Statistics show 91 percent of U.S. kids attend public school. But for many reasons, including academic rigor and secularism, homeschooling has been on the rise for the last decade. According to EdChoice’s 2017 Schooling in America survey, while about 3 percent of U.S. students are currently homeschooled, about 7 percent of families would homeschool if they could.
I send my four kids to public school now, but I homeschooled for the first six years of their education. I loved homeschooling, but now that I’ve put my kids in public school, I’ve had time to reflect on what I would have done differently if I knew then what I know now. If you’re thinking about homeschooling, or if you’re homeschooling now but feel like something isn’t quite right, these tips might help.
1. Prioritize Character and Habits First
I recently learned children in Japan aren’t tested on their academic knowledge until fourth grade because the first few years are set aside for establishing manners and good character. Now that my four children are between the ages of 6 and 12, I see I should have done this more when they were younger also. It’s extremely difficult to undo bad habits children have developed as they age.
While being religious, I chose to homeschool primarily for academic reasons. As such, I took that seriously, and we often just dove into school, field trips, and extracurricular activities. I handled manners, chores, and other character-related issues on the fly, or sometimes integrated them into the school day, not as a regular routine. While I did address these things, they were too much of an afterthought rather than the foundation.
While I think my children grasped basic character concepts well — through teachable moments and hands-on experiences — it didn’t work as much with chores and manners. There’s no other way to teach a child to make his bed than just to make him do it after showing how, and I should have pressed this more when they were little, through a consistent system of rewards, benefits, and natural consequences.
Parents can figure out which way best to integrate manners, chores, and character into a child’s day, but the method doesn’t matter as much as the consistency. I’ve tried everything from chore charts to chore zones to punitive measures to financial rewards. Like dieting, anything works if it’s consistent.
2. Set a Strong Foundation of the Basics
Some people criticize homeschooling with claims it keeps kids from being exposed to other people and ideas. In reality, in some states and cities, homeschooling is a blast because of the many activities available to get involved in. However, some parents take this too far.
I see many moms pack their schedules with activities and get sucked into classes offered at schools, homeschool teaching co-ops, and online. Or they tackle subjects that come to children easier, such as art and history, while wrongly assuming their kids are catching on to reading, writing, and math. Pew reports that, compared to other countries, U.S. kids lag in academic achievements, especially math. This means many homeschooled parents are not educated enough to know when their kids aren’t doing well, or what to do about it. Overscheduling in easier activities keeps them from attending to the core.
I lived in Virginia when I homeschooled, so from Monticello and Williamsburg to the Library of Congress and all the Smithsonian museums, we enjoyed these opportunities to learn about topics through the senses, and none of those moments were wasted. I thought I had drilled the “three r’s” — reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic — into my kids, but looking back, I could have done it even more.
Setting a solid foundation is so important. Daisy Christodoulou’s books, E.D. Hirsch’s “Cultural Literacy,” and any of Susan Wise Bauer’s books are just a few great resources to keep parents motivated and on point in this regard.
One of my favorite homeschool mothers, who taught her oldest from K-6, gave her children the most rigorous education I’ve seen yet. The kids homeschooled several hours a day, read at a young age, and by the time they had reached middle school, she felt she had exhausted her repertoire and sent them to school. I asked her once why she did it that way. “These are our values,” she simply said.
A caveat: Just like in a “traditional” school setting, where some kids excel and some kids struggle, it’s possible if you have multiple kids that this same thing will happen no matter how much you drill the basics. One of my kids has taken to reading with no problem, another excels in language arts, yet another child struggles to spell and learn certain aspects of math, despite working hard at it. This is normal and doesn’t mean your child — or you — is a failure. In fact, that’s a good segue into this next tip.
3. Treat Homeschooling Like a Job
Homeschooling is like being a self-employed teacher. One of the best things about doing a job you love is, ideally, you’re also good at it. There’s all kinds of business advice out there, but a common piece of wisdom for self-employed people is to do only what you’re good at doing — contract or hire out the rest. I’d advise this same logic when homeschooling.
The best homeschoolers I know had helpful spouses, nearby family members, or close friends. These people helped juggle what is essentially multiple jobs for a homeschooling parent: parent, teacher, housekeeper, cook, chauffer, etc. Whether you have such a helpful system or not, I recommend removing as much from your plate as possible that could interfere with homeschooling, especially the things you don’t care for or aren’t good at, if you can afford to do so.
For example, I’ve always hated cleaning, and I’m not great at it either (the two could be related). When I could afford it, I hired someone to help clean. One mom who used to homeschool told me she wished she had hired a tutor for her kids who struggled in certain subjects. Many homeschooling families have several children, and even though the ratio is small, it can still be hard to spot difficulties, or when moms do, they’re unsure of a remedy. Don’t be afraid to hire a tutor if needed.
I also encourage homeschooling families to connect with each other. Several homeschool families and ours would swap children if a mother became ill or had to run an errand.
4. Don’t be Afraid to Change
Routines are good, but if they aren’t working, don’t be afraid to change. Many moms crave routine so much — and to be sure, it does help the kids — that even if it isn’t working, they’ll stick to what they’re doing because change is hard, especially if they’re responsible for the outcome.
If Singapore math isn’t working, try something else. If classical isn’t working, try Charlotte Mason. If the kids have social anxiety, put them in co-ops. If you’re a better mom not homeschooling, or not a better teacher than you can hire elsewhere, put your kids in school. Several of my friends have pulled their kids out of school to homeschool because they didn’t like the learning environment or social changes in school, and other friends have realized homeschooling just wasn’t working for their family, so they put their kids in public or private school.
For several years, my oldest two children did Singapore math. I liked the solid reputation, and the textbooks were affordable. However, my son started struggling when he was in about fourth grade. I switched him to Teaching Textbooks, which was more expensive, but he adapted well and improved.
If you do change, especially if you switch from homeschool to a traditional school, expect some bumps in the road. Your kids might technically be ahead academically, but they will have learned different things at a different pace, so they may feel they’re out of sync with the school’s academic calendar.
For example, my daughter entered fourth grade in a public school last year when they were learning about Texas history, about which she knew virtually nothing. Now, ask her about world history, American history, and Washington, D.C., and she’s all set. But she faced a learning curve in Texas history and math, due to the curriculum differences.
A Few Things I Don’t Regret
If I may say, I also did some things well that I would also recommend for other parents. Early on, when the kids were little and the day was going to heck — tears, temper tantrums, and the like — we would just stop. We would bake cookies (math! science!) and read classic books out loud.
This developed discipline, empathy, understanding of story structure, imagination, and a love of history, science, and literature. One year, we read quite a bit of Roald Dahl, Robert Louis Stevenson, and, of course, “Aesop’s Fables.” Because of this, my kids love to read and fall asleep listening to books almost every night, and we still read together as a family.
From the beginning of my parenting journey, I also instituted “outside time” in almost any weather — snow, light drizzle, chilly, warm — throwing my kids outside for just a few minutes every day. The fresh air invigorated and exhausted them, and they came inside happy. I’d highly recommend this. Plus, if they’re not doing structured PE, they need the exercise. In Finland’s public school system, kids get loads of outdoor play, which many people credit for the school system’s success.
I tried hard to follow a guideline of little-to-no electronic use during weekdays, and my kids don’t have phones, which has served us extremely well. By electronic use, I don’t mean computers or Kindles for school use such as reading e-books, but things like gaming, movies, social media, television, etc. Minimized electronics use helped the kids enjoy each other, their friends, their education, and their outdoor time.
Finally, I had time with my children — time I don’t regret, and time I’ll never get back. I loved watching my kids read their first words, discover counting, and learn to handle money. Time is the most valuable commodity, and spending it with little people who grow, develop, and soon leave the home was an incredible gift to me — and hopefully to them too.