Suddenly We're All Homeschoolers
Part 2: 10 steps to help you homeschool when you weren't trained for it.
Posted Apr 15, 2020
5. Instead of schoolwork, invite your child to become an expert on a topic of their choice.
Children who are pursuing something that interests them don't get bored and whiny. They're motivated and self-directed. Kids are also natural scientists, and they learn best by investigating to answer their own questions.
Becoming an expert (for their age level) on anything is good for kids. It increases self-esteem. It forces them to develop their inner resources, including self-discipline, to overcome the inevitable roadblocks they encounter. And as they master anything, doors open to related topics.
So tell your child that instead of school, their new job is to become an expert in a topic or skill of their choice. No, not gaming. You have veto power here. So keep talking to evolve the idea. For instance, if your 10-year-old wants to learn to bake, you may not have time to supervise them, or you may not want them baking sweets every day. But maybe your child could become an expert on bread.
There will be some baking, of course, but also research into how yeast works, the difference between yeast and sourdough, etc. They might do some research and write a paper on bread-making. They might write a poem about it or make a small book of recipes that includes photos. They might make a video of kneading and rising and smelling the fresh bread. Think of this as a child-led (parent-supervised) multi-disciplinary investigation that builds practical life skills as well as gives practice in thinking, research, reading, writing, and even math.
So start with a topic that interests your child. Brainstorm with them to come up with a list of questions about that topic. Then, ask them to think about how they might answer those questions, both with direct experimentation and with research.
For instance, maybe your 6-year-old likes art. Her questions might include:
- What happens when you mix different colors together?
- What is the difference between watercolors and oils?
- How can I learn to draw a flower?
- What are some examples of famous paintings of flowers?
Obviously, learning to paint is the work of a lifetime, and most children who like visual art won't end up as painters. But answering these questions would be an exciting learning experience for any child, using hands-on experimentation and looking at art in books or online. The point is to build on an interest your child already has, so she's motivated to pursue it and learns not only about that subject, but about HOW to learn.
A few cautions:
- Keep your expectations age-appropriate. Some children will need lots more support for this "independent" project than others. If your child is small, keep this project small, to keep your own involvement small.
- Children, like all humans, learn the most when they get a chance to experiment and explore for themselves, rather than being told facts. Be sure that some portion of your child's project is experiential.
- It's more important for your child to know how to find and evaluate answers than to know lots of facts. If you're teaching your child to look things up online, it's important to give lessons in web literacy. In addition to basic web safety, children need to know that some websites are not reliable sources of facts, and how to evaluate a source. For more on teaching kids web literacy, including how to stay safe online, click here.
- Many kids might consider becoming an expert on COVID-19. But think about how the news reports affect you. They're anxiety-producing, right? You probably want to discourage this as a topic for now. Your child will do better immersing herself in something that provides a positive counterpoint to all the anxiety.
6. Unschool by involving your child in your work.
There's an argument to be made that children don't need a curriculum; they just need life itself. If you have to do your job from home and you're spending your day on conference calls, you may not be able to involve your child. But if you're cooking or gardening or paying your bills, or even doing spreadsheets for your employer, why not involve your child in an age-appropriate way?
Sure, it will take longer than doing it by yourself. But your child will gain skills, perspective, a closer relationship with you, and more confidence. That's a huge payoff, and now, while you're together more, it's the perfect time to try this.
So don't feel guilty about not having a curriculum. But be aware that this approach takes more engagement from you.
And, of course, real-life for children isn't just practicing to be an adult. Make sure your child has lots of free play time and creative time. Again, the schedule is your friend.
7. Slow down and enjoy those teachable moments.
Most of the time, we're so busy moving our kids through the schedule that we barely notice their questions. But when a child raises a question, that's a teachable moment because they're ready to learn!
When your child asks you a question, acknowledge. Instead of overloading them with facts, counter with a question:
"Hmm... that's a great question. I don't really know what those little particles in that shaft of light are. Dust motes? Why can we only see them in the light, do you think? Are they all over the room but we can't see them?"
Help your child voice their own questions and theories, then find ways to answer them with experiments or research.
Children develop curiosity about the world when they grow up with adults who are curious and interested in it, so raise your own questions too. If you want some ideas on what to ask your child to get good discussions going, see 230 Questions to Ask Your Child to Start a Great Conversation.
It's true that every interaction with your child is a teachable moment but think twice about what you're teaching. For instance, on a nature walk, marvel together at the mysteries of nature, but resist the temptation to label every living thing and reduce your walk to a science lesson. Notice the buds bursting into blossom, the changes in the moon, the way the hummingbird hovers. There are times when facts are a distraction from the magic of life. That magic is what will inspire your child to want to learn more facts.
8. What if your child complains of boredom?
Great! Unstructured time gives children the opportunity to explore their inner and outer worlds, which is the beginning of creativity. This is how they learn to engage with themselves and the world, to imagine and invent and create. For more on boredom, including 115 examples of screen-free ideas that children can do without supervision, see this article: Handling Boredom: Why It's Good for Your Child.
9. Expect emotional development to be on the agenda.
We're all struggling with fear right now, and your child is no exception. Some children show this by misbehaving. Others are surly or torment their siblings. You probably have less patience than usual, but your child needs your help to work through fears they can't even articulate, so remind yourself that your child is trying to cope with unprecedented stress, just like you are.
- Work on yourself first, so your own fear doesn't transmit itself to your child: Coping With Fear in the Face of the Pandemic.
- Before your child can focus on learning or reading each morning, they'll need some connection time with you to fill their cup and get stabilized emotionally.
- You don't have to know all the answers. Connection and listening are healing, all by themselves.
- Be sure to schedule one on one time for each child with each parent.
- Don't worry if planned assignments get pre-empted by spontaneous roughhousing or a good cry. Working through emotions will make the rest of the day go better.
- Be sure you're doing daily Preventive Maintenance: Welcoming emotions, routines that include connection, roughhousing, special time, and as much empathy as you can summon up.
- Expect sibling friction. (See 10 Solutions To Save Your Sanity During the Coronavirus Pandemic School Closures, and watch for my post on Keeping Siblings from Each Other's Throats During Forced Togetherness.)
Expect friction between you and your partner, if you have one. (See 10 Solutions to Save Your Sanity During the Coronavirus Pandemic School Closures, and Can You Make a Fight With Your Partner Into a Positive Learning Experience for Your Child?)
In the end, your child's success in life will depend less on academics and more on emotional intelligence. Use this opportunity to build EQ by talking about emotions and listening a lot. When you see your kids spiraling out of control, reel them back in with connection. What better time to strengthen and sweeten your family relationships?
10. Give yourself a break.
You don't have to be Mary Poppins and you don't have to suddenly be a model teacher. Resist the urge to be one of those parents posting your color-coded schedule online. There's so much more to worry about right now. Keeping your family healthy. Keeping food on the table. Keeping yourself from screaming at your kids. Keeping your children feeling safe rather than increasingly anxious.
You're being heroic by just keeping your child home and yourself sane. You don't have to prove a thing to anyone. Give yourself a hand.