I live in New Hampshire, where kindergarten is optional and compulsory education begins at age six. In September 2013 my son was five and would have begun half-day kindergarten at our local public school, while my daughter would not eligible for kindergarten until September 2015. After years of informal early home education for both of them, I decided to formally launch our homeschool program. I figured that if it didn’t work out, I could simply enroll my son in first grade on schedule next year, no harm no foul.
I knew which homeschooling philosophy best met my objectives. I purchased curricula for reading, grammar, math, and history. I set our school calendar and plotted out our daily schedule. I took the obligatory ‘first day of school’ picture showing both my kids standing in our playroom/schoolroom, smiling broadly and still wearing their pajamas. And then we got started.
And we hated it.
It was drudgery for both me and the kids. After the first month I decided my plan was too ambitious for a preschooler and kindergartner, so I dropped history and grammar and just focused on reading and math. But ‘doing school’ was still a miserable experience for all of us. I gave up the reading and math curricula in the middle of October and we took a week’s vacation while I researched online options.
I found an online program that included language arts, math, and science, and started the kids on it in late October. They loved it, as long as I backed off and left them alone to do their thing. I just monitored their progress online and only stepped in to bring them back to revisit activities they didn’t do very well.
My daughter completed Pre-K 1 and Pre-K 2 in just a few weeks. She began the kindergarten activities shortly before her fourth birthday. She moved on to first grade language arts four months later.
On a hunch I put my son in kindergarten math and first grade language arts from the beginning. He was doing well with it, but I soon realized he was skipping all the worksheets and skimming past the reading assignments. He was also neglecting the subjects he didn’t like. So in a fourth major shake-up of our homeschooling plan, I began assigning the kids online activities, overseeing worksheet completion, and listening to the reading assignments. School became miserable again.
In an attempt to find the right balance between independence and accountability, I reinvented our homeschool plan yet again. In our fifth incarnation, eight months into our first “formal” year, I realized both my kids shut down when forced to dwell on something they’d already grasped. The worksheets, which had been intended to cement concepts through additional practice, were actually serving as a barrier to progress, so I agreed to let them skip those. The math curriculum wasn’t working for either of my kids, so I found two others that we now alternate between, and they seem to work a lot better. Both of our new math programs require a lot of one-on-one attention from me, but the kids can progress through language arts at their own pace. They know to call me over to listen when the online activity requires them to read a story, and they know I’ll help them skip through some of the more repetitive non-scored activities they find so annoying. I wasn’t impressed with the online science program, so now we do some fun science experiments every few weeks. I’ve also added handwriting and German language instruction, a monthly world geography activity, and have included more time for fun (and educational, but they don’t know that!) computer games. Audiobooks have become a staple in our car when we’re running errands or driving from one activity to another.
Less than a month before the local public school wraps up for the year, I feel like we’ve finally found our groove. Our homeschooling looks nothing like what I’d meticulously planned last September, but the kids have progressed quite a bit since the beginning of the school year and they can easily match their public school peers in academic proficiency.
For all my years of research and early experimentation, I was not prepared for the reality of a sustained academic year of homeschooling. My one saving grace was that I’d gone into this year understanding it as a trial run. That mindset gave me permission to shake things up as often as necessary until I found what worked. Now that (I think) I’ve found it, I’m willing to sign up for another year.
If what’s working now stops working later, I’ll shake things up again until we’re back to making forward progress. I’ll keep evaluating year by year, and enroll them in public or private school if homeschooling ever stops serving my children’s educational needs. Because the other big thing I learned this year is humility. It’s not about me as a teacher. With a lot of the independent work my kids are doing, I’m not teaching them a thing. But they’re still learning, and the best thing I can do is give them the resources they need and get out of their way. In other areas, the teaching style I’m most comfortable with doesn’t work for them at all, and I have to adjust what I’m doing so it benefits them. As much as I love my schedules, my calendars, and my neatly planned milestones, my kids couldn’t care less about them. If my schedule says we’re going to do math for 30 minutes but it takes one of my kids an hour and 15 minutes to grasp the concept, then I’d better be willing to throw my schedule out the window and give them the time they need, regardless of what it does to the other lessons I had planned for that day.
If you’re thinking of homeschooling, know that flexibility isn’t just a benefit—it’s a requirement. Whether you’re doing a ‘trial run’ year like I did or you’ve gone all in already, give yourself permission to make changes—both minor adjustments and major reinventions—if that’s what it takes to help your kids along. Someday your children will be adults needing to function in this world, and as a homeschooling parent it’s up to you to give them the tools and the skills they’ll need to do that effectively. By remaining flexible enough to meet their individual academic needs, you’ll also teach them important lessons in tenacity, learning from failure, and adjusting to a changing environment, not to mention showing them just how important they are to you. These skills are just as critical to a successful future as mastering the three R’s.
My homeschooling dreams share little in common with my homeschooling reality, but I can’t deny that my kids are flourishing, and that is my ultimate dream as a homeschooling parent.