Getting Started Homeschooling: A Guide
If you’re considering homeschooling, now is likely an exciting time of research and questions. For many families, homeschooling provides a positive and child-centered educational option that meets children’s needs and furthers their interests. Like these families, you may find that homeschooling works well for your family. However, it is important to remember that homeschooling is not for everyone, and to bear in mind that in some cases homeschooling can go badly and be a painful experience, particularly when parents aren’t prepared for the day-to-day realities of homeschooling. As an organization founded and run by homeschool alumni, we’ve seen both experiences first-hand!
Our home is to guide you through some of the issues involved as you consider homeschooling. The better you understand what will be asked of you—and what you need to know to homeschool effectively—the better prepared you’ll be to handle bumps along the way and provide your child with the support they need. Whether or not you decide to homeschooling, we wish you and your child all the best on your educational journey.
1. Research Time!
The decision to homeschool should not be made lightly or on the spur of the moment. Do some research, speak with homeschoolers in your area, and consult your child about their wishes. Homeschooling is not for everyone. In fact, some studies have suggested that more than a third of homeschooling parents decide to stop homeschooling after the first year. If that’s you, it’s okay! Your focus should be on what is best for your child, yourself, and your family.
If you are considering homeschooling because you feel your children’s public school is not serving their interests, make sure you consider all of your options before making your decision. In addition to homeschooling, there are also charter schools and private schools, and in some cases you may be able to transfer your child to another public school in your area.
Rather than viewing homeschooling as an escape from traditional schooling or a particular problem you have encountered in public school or elsewhere, try to view it as a positive educational option which has the potential to benefit your child and your family. We find that parents who approach their children’s education with a view to providing the best possible experience for their child have more successful outcomes than those who homeschool out of fear, reactionary thinking, or a desire to control their children’s environment.
2. Know Your State’s Laws
Homeschooling law is different in every state. Make sure to read your state’s legal requirements thoroughly. You can view your state’s laws here.
If you are withdrawing your child from school in order to homeschool, talk to your school or district administrators about their requirements, including those for re-enrolling later on if you need to. It is also a good idea to ask what programs they make available to homeschoolers, such as athletics or individual course enrollment at the high school level. If your school district has a homeschool liaison, they may be able to point you to local homeschool co-ops or groups. We find that homeschooling families benefit from having a positive relationship with their local school district, if possible.
3. Take Your Responsibility Seriously
In most states, there are few legal safeguards in place to ensure that children who are homeschooled are making academic progress. This means that, as a homeschooling parent, you will be largely on your own, without someone to let you know if there is a problem; if your children have disabilities; or if a given educational approach is not working for them. Make sure you are comfortable bearing this responsibility yourself. If you live in a state with no external accountability, it may be a good idea to seek out other sources of accountability, such as partnering with another homeschooling family for feedback and advice or asking a friend who is a teacher to look over your children’s progress and give you suggestions.
If you are homeschooling a high school-age student, make sure you understand your state’s requirements for high school graduation. In states that do not have specific requirements for homeschoolers, it is usually a good idea to look at public schools’ graduation requirements. College admissions officers are used to seeing certain things on a high school transcript, including a certain number of years of in various subject areas, and meeting or exceeding these requirements in your homeschool will help ensure your children’s success as they enter college or the workforce.
Admissions officers and potential employers evaluate homeschool alumni differently than other children, giving more weight to letters of recommendation and transcripts than to grades. For that reason, it’s important to make sure that your children have access to mentors and teachers other than yourself. Some colleges do not accept letters of recommendation from family or religious leaders, so being part of a varied community is important. In addition to serving as possible references, having other adults in their lives as role models and mentors may also encourage your children and boost their self esteem.
Remember also that by homeschooling you are removing your children from the system of regular medical care and screenings which is incorporated into public schools. Public school children are regularly screened for hearing and vision impairment, dental problems, and other chronic conditions, and teachers are trained to notice symptoms of learning disabilities, mental illness, eating disorders, etc. Schools also require children to receive the appropriate schedule of vaccinations. Without these automated systems in place, the responsibility falls solely to you to make sure your children receive regular, appropriate medical care.
4. Locate a Support System
If possible, we encourage parents to meet other homeschooling families before making their decision to homeschool, and, if possible, to join a state or local homeschooling organization once you begin homeschooling. Bear in mind that each organization has its own culture. You may need to explore a bit to find one that is compatible with your goals and outlook.
When the modern homeschooling movement began in the 1970s and 1980s, many parents had conflicts with their local school districts over homeschooling. This led some homeschoolers to develop a distrust of the school system and schooling in general. However, in the current environment of school choice, homeschooling has become increasingly accepted as one of an array of educational options. Homeschooling has been legal in every state for over 20 years, and fears of persecution are due more to the community’s self-reinforcement than to any actual threat. If you find yourself in a homeschooling community where a sense of fear predominates, we suggest widening your social support system to include non-homeschooling families to keep a sense of perspective.
There are additional support systems available to interested homeschooling parents as well. Some states may allow children to be homeschooled through “umbrella” schools, small private or religious schools that enroll homeschooled students and may provide guidance or support. There are also a growing number of cyber charters and other online programs that may be of interest in homeschooling parents looking for outside support. If you are interested in a high level of support, you may also want to talk to your local school district: a growing number of public schools are allowing enrolled students to be educated by their parents at home with resources and accountability (and, in some cases, curriculum) provided by the school.
5. Create an Academic Plan
Homeschooling does not have to mean replicating a school setting in the home. Many homeschooling parents recommend taking some time off of formal education when you first begin homeschooling and spending time reading to your children, taking them to museums and historic sites, participating in community events with them, and fostering their love of learning. Trying to do too much too quickly can lead to burnout and frustration. Nevertheless, you do want to have a plan.
As you begin looking around at different curriculum options and educational approaches, you may be overwhelmed by the multiplicity of options. Make sure to do your research, and be ready to switch program or approach as needed. In a recent article for CRHE, homeschooling mother Karen Goltz emphasized the importance of being flexible in searching for the curriculum and approach that works for your children. As you look around at what’s available, don’t forget that there are an increasing array of online resources and virtual school options as well.
Most homeschooling parents create an outline of planned studies and educational goals for each child at the beginning of each school year. This could include what curriculum will be used for math, an overview of what the year’s science education will look like, and a list of what music lessons or extracurricular activities the child will take. You should also think about how you want to evaluate your child’s progress at the end of the year—whether you do that informally yourself, or with a standardized test, or by having a teacher or another outside adult review your child’s progress to provide extra perspective. You may need to update your the plan you create as you find what does and doesn’t work for your children, but having an outline to start with will help you stay on track to meet educational goals.
6. Develop a System for Record-Keeping
Keeping good academic records is important for your child’s future. If you enroll your child in a public school after some years of homeschooling, you may be asked to document your child’s academic level; if you homeschool your child through high school, you will need to create a transcript documenting your child’s completion of standard high school requirements. If you don’t keep records of your child’s education, no one will.
During the school year, keep records or your child’s progress. At the end of the year, create a portfolio of materials, including book lists, writing samples, math papers, workbooks, and any year-end assessment. It is a good idea to create a digital copy of this portfolio, and you may also want to upload it to any cloud-based service you may be using. We have heard from homeschooled students whose records were lost due to a fire or flood, and a computer crash can lead to the loss of documents that are not backed up.
7. Think Beyond the Dining Room Table
Most homeschooling parents integrate education at home with a variety of co-ops, extracurriculars, tutoring, or classes. Many homeschooling parents seek outside help on subjects they find challenging to teach, especially when they are homeschooling high school aged children. Some school districts allow homeschooled children to take individual classes at their local high school, and in some states community and state colleges offer classes at discounted rates for students of high school age.
If one of your children has disabilities, you may need to locate therapists or other specialists to assist you in educating your child. Homeschooled children are entitled to special needs testing through their local school districts, and school districts in some states also make therapy or other services available to homeschoolers. There are other options, though, as well, such as therapy offered at local rehabilitation centers.
Some academic subjects are difficult to teach well in a homeschooling setting. Homeschooled children tend to be weaker in math and science than other children—it is difficult to replicate a science laboratory at home, and many parents have phobias surrounding math—and some subjects like foreign language are challenging or impossible to learn without access to an expert. Be proactive about seeking outside help on these subjects from tutors, college classes, internships or apprenticeships, etc.
8. Take Socialization Seriously
Social interaction is critical to children’s development and well-being. School serves as a primary center for social interaction for many children; children who are homeschooled access social interaction in other settings. Many homeschooling parents find social opportunities for their children in co-ops, clubs, classes, community centers, houses of worship, field trips, or park dates. Additionally, many homeschooled children play with children in their neighborhood and have playdates like other children.
Social interaction is an important human need and must be taken seriously. In an article for CRHE, homeschool graduates Rachel Coleman and Sarah Evans discussed their childhood experiences and the importance of social interaction. Asked what advice they would give to homeschooling parents, they offered the following:
RACHEL: Please remember that every child is an individual. What works for one child may not work for another. Listen to your children, especially as they move toward their teen years. Ask for their input and incorporate it into your lives and into your homeschool plan. If your child is feeling lonely or would like more friends, find activities, a club or a co-op or a sport, to enroll her in. . . .
SARAH: Social interaction is really important. I remember hearing many homeschool parents laugh at the “socialization” question, but the truth is, it’s not something to laugh about. There was one year in high school, where I became really depressed because I hardly had any friends in my social circle—or I only saw them once a week. While the rest of my siblings all had a large number of friends in the homeschool circle, there weren’t many my age, and my parents overlooked the importance of this. . . .
Socialization is about more than just social interaction. Social scientists define socialization as “the process by which individuals acquire the knowledge, skills, and character traits that enable them to participate as effective members of groups and society.” Socialization involves learning social norms and gaining the ability to navigate our society. As explained in another article, “If a social scientist says a child is ‘not well-socialized,’ what she means is that he lacks some age-appropriate skill which he will find necessary to be an effective member of society.” You are preparing your child for his or her potential future roles as a romantic partner, parent, employee, boss, friend, and mentor. Make sure your child has the opportunity to build the skills he or she will need in these roles.
9. Center Your Child’s Needs
One of the best things about homeschooling is that you can create an educational environment that fits your child rather than fitting your child into an educational environment that may not suit them well. But this also means you have to be vigilant and willing to change your approach if you find that what you are doing is not working. This involves listening to your child and asking for their feedback.
In addition to being your children’s teacher, you are also their parent. Your children need your unconditional love regardless of their academic success. They need free time to play. They need friends and mentors outside of their family. They need privacy, responsibility, and freedom.
Listen to your children when they tell you about their needs, both academic and otherwise. If homeschooling is not fulfilling those needs, be willing to consider other options. If your child would rather not be homeschooled, listen to their reasons and ensure that they are part of the decision-making process. If your child is unhappy with a certain aspect of homeschooling, spend some time brainstorming solutions with them. Listen to your child.
10. Think Positively!
Giselle Palmer, a homeschool graduate with over a decade of experience as an elementary school teacher, offers these words to homeschool parents:
First of all, congratulations! What an incredible task you have chosen to undertake! In my mind, there is little that compares with the joy and excitement of teaching young people—watching their minds work, seeing the lights come on as they grasp a new concept, enjoying the electric atmosphere of a classroom filled with engaged students, and most of all, standing back and looking on with pride as I see them taking pride and ownership in their work and extending the ideas beyond what we have learned in class.
Most of all, enjoy this time with your children. Encourage them to press on when things are difficult, and get excited about your teaching, so your students will catch your enthusiasm and become eager learners themselves! Have a wonderful time experiencing the delights of learning with your children and making memories you will all treasure.
We couldn’t agree more.
For additional information, see our Resources for Homeschool Parents page.