When my wife and I decided to homeschool our son, she immediately began soliciting advice: advice from friends, from experts, from websites, from people trying to sell us things (there was a significant overlap among these groups). For months, we stockpiled spelling books, handwriting books, math books, recommended reading books, activity books, and an assortment of curricula. Then our son started kindergarten and we realized that most of them were completely unnecessary.
A major benefit of homeschooling is that the student is being taught by a parent, someone who knows them well and who can adapt the lesson style, schedule, and content to fit his interests and needs. That advantage is also what makes it difficult, and perhaps undesirable, to give one-size-fits-all homeschooling advice on The Right Way(TM) to educate your children. What works for one family or one child may not fit all families or all children. And since I’ve only been homeschooling my four children for three years, who knows whether my approach is a good one either?
Despite my reservations, I think there are general principles that can be useful for homeschooling and which I’ve learned through experience. Feel free to embrace those you find helpful and reject those you don’t. Except for the first one:
- Have a Schedule – “if the schedule is directing our work, then there’s no point in complaining to Daddy; he’s just following the schedule.”
- Push Reading First – “Reading is not just another subject in school; it is the way to learn every other subject.”
- Schedule 1-on-1 Time – “1-on-1 time is where the bulk of truly new learning happens.”
- Use Technology – “if your children are only ever exposed to educational apps, they will be enthralled and will likely not even notice that they’re learning.”
- Embrace Educational Standards – “without some kind of educational standards, it will be extremely hard to avoid gaps in your children’s knowledge.”
- Teach Outside of School – “Some of my most pleasant and educational conversations with my kids take place in the car”
- Relax – “Focus on what matters most and give the non-essentials a seat at the kiddie table”
No, really. You need a schedule. Really, really, really. By far, the greatest challenge I face in homeschooling is convincing my kids to work. When they are sufficiently motivated, they work quickly and without complaint. But for a long time, it was nearly impossible to motivate them. I tried rewards for hard work. I tried punishments for refusal to work. I tried reasoning with them. I tried pleading with them. All for naught.
What’s more, I have no doubt that the resistance I met would not exist if they were in a traditional school. They normally have a natural respect for authority and are perfectly behaved at Sunday School, at their weekly homeschool co-op, or with me in any other setting. But I’d struggle for hours watching my son turn a five-minute handwriting exercise into a meandering, two-hour waste of a morning. My kids would whine and mope and dawdle and daydream.
There was a very simple solution. I now have a daily schedule hanging in their homeschool room. The school day is divided into half-hour blocks from 7:30am to 3pm, with generous allocations of playtime. Moreover, if they finish their work for a given block in less than the allotted time, they may use the remainder of the block to play. The results were outstanding. Not only did they get far more done each day, they did it without complaining.
I think a strict schedule works for several reasons. First, it shows your kids that their work is finite. Before introducing a schedule, they probably felt that work was futile because it never ended. If they finished one assignment quickly, I would give them a new assignment. Even though they had frequent breaks, they had no incentive to work faster, because working faster would only mean getting new work. Using a schedule divided into finite blocks motivates them to work quickly. Second, a schedule shows them that schoolwork is not an arbitrary imposition of Daddy’s whims. There is a reason for everything they do. We’re doing spelling today not because Daddy woke up in a bad mood, but because spelling is part of our daily lessons. Finally, a schedule shows that resistance is futile. What is assigned by fiat can be unassigned by fiat, so my kids have good reason to think that they can wheedle Daddy into submission. But if the schedule is directing our work, then there’s no point in complaining to Daddy; he’s just following the schedule.
At the top of this page is the schedule I’m currently using for our school day. Despite its rigorousness, it actually is quite flexible. If a child is sick or sleepy, if we have errands we need to run, or if there is a special event, I adjust it as needed. The key is to have a schedule, posted in a public place, and to emphasize to your children that it will structure your day.
This piece of advice is exceptionally important for families with more than one child being homeschooled. When we began homeschooling, our oldest son was 5 and his younger sisters were 3 and 1. Every afternoon, the two girls would nap and I would have two hours to devote entirely to him, which was more than enough for him to finish all of his work for kindergarten. Homeschooling was a piece of cake.
Things became a bit more challenging when he moved to 1st grade, his younger sister entered kindergarten, and we had our second son. Fortunately, our eldest was already a great reader and could be given workbooks to do while I taught his sister. It wasn’t until this year, when the three eldest were all in school, that I realized how vital reading is.
Because of her October birthday, our older daughter was not as fluent a reader as her brother when she entered 1st grade. Unfortunately, that meant that I could not hand her a math or spelling or reading workbook and tell her to finish four pages. If I did, I would be interrupted every thirty seconds with shouts of “Daddy! Daaaa-aaaa-ddddy! I don’t know what to do.” It was almost impossible to do anything, whether playing with the little kids, or cleaning, or helping my son with his work. Even her progress in other subjects was limited by her reading ability. Reading is not just another subject in school; it is the way to learn every other subject. So, as quickly as you possibly can, teach your children to read fluently and to follow written directions.
Reading for pleasure is the best way to improve reading ability. I am convinced that our older son’s reading was rapidly accelerated by his desire to understand the Super Smash Bros. Brawl instruction manual that came with a Wii game we purchased when he was 5. He would pour over the booklet for hours each night trying to decipher phrases like “Fireball Attack” and “Rocketbarrell Barrage.” That’s not to say that you should encourage your kids to read all twenty installments of the Captain Underpants series since “it’s teaching them love for reading!” But I don’t discourage #1 from reading our four-volume collection of The Complete Calvin and Hobbes for the third time, even if I’d prefer him reading something with a bit more educational or literary value.
If only one child is being homeschooled, this point is irrelevant. But once a second, third, or fourth child is added to your class, balancing their work becomes extremely important. If you look at my schedule, you’ll notice the “Notes” column has multiple blocks labelled “one-one-one time with Daddy.” During these periods, all four kids are engaged in some activity that does not involve my attention. While the others are occupied, I pull out one child at a time and teach them new skills, review their morning’s work with them, and correct mistakes.
During other activities like “Handwriting” or “Math”, I watch them work and will correct their errors or explain concepts. But 1-on-1 time is where the bulk of truly new learning happens, which is why it’s important to block off periods for it. Notice that I also arranged the schedule so that both of my daughters have a 30-minute reading time “with Daddy,” since they still need help reading confidently and fluently.
Don’t be discouraged if 1-on-1 time feels rushed or if it’s constantly a battle to keep the other kids occupied. Keep in mind that the student-to-teacher ratio in traditional schools is usually 8:1 and often much higher. Unless you have your own reality show, your children will receive far more individual attention at home than they would elsewhere and a small amount of individual attention goes a long way.
Growing up, doctors and educators were constantly warning parents about the dangers of electronics and too much “screen time.” Until recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics had recommended that all children under 2 should be absolutely prohibited from watching television or playing video games. Consequently, my wife and I assiduously kept our firstborn away from all electronic devices. Even after he was two, we carefully controlled how often he could watch movies or use Mommy’s iPod because we viewed them as useless entertainment. We relaxed our stance a bit when we realized that there were a handful of educational apps that they liked to play (or when desperation drove us to the electronic babysitter). But my thinking was completely reversed when our younger daughter started school.
After our fourth child’s birth, I had my hands full teaching our older two and watching a newborn, so I would let our younger daughter (then age 2) play “letter games” for most of the morning. I didn’t pay much attention to how much she was learning. But when she began pre-K, I was astonished. She not only knew all her letters and numbers, but knew how to write them. She knew what sounds each letter made and knew common letter combinations. She understood addition and subtraction. At age 4, after only a few months of school, she was reading and doing simple math. There’s no question in my mind that her use of education apps on the iPad contributed significantly to her rapid progress.
As a result, we’ve altered our rules about screen time significantly. Our kids are technically each allowed thirty minutes of “entertainment” screen time three times a week (although we usually give them about an hour and add a weekly “movie night”). But we have almost no limit to “educational” screen time. They are permitted to watch BrainPop videos, read Epic, or do Khan Academy as much as they want. So far, this rule has never posed a problem. Our older son especially likes screen time and will watch educational videos for a few hours a day, but turns them off without complaint when we tell him he’s had enough. And the benefits are extensive. During a car ride, our son began telling my wife about the components of blood and how white blood cells work. He’s chimed in on topics like the Mexican Revolution or solar physics (?), none of which he’s learned from us but which he’s absorbed from electronic resources.
Two cautions are in order. First, the Internet is a very dangerous place and parents should take extreme care to prevent your children being exposed to pornography, sexual predators, or any other harmful influences. Cranking up the parental controls on your computer (and iPad and Wii) is not enough. You also need to keep your electronic devices in a public place, keep a close watch on content, warn your kids about potential dangers and -most of all- ensure that they are always comfortable talking to you about anything that bothers them. Second, there should be a balance between electronics and other forms of education and play. Always retain the right to pull the plug on electronics and never let your kids become addicted.
One other tip is that your kids’ interest in educational technology will be inversely proportional to their interest in entertaining technology. If 95% of their apps are entertaining but not educational, your children are likely to find the educational apps boring. But if your children are only ever exposed to educational apps, they will be enthralled and will likely not even notice that they’re learning.
There are all kinds of excellent education apps and programs available, many of them free, although some require a subscription. Here are some we’ve used extensively:
- Hooked on Phonics for beginning readers.
- Epic! for virtually unlimited children’s books ranging in difficulty from preschool up through late elementary.
- DreamBox for mathematics from preschool through late elementary.
- BrainPop consists of ~5-minute funny, animated videos that teach kids about everything from astronomy to history to music.
- Khan Academy is the best educational site on the Internet. It has videos and interactive exercises covering everything from art history to physics. The mathematics section is particularly good. It will take your child from pre-K through college mathematics and prepares reports on your children’s progress.
One aspect of modern education, which has been criticized by homeschool teachers and public schools teachers alike, is its emphasis on constant testing. While I suspect that this criticism is valid, homeschoolers can sometimes overreact, rejecting testing or educational standards of any kind in favor of a more open-ended approach to learning. That’s a mistake for two reasons.
First, if your children are planning on going to college, they will have to learn to take tests. Test-taking is a skill and your children need to practice it, even if it’s stressful for them. Indeed, it’s important that your children be occasionally exposed to the stress of testing and the possibility of failure, given the otherwise relaxed homeschooling environment. Whether they become businessmen, doctors, pilots, athletes or musicians, your kids will be required to perform under stress and deal with failure. College or the workplace should not be the first time they are faced with those experiences.
Second, without some kind of educational standards, it will be extremely hard to avoid gaps in your children’s knowledge. For example, my older daughter is several grade levels ahead of her age in math. But a few weeks ago, I discovered that she couldn’t name the months of the year in order. Because the homeschooling parent may be their child’s only teacher, there is no ‘fail safe’, no one to catch anything missed in his education. As a result, regularly assessing your children’s progress through standardized tests and standardized curricula like Common Core is crucial. Note that this point does not demand that you use Common Core to teach or that your material is all geared towards a particular test. Instead, it means that we should use standardized tests and Common Core to guarantee that our children are not missing skills that they ought to have.
I incorporate this concern in two ways. First, my kids take the Woodcock-Johnson test annually to assess their progress. The choice of test is probably not important; what’s important is that the same test is used each year so that you can track their progress and can see their strengths and weaknesses. For example, because last year’s exam showed that my son’s writing ability was substantially below his reading and math abilities, I added a unit of spelling and writing to his daily work this semester. Second, my children’s daily work includes a broad array of Common-Core-aligned workbooks to ensure that I haven’t missed anything basic. While I might forget to teach my kids how to use a calendar, I’ll quickly realize my mistake when they can’t do calendar problems in their math workbooks. When they reach a problem they can’t do, I devote their “1-on-1 time” that day to teaching them the necessary skill.
In traditional schooling, the day is divided into “school hours” and “after-school hours.” Education takes place during the “school day”, with the remainder devoted to extracurricular activities, play, and meals. But in a homeschool, there’s no reason to erect this barrier. Some of my most pleasant and educational conversations with my kids take place in the car on the way to church, to the museum, or to the park. I’ll talk to them about whatever issues I happen to be thinking about, whether it’s theology, philosophy, politics, or science. Other times, I’ll turn on a Memory Work CD from Classical Conversations, our homeschool co-op. It was such a hit with our younger daughter that she could sing her way through most of a 15-minute timeline of world history before she turned three.
Errands are also opportunities for learning. I take all four kids with me to the grocery store and explain how a credit card works, how to read nutritional labels, or why the per unit price is more important than total price. Clothing sales can turn into a lesson on percentages (hypothetically – my wife does all the clothes shopping). Toy stores can be used to explain basic economic concepts like supply and demand. There’s no need to squeeze educational value out of every situation, but -to me- talking about economics or physics is far more interesting than talking about Pokemon or My Little Pony.
Finally, after-school time is a great for moral and religious instruction. The real-life situations your kids encounter at playgrounds, in stores, at museums provide opportunities to talk about sharing, compassion, generosity, and forgiveness. As a Christian, I especially want my kids to know that religion isn’t something we only do on Sundays at church; it affects how we treat others every day of the week and everywhere we go.
My last piece of advice relates both to your children’s experience with homeschooling and your own: relax. Education is a big component of homeschooling, but it is not the only component. Spending time with your kids, nurturing them, building a close relationship with them, giving them a sense of security, shaping their moral character – these are some of the wonderful opportunities that homeschooling affords. I can become so focused on marching my kids through the school day that, by the end, I feel more like a task-master than a father.
Yes, kids need firm direction, discipline, and guidance. But they also need to know that you love them, that you enjoy spending time with them, and that you are proud of them. If your desire to see them succeed academically, musically, or athletically is undermining your relationship to them as a mother or father, then pull back. Take a day off and go to a park. Have a picnic. Announce an unexpected trip to the museum or a movie night.
Most of all, don’t constantly compare yourself to others. As a family of six, there will be opportunities that my kids will not have. Our children will not play two sports and three musical instruments. They will not take daily painting classes from a woman with a PhD in Renaissance Portraiture. The only languages they learn besides English will be C++ or Java. That’s ok. Homeschooling involves tradeoffs because life involves tradeoffs.
While you shouldn’t ignore any area of your child’s education and should seek help if there are subjects you feel particularly unqualified to teach, your child does not need the best possible instruction on every possible subject. Whether you choose to homeschool or choose to send your child to the most expensive private school in the country, he will never be the best at everything. If you invest in five hours of private math tutoring each day, someone else will be investing in six. Focus on what matters most and give the non-essentials a seat at the kiddie table. For me, that means reminding myself daily that my primary goal as a father is not to create child prodigies but to raise children who love God and love other people.