Suddenly We're All Homeschoolers

10 steps to help you homeschool when you weren't trained or planning for it.

Posted Mar 24, 2020

"I love my children but this Mary Poppins gig with no expiration date makes me nervous. It feels like the ultimate test for my parenting skills." —Mary McCarthy

If you weren't intending to homeschool, then having your child or children home during this pandemic probably feels like someone signed you up for a marathon you didn't train for. Just when you thought parenting couldn't get any harder!

So first, give yourself and your child a break. These are extraordinary times. This is NOT the time to obsess about keeping your child busy learning. 

Second, if you have actually already been homeschooling, you know that what we are being asked to do now is not actually homeschooling. As one homeschooling mother wrote to me, this is "isolation schooling... it in no way resembles a typical homeschool day. Our homeschooling days are spent doing a bit of bookwork for sure, but they are mostly spent going on weekly field trips, local Enrichment co-op groups for art and dance classes, and LARP classes at a local park. It is built around getting together and working on projects with other homeschoolers, and the older kids helping the younger kids or even leading programs for them. My 13-year-old daughter has been homeschooled since day one, and she is just as out of sorts as we figure out these isolation and social distancing days as my 14-year-old son is, who started public school by choice three years ago." So despite the fact that we are all schooling at home, this is a whole new challenge for everyone.

Finally, like all overwhelming projects, this one is best tackled by breaking it down into bite-sized chunks. Here's your game plan.

iStock/Used with Permission
Source: iStock/Used with Permission

1. Did your child's school set them up with work to do?

Then your biggest problem is motivating your child to do the work, especially if they don't find the assignments interesting. That's a challenge, but the good news is that the schoolwork probably won't take long, so you can stay involved during work time to keep your child on track.

  • Every morning before you begin the assigned schoolwork, agree with your child on a fun activity that you'll do with them after the schoolwork is completed.
  • Set everyone up to work at the dining room table together. Get out your own work and sit with your child so you're available for questions.
  • Most schools seem to expect children to have access to a smartphone or a computer to access the work. Be aware that you'll have to supervise your child as they use the screen for schoolwork, and if you have more than one child sharing a screen, you'll have to help them stagger their work periods.
  • Monitor your child's mood as well as their progress. Notice how you can make this situation feel fun for everyone by managing your own attitude. Think of yourself as more of a camp counselor than a teacher. 
  • For most of us, supervising schoolwork brings up feelings we have a hard time managing. That anxiety often makes us controlling, which always backfires with kids. If you see yourself starting to get into power struggles, back off. Take a deep breath. Say, "This must feel really different than being at school. I'm not trained as a teacher, so please try to be patient with me, and I'll try to be patient with you. Your school and your teacher want you to get this work done, so let's make it as fun as we can. Do you want to take a break for some roughhousing for a few minutes? And after you finish your work, we can do that fun activity we are both looking forward to!
  • After each subject is completed, take a break to do something physical that gets your child laughing. Laughter reduces stress hormones so your child can focus better, and it increases bonding hormones, so your child feels more connected to you, which makes them more open to your influence.
  • If your child gets antsy, take another roughhousing break. Children need to move frequently or they have a harder time learning.
  • If your child gets overwhelmed, break the work into smaller chunks, with bigger breaks in between, and use a timer. But be sure those breaks are physical and recharge your child's emotional batteries. (Screen time is not an effective break.)
  • Don't miss #3, below, on setting up a schedule. And the rest of this article will help you structure the time that isn't schoolwork. 

Trying to get your own work done while supervising your child? See: Kids At Home But You're Trying To Get Work Done?

2. No school assignments? Yay! 

It can feel overwhelming when it's all on you. But there's a big upside here. You don't have to motivate your child to do work that neither they nor you are invested in. Instead, look at this as an opportunity to rekindle your child's love of learning. The rest of this article is for you.

3. The schedule is your new best friend.

Use a schedule. You've heard this by now. Otherwise, you have to invent everything as you go along, and every minute is an invitation to a power struggle. Kids are used to a schedule at school. It's the only way to keep screen time in check. And it will save your sanity.

  • Ask your child for input on the schedule. Review daily and revise until it works well.
  • Your child will be reassured by routines during this time of uncertainty, but resist the urge to over-schedule. Include lots of time in the schedule for free play and downtime. Children need unstructured play and creative outlets to work through stress and big emotions. 
  • Mimic the school routine your child is used to, and keep before and after "school" for free play and downtime. 
  • Be sure there are plentiful breaks.
  • Include outdoor time every day. It will make a big difference in everyone's mood. No yard? Get on bikes. Or head for the nearest park. 
  • Everyone in the family should be involved in a fun way in any work that needs to be done, like laundry or cooking, at specific times of the day when you work together.
  • Make "me time" part of the schedule with enforced quiet time for everyone. Siblings will fight less and you'll be able to stay more patient if you get some time to recharge your batteries.
  • Plan on earlier bedtimes to keep everyone's immune system strong. (Anyone who has to be awakened in the morning, whether by a parent or an alarm, is not going to bed early enough.)
  • Don't expect kids to keep to the schedule without your help. You're the camp counselor to keep everyone on track.
  • "Schoolwork" time should include reading.
  • Don't feel guilty about using screens. If there were ever a time to use screens, this is it! But nonstop screen use makes kids (and adults) feel lousy. So keep screens from taking over your child's life by sticking to the schedule.

For more on schedules that work, outdoor activities and using screens well, see 10 Solutions To Save Your Sanity During the Coronavirus Pandemic School Closures.

Trying to get your own work done while supervising your child, and want more screen time management hints? Kids At Home But You're Trying To Get Work Done?

4. Reading is the best learning...

...and it's liberating because it transports kids beyond the confines of your home.

Research shows that reading to children and discussing the book as you read is the single best way to increase your child’s IQ. That's not just because you're helping your child develop reading comprehension. You're also nurturing a deep love of reading because children learn to love reading when they get excited about how wonderful stories can be. When children love to read, they choose to read independently, so they become better readers. Kids who read more score higher on achievement tests in all subject areas and have greater content knowledge than those who don't. School performance correlates more directly with children's reading scores than any other single indicator.

That means that reading to your child is an essential part of helping them learn to love reading. This is true even once your child can read to himself because you'll be reading more interesting stories than he can decipher. Does this take time? Sure, in the beginning. But soon your child will grab the book, insist on reading to himself, and lose himself in books for hours at a time. That's a wonderful way to get through a pandemic.

For more on how to encourage reading, see Raise a Child Who Loves to Read.

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 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 web sites 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. 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, is 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.

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, just keeping your child home and yourself sane. You don't have to prove a thing to anyone. Give yourself a hand.

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