Former Homeschooling Mom Shares Best Practices for Teaching at Home
When we first started talking about homeschooling our children, I questioned my teaching abilities. After all, I was not a teacher. I had no idea how to do a lesson plan or even what things kids needed to learn at what age. I was a good student when I was in school and enjoyed learning, but that’s not the same as teaching. How was I going to teach them for seven hours every day?
Panic set in. After my husband talked me down from the ledge, we decided the best thing to do was to talk to people we knew who were already homeschooling. We talked to families who homeschooled on their own as well as those using different charter schools. This was immensely helpful and made me realize that I COULD do this!
We ended up homeschooling our children through Horizon Charter Schools for many years. It was a wonderful experience for all of us. Our three children are now adults with good jobs and leading rewarding lives. We credit much of this to our time homeschooling together as a family.
Looking back, homeschooling was the best decision we made for our children’s education. I wouldn’t trade our time learning together for anything in the world!
My Top 5 Homeschooling Tips
We were very lucky that we had the option to homeschool our children and the time to research the best method for our family. Right now, many families have been forced into home study with no warning or preparation. To help families homeschooling for the first time, or families struggling with home teaching, I tried to come up with a list of helpful tips. The list quickly got very long, so I thought it best to break it into several pieces. For this article, I honed it down to my top five recommendations. Some of these we discovered on our own; others homeschool moms suggested, and they worked well for us.
Tip 1: It Doesn’t Take 7 Hours to School at Home
Why is this my #1 tip? Because it was one of the things that scared me the most about homeschooling! As a homeschool advocate for many years, I talk to a lot of parents considering teaching their children at home, and many have the same fear I did. When children go to a traditional school, they are typically at school for about 7 hours 5 days a week. So, what do we do at home for SEVEN HOURS?!
The answer is… you don’t.
Home study simply doesn’t need to take that long. Think about a typical day at a traditional elementary school:
- Children all arrive at one place at the same time.
- Students need to settle down and take their seats.
- Attendance — typically by roll call of 30+ students — must take place.
- The teacher needs to get all 30+ students to pay attention while s/he explains to the entire class what they are going to be doing.
- Often instructions need to be repeated more than once because inevitably not everyone is actively listening. This scenario may play out multiple times each day.
- If students don’t understand the teacher’s instructions, more in-depth information must be provided — often to the entire class.
- When the teacher asks a question, all students must quietly raise their hands and wait to be chosen.
- When it’s time for recess, lunch, or an assembly, the entire class of students must quiet down and line up, then walk together to their destination.
- After recess, lunch, or the assembly, the reverse takes place.
These procedures happen every day at a traditional public elementary school. One of my children’s biggest objections to the school near us was how much time they spent not learning. Think of how much time is spent just doing crowd control and review — things you don’t need to do at home.
Even if you have a very large family, it just doesn’t take as long as wrangling 30+ children from a number of different families. In fact, I kept having to remind my kids they didn’t need to raise their hands when we were discussing something. 🙂
Having said this, there were times when we did spend more than seven hours schooling, and that’s OK, too. If your children are enjoying a particular activity or want to delve deeper into something you are studying, encourage that. More than once we got so involved in a project or experiment that we lost track of time and spent hours on it. We also took several family trips focused around a subject we were studying. Those tend to be the experiences and lessons we remember the most.
Tip 2: Make a Daily, Weekly, and Monthly Schedule
Our first born had colic. If you’ve had a colicky child, you understand how hard this is, especially on first-time parents. At one appointment with the pediatrician, the nurse suggested we put our wonderful screamer on a schedule as it tended to calm children down if they knew what to expect. What an amazing idea! It worked so well, we put our two other children on a schedule soon after they were born.
We applied this principal to homeschooling, and we reaped the same rewards!
The schedule can be very simple or very detailed — it’s up to what works best for you. For the best results, take into consideration your family’s routine. If one parent gets up early to go to work and you like to have family breakfasts together, then maybe starting school soon after that adult leaves for work is a good idea. That way, your students will most likely be done by the time mom or dad returns from work, and your family can enjoy their time together. If the non-teaching parent works nights, adjust the school schedule to work around their sleep patterns.
Keep in mind how and when your children learn best. If your young students are morning people, take advantage of that and start school early. If they take a long time to wake up and get going, later starts might work better for them. Trying to force a half-awake child to learn doesn’t go well — trust me, I tried!
If children are old enough, you might consult them about how they would like to spend their time. Do they want to do the hard stuff first to get it out of the way, or start with simpler, more fun lessons to ease into the challenging subjects? Our family did most of their core subjects in the morning, and saved the afternoon for projects, experiments, field trips, and enrichment classes when possible.
No matter when you start or what subjects you tackle first, remember to include breaks!
Take a look at how one Horizon family structures their homeschool time.
Here’s a sample of our standard schedule when my kids were young (my husband typically left for work at 7:30am):
7:30-8:00 — Group time learning folk and patriotic songs, pledge of allegiance, poems, etc. and doing something that fit that month’s theme (I found some wonderful books that had different themed activities for each month. For example, February centered around the presidents and Valentine’s Day.)
8:00 – 9:15 — I spent 20 minutes with each child individually going over their lessons/concepts. During this time, the other two did work on their own or had play time (depending upon their age/grade level).
9:15 – 9:30 — Break
9:30 – 10:00 — We all watched Reading Rainbow on PBS together. It was a wonderful show where the host, LaVar Burton, read a story then explored something from the story. For example, one show in November had a story that included a Thanksgiving meal, then he took us on a virtual trip to a cranberry bog, and we learned how they grew and processed cranberries. Guess what we had that Thanksgiving!
10-noon — I spent 30-ish minutes with each child going over more in-depth math concepts, reviewing spelling words and/or grammar concepts, etc. The subject varied by day (although math was daily) and the amount of time spent with each child depended upon their individual need. During this time, like earlier in the day, the other two worked independently.
Noon — Lunch and play time
Afternoons were more loosely structured. We normally had multi-age, cross curricular activities we worked on together. These were typically longer projects that played out over days or even weeks. As an example, we would decide as a group what particular time in history we wanted to study, and we would learn about it together. Normally I’d start by giving my kids an overview, then my older two would do some research and write a report about it which they would share with us as a group. Often it included making something (forts out of sugar cubes or craft sticks, sewing clothing, making a reenactment or original play and recording it, etc.) or a study trip, and it almost always involved reading stories and trying some new food (my youngest’s favorite part!). Some of the recipes we made became family favorites that we still make today!
Tip 3: Be Flexible
It’s important that your schedule is nimble enough to adapt to a variety of situations. What works for one day may not work for another. My kids took a variety of elective classes through Horizon’s network of educational partners. One semester, Tuesdays at 11:00am they had horseback riding, Thursdays at 9:00am we went ice skating, and Friday mornings we met other Horizon families at a local park for a few hours. So, we had to adapt our daily schedule to accommodate these activities.
In addition to working around classes and events, sometimes students need or want more time on a particular subject. My middle child had a hard time with math concepts when she was young. Inevitably, we would get out the manipulatives so we could physically work out problems or play math games that included all four of us. On these days, our schedule needed to adjust to allow extra time for math. Other days she would be too overwhelmed (or I would get too frustrated), and we would put math aside for a few hours or until the next day when we both were mentally ready to try again.
When someone has a doctor’s appointment, you need to take your car to be repaired, or it’s too nice a day to stay inside, you find ways to work around it. Maybe reading, doing research, or practicing math or spelling with worksheets can come with you to the doctor, auto shop, or nearby park. Home study doesn’t necessarily have to take place at home.
Tip 4: Create a Home Study Space
We made friends with several other families that homeschooled through Horizon Charter Schools, and we often got together for school or social activities. As homeschooling moms, we shared our ideas and the ways we set up our “classrooms.”
One family with a large home and two children turned their bonus room into a classroom. It had most of the things you would find in a traditional classroom, including a desk for each student and the teacher. As the kids got older, the makeup of the room changed.
Another family had three children and a very small, two-bedroom home. They used the kitchen table as their “classroom” during school hours. When one child needed undisturbed time to study, the other kids went into the living room, bedroom, or outside.
One family of four that we knew lived in an apartment. Most of their schoolwork was done in the living room, and each child had a folding table near his or her bed.
We had a medium-sized home and used almost every room in the house for different activities. When we first started, we set up folding tables for each child in the little-used living room and installed a white board and easel on one wall. This was our main classroom. One-on-one learning took place at the kitchen table, which was kept clear of “kitchen” things during school hours. Messy projects took place on our covered patio. Educational television and games and less messy projects typically happened in the family room. I worked from home, so the computers, printer, etc. were kept in my office/the spare bedroom.
As the kids got older, we purchased each child a desk which was kept in their bedroom. Our living room went back to having a sofa and chairs, but we still used it for group activities.
Bottom line: schooling at home doesn’t need to take up a lot of room, but it’s preferable if each child has a dedicated space to use that is free from distractions.
Tip 5: Children Learn in Different Ways
For me, this was the most important lesson I had to learn in order to effectively teach my children. I won’t go into learning styles right now, but it is important to realize that people are not the same, and children learn in different ways.
My oldest learned and understood math concepts very easily and quickly. He whipped through his math lessons with little need for help. My middle child needed to have math demonstrated to her before she understood. She needed to physically have 6 pencils and take 2 away to understand that she now had 4 pencils. The two of us struggled and struggled with math (and this was second grade math!) until my wonderful supervising teacher pointed out that my daughter was a kinesthetic learner and needed to visualize math before she would be able to understand it. After that, math actually became fun!
Conversely, that same daughter is a voracious reader and has excellent grammar skills with very little needed in the way of instruction, but her older brother saw no need to learn the alphabet and had difficulty constructing a good sentence. Again, I needed to learn to teach my children in different ways even though they were learning the same things.
Our youngest didn’t have many issues with any of her subjects (maybe in part because I learned my lesson by the time she was old enough to start schooling), but she has zero patience. On top of that, she was diagnosed with diabetes halfway through kindergarten, which added a new hurdle for us to jump. For this child, paying attention to her blood sugar level and eating schedule was as important as having the right books and resources.
As the teacher, I had to remember that each child needed a different way of teaching and adapt accordingly. Once I learned this lesson, homeschooling became much easier, and it actually took less time because the children caught on more quickly with fewer struggles.
One of the main benefits of home study is the flexibility to tailor each subject to the individual child’s needs.
Remember to Relax and Enjoy
Another, extremely important thing for parents to remember is to relax and enjoy time with your kids! In just a blink of an eye, we went from homeschooling a kindergartener, second and third graders to having three wonderful and accomplished adult children. Time goes by so fast! Please be sure to enjoy your time learning together as a family.
That’s really what homeschooling is all about.