations for my kids (rather than just myself). I print out a spreadsheet for each of my older children each week that lists everything I expect them to do, broken down by days. It’s a lot like a homeschool planner page, but I give it to the kids directly. We school on weekends just as often as weekdays (for a total of 4 days per week) hence the 7-day schedule.
Their spreadsheets give them clear directions as to what they need to accomplish each day, and ultimately each week. They check things off as they go and turn the completed sheet into me at the end of each week with their schoolwork.
This is a relatively new system in our house – providing the kids with their own planning page (filled out in advance by me) – but it has already transformed our homeschool for the better. There is no more wondering when the school day is done, or wondering what they should be doing when I am busy with the little ones. My kids love how smoothly our school days go now, and so do I! It is absolutely worth the extra work.
6 – Utilize Games
So much can be learned by simply playing games. For days when traditional schoolwork just isn’t going to happen (you will likely encounter plenty of these) games are an awesome way to connect, recharge, have fun and learn simultaneously. In another post soon I will run through some of our favorite homeschool games.
7 – Embrace opportunities for “home” education
There are a ton of home education opportunities just waiting to be had while your kids are a captive audience! Cooking, making a recipe binder, meal planning, clothes mending, spring cleaning, budgeting … it is easy to naturally cover these topics as they come up during your homeschool days, and then record them in your planner (they add up to lots of extra education – definitely keep track of these spontaneous lessons).
I personally remember moving away from home as a teenager without having had much time to learn how to cook, or much guidance in making a budget. These topics aren’t covered in public school and parents are often too busy to delve into them fully, yet they are so critical to everyday life. This unexpected, extra time with your kids might be a great opportunity to teach home education skills that will last a lifetime.
8 – Engage kids in world events
There is so much happening in our world right now … it feels impossible to keep up with the daily changes and breakthrough stories. We are experiencing a worldwide pandemic in the midst of a critical election year. If ever there were a time to use current events as a learning tool, that time is now.
My kids are still pretty young, but we use election years as years to study the three branches of government and to learn about past presidents. This year we are also studying the origins of life in our science / history program, and we had just gotten to bacteria in the week before COVID-19 became everyone’s new reality. It hasn’t taken too much effort for me to gear our studies towards virus’ since then, and to promote discussions about vaccines, herd immunity, the effects of pandemics on the economy, and other topics relevant to current events.
I feel incredibly grateful to be home with my kids during this difficult time … I am able to discuss their feelings and answer difficult questions as they arise.
9 – Let yourself try, fail, and try something different!
Even veteran homeschoolers try new methods and abandon old ones with relative frequency – don’t hesitate to drop a system that isn’t working. Read some blogs, check out what works (or doesn’t work) for other people, identify what feels right to you, then give it a try. If it doesn’t work, try something different. And if it works for awhile, awesome! As our kids grow, so do we … and so do our family’s collective needs. Just like any new skill, the way in which you homeschool will evolve over time.
10 – Enjoy your children
The bottom line is that we are all being offered extra time with our children due to the coronavirus. This time comes with added economical burdens for many, as well as elevated emotional stress for most of us, but still, it is time with our children that we would not otherwise have. (Even long-term homeschooling families feel this change deeply, having had all extracurriculars and social events canceled).
Perhaps the best tip I can offer anyone right now is to enjoy your children – laugh with them, play with them, let them know how special they are. Give them memories of your love and support. Share your time with them – your stories. Put down your phone – be present. This is precious, extra time. Do your best to homeschool, but, more than anything, embrace your kids and hold them close. Their ability to be kind, to help others, to adapt to a changing, unpredictable world … these are the real lessons that we will be teaching our children in the coming months. We are navigating this blind and they are watching us. Let’s be examples of resilience, strength, patience, optimism and love – examples that they can follow for years to come, as they navigate our changing world and search for meaningful places within it.