New to homeschooling? Read this!

One of the most common refrains I hear from parents who have tried homeschooling and didn’t stick with it is some variation on these themes: “I just couldn’t teach my kids!” “They wouldn’t take instruction from me.” “My child just wouldn’t cooperate with me.”

Knowing how common this experience is, I want to address it for anyone considering or new to home learning with their children. The parent-child relationship is so unique and so precious, and I would never assume to understand or judge the dynamic in another family. However, I also believe that this particular stalling out in homeschooling is often avoidable.

Here are some important questions for you to consider when beginning:

“Do I really, truly want to spend my time hanging out and learning with my child?”

“Do I genuinely believe in the value of homeschooling?”

“Do I actually believe this will work?”

If the answer to any of these questions is “no” or “sort of,” then you may need to reconsider your plan to homeschool. It’s not to say that you shouldn’t still try it out (of course you should! Homeschooling is awesome!). But be aware that if you go in with only partial interest, dedication, or confidence in the process (which is different than confidence in your self — that must grow through practice), then it’s high likely your child or children will pick up on your lack of enthusiasm or doubt and resist the process too.

This doesn’t mean that you have to be a perfect teacher right off the bat — by no means! None of us are! But my point is that if you carry with you doubts about it, and your child pushes back, don’t assume it’s because you and your child are an inherently poor fit. It’s just as possible that you’re still learning how to do your part of the relationship, and as a result your child may not yet be sure of her part of the relationship. If your own understanding of the process is still uncertain, then it’s likely your child will also not be sure about your expectations of her. Which makes it hard to be a cooperative partner in the endeavor!

So, how do you work around this? Here’s my advice, based on my own experience, lots of reading, and observing other people’s experiences:

Be clear about why you are homeschooling.

Why do you want to homeschool anyway? I think it’s useful for parents to spend time analyzing their choice and maybe even writing down notes for themselves. Ideally, your reasons would be focused on the benefits of homeschooling rather than just because “the local school isn’t very good.” While that may a starting point, it will not carry you far into the challenging work of home learning!

Make a list of positive reasons you are choosing this lifestyle and learning path and identify which are the most important to you so that you can revisit them and better see how you might be meeting those goals (even on rough days!). Here are just a few example reasons that many families cite: More time together as a family. Opportunity to tailor learning experiences and/or meet special needs. Ability to go at child’s learning pace. Promote lifelong learning. Relaxed lifestyle. Parent likes to teach! (<—— I admit: that’s me!) Higher quality educational experience all around. What are your reasons?

Start slow.

Take time to build up rhythms and routines of learning. If you are starting to homeschool with your first child and they’ve never been to school before, then you have the gift of time. You can begin very gently building learning rhythms into your day when they are preschool age. For example, having a routine of reading together every day at the same time (I love after breakfast!) can slowly build into a school routine over several years.

If your child has previously been in school, still consider a slow gentle development of routines. Often children who have been in school benefit from some expansive time of learning with less structure, followed by a slow building up of parent-led learning rhythms — perhaps over weeks or months, depending on the child and your goals.

For example, I wouldn’t recommend asking a child to narrate any text until you’ve spent at least a month (preferably a year!) simply enjoying a daily reading aloud routine that allows your child to learn to love the experience of reading living books with you. Similarly, I wouldn’t pull out a math lesson until you’ve played lots of fun board or card games together at the kitchen table. You need to build a relationship based on engaging together in sweet, positive ways before you expect your child to engage with you in a more structured, learning-focused way. They need to know and trust at a deep level that you, as their parent and teacher, will only bring them worthwhile experiences to share. You child also needs to feel that you are enjoying the experience too — the slow start can help make that true for you as well!

Rethink what learning looks like.

Please reread that sentence again. I’ll even write it out for you again: RETHINK WHAT LEARNING LOOKS LIKE.

Learning in school settings necessarily has to look and function very differently than what can happen in a one-on-one or very small group setting. In a school setting, teachers cannot be as tuned in to each child’s progress and may not even have direct interactions with every single child every day.

Home learning is fundamentally different and offers very unique and wonderful opportunities. Please do not attempt to do something that looks just like school. I think that at this point, most parents know this in theory but don’t realize the extent to what they can let go of. I have seen many parents start their homeschool journey by joining one of many free public online charter schools. It seems convenient that everything is ready to go. And, there is nothing inherently wrong with this system, but it often (though not always) comes with a big load of something you really don’t need to do: “deliverables.” Which brings us to my next point …

Beware deliverables!

“Deliverables” are the worksheets, tests, etc that teachers use to gauge their students’ progress in a traditional setting. Online charter schools often (but not always) use them heavily to track student progress from afar. In that context, they are necessary because the “teachers” in an online based program don’t know the children or have regular interactions with them. The “deliverables” “prove” that the child is learning by producing regular (sometimes daily) demonstrations of work.

That might make sense from the outside, but parents: be warned! “Deliverables” are work that very few students feel passionate about doing (although some do! … usually in moderation though), and you may be setting yourself up for daily power struggles over doing work that is supposed to prove to a distant teacher or observer that your child is learning. To me, this is the worst of school magnified in a home setting, and it can really strain the parent-child relationship if the child sees the parent as the source of potentially boring and tedious work.

Also, with younger children especially, handwriting as a skill often lags behind other learning processes, and if a child must use this skill in order to progress in other subjects (math especially), it can be incredibly frustrating and inhibiting to their growth. In the early years, handwriting is best treated as a separate skill from spelling and math. This is part of why oral narration is a powerful tool to begin developing future writing literacy (and games can be more useful than worksheets for math). More on narration can be found in other parts of this website.

Interaction is key.

Children do not need these kinds of “busy work” activities or “deliverables” in order to learn. I think that “making things” and processing what they’ve learned is valuable (again: why we narrate in our house), but those kinds of activities can be less frequent and more creative than filling out endless worksheets, online tests, or whatnot. I have found that interaction with me is the best way for my children and I to learn together, especially at the youngest school ages.

I have sought out and very much enjoyed prepared curricula that is interaction-based for learning math, reading and spelling. Otherwise, much of what we do is read together. It seems so simple, but reading together is powerful stuff! When parents say that they couldn’t get their kids to “do school,” I wonder: what kid doesn’t want to cuddle on the couch and read a book with their parent?

That’s where it should begin. Think of the benefits of the home: a warm, loving context for learning. Emphasize those benefits! And, again, this is where you should once again ask yourself: “Do I really want to be doing this?” (It’s honestly okay if you don’t!) Because if you find yourself bored or frustrated and think you can just tell your child what to do and walk away, you will likely find that you fall short of your education goals.

You are learning together!

It takes many years of practice and a high level of maturity before a child can be a truly independent learner. In the early years, expect that the learning experience will be a shared one, with you and your child(ren) interacting through the process. At this point, I do not think of myself as my children’s “teacher” in any normal sense of the word. I prefer to think of myself as the “guide” for our shared educational experience. I often learn from our books and math lessons along with my children!

Choose excellence.

To that end, it’s important that what you choose to do together is high quality — books that you will enjoy reading aloud with them (living books!), a math program that you enjoy working on with them, and so on. Being a part of the experience helps keep us in tune with what’s truly enjoyable. I don’t mean “entertaining” or “titillating,” but the texts and tools we use in our learning should feel deliciously rich. Books with beautiful language and illustrations. Math that promotes mathematical thinking and has genuinely fun games.

While they are not as easy as the online charter schools, prewritten curricula do exist to help guide you in your choices (and many charter schools use quality programs too!). I make use of prepared scripted curricula for teaching math, reading and spelling, and then make my own choices for history, literature, etc (all of which is based on reading living books and narrating). But there are many good websites and curricula that can help guide a person toward this level of excellence that will inspire parent and child alike.

Be consistent and insistent.

Once you really are ready to begin a parent-led learning rhythm of some kind, be consistent about making it happen. Build it into your schedule and discipline yourself to take the lead. If a child balks, remind them that it is your expectation that they cooperate. A child new to homeschooling (of any age) will likely need you to be present and hold the space for them and help them stay on task (don’t expect to hand out a math worksheet and then go wash dishes! At least not at first!). Follow Charlotte Mason’s principle of very short lessons for young children to help them stay focused. Ten minutes is a good length for a young child for math, for example. You can even set a timer! But insist on following through on school work as planned in some form every school day. If it is part of an expected routine, it’s much easier to follow through! But …

Don’t try to do too much!

Typical days at schools are eight (or so) hours long and five days a week because, quite frankly, that’s really convenient for families with working parents. And, there is also a lot of time in a school day that is spent in transitions or non-learning activities. In a home setting, however, learning can be much more efficient. Our family “does school” four mornings a week for 36 weeks, and in that time we are able to cover a wide range of materials, including completing one level of our math program per year. We keep it all simple: one math lesson a day, lots of reading together, reading practice, some handwriting, piano practice.

As my children get older, some of this will expand and our day will likely go into the afternoon as well, but I would urge a new homeschooling parent to begin with the basics: quality math lessons and lots of reading. If you take on too much at once, it’s too easy to get overwhelmed and give up on the whole endeavor completely.

Do fun stuff outside the house.

Don’t forget about another fantastic homeschooling opportunity: you can learn anywhere! This is another reason not to get bogged down with daily “deliverables” or too much school work in general — the world is your oyster! Schedule regular “nature outings” where you explore local forests and trails; visit nearby historical sites; volunteer together; go to the library; attend concerts; sign the kids up for lessons and camps and sports teams … Don’t overdo it so that you’re exhausted, but remember these fun additions can be a big part of a home learning life. Home-based learning can be integrated into everything your family does together in beautiful, fun, and organic ways. If you yourself cultivate eager curiosity in the world, you will find opportunities everywhere.

Turn off screens.

How do you encourage children to read, play outside, make crafts, draw, ride bikes, play games, and do all the other cool things that a kid can do to learn organically at home? #1: turn off screens. Screens of all kinds — phones, video games, computers — are incredibly alluring technologies, and for most kids they will be much more enticing than the lower-tech learning opportunities listed above. If it makes sense for your kids to have some access to screens, I recommend limiting it to particular windows of the time and being completely clear that there are no screens to be used at other times. At first, kids may balk, but in time their mind will stop thinking about screens and begin thinking about other uses of their downtime, including lots of organic learning experiences. This will allow your children to be learning and growing even beyond the time you spend engaged in “school” with them.

Grow with your students.

Remember: if you choose to homeschool, this will be a significant part of your life’s work. Give it the dedication you commit to a career venture. Continue to read about homeschooling, online or through printed materials. Listen to homeschooling podcasts. Connect with other homeschooling parents online or in person. Remember that you will make mistakes and grow through them. If you decide to do this, be dedicated to the process.

What you choose to do on the first day (or even the first year) of your home learning life will almost certainly not be what you choose to do a few years later. You will need to adjust as you go to best suit your own needs/interests and those of your children. You may need to disregard advice such as mine too!

If you are dedicated to home schooling, don’t let a rough day or two (or three or many more!) make you lose faith in the process. Keep in mind the values or goals led you to homeschool in the first place. Are you meeting those goals, even in small ways? That’s success.

And, if it doesn’t work …

And, if it’s truly not for you and your child, that’s okay too! You can always incorporate the best parts of homeschooling into your family life: make time to cuddle and read aloud with your children (or, if you can’t do that regularly, listen to audiobooks together in the car); have a weekly game night; go on hikes together on the weekend … the magic of homeschooling is in being a loving, learning family. Enjoy!