Written by Natalie Klejwa, Guest Writer
When my oldest child was three years old, I began one of the most exciting and stretching challenges of my life. I started home schooling. Fifteen years later, I am teaching children in the 9th, 6th, 4th, 2nd, and 1st grades along with two toddlers. And that 3 year old? He's almost 18 and will be graduating in the spring…from college!
I've fumbled my way along over the years…trying all kinds of different curriculum, styles, schedules, etc., and I've landed on seven strategies that bring it all together for me. Keep in mind that what works for one mama may not work for another one. God wired us all differently and gave us all unique, one-of-a-kind families! But even if just one idea I share can bring a little order to the chaos, hope for the weary, or vision for a brighter tomorrow…then I'd love to pass it along.
Strategy #1-Don't be afraid to switch curriculum…in the middle of the school year!
For the most part, I have my favorite, tried and true curriculum picked out for the various subjects. But do you know how many times I've bought curriculum, tried it, and watched it "flop" for my children? Too many times to count. When we first started out, we had no money to spare…so this practice was not something I could do "lightly"…but we made it work by buying used curriculum whenever possible…and then selling our used curriculum to others if we found it wasn't working.
One thing I learned the hard way is that if a curriculum was relatively unknown, or "fringy"…there was often a reason for that. I've had the most success with the larger, well known curriculum programs out there that get positive reviews year after year. If you feel "trapped" in the middle of the school year by the curriculum you are using…give yourself a break and quit. Find something that works better for you and your children. They won't die of brain starvation while you are figuring things out and doing that necessary tweaking.
Strategy #2-Admit that each child is different and may need a different approach.
But that doesn't have to mean you go bonkers! I have too many children to juggle a different math program for every single one. In other words, you won't see me jumping and dancing and singing with my kinesthetic child while listening to a math audio program with my auditory child while watching a DVD with my visual child.
Here's an example of what you might see over here. Our oldest child excelled using Saxon math…but our second child hit a wall with the same curriculum right around the 5th grade. So we switched to Math-U-See. That worked great until he hit Algebra. After a year of head banging, we switched again to Teaching Textbooks…and now he is sailing through math. The other kids are sticking with Math-U-See until and unless they also need a "switch".
And keeping in mind strategy #1…we've had to do some of that switching mid-way through the year…and I'm awfully glad we did. What's the point of wasting more time just for the sake of "finishing what we've started no matter WHAT?!" Remember one of the reasons why you're home educating. You want to tailor an education to your individual child's life. Roll with the punches, and enjoy the journey!
Strategy #3-Enjoy a flexible routine that works for your family.
I've tried the rigid scheduling method, and while it worked for a while with a couple of kids, I found myself on the verge of insanity as my family grew. Here is what ended up working for us. When I had 3 children in school, I would get a schedule book with a one-week layout on a two page spread and 7-8 subject spaces. One per child. I used to map out a week at a time, although recently I've started doing a month at a time…and I'll simply write in the assignments for each day…for each subject…for each child.
Now that I have 5 school aged children, I bought a personal book for my 9th grader since he is learning to schedule his own assignments for each week…and then I have a "master book" that has enough scheduling spots in it for the other 4 children…so I have them all in one place. (I use The Well Planned Day, but there are other options out there.)
Here's the deal: the kids don't get free time until they are done with their assignments for the day. This motivates them to stay on task. Older kids can do most of their work independently. That includes correcting their own math work/tests. The only thing I need to continue to oversee with a student 6th grade and higher is their writing.
The youngest children need me for most of their work…so that is what I spend the bulk of my time doing every morning. (This should encourage you younger moms. Home educating is the most intense when they are younger. Keep sowing those seeds and working that soil! You will reap if you faint not!)
So I don't care if they do math first…or science first…or practice their instrument first. The order doesn't matter. And I don't care if they take 3 hours to get their math done because they are in the mood to dawdle. It's no skin off my back. They just have less free time.
For the older ones, that is enough motivation to keep on keeping on…until they finish all their assignments for the day. For the younger ones…they have me to keep them "on task"…and yes, while we do have days where I'm pulling my hair out spending an hour on a 10 minute math lesson with an ornery 6 year old, that is not the "norm". (At least, that's what I tell myself when I'm in the middle of it.)
Strategy #4-The more we get done in the morning…the better.
I used to plan a few subjects for morning…and a few more for the afternoon, but I found over time that little ones (and moms!) are freshest in the morning. You'll sail through a lot more in a lot less time if you "hit the books" first thing after breakfast…and keep plowing through until you're done. I'm usually completely finished with all my littles by lunch if I really stay focused. And then the afternoon is wide open for free time, naps, or projects.
Strategy #5-Who says school has to get done in 5 days out of 7?
A few years ago I started questioning everything I had always assumed about life, including education. I felt like I was in a real cultural "box"…and…why? Like there's some kind of "box" police that makes sure you stay in? I decided to get out. That's one of the reasons our oldest finished high school two years before he was "supposed to".
Who says you have to be in "such-and-such" grade at "such-and-such" age? Who says you have to learn to read at age 5? Why not age 3? Why not age 9? Who says you have to spend 6-7 hours a day "doing school"? Who says a lot of things? Hey…if you are home educating…you're already outside the box. Might as well kick that box down the street and be done with it for good. Once you're out…you are free to make decisions that are best for each individual child…and for your very special family!
I purposefully plan their assignments so that the bulk of their weekly responsibilities are done in 4 days instead of 5. Oh…we still do some things on Friday…spelling, grammar, handwriting, etc. But they are usually the things that could be skipped in a pinch…and it wouldn't hurt anything.
And that's just the point. Things need to be skipped. Life happens. Kids get sick. You get pregnant. Dr. appointments. Unexpected phone calls that last too long. Out of town company…that stays too long. You know what I'm talking about. And if you're already three days (or three weeks!) behind…that can start to feel overwhelming.
BUT…if you have this "extra day" built into your life…it really comes in handy! That ends up being "make up" day. And we use it all the time. Sometimes you'll use it just to go to the zoo…or visit grandparents. The point is…it's there when you need it.
Strategy #6-Have different "toddler spaces" to occupy the smallest members of the family during school.
I like to have my toddlers close, but I don't want to be required to watch them like a hawk. So babies that are crawling or walking get "contained" close by, and often, the older toddler type will play with that baby happily while I am able to read or help the older ones with school.
My "containers"? Downstairs is our play room complete with couch, so I can actually let the toddlers go free down there while I read to older ones on the couch. It's a safe room, and I can keep one eye on the book and one eye on the toddlers. They love that freedom, but if the baby gets into too much trouble, I do have a playpen nearby, and I'll just put them in there and continue reading. If the baby fusses because they can see me, I'll put some child-friendly music on, and the rest of us will move upstairs to finish up. I've noticed that babies do better playing on their own if they can't visually see "mama".
Another "container" is the Johnny Jump Up which is centrally located in our sun room and within view of the kitchen, the dining room, and the family room. I'll let the baby jump and spin in that contraption while I make meals, fold laundry, or help older ones with their math or English.
A third "container" is the play yard in our family room. This is basically a plastic fence that makes a "yard" much bigger than a play pen. The baby can walk, crawl, dance, and play in there with 1-2 siblings. The rest of us can watch our science video in there, do more reading together, or just take a break while the baby is happy.
My other "baby strategy" is having the older children take a turn each day "babysitting" the baby...basically playing with them outside on the swing, letting them crawl in the yard, etc. While one child is "babysitting"...I can get a lot done with another child. And then they just switch!
Strategy #7-Plan for the most challenging time of the day…that hour right before dinner.
Around 4:00, for better or for worse, I allow the youngest children an hour to watch a DVD while I focus on dinner prep. Having all the little ones happily engaged in a DVD for an hour enables me to unwind, pick up the main level so it looks decent for my husband's arrival, and get dinner on the table without dealing with 257 interruptions and 13 meltdowns which tend to make for a messy house, a late dinner, and a frazzled wife.
I do try to be selective about the entertainment our children watch. Educational DVDs like the Leap Frog series (which will teach your children to read by osmosis) are good choices. Another option is to let them watch old family videos. They love to see their older siblings when they were "little"...and enjoy watching themselves and their own silly antics on the screen as well. It brings back memories of past family fun and helps keep those memories alive!
We can all be visionary about education. Education is, bottom line, humans learning about our Creator and what He created. That means that education is happening in exciting ways every day, in every circumstance, in every life that lives under our roofs. Once we have that "big picture" truly settled in our hearts, the details…like what curriculum we use, what schedule we adopt, or which child learns what at what time…all come together somehow in God's unique plan for each of us!
And we can joyfully rest in that.