Hi! We’re a homeschool family.
Not long ago announcing this would normally either create an awkward pause in conversation, or at least a little deer-in-headlights stare. Lately, however, we have had many friends asking us for advice having had the task of schooling their kids thrust upon them. My initial knee-jerk reaction was to recommend families pause, take a breath, and just enjoy the family time and togetherness. This just isn’t realistic for a lot of people, and some of you probably rolled your eyes reading it. Families are burdened with the stress of trying to manage a full-time job from home or the uncertainty of what is happening with their job, and the added pressure of now having to educate their children. So, here are a few tips we’ve come up with to help create a realistic approach to schooling at home during this time of weirdness.
1. Have a Daily Plan
Most days are structured for us. By us, I mean most of us. We get up, maybe exercise, go to work, blah blah blah then wine after dinner. Now we are faced with a lack of structure. Sometimes a lack of structure is exactly what we need, but during your school/work week, a plan will help reduce stress for everyone. This doesn’t have to be fancy (unless that’s your thing), but some sort of structure for the day is essential to keeping a sense of normalcy around the house, which is what a lot of us need right now.
Our plan usually involves a chronological order, and looks something like this:
- Morning chores and breakfast
- Seat work (traditional style school bookwork, about 2 hours -we’ll get to that later)
- Outside time (fort building, playing with the dog, yard work, plan a garden)
- Project work (find a project linked to a subject the kids are working on)
- Free time (no screens, usually separate)
- After dinner family time (board games, conversation, read to each other, dancing)
I like to think of our schedule as more of a rhythm that can shift if needed. This helps me to keep reasonable expectations when something isn’t going as planned.
Keep in mind everyone’s plan will be different. Our rhythm is pretty different from our friends. My husband works a later shift, so we sleep late and start the day slowly. One of my favorite aspects of homeschooling is you can cater your schedule to your needs as they shift and change. There are many families that choose to do schoolwork in the evenings when the adults are more available to help. Another strategy can be giving weekly expectations to older children to teach time management skills, i.e. instead of creating daily goals for their seat work, set a weekly goal so they can learn to manage their time on their own.
Be creative and figure out what works best for you and yours. We have figured out what works for us, but still often sit down at the end of the night and make our plan for the next day. We have a white board in the main room of the house that has the plan for the day written on it. This allows the kids to see what’s going on and feel a sense of connection to the structure of the day. The board also has suggestions for exercise and projects, and a side to do list that anyone can add to – it’s OK if some of these suggestions are silly! The white board also serves as a reminder of what needs to happen at any given time, so they (and we!) know what’s coming next and need fewer reminders.
2. Set Reasonable Expectations.
When we started this homeschool experience over three years ago, I set up our spare room like a classroom. Everything was perfectly organized and labeled. The kids had a long list of to-dos and expectations laid out by the minute. While this is important when you have a classroom of 20-30 students to teach and keep track of, this completely backfired at home. The kids were stressed, and my day was miserable. Every day was a struggle. I felt like I was having to argue and discipline constantly. We have since moved school to the kitchen table and have created a much more relaxed way of homeschooling leading to less stress and tears. We are actually enjoying teaching and the kids are learning more efficiently.
Here’s what we learned:
Focus time: There are multiple studies that show the amount of time a student is able to focus on a task, and I was surprised to learn it’s a lot less than I imagined. The amount of time a student is able to stay focused will of course vary from one person to another and also depend on their age and interest level. However, a rule we go by is their age plus 2 equals the number of minutes they can focus.
For example, my 8-year-old can focus on a new concept for around 10 minutes before she needs a little brain break. A brain break can be a few minutes outside, a fun side project, or a little time with pets. This allows their brains to relax and regroup and re-energizes their ability to focus.
On the other hand, if she is enjoying and involved in a topic, she can go for an hour or more. If your student seems focused and interested without prompting, let them run with it. This will foster creative intelligence and encourage their interest in the subjects.
Another example, my 10-year-old can read for hours at a time but if we are on a less favorite subject, like writing, he can manage about 12 minutes before it’s nearly impossible to keep him focused. This is ok. It’s totally normal. Don’t fight it! Give yourself and your kids some time to learn what their pace and focus time is.
Also, be open about it. If you have more than one kid, and one of them can focus for 30 minutes on math, but the other only lasts 10 – that’s just fine. It’s important to relay to them that everyone learns a little bit differently. Adding stress by laying on expectations has turned out to be counter-productive in our experience. This isn’t to say there shouldn’t be expectations. There is work to be done and sometimes work sucks and you have to grind through it. That in itself is an important life lesson. Just don’t force it if you don’t have to.
School time: To bust another “myth” we held onto at the beginning: you will not need a full 5-6 hours of schoolwork a day. It’s just not reasonable. We spend an average of 2 hours a day on actual seated schoolwork. Start slowly with lower expectations to set you and your kids up for success. You can always add more as you go along. If you’re worried this will slow them down compared to other kids, don’t be. This pace will allow them to keep up with their normal pace at school. This isn’t to say they’re not learning at a reasonable pace at their school, just that individual focus allows for faster learning. That may sound like encouragement to lay it on and go for the gold, but keep in mind that their brains are developing and trying to force too much can backfire.
You’re not perfect. This is a little cheesy to type. Probably reads that way too, but it’s important to keep in mind. I (and FYI this is the husband typing this section) find myself stumped by some of my kid’s math problems. They’re learning a different way than I did and frankly I’m an idiot when it comes to math. At first this was a source of frustration for me, but when I took a step back and tried to learn with my kid, it turned out to be pretty fun and even helped build my confidence in my teaching ability. Humility is key in this job.
I also catch myself moving too fast for my kids. This is normal and some of you will experience it. It’s ok. Take a breath and slow down, or at least try to be aware of the pace at which your kid seems to do well.
This is also important to remember when dealing with the fact that you’re now around your kids. ALL. DAY. Ugh. Hang on, I’m going to grab a beer.
Ok. So. Being around your kids all day when you’re not used to it can be a real struggle for some people. It is for me. If it isn’t for you and every moment you have with your kids is a treasure, bless you and I admire you. My kids are awesome, and pretty mellow for the most part. But there are times, every day, when they freak out and are running around being loud and I’m trying to let go of the stress of work and the, oh I don’t know, global pandemic maybe? Anyway, these times are going to happen. Give yourself a brain break. Head out to the garage and try not to think for a minute. Head out to the back yard or front porch and just breathe for a minute. Whatever healthy way you can think of to let a little of your own stress out.
3. Find time for fun!
Schedule in time to connect and learn together. I know it can be hard with a busy schedule, but it is so worth it. Get out for a hike to sight see or explore a new park. Take time to write in a journal together – I mean, how weird will it be to read in ten years what the pandemic was like?!
Maybe bake a yummy treat together or watch a documentary that interests you and your kids. I can’t recommend reading aloud together enough. It creates opportunities to connect and do something educational and really just feels good. I find some of our juiciest conversations come from these experiences
Not only is it beneficial for our young ones to see us adults relax and enjoy the learning process, but it is important for our health and well-being to slow down and appreciate the simplicities of life. If the day isn’t going well, maybe that day the schedule needs to be let go of, and something fun needs to happen instead.
So, we hope you find a little nugget of help in this post. Please let us know in the comments if there are any points, you’d like us to expand on or other questions you have, we love to pretend we know what we’re doing! If all else fails in your homeschool day, and it feels like everything is falling apart, take a breath and snuggle up to those you care about most. In these uncertain times we wish you all strength, resourcefulness, and good health.
Cristen, Colin and their two beautifully weird kids live in Oregon. Cristen is a dancer and choreographer, and has been teaching dance to kids of all ages for most of her life. Colin works for the city in which they live. Given the family’s ever changing schedule, homeschooling became an attractive option. It’s been a struggle, but has been worth it in so many ways.