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Q&A: Catching Up When You're Behind in Math (or Anything Else)

Homeschool FAQamy sharonyComment
Q&A: Catching Up When You're Behind in Math (or Anything Else)

My sixth grader is really behind in math. She was struggling when we pulled her out of school last year, and she’s still scoring at least one grade level behind in every placement test. I don’t want her to stress about math, but I also don’t want her to keep falling behind. How can we catch up?

I’m going to answer the question that you’re asking, but first I’d like to tell you something that I think might reassure you. My husband teaches high school math, and over the last five years, he’s become a popular tutor for unschoolers who want to take the SAT or ACT. Most of these kids come to him with no formal math experience—many don’t know their multiplication tables or that decimals and fractions describe the same thing. He usually gets them about a year or two before they want to actually take the test, but sometimes they only have six months together. And you know what? All of these kids have always learned enough math in that time to get a decent score on their official tests. Obviously this isn’t the strategy you’re taking with your daughter—but isn’t it kind of reassuring to know that even if you do fall behind, catching up is easier than you probably think it is?

You don’t have to hold onto rigid ideas about grade levels when you are homeschooling. I bet you wouldn’t worry if your daughter were a year ahead in math, right?

On to your question: If your daughter’s placement tests are putting her a year behind, I’d forget forging ahead and instead let her work at the level she’s ready for. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, you don’t have to hold onto rigid ideas about grade levels when you are homeschooling. I bet you wouldn’t worry if your daughter were a year ahead in math, right? The longer you homeschool, the more you’ll realize that grade levels are kind of arbitrary, and the important thing is to choose the work your child is ready for, whatever the number on the workbook happens to be. Second, there’s a good chance that your daughter just missed a foundational step in math that’s making it hard for her to move forward—she might have missed a few days of class or had a not-great teacher or just not been ready to make the mental connection. There’s a really good chance that if you go back and work through that grade level together, she’ll pick up what she needs to know and be ready to move on— maybe in less time than you think. (And sometimes it helps to play out the worst case scenario because it’s not as bad as you thought: What if your daughter is always a level behind in math? Maybe she won’t take calculus in high school, which isn’t terrible unless she has her heart set on taking calculus or a career in engineering.) Remember: You don’t have to follow the math book problem for problem. You can find the areas that are tripping her up and spend most of your time on those, and move on as she masters concepts. By not making a big deal about “being behind,” you’re also teaching your daughter that it’s more important to understand something and be able to put it to use than it is to learn just enough to get through a set of test questions.

At the same time, consider ways you can make math more of a part of your everyday life. Stock up on board games that make math fun (see the spring 2017 for ideas) and living math books. Use an alternative approach to math, like Simply Charlotte Mason’s Pet Store Math, which lets kids pretend they’re the bosses of their own pet store, or Life of Fred, which turns math into a playful readaloud. (Life of Fred isn’t totally secular, but I feel like the places where it’s not are so ridiculously over-the-top that it’s easy to discuss them as you go.) Encourage kids to use math in everyday life: Split your pizza into eight even pieces, double a cupcake recipe for a party, or see if your budget will stretch to that new video game. There’s so much math in life that it’s not hard to find opportunities to just do it, without a formal book or any worry about what level it is.

I honestly think a combination of these two strategies—being okay with starting at the level where your daughter is and increasing the numeracy, or math literacy, quotient of your home—will help your daughter’s mathematic knowledge increase significantly. But if you’re really concerned about getting her up to a specific grade level, double-time your way through the math she tests into—if you’d usually do three lessons a week, do five or six—until she’s working at grade level. Really, though, I think this is a place where going with your daughter’s flow and trusting that she’ll get where she needs to go if you keep working together will serve your homeschool best.

This reader question was originally published in the spring 2017 issue of HSL.

Library Chicken Update 10/17/17

Reading ListSuzanne RezelmanComment
Welcome to the weekly round-up of what the BookNerd is reading and how many points I scored (or lost) in Library Chicken. To recap, you get a point for returning a library book that you’ve read, you lose a point for returning a book unread, and while returning a book past the due date is technically legal, you do lose half a point. If you want to play along, leave your score in the comments!

Welcome to the weekly round-up of what the BookNerd is reading and how many points I scored (or lost) in Library Chicken. To recap, you get a point for returning a library book that you’ve read, you lose a point for returning a book unread, and while returning a book past the due date is technically legal, you do lose half a point. If you want to play along, leave your score in the comments!

This was a better week for me, in terms of book count. This is good for my household as it turns out that I get very cranky when I don’t have enough reading time. Some people need to work out every day; I need to work on my to-read list.


Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente

This book is weird and mind-blowing and surprising and I spent a lot of time not having any idea what was happening AND I loved every word. The book-flap describes it as “a decopunk pulp SF alt-history space-opera mystery” and yeah, that probably sums it up. Set in a universe where the milk of Venusian whales allows travel through the solar system, we learn (via news articles, interviews, diary entries, movie scripts, etc.) about the strange disappearance of a talented young documentary filmmaker, herself the daughter of a famous director (who lives and works on the Moon, as does most of the Hollywood set). This is one of Valente’s adult novels (like Deathless, and unlike the Fairyland series), and veers toward the bizarre-and-occasionally-disturbing side of the street (where Valente can hang out with China Mieville and Helen Oyeyemi). Valente is awesome and wonderful in all the ways and you should read her books immediately.
(LC Score: +1) 


The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

This Sherlock novel (by the author of Magpie Murders) does a good job recreating the world of Holmes and Watson. It’s always fun to see the old crew (including Mycroft Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars), but my favorite recent Holmes novel, Dust and Shadow by Lyndsay Faye, is in no danger of being knocked from its number one spot.
(LC Score: +1)


Orlando by Virginia Woolf

I have read a handful of Woolf’s books and am always meaning to return and systematically work my way through her oeuvre, but I picked up Orlando after having read a little bit about Vita Sackville-West (and knowing that Orlando is supposedly Woolf’s love letter to Vita). I knew a little bit about the title character, a gender-switching immortal who we follow through 400 years of English history, from the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but I didn’t really know what to expect from the book. IT IS SO CHARMING. Why didn’t anyone tell me how funny and charming it is? It’s just wonderful and I’d like to gush on about it some more but I’m off to watch the movie adaptation starring Tilda Swinton. SO CHARMING.
(LC Score: +1)


Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert D. Richardson

I’m sure I read some Emerson in high school. I had to, right? In American Lit or something? Whatever I did read left me unimpressed with the Sage of Concord, who I generally thought of as a boring old white guy going on and on about the outdoors and the fabulousness of trees or something like that. (It’s entirely possible that I had confused him with his best bud Thoreau.) I wasn’t all that interested in returning to Ralph Waldo, but I’ve been working my way through the Alcott-adjacent biographies, and <eyeroll> I guess I should know a little bit more about him since he’s one of the giants of American literature or something like that. And, hey, it appears that Emerson has suddenly gotten a lot more interesting in the past 30 years! Richardson calls his book an “intellectual biography,” meaning that he tracks Emerson’s life through whatever Ralph Waldo was reading at the time, so as to trace the influence of literary works and philosophical texts on Emerson’s own thinking. As an obsessive reader myself, I love this idea, but mostly I learned that I am pitifully uninformed when it comes to Western philosophy, and there’s no way I can keep up reading-wise with Emerson (or Richardson, for that matter). Even so, I thoroughly enjoyed this bio and found that Emerson’s writing now resonates with me in a very powerful and unexpected way. I’ve put all his greatest hits on my to-read list, so there’s quite a bit more Emerson in my future.
(LC Score: +1)


Narrative of Sojourner Truth edited by Margaret Washington

Meanwhile, as I fill in the gaps in my Transcendentalist knowledge, I’m still trying to fill in the holes around African-American history. By which I mean: learn some basic African-American history. I wasn’t taught much of anything in school and (embarrassingly for me) I didn’t go looking for it until fairly recently. Sojourner Truth is one of those names I recognized, but could tell you next to nothing about. This is the (short) narrative of her life and experiences, as dictated by Truth to a friend (Truth was illiterate). This particular edition has a helpful historical introduction to Truth’s life and I can’t wait to read more about this amazing woman and her life as an abolitionist and women’s rights activist.
(LC Score: +1)


Library Chicken Score for 10/17/17: 5

Running Score: 107 ½ 


On the to-read/still-reading stack for next week:

Homeschool Transitions: Making the Shift from Kindergarten to 1st Grade in Your Homeschool

Everyday HomeschoolingShelli Bond PabisComment
Homeschool Transitions: Making the Shift from Kindergarten to 1st Grade in Your Homeschool

Kindergarten is fun. We might play games, foster make-believe time, spend hours at the park, read books, sing songs, or any number of activities that feels easy to plan and implement. Around 1st grade, however, many of us need to register our homeschools with the government. Now, it feels real. Now is when we become not just parents, but also—really, officially—teachers.

Can we really do this? Yes, we can.

First grade actually is not the year you need to stress about getting that perfect curriculum, or determining exactly what style of homeschooling you like best, or figuring out how you are going to juggle school with a toddler and a baby. Rest assured, the main work of first graders is still playing and exploring.

Researchers have learned that children learn self-regulation through make-believe. That is, they learn the skills to control their emotions, learn new things, and delay gratification, which will be more essential to learning in the long run. Susan Engel, senior lecturer in psychology at Williams College, wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times: “Research has shown unequivocally that children learn best when they are interested in the material or activity they are learning. Play—from building contraptions to enacting stories to inventing games—can allow children to satisfy their curiosity about the things that interest them in their own way. It can also help them acquire higher-order thinking skills, like generating testable hypotheses, imagining situations from someone else’s perspective, and thinking of alternate solutions.”

It’s not that you shouldn’t start doing your homework about curricula, if you want to use a curriculum, or evaluating different homeschool philosophies, but you shouldn’t feel overwhelmed by the possibilities. Don’t get caught up in the worry of how, what, and when of homeschooling right now. If you enter homeschooling with a sense of adventure and curiosity (just like your kids!), you will find that all those things tend to work themselves out.


If you find a curriculum that you fall in love with, try it. But remember that all children develop differently. If you love it but your child doesn’t, it may mean that you need to wait another year. Or, you might want to experiment with other resources. There are plenty of free and inexpensive materials out there. You might want to exhaust these—especially the library—before making a big purchase.

Chances are, if you do this, you will:

  • 1) learn more about your student (is nature her thing? would that nature-based curriculum be the ticket?), 
  • 2) learn how your student learns (is he more of a visual learner or hands-on?),
  • and 3) get a feel for what works for you. (Do you need something that does the planning for you, or is it easier for you to piece together some curriculum of your own?)

You don’t have to stick to a curriculum if your child balks at it. While you want to foster good habits, you need to pay attention to your child’s reactions so that you start to understand when he really needs more time—a little growth and maturity can go a long way—or when he might just be stubborn. If your child is in tears, it’s probably wise to pack the lessons away for a while. You will see a big difference in the reaction of child who can do the lesson but just doesn’t want to. That usually means some complaining and sulking on his part and some nudging on your part, but not tears or a loss of spirit. If a child can do the lesson, but he absolutely hates it—so much so that he’s losing his enjoyment of learning—you might want to reconsider your tactics, too.

The bottom line is that school should not cause tears, and you want to remember why you decided to homeschool in the first place. You can get creative. You don’t have to stick with any curriculum or method if it doesn’t seem right for you or your child.

Do you want your child’s education to be about checking off a bunch of boxes, or do you want it to be about exploration and fostering a love of learning?


Before you consult one of those all-encompassing “What Your 1st Grader Should Know” lists, sit down and make a list of what you believe to be the most important elements of a well-rounded education. It may include subjects, such as the most influential artists of our time, and your priorities, such as to learn at his own pace or having plenty of time to move around and play.

As you learn more about educational philosophies and what interests your child, your list might change, but it is an important tool to refer to throughout your homeschooling journey. It will help you keep from getting steered in the wrong direction when, say, you hear the local school is teaching xyz in your daughter’s grade, and you realize you haven’t even touched on that subject. Or when your friend’s child loves a cool class, but your son isn’t interested at all. Your list will remind you what is important. It will remind you that while you can’t cover everything, you are covering the things that matter.

When you consult a course of study for 1st grade, such as the thorough lists on World Book’s website, take a look at the lists for 2nd grade and 3rd grade, too. You’ll find that while some concepts are added in each grade, many are repeated. So if your child just doesn’t get skip counting in first grade, don’t fret—skip counting is on the 2nd grade list, too. And, of course, these lists should be taken with a grain of salt. Talk to a seasoned unschooler, and you’ll find that most children will learn everything they need to know as they need to know it.

Before you get overwhelmed by the lists and go out and buy an expensive curriculum that is supposed to cover everything, challenge yourself to make the library your main homeschool resource. (If you don’t live near a good library, be sure to find out if your state has an interlibrary loan.) Let your child pick any books he wants, but keep a list of your picks, too. In the 1st grade, you might want to find books on these topics:

literature—Any storybook goes

• math—Yes, there are storybooks for math!

• holidays—find books to read to help you learn about the history and how different people celebrate

• animals and their habitats

• plants and how a seed grows

• the water cycle

• the planets

• science experiments for kids

This is not an exhaustive list, but if you get in the habit of going to the library and showing your children how to use it, the world will open up to them—and you.

You might find lists are burdensome, or you might find them a helpful guide. Either way is OK. The bottom line is don’t worry about it, especially in the first grade. Do you want your child’s education to be about checking off a bunch of boxes, or do you want it to be about exploration and fostering a love of learning?

Experiment with schedules, resources, and take the time to get to know your child and different ways of homeschooling. After all, in first grade, you have a long way until graduation. 

This article is excerpted from the summer 2015 issue of HSL.

Shelli has more advice for making the 1st grade transition in her book The Everyday Homeschooler's Guide to Teaching 1st Grade.

Readaloud of the Week: The Screaming Staircase

Reading Listamy sharonyComment

England has a “Problem.” And it’s a big one.

Around 50 years ago, a mysterious event occurred, which has left the country haunted by specters, spooks, and other supernatural beings. The hauntings begin at night, and every sane person wears protective charms to repel spirits and makes sure to be safe at home well before the supernatural power surge that comes at midnight. Because these ghosts aren’t just creepy—they’re deadly. And the only people who can fight them are kids.

Lucy is one of these kids, a girl with a talent for ghost-fighting: She can hear the voices of the dead, and when she touches something that belonged to a person who died, she can experience fragments of that person’s memories. She’d like to work for one of the big, fancy ghost hunting agencies—the ones that were founded back when the Problem started—but instead, she finds herself settling in as an agent at Lockwood & Co., a ramshackle agency run by a couple of kids instead of a team of grown-ups. Suave, elegant Anthony Lockwood and grouchy, sloppy George Cubbins quickly become Lucy’s misfit family, and the three of them manage to scrape a living banishing phantoms until a case goes terribly wrong, leaving the agency on the brink of disaster. Their only hope to keep the agency alive is to tackle one more high-publicity case: to spend the night in the most haunted house in England and solve the mystery of its screaming staircase. Lucy knows they’ll be lucky if they make it out alive, forget actually finding the source of the haunting, but ghost hunting is all about facing lost causes. 

What makes it a great readaloud: This is the perfect Halloween series, full of terrifying ghosts (including a very creepy skull in a jar who will figure largely in the book’s sequels) and haunted places. Lockwood & Co. are a likable bunch of misfits who manage to fit together perfectly—while Lucy is maybe the flattest of the characters in this first book, there’s enough action that her minimal character development here probably won’t bother you. In our house, we’re big fans of asking “What if…?” so alternate histories make very appealing readalouds, and this book has great questions: What if ghosts were real? What if they were dangerous? What if kids were the only ones who could stop them? This first book in the series can definitely stand on its own, but if you love it, you’ll be happy to know there are four more books that follow.

But be aware: Some of the spookier scenes may be too much for sensitive kids—there are some genuinely frightening moments sprinkled throughout the book.

Quotable: “When you go out hunting wicked spirits, it's the simple things that matter most. The silvered point of your rapier flashing in the dark; the iron filings scattered on the floor; the sealed canisters of best Greek Fire, ready as a last resort... 

"But tea bags, brown and fresh and plenty of them, and made (for preference) by Pitkin Brothers of Bond Street, are perhaps the simplest and best of all. 

"OK, they may not save your life like a sword-tip or an iron circle can, and they haven't the protective power of a sudden wall of fire. But they do provide something just as vital. They help keep you sane.” 

8 Ways to Be Happier in Your Everyday Homeschool Life

Mindful Homeschoolamy sharonyComment
8 Ways to Be Happier in Your Everyday Homeschool Life

Ask any homeschooling parent what she wishes for her child’s future, and happiness will be at the top of the list. Of course, between trying to master the facts of multiplication, battling over how many episodes of Mythbusters a person can legitimately watch in one day, carpooling to co-op too early on Tuesday mornings, and trying to squeeze in a load of laundry so that you’re not perpetually out of underwear, happiness isn’t necessarily something we homeschooling parents float around projecting every day. In fact, 87 percent of moms and 58 percent of dads say that feeling like they’re falling short as parents keeps them from feeling happy in their parenting lives. It’s not that we don’t want to be happy—it’s that we trick ourselves into believing that we should only get to be happy when we’re doing it all just right.

Well, I’m here to tell you: You’re doing it right, and it’s time to put your own happiness back at the top of your to-do list. Next time your friend’s fabulous homeschool Facebook updates make you question your own choices, or your kid has a Target meltdown in aisle nine, or you have to choose between guitar lessons and drama classes because life on a homeschooler’s budget can be a little pinched, make a conscious effort to find your happy place with these practical tips to beat the homeschooling blues. You’ll find that happiness is sometimes just an attitude adjustment away.

Smile more often.

Just the act of smiling can make you feel happier, says Dacher Kellner, Ph.D, who conducted a study at the University of California comparing women’s high school yearbook photos with their self-reported happiness levels decades later. Across the board, the women who flashed the biggest, happiest smiles for the yearbook photographer in high school had better marriages, more mental focus, and reported a greater sense of overall wellbeing than the women who barely cracked a smile in their yearbook photos. Next time you catch your reflection in the mirror, make a point of smiling a big smile, even if your brain’s not in it at first—it may be all you need to turn on your inner happiness.

Spend less time on Facebook.

Every time you log onto your social media accounts, you run the risk of sabotaging your good mood. Nearly 33 percent of Facebook users say spending time on the site makes them feel unhappy because their friends’ lives seem so much better than their own. Rationally, we know that social media posts are just part of the picture—we’re not seeing the piles of laundry or preteen pouting off-screen — but it’s not easy to hold onto that knowledge when you’re scrolling through happy photo after happy photo of fabulous homeschool vacations and cool science experiments. This holds especially true when we’re checking Facebook because we’re bored, frustrated, or tired—which is when so many of us log in to our Facebook accounts. Instead of fretting over how your friends’ post-worthy moments compare to your not-so-photogenic morning, enjoy a glimpse into the lives of other families. Take a moment to interact—leave a comment, post a photo, or, better yet, write your own status update. The same Facebook study found that lurkers on the site were the most dissatisfied, but the more people interacted with their online friends, the better able they were to keep their own lives in perspective. 

Schedule a girls’ night out.

The more time you spend with your pals in real life, the less likely you are to feel like they’re having Pinterest-perfect lives while you’re missing out. People who get the majority of their social interaction online tend to think their friends are happier and having more fun than they are, suggests research published earlier this year in the journal Cyberpschology, Behavior, and Social Networking. When people had more face-to-face interaction with friends, they tended to feel that they were as happy as their pals. But the benefits of friendship aren’t just perception: Researchers at the University of Illinois found that the number-one thing the happiest participants in a 2003 study had in common was strong relationships. Study participants who consistently described themselves as very happy all had strong ties to friends and family and made spending time with the people they cared about a top priority. If a night out is hard to pull off, consider forming a once-a-month get-together group. Bring the kids, a potluck dish, and a bottle of wine to share. Even with the occasional “Mo-o-om” from the kids, you’ll reap the benefits of a night with your friends.

Evaluate your week, not your day.

We experience happiness in two ways: The happiness of the moment, which can get knocked around by miserable math moments, squabbling siblings, or dysfunctional dishwashers, and remembering happiness, which reflects the experience as a whole. When people use their remembering happiness, looking back at an experience, they tend to see it more positively than they do if they’re asked to evaluate their happiness at a given moment during the experience, found researchers at the University of Texas. That’s why studies like the one conducted by Time magazine in 2005 can show that people say their children give their lives the greatest happiness, while the everyday job of taking care of the kids falls fifteenth on a list of nineteen happiness-generating activities—just barely more fun than house-cleaning. The more you focus on the homeschooling big picture, the more confident and happier you’re likely to feel. In other words, don’t let a bad day trick you into thinking you’re a bad homeschooling parent. Shifting your focus from a rough morning to the big picture may be all you need to boost your mood.

Think small.

You don’t always need to make big changes to feel happier about your life. Sometimes a little adjustment can be all you need to see your way to the bright side. Little things—like getting a good night’s sleep or breaking for a snack when you’re hungry—can have a bigger impact on your happiness than big-ticket fun like taking a vacation or buying new shoes, says Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. Even better, little changes like these build on themselves, creating a happiness momentum that keeps growing. Next time you feel stuck in a rut, think of one thing you can do to boost your health or happiness—and do it. Something as simple as starting your homeschool day with a walk around the neighborhood to get a little exercise or buying a pretty scarf to wear over your wrinkled T-shirts and jeans can make your everyday life a little happier.

Write it down.

If you’re not keeping a homeschool joy journal, you’re missing the opportunity to pat yourself on the back—and the opportunity to feel happier about your homeschooling life. In a study at the University of California at Riverside, a team of researchers led by Sonja Lyubomirsky found that people who kept a gratitude journal for six weeks felt much happier and more satisfied with their lives than those who didn’t jot down the good stuff. A gratitude journal helps prevent you from fixating on little problems and steers your attention toward those just-as-valid little successes instead. Keep a notebook on your night table, and make a point to pencil in one good moment of each homeschooling day before you go to sleep at night.

Make some alone time.

Me-time may seem impossible, but it’s essential, says Meg Meeker, M.D., author of The 10 Habits of Happy Mothers: Reclaiming our Passion, Purpose and Sanity. Not only does a little alone time give you a break from the constant pull of double-duty mom-teacher responsibilities, taking a break literally lets your body recharge physically and emotionally. Eighty-five percent of moms feel guilty that they don’t spend enough time with their kids, found researchers when they compiled data for The Changing Rhythms of American Family Life, but that same data suggests that parents today spend more quality time with their kids than any previous generation. That’s why it’s not too surprising that 71 percent of parents say that the one thing they really yearn for is a few minutes of alone time. Especially if you’re spending the vast majority of your days homeschooling and parenting, taking a me-break is essential for your mental health. If you truly feel like your homeschool schedule won’t accommodate any parent time-off, it may be time to rethink your to-do list.

Do something different.

Here’s something interesting: When she was working on The Happiness Project, Rubin found that the more comfortable people were in a given situation, the more likely they were to unfavorably compare themselves to other people. When you’re moving through life on autopilot, you have time to obsess over what that cute mom at co-op is wearing (seriously, how does she find time to brush her hair, much less put on eyeliner every day?) or how much better your neighbor’s lawn looks than yours. Change your focus by changing your routine: Start a book club, take a sewing class, bike to the park, do anything to change your everyday pattern. When you’ve got something new and interesting to occupy your mind, you’re less likely to fixate on things you feel might be missing from your own life—and at the same time, you’ll be making your life the happy place you always knew it should be. 

This article was originally published in the Fall 2013 issue of Atlanta Homeschool.