It’s a little ironic that I created a post entitled, How to Homeschool, because I don’t honestly believe there is a “RIGHT” way to homeschool. Children are different. Families are different. Priorities are different. A style that suits one family perfectly may be completely wrong for the family next door.
The flexibility to homeschool how we choose is why many of us chose to homeschool in the first place. We did not WANT the cookie-cutter, factory-style education that institutional learning offered. Homeschooling represents freedom. I don’t believe there is a wrong way to homeschool any more than I believe there is a right way. There are benefits to all the different methods. (This post shares a summary of many different styles and what I incorporate into our own personal homeschool from each.)
However, I do feel like there is some homeschooling advice that is universal. Whether you are a classical homeschooler, an unschooler, or even an after-schooler, I think these suggestions are relevant and important. They are tips that are backed up by science and veteran homeschooling moms alike. Much of this advice will feel obvious, but when you are in the trenches, I hope these gentle reminders will be helpful.
1. Put Relationships First
There is no educational goal that is more important than your relationship with your child. In any homeschool, just as in any home, there will be disagreements and hard feelings, frustration and resistance. The trick is to know when to push forward and when to allow your child to push back. As Julie Bogart says, “When the tears come, the writing is done.”
I’m not suggesting that knowing when to push and when to back off is always easy. What I do know is that your relationship with your child matters more than academics. Nobody’s sense of well-being is high when they live in a state of detente. The goal is not to simply get along, but rather to actually enjoy each other’s company. A child that knows deep in his core that you are his ally will both trust you and work harder to achieve goals that together you deem important. Studies show that kids who feel safe and secure perform better at academic tasks. Children who are emotional and upset are not learning.
Yesterday, I was helping two of my children complete assignments at our kitchen counter. My older child was getting frustrated with his math worksheet. I explained to him where he messed up and went back to helping my daughter. He still did not understand. Having to wait for me to finish helping her was adding to his frustration. By the time I got back to explaining to him how to do the problem, his math abilities had regressed a couple of years. He was throwing out random guesses and was unable to hear anything I was saying to him.
As my frustration level began to rise to match his, I said, “Okay, we’re taking a break. Just walk away and come back in 10 minutes.” He stalked off to my room where he likes to be alone from his siblings and slammed the door. After a few minutes, I took him a plate with a snack on it and set it down on the table. “What’s that?” he asked. “A peace offering,” I said, then left the room.
Later he came out and we chatted about something completely unrelated. Knowing that he was in a much better mood, I said, “Hey, let’s finish that problem before we forget.” We did it together on the whiteboard. When he was calm and able to listen, he understood the material quickly.
There have been scenarios in the past when I have not handled building tensions so gracefully. There have been times when similar frustrations led to tears and shouting and crumpled-up papers. However, none of that is necessary. In fact, it is counter-productive. Even if we get behind by a day or two on the schedule, in the long run, preserving the relationship and the trust that we’ve built together leads to better educational outcomes, not to mention a happier home life.
2. Read to Your Child
According to folklore, Albert Einstein said, “If you want your child to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” There is no question about the power of stories in our lives. Books teach us about realities we could never imagine on our own. They build vocabulary, creativity, and moral character. Stories help us develop empathy. They are escape hatches and links to the rest of humanity all at the same time.
Studies have shown how important access to print is to a child’s reading skills and how important reading ability is to future life success. No one questions the significance of literacy. The main question is not how we teach children phonics and the mechanics of reading. What is really critical is how we develop children who want to read for fun. In the quest to raise readers, what I feel is undervalued is the importance of reading aloud.
Reading aloud has so many benefits. A child who learns how to tune into and enjoy a good story is well on their way to becoming a lifelong reader. If they learn to enjoy stories, then they know the value of reading for pleasure. Once they are captivated by the written word, your child will be motivated to learn the skills necessary to become a reader. Even if the mechanics of reading are slow in developing, children can still develop on an intellectual level from hearing complex, fascinating, and enjoyable tales.
Reading aloud or listening to audiobooks also allows children to hear stories above their reading level. Rather than limiting beginning readers to simpler stories, allowing them to listen to books opens up a whole world of literature for their enjoyment. Reading aloud levels the playing field. One of my children is dyslexic, but he has “read” and enjoyed so many books through listening to them.
Even once your child is a proficient reader, even once they are already reading for pleasure, there is still value to reading aloud. Families which read together build bonds that will last a lifetime. They have a common reference base for conversations, inside jokes, and even understanding the world. Stories stick with us. They can change us forever. Sharing this life-altering experience is an amazing way to bring families together.
If you are interested in learning more about reading aloud and finding suggestions for family read-alouds, I recommend following the Read Aloud Revival website and podcast by Sarah McKenzie. Also, be sure to check out the Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. This classic, engaging book is full of helpful tips backed up by scientific evidence.
3. Spend Time Outdoors
As a fellow busy homeschooling parent, the last thing I want to do is add to your to-do list. I am not saying I think you need to invest in field guides or plan elaborate hikes or camping trips. I don’t think you need to break out the watercolors and journal with your budding naturalists. If you want to do these things, hats off to you. They are no doubt worthy endeavors.
What I am saying is that for as much time as you can manage each day, you should unplug your kids and send them outside. Let them run barefoot in the grass and sink their hands in some dirt. Better yet, take off your shoes and join them. Nature is good for your soul. Study after study shows that time spent in nature helps alleviate depression and other mood disorders.
If you happen to live in an urban location where “nature” consists of a concrete sidewalk next to a busy street, take advantage of what you have. Go for a walk with your kids in the sunshine. Take a stroll under an umbrella while it rains. Sit in some lawn chairs and watch the clouds. You will feel better. They will feel better. And they will learn better too.
In his widely loved book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv explains how time in nature promotes not only health, but attention, focus, and learning. Alleviating symptoms of what he calls nature-deficit disorder by spending time outdoors leads to more creativity and better critical thinking skills, as well as higher GPAs and test scores.
4. Praise Effort Over Outcome
Do you believe that some kids are naturally better in certain areas than others? Maybe one of your children is good at math and another is more artistically talented. Scientific studies pioneered by Carol Dweck at Stanford have shown conclusively that what matters more than our innate abilities is our mindset. The growth mindset movement is on the rise and kids will no doubt benefit from this new way of thinking.
Some children might be faster learners than other at certain areas. However, this does not mean that slower children should be excluded from these fields. What matters more than any child’s current ability level is their belief in their ability to improve. Knowing that you will get better with effort is having a growth mindset. Feeling as if you are innately talented or doomed to fail in a certain area is having a fixed mindset.
To set our kids up for success, we want them to have a growth mindset. One of the ways we can help foster this mindset in our kids is by praising their effort and not the outcome. If a preschooler draws a picture, instead of saying, “Wow, that’s such an amazing picture! You are so talented!” it is better to say, “Wow, I can tell you worked really hard on that! Tell me about it.”
This distinction of praising effort instead of outcome extends to older kids and even adults as well. If your child feels like they are just not good at a subject, particularly math, I high recommend anything written by Jo Boaler. Her research-based work is convincing, highly readable, and filled with strategies that are easy to apply.
If you are less interested in the research and just looking for a quick and easy way to promote a growth mindset within your family culture, be sure to check out Big Life Journal. The company has developed a number of products, including a free podcast, which are developed specifically to foster growth mindsets in children and teens.
5. Enjoy Your Life Together
I think what most of us want for our kids is to help them grow up to be adults that live happy, gratifying lives, filled with security, meaningful relationships, and the freedom to pursue their own interests. Many of us believe that the way to accomplish this goal is through giving them a strong education that will prepare them for college, the workforce, or whatever path they choose.
However, it’s important that we not lose sight of the present when we focus on the end goal. We are able to give our kids happy, fulfilling lives, filled with security, meaningful relationships, and freedom right now. We are able to claim those things for ourselves and role model for our kids what it means to be a thriving adult.
Education is important. At some point, your child will probably need to memorize their times tables. However, play is just as important to intellectual development, if not more so. The book, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, explains how important play has been over the course of human history for survival. Humans and animals alike learn social skills, problem-solving, and creativity through play.
While the word “play” might conjure up images of Barbie dolls and dress-up, I’m not asking you to get down on the floor and play Hot Wheels with your kids. (Though if you want to, go for it!) You don’t even have to play board games with your kids if that’s not your cup of tea. Play is whatever brings us joy. Whatever is so pleasurable that we lose track of time.
While we should allow our children time to play and pursue their passions on their own, we should also try to find time to “play” with them. For one family this might mean hiking together on the weekend. For another, it might be having a family game night. Maybe one family likes working on old cars, or jigsaw puzzles, or building computers, or birdwatching, or painting landscapes, or golfing.
There are so many ways to “play” and we should never consider these activities a waste of time. Science shows that achieving a state of “flow” in which we become completely absorbed in our activity leads to peak human performance. Let’s show our kids what this feels like. What it means to be having so much fun, you don’t want to stop. Not only will the happiness in our family lives increase, but we will be building our children’s brains at the same time.