Simple Advice for the Accidental Homeschooler
by Jennifer Hill Robenalt
When my son was entering the third grade, we made the decision to homeschool. It's nothing that we dreamed about or had planned for. Three of our son's grandparents were public school educators, as well as one of his aunts. My partner and I were proudly public school educated and earned college degrees. We believed in public school. But, at the time, it wasn't a good fit for our son. We pulled him out.
Over the next four years, we figured out what worked and what didn't. While trying to map out lessons and curriculums, we also explored unschooling and having a child-led school structure. In teaching my son, I practically earned a Ph.D. in alternative education practices and what helps to promote lifelong learning and creativity. Our child thrived as we created opportunities for him to go out in the world and explore his emerging interests in science, mythology, and history.
By the time 7th grade rolled around, my son boldly declared that he wanted to try public school again. He wanted the community, the classes, and the challenges of being on a schedule with his peers. He wanted to meet other grownups (he was getting tired of us) and see if a school would be the right place for him to learn again. We supported his ambition to go back, though we were nervous about whether or not we, his parents, had done enough to prepare him for this new chapter. It turns out we did—with one exception. Math. While he was above grade level in ELA and science, math was his Achilles heel. The subject had been a constant battle. I was glad someone else was taking over in that subject, specifically.
Thankfully, it only took a couple of months for him to catch up in math and get on grade level. He made straight A's his first semester. Then, March came. Right in the middle of his second successful semester of public middle school, the pandemic hit, and everything changed.
I was heartbroken for my son, who had found a rhythm and success with schooling. I felt terrible for all the students who would be forced to shift gears so abruptly. I felt worried for the teachers and administrators who had to scramble to adapt to remote learning—something they had ever been trained to do. And, of course, the parents. How in the world was this all going to work? Suddenly, everyone would have to find their way and ultimately make choices to meet the unique needs of their children.
Now, as parents make the difficult decision to choose remote learning, in-building learning, or homeschooling, I empathize deeply with the feeling that kids may not be getting everything they need. Parents are worried that kids will fall behind and that they will lose a year of quality instruction because of the interruption in public school life. So, here are a few lessons I've learned as a homeschooling parent that might ease some minds:
- Adjust Your Expectations: If you're a lifelong "public school" family, you may think that assessments, tests, long school days, and plenty of extracurriculars are the best and only way to produce high-performing students. Well, that's not the case. As a new homeschooler, you'll figure out quickly that your ideas about education, and your child as a student, will change dramatically. Many homeschooling parents have demonstrated that children can thrive at home, especially if they are permitted to explore topics of personal interest to them. Got a dinosaur expert on your hands? It's remarkable how easy it is to squeeze dinosaurs into reading, art, math, social studies, and, of course, science lessons. Countless online resources provide lesson plans, live classes, virtual field trips, library books, and much more.
- Comparison is the Thief of Joy: You've most likely never sat in a classroom with your child, so now is the time to learn about your child’s unique learning style. Resist the urge to make your child learn "like everyone else," whether it's doing worksheets, participating in multiple live online classes, or getting them to do recommended exercises. This is where the work of really talented teachers shines. They make adjustments according to how a child processes information and problem solves. Discover just what sort of learning style your child has and celebrate that. Don't panic and compare your child's seeming progress to what other people's children are doing.
- Prioritize Mental Health for Everyone Above All Else: One of the most important takeaways we learned from years of homeschooling is that no learning can happen if kids are experiencing high levels of anxiety. Remember, nothing is normal amid a global pandemic. Kids need to feel as safe and calm as possible in a home learning environment, so be aware of signs of stress like irritability, lack of focus, or behavior changes. Don't push too hard. Be flexible.
- Math is Hard to Teach for Most Homeschool Parents. Get Help.: This is a common concern as math requires a specific level of knowledge, comfort, and skill set for the parents. We tried workbooks, focusing on math-based projects, online learning platforms, YouTube videos, and more. I wasn't sure if math was so complicated for us because of my son or me. And, as a free-thinking homeschool mom, some people would ask me why we even bothered to push math at all. He's not that into it. My response? With the right support of a qualified live math teacher in school, his confidence in his math abilities soared, and he began to like it; also, he will need that background and knowledge to advance as a high school student, and as a college student pursuing his dream of becoming a scientist. As a returning homeschooler, finding the right math support will be key.
I feel for parents who have never homeschooled and are feeling worried and anxious that they will not be able to do it. I get it. But here's the truth. You will feel like a failure and a fraud when trying to give your children an at-home education during the next few months. But you won't be any of those things. You will be okay. So will your kids. Your ideas about education will change, and so will you.
Think of this as an opportunity to get to know your child in one of the most profound ways possible: as a curious, engaged student. Many kids may even rediscover what they're genuinely interested in, and that will open up new worlds to everyone in the family. Feel calm and comforted in knowing that learning is what kids naturally do. Just creating a supportive space for them to do it can help them feel more engaged. Here are some additional tips to calm those new-to-homeschooling nerves:
"You need to be done with this project by 5." They don't.
"You'll fall behind if you don't get into gear." They won't.
"Do you really need to watch two hours of octopus videos instead of finishing this worksheet I found online?" They do. Let them.
"Will writing in your journal all morning truly help you when school gets back to normal?" It will.
"Can't you just focus and get the work done?" In many ways, they can't. So, let them find their learning groove and help support interests and projects. Also, pandemic.
As for schedules, kids do need a routine. However, at home, they don't need a full day's schedule to receive the same level of education. Not even close. Our typical day was about four hours, and we built in lots of breaks. Younger kids need even less structured " academic" time. Remember, if something doesn't work, you can change it! Here is a sample schedule for a middle school child. Again, regular homeschooling would involve lots of field trips, park and nature center visits, time in a museum or at a performance, and meeting up with other kids. For now, we all have to adapt to pandemic rules which involve social distancing and limited time out in the world:
9 a.m.: Breakfast
9:30 a.m.: Cosmic Kids Yoga on YouTube
10 a.m.: Watch TedED videos and discuss or go to their online page for the accompanying lesson
10:45 a.m.: Thinkwell math lesson
11:15 a.m.: Read (literally anything of interest)
11:45 a.m.: Walk around the block
Noon: Lunch with a documentary on a subject of interest
12:30 p.m.: Special project like baking bread from scratch, building a diorama, planting a garden, solving the pandemic
1:00: Journal or write creatively. Ask them to write something about what they learned today, a poem, or just thoughts and feelings.
1:20: 10-minute Meditation
If mornings don't work for you, change your schedule to afternoons or at any time. This is all about learning what works best for everyone. You are making your own rules! And breaking them when you need to. So, be gentle and be kind to yourselves and your kids. What a crazy time.
Jennifer Hill Robenalt a freelance writer/editor based in Austin, Texas. She is the former editor of Austin Family Magazine and currently writes for Moms.com and Baby-Chick.com.