A reader was thrilled to start homeschooling but finds the adjustment period harder than she expected.
In this five-part series, we’re helping you get through the midwinter slump in your homeschool. First up: Give your routine the boot, and try something new.
Aminata and Malcolm have discovered that a purposeful morning routine is the perfect start to their homeschool day.
Reinventing your homeschool is just part of the process, but this six-step process will help your homeschool grow in the ways that work best for your family.
Lauren’s excited to go back to work—but she’s not ready to give up homeschooling her two kids. We help her find a way to have it all.
Shelli's family watches documentaries every day—and screen time has become an important ritual for their homeschool routine. Here's why their daily documentary works for them.
Over the past eleven years, I've encountered many moments when my kids would not do what I wanted them to do. *insert laugh track* Does that sound familiar? Parenting can be wonderful, but it's also an endlessly bumpy road fraught with wondering and second-guessing.
Fortunately, I've picked up on a few observations about my kids that have helped me. I still face challenges sometimes, but since I have two awesome boys, either these things have helped, or I'm just very lucky.
Every child and family is different, so maybe these tips won't help everybody, but I offer them in case they will. I hope you’ll leave your own tips in the comments area.
I've learned that to get my boys to do the things I would like for them to do, I first need to:
- Examine my agenda. Is this for me and my ego, or is it really necessary for them to live a good life?
- Be explicit. I always have a good reason why I want them to behave a certain way, and I try to explain myself in language they can understand. However, very young kids don’t always understand reason, so I try not to over-explain either. Sometimes I just need to use a firm no. (See last point.)
- If it’s safe, non-destructive, and not bothering other people, let them do what they want to do. Usually, what they want to do is harmless and won't wreck my day. I find that the kids respect my wishes more, if I give them as much freedom as possible.
- Include them in planning. When it comes to the simple daily routine and planning, I seek their input and respect their opinion on what they want to do. This doesn’t mean I’ll always do what they want, but occasionally I’ve been known to go with their ideas instead of mine.
- Keep a regular routine. Until I had kids, I never knew how important a routine could be. My kids know what to expect and when. They complain less about the things they dislike because they know it lasts only so long, and they also know that their “fun time” will be coming regularly. They don’t need to ask for more because their day is filled with a variety of activities, and they always know it’ll be coming around again the next day.
- Do it myself. If it's something like cleaning the house or being polite to other people, then I have to be a role model before I ask them to help or explain why it’s a good idea. If it's something like getting my child to paint, or sew, or learn any new skill, then I should sit down and try doing it myself without worrying about whether they will join me. Kids often want to do what their parents are doing, but if they don't, I know this might not be for them, and that’s okay. They are still benefitting by watching me struggle to improve my skills.
- If it's something like learning math, then again, I should be willing to do it with them, and I need to pay close attention to them. Are they not developmentally ready for it, or are they capable, but they don't like it? Waiting a year or two can make a big difference. And if they don't like it, letting them know that they only have to do, say, 15 minutes a day works wonders.
- If it's something like getting them to take medicine that will save their life, then if I have done all the above, my child will know that when I'm non-negotiating, it's for a good reason, and they better obey me.
- Be firm. Similarly, when I say NO, I should mean no. (This takes practice.) I also need to watch my voice. A deeper, authoritative voice works much better than a soft, sing-songy voice. I can almost always tell when a mom is going to cave in on her “no” by the voice she is using — kids know, too!
What have you learned about your kids that make a big difference in your day?
It's that time again! We've rounded up some great ways to celebrate your first day of the new homeschool year, whether you want to keep it simple at home or take a big adventure together.
- Go roller skating.
- Visit a paint-your-own pottery studio to create a special back-to-school souvenir.
- Have a backyard campout.
- Give everyone a small budget, and hit a flea market to refresh your homeschool space for the new year.
- Spend the whole day in your pajamas.
- Work on a volunteer project together.
- Plant a container garden.
- Drive to the nearest river and go tubing.
- Set your alarm to wake up and watch the sunrise together. (You can take a nap later!)
- Go out for a fancy brunch.
- Ask everyone to make a First Day of School mixtape and trade your mixes.
- Take a hot air balloon ride.
- Have a karaoke party.
- Make a first-day-of-school time capsule.
- Take back-to-school photos.
- Compete in a backyard Olympics competition.
- Write a letter to yourself to open on the last day of the school year.
- Go geocaching.
- Pull out your art supplies, and create self-portraits.
- Make new school year’s resolutions.
- Take a day hike.
- Have a karaoke party.
- Paint a mural.
- Dress up in last year's Halloween costumes.
- See a movie matinee.
- Have a backyard luau.
- Build and launch rockets.
- Bake and decorate a back-to-school cake.
- Have a tea party.
- Wash your car.
- Decorate your driveway with sidewalk chalk.
- Take a personality test, and compare results. (Try the Enneagram or the Myers Briggs test.)
- Fill up your wall calendar with holidays, birthdays, events, and celebrations you are looking forward to this year.
- Solve a jigsaw puzzle together.
- Write your autobiography.
- Go shopping for school supplies.
- Make official school t-shirts.
“I love the idea of unschooling, but I’m never going to be an unschooler,” says Jennifer Harris. Jenn homeschools her 9-year-old son Ian in a style that she calls Charlotte Mason-ish—“but lately, it’s feeling like all workbooks and dictation and sitting-at-the-desk time, which is too far in the other direction,” Jenn says. Jenn’s been struggling to find a balance between the structure and academics she needs and the fun, laid- back vibe she wants her homeschool to have.
We asked Jenn to track her time over a couple of weeks so that we could get a clearer idea of what a typical day in her homeschool looked like. Jenn was surprised to discover that she and Ian usually spent about two hours a day on school time—“it feels like so much more,” Jenn says. On most days, they’d start school after breakfast, then sit down together at the table to work. Sometimes Ian would read independently, sometimes Jenn would read aloud, but they’d stay at the table, working their way through one subject at a time, until it was time to start lunch. Jenn’s husband, Frank, comes home for lunch every day, so she and Ian hurry to get the table cleaned up and lunch prepared so that they can all enjoy the meal together.
“It’s gotten to the point where school feels like work to both of us,” says Jenn. “I care about staying on top of things academically, but I hate the way our learning process is starting to feel like a job. Is there a way to bring back fun without sacrificing academics?”
Since it was pretty clear that Jenn wasn’t overdoing it time-wise—two to three hours is a reasonable amount of hands-on school time for a third-grader—we decided to focus on the way she was using her time. By spending all their school time at the table and keeping an eye on the clock ticking toward a lunchtime deadline, Jenn and Ian weren’t able to relax into their routine. Here’s how we changed things up:
Moving classes to the afternoon. When I asked Jenn why they were doing all their school work before lunch, she paused and said, “You know what? I don’t even know.” It turns out that afternoons are quiet at the Harris house. Except for a regular Friday park day, Jenn and Ian are hanging out at home in the afternoons. We suggested moving their second hour of school time to the afternoon to make the morning more relaxed. Instead of jumping into their next lesson after handwriting, Ian starts his independent reading and Jenn gets household stuff out of the way until it’s time to prep lunch.
Starting the day with a meeting at the table. Jenn felt like table time was essential to starting their homeschool day. “I need the structure of sitting down in a consistent spot every day and saying okay, now we’re homeschooling,” Jenn says. We suggested that Jenn keep doing this— but instead of spending an entire morning at the table, she and Ian could get the same down-to-business boost from a morning meeting there right after breakfast. While they’re at the table, Ian does his daily copy work and handwriting practice.
Relocate for different subjects. The kitchen table is the best place for Ian to practice handwriting, but his other subjects might benefit from a change of scene. We suggested that Jenn and Ian switch locations each time they move to a new subject: math on the patio, history on the couch, spelling at the desk in Ian’s room, etc. This kind of musical chairs isn’t just a way to transition between subjects—researchers have discovered that students who work on material in different places retain it better than those who sit in the same spot to study every day.
Integrate more reading aloud. Ian’s a strong reader, and Jenn’s been encouraging him to do more independent reading, but since readalouds are one of the things Jenn and Ian like best about homeschooling, we suggested that they bring back the readaloud. (Kids benefit from being read to long after they’re able to finish chapter books on their own, and reading together means you get to learn together—which is one of the best ways to feel like your homeschool is a fun, relaxed place.) We suggested that Jenn and Ian go back to doing book-based subjects, including history and science, as readalouds and letting Ian keep his reading skills sharp with independent reading.
“I didn’t realize such simple changes could make such a big difference, but they really have,” Jenn says when we follow up with her. She and Ian have been implementing their new routine over the past month, and Jenn says everything is working better than she had hoped.
“I think I bought into the idea that when we hit third grade, school should become more school-like,” Jenn says. “And the result was that Ian was learning about the same amount but we were having a lot less fun. I think I needed someone to say ‘Hey, you can teach your kid what he needs to know and still have fun doing it.’”
This column is excerpted from the summer 2016 issue of HSL. Do you need a homeschool makeover? Email us at email@example.com with a description of what’s tripping up your homeschool life, and we may feature your makeover in an upcoming issue.
Summer can have a mind of its own, so I know that making a firm agenda for these hot months is futile. Still, past summers have proved that we benefit from a little structure in our days. So I do a few homeschool lessons during the summer, and I also make summertime my time for planning, record-keeping, and cleaning up for a new year. While I do these “administrative” things, my boys have extra time to play, so that makes them happy.
First, I keep our homeschool lessons light. This year, I decided to only do Spanish and readalouds during our morning lesson time. I’ve struggled to include a foreign language in our homeschool in the past, so by putting away almost everything else for now, it’s easy to do one Spanish lesson per day. (I’m trying out Calico Spanish Level A right now, and I’ll let you know how we like it!) I also have a number of books that I never get around to reading to the boys during the winter months, so now is my chance.
It’s great to take a long time to plan and think about what I want to do with the boys in the fall. I have some new curricula to try out, and instead of feeling like I have to read through it all and understand how to use it right away, I have all summer to peruse it. I use my time wisely by going through my curricula (old and new) about once a week until I’ve looked at everything and made my plans. I’m very excited to begin exploring the Institute for Excellence in Writing’s Teaching Writing: Structure and Style and Student Writing Intensive DVD courses this summer. I hope that they may be a good fit for my son beginning in the fall.
The biggest project I undertake every summer is our record keeping. By law, I have to write progress reports for both my boys, but since it’s for our eyes only, I consider it more of a keepsake. I write a list of every subject, and under each heading, I use bullet points to list all the curriculum, books, field trips, and classes that my boys have completed that year. Then, since I’m a photographer, I create a slideshow of the photographs from our homeschool year. My boys love watching the slideshow because they’ve usually forgotten what they were doing at the beginning of the year!
I’m not talking about cleaning my house when I talk about cleaning up our homeschool, although the de-cluttering I do definitely benefits the house. First, I go through homeschool supplies and books and get rid of the things I don’t think we’ll need anymore. (I give good stuff to charity and throw away the rest.) I also like to go through anything the boys may have built or made that year, and I ask them what they want to keep and throw away. This year, I did a deep purge of craft supplies and the recyclables that my eldest son used to use to make things with. He just isn’t into building anymore, and his younger brother is more into drawing and painting. So I have made more room for paints and paper.
I also store away the binders with last year’s work, progress reports and everything else we finished. While I try to let go of things, I probably keep a lot more than I need. But there’s always time to declutter again next summer or the summer after that.
What is homeschooling like during the summer for you? Do you take a break from everything, or do you homeschool year-round?
Believe it or not, your family probably has a routine already — and if you step back and observe your life patterns for a week or two, you’ll start to see it emerge.
What's not working for you?
By this time of year, most of us have found a rhythm. Sure, there are bumps and bad days and the occasional routine shake-up, but mostly, we know what our typical homeschool day is going to look like—which is why now is the perfect time to pay attention to what’s not working in your homeschool.
Maybe it’s that Tuesday afternoon park day that you’re always stressed trying to make it to on time and where that braggy mom is always making you feel like you’re homeschooling wrong. Maybe it’s the history curriculum that everybody grumbles through, so much so that you never seem to actually get to history anymore. Maybe it’s starting the day with math, which seemed like such a good idea when your friend suggested it but which has gotten pretty much every day this month off to a grumpy start. Maybe it’s your pottery classes, or your current readaloud, or the co-op that just doesn’t feel like a good fit anymore. Whatever it is, it’s time to bid it farewell.
We tend to think of quitting as a negative—it’s like giving up, right? We want to be people who follow through on what we start, especially if we’ve committed money, or time, or energy to a project. Shouldn’t we see it through to the end? But sometimes quitting can be a great thing. Quitting something that isn’t working frees you up to find something that is working better, something that you really love instead of something thatyou’re just trudging through.
Your mission this week: Pinpoint something that isn’t working in your homeschool—it can be as big or small as you want—and quit it, guilt-free.
I don’t know about you, but when we started homeschooling, I actually thought the housework part of life would get a little easier. After all, we would all be home all day—surely that would making keeping up with the dishes/laundry/bathroom cleaning a little easier, right?
Nope. At least not for us. Homeschooling didn’t give me more housework time—it just meant we were home to make bigger and more exciting messes. I’ve accepted the fact that homeschooling and a shiny clean house don’t go together for everyone, but if we want to have a happy homeschool, it’s also important to recognize that the burden of housework should not fall on one person’s shoulders.
Even very young kids can help with things like sorting laundry or tearing up lettuce for a salad, and older kids can take ownership of tasks from start to finish. It makes sense to collaborate on this. Sit down with your kids and make a list of all the housework that has to get done every day, then figure out together a fair way to divide it up. Be clear about expectations—what, specifically, does picking up the family room entail?—and deadlines—should work be finished before lunch or before bedtime? Be open to changing things as you go along. Treat it like any homeschool project—a work in progress that you’ll figure out together. Don’t think of it assigning chores: Instead, treat housework as a shared responsibility that everyone participates in. Between reminders and overseeing and that never-ending to-do list, you might only squeeze out 30 minutes of free time a day from letting your kids take on some of the daily duty—but hey, that’s 30 minutes, and as you settle into your new routine, that time may grow.
And don’t think divvying up the housework list is just for you: Researchers at the University of Minnesota found that helping with household tasks is the number-one predictor for future success—more than IQ, more than extracurricular activities, more than social status.
Your challenge this week: Sit down with your kids to plot a new daily schedule that lets everyone share in the everyday household duties. Try to take at least one task completely off your to-do list.
Pretty much everyone could stand to get a little more sleep—and homeschoolers are fortunate enough to be in a position to actually get some.
We all know the benefits of getting enough sleep (which for most people is at least seven hours each night)—you’re more alert, more optimistic, and have more energy to get you through the day. What you may not know is that getting a little more sleep can actually make your life more fun. A Harvard Medical School study found that people who were sleep-deprived were less likely to get jokes and find everyday events funny. Well-rested folks, on the other hand, found much more to laugh at in their daily lives. This doesn’t mean you’ll magically find Monday morning handwriting battles hilarious, but it does mean that a little extra sleep can make your homeschool a little more fun, funnier place.
People often recommend hitting the sack an hour earlier, and if that works for your family, an earlier bedtime can be a great way to get a little more sleep. But if you’ve got a crew of night owls or just a long nighttime routine, consider pushing back your morning start time an hour instead.
Your challenge this week: Build an extra hour of sleep into your routine two nights this week.
This week most homeschoolers are getting back into the swing of things after a few weeks off for winter break. It’s hard for everyone – adults and children – to start getting up early and getting back to work, so here are a few ideas to make that transition a little more bearable. Please add your ideas in the comments section!
Play Games :: Instead of pulling out the curriculum, pull out your games. Pick the most educational games you have on hand and do it during your regular school time. If you like to get up a little earlier in the morning for your homeschool routine, use the games as a way to ease back into that schedule. It’s much easier waking up for a fun game than spelling lesson!
Plan a Field Trip :: If you spent a good portion of your holiday in your pajamas, sleeping late and watching movies, you might find that planning a field trip will help you ease back into a routine. You’ll need to get up early, get dressed, and best of all, you can plan a trip to a place that will spark someone’s interest. Ask your child to take a notebook and sketch their favorite exhibits or jot down ideas for follow-up once they get home.
Plan a Trip to the Library :: This is easy, and it feels good to watch our kids pick out their own books. While you are there, you might pick up that history book you’ve wanted to read to the kids too. Once you’re home, you have a stack of books that will kick start your new season of learning.
Find a Good Book :: You might not need a stack of library books, but just one great book that pulls everyone together on the sofa. And especially if you spent most of your holiday visiting relatives, dressing up, and being on your best behavior, you might enjoy easing back into your regular routine by cuddling together in your pajamas for a good readaloud. (Click here to check out some books we've recommended in the past.)
Watch a Documentary :: Do you want to do something educational, but you’re still not ready to do much planning? Try getting the family together to watch a documentary. See Family Time: Our Favorite Documentaries for a must-see list of documentaries.
Make Art Your Lesson :: A great first day back might be an art day for your family. Be sure to check all the past issues of home/school/life for Amy Hood’s great ideas on how to explore art with your children. You can read one of her columns online too.
Ask Your Child How to Begin :: Finally, if your child is just not transitioning well, or even if he is, but you want to make the transition fun, ask him what he’d like to do to get back into the swing of things. How about research a new subject? Make a poster. Make a film. Or do a puppet show? You might kick start a whole new project!
There are lots of reasons you might decide to start homeschooling in the middle of the traditional school year, but it usually boils down to the fact that you’re ready to start homeschooling Right Now.
Shelli rounds up some ideas to celebrate the winter solstice that require no advance planning but still make for a fun homeschool celebration.
When the kids were younger, September was a month of settling into a new routine.After summer 4-H activities and nearing the end of the summer farmers market season, we looked forward to making plans for fall projects and defining just what it was that we wanted to accomplish in the coming year as the days grew shorter and the temperature dropped.
New routines don’t feel like so much of a joint effort anymore. I’m feeling, in fact, like the month of September snuck up on me. Our family has managed to wrap up a summer full of 4-H, quite a bit of travel for the kids, farmers market events, extended family gatherings with cousins one-two-and-three generations down the line, and we’ve celebrated the middle kid’s 17th birthday.
What has changed?
I find myself asking if it is more the kids or me. As they’ve gotten older, my routine has slid toward working more and hanging out at home less. A defensive mechanism, perhaps? A way of keeping myself from hovering? A reaction to the fact that I realized, at some point, my kids would benefit from a little less mom time?
Five years ago I took a job as the farmers market manager (part-time summers, somewhat less than part-time through the winters) and what my vendors have been reminding me lately is that the kids were there, near weekly, helping out. My youngest learned to count change by sorting the market money bag. The oldest helped by plugging the numbers into the accounting program for the first few summers. She also became the market’s official photographer for events. They carried corn and watermelons for shoppers and were often there to ring the start of market bell.
“Haven’t seen your girls all summer,” a vendor said to me on Saturday, and, “That boy of yours, I barely recognized him. He’s gotten so tall.”
Some days I feel I don’t see much of them either. My oldest seems to be having an easy semester. When she’s not in school, she’s working… saving her money for big plans down the road. She’s spending more time out with friends, studying… or whatever it is the college kids do these days.
The middle kid is also on campus, for only one class, but it is five days a week, and she works in the office for her dad the one day I’m not there. We took a break together at lunch yesterday to review the state’s guidelines for high school graduates. We then went to the university’s page for incoming freshman. She’ll have no problems getting in. She could be “done” in fact if we chose to look at things that way. In the spirit of being thorough, we decided to add a Crash Course/Khan Academy chemistry unit to her transcript. I volunteered to sit beside her as a student, too. I’m looking forward to the time together.
My son took on a two-half-days-a week babysitting job in the summer that has morphed into three-more-or-less-full days this fall. When I worried that it was too much time, too much responsibility, he talked me into letting him give it a try. I still worry, but he is finding his way, and we are keeping the lines of communication open about it. In addition to the babysitting job, my son remains dedicated to daily “edu-pack” time, his self-titled selection of topics/themes/lessons that has evolved from what I once urged as a daily things-to-do list. The last I looked, in included things like DuoLingo lessons, a history series on YouTube, and daily time on Khan Academy. In addition, he has signed up for a German cooking class, and has been studying the area technical school catalog, trying to decide if there is a certificate he might like to apply for (he has learned that high school students can begin taking classes at minimal cost their junior year of high school).
I have moments where I ache to have it all back again… days centered at the kitchen table, rolling out egg noodles for lunch as little voices take turns reading out loud from the latest Harry Potter novel. Last night middle kid made pizza for the whole family. Tonight we each ate what was found in the refrigerator as we arrived home, varied leftovers as varied schedules permit. Last night’s pizza maker has her nose in a book, and it’s not the same book I saw her reading a few hours ago. My son has retreated to his room, feeling the need for some alone-time, I suspect, after another full day of babysitting. I crawl into bed without seeing the oldest. Hubby and I have a conversation about it. Should we ask her to check in more often? We hear the key in the lock as we drift off to sleep.
September will soon turn to October, and I will be doing my best to balance keeping out of the way, while spending all the time I can manage with them.
The jet lag is tough. Four days ago we flew home to Great Britain, after a long holiday in North America where we visited friends and family. We’ve unpacked the suitcases, thrown several loads of laundry into the washing machine, been to the supermarket, and are now trying to get back into the groove. Well, almost.
Taking a holiday has always been an opportunity for my family to reevaluate our rhythms and routines. Stepping away from our various projects and commitments, leaving behind the pile of homeschool books and resources, is a chance to think about what we want for our family. Usually we don’t discover new goals, we simply come back to our family’s core values. Time together. A love of learning. Curiosity. Discovery. Fresh air. A concern for nature and our fellow human beings. Helping others. Love.
It’s not so much that we stray from these values and need to come back them; more that I forget that they’re there, and they become buried beneath the making-breakfast-practice-the-piano-where-did-you-put-my-shoes-ness of daily life. I like it that I get wrapped up in the everyday, because to me that means I am present to my family. On the other hand, I don’t want to lose sight of what we as a family believe because I want everything in our lives to draw us closer to our core values.
To that effect, I apply my mind every summer to thinking about what we do and how we do it. Do we still want to have family games night on a Wednesday? Do our agreements about screen time still make sense? What direction do our projects seem to be taking, and how could I tweak things to better support the children in their work? Are we socializing enough, or perhaps too much? And the question of questions: are we happy?
Family life changes over time: babies become children who learn to read. Those children become teenagers: all limbs and mobile phones. Husbands turn grey and take up home brewing. For me, life seems too busy and I find myself hatching plans for how I can retreat to my rocking chair with my crochet. It all sounds like a slightly skewed Norman Rockwell painting, but you get the point: what worked for my family last year may not ring true for us now. Though most of us hold in our heads the idea that things are static, in fact they are in a constant state of flux.
The idea is to embrace change. I work at seeing it as my friend. I ask myself what I can change to lead us toward a greater experience of happiness. I attempt to make those changes. Sometimes they work. Other times we go back to the way things were and chalk it up to experience. Change can be hard to swallow and for the change-averse needs to be gradual and ever so gentle. But if the alternative is to be stuck in a rut, I know what I’d choose. Right now, we are figuring out where our ruts are.