Originally Published: April 2002
Discouraged by trying and getting nowhere in her public school classes, the seventh grader urged her mom to take her out of school and teach her at home. Determined to make it a success, Mom set up a schedule to match the one at school and began tutoring her daughter. Instead of the cooperation and success she had hoped for, her daughter rolled her eyes and begged for a change. Frustrated, Mom asked what she wanted to do. She then followed her daughter to the computer. “Mom, I’m going to find out all about Egypt, and then you ask me questions, okay?”
In the days that followed, Mom found books with information and projects as well as historical fiction to supplement the study of ancient Egypt. Her daughter eagerly talked about all she learned, but Mom felt nervous, this all seemed too informal. Nevertheless, she kept at it. She opened a workbook that included math exercises to the section on multiplication, the weak area she had targeted for study. Instead, her daughter begged to begin with the algebra section because it would be more fun. Should she stand her ground as the authority or let her daughter make the choice? Was she failing at homeschooling? It all seemed much more difficult than she thought it would be. She came to see me.
During our discussion I learned that the daughter had actually started working on multiplication facts via the Internet on her own. She had found the site during her explorations of Egypt and had initiated daily practice even before asking to begin with algebra. After only a few weeks at home, her attitude toward learning had returned to one of enjoyment. More importantly, confidence in her own ability to learn was now beginning to bloom. These were the very reasons they had begun homeschooling.
This all sounded like a successful beginning to me! So why did Mom think she had failed? It’s easy to lose sight of our goals and focus instead on the plans we’ve made to carry out those goals. Suddenly, our schedule and selected course of study must be obeyed. Somehow we forget that this is the very approach used in the public schools that have failed our children! Our insecurity could be based on the childhood notion that teachers have all the answers. Now that we’re the teachers, our lack of knowledge looms large, so we search for materials to help us feel secure. When our children protest our choices, all those insecurities take over once more.
What’s the answer? How do we get over all those insecurities? How do we know if we are doing a good job?
First, know your objectives. Second, know your kids. Homeschooling is a fluid experience. Expect to use a variety of approaches, schedules, and materials over time. With your objectives in sight, choose the materials and approaches according to the needs of your children. Some children need little more than to be told you are disappointed to apologize and correct wrong behavior. Other children are determined to test every boundary until, through your consistent response, they finally decide that they are better off obeying the rules. One child feels comforted by structure, a routine. Another child feels trapped by that same structure. The advantage of homeschooling is that you can teach to the individual. You can shape each child, helping him develop his talents and abilities while learning skills that will hopefully prevent his weak areas from interfering with all that he can eventually achieve.
In the case above, Mom took her daughter out of school because she saw her becoming sullen. They had moved to a new town, a new school, and suddenly all her daughter’s experiences seemed to be negative. She wanted to restore her daughter’s self-confidence and love of learning before any more damage could be done. For anyone with that goal, the beginning months of homeschooling should have a great deal of input from the student. What do they want to study? In what way? Only when kids are so numbed from the past that they don’t know what they want, do we step in with topics and resources we think they will find interesting.
Once a desire to learn has been sparked, we can look for ways to include practice in those weak areas that the student would prefer to avoid. In many cases, kids want to overcome their weak areas and will cooperate as long as you are working with them directly, giving them your undivided attention. Others will prefer to work without you. They may feel as if they are being judged, or that they are letting you down because they are slow to understand. In those cases, you may want to look for software to be used for extra practice. Depending on the area of weakness, you might also need to consider a tutor in order to remove the student from the emotional barriers raised when working with you.
A third consideration is to know ourselves. What in our own personalities may help or hinder, what physical limitations must we consider? What adjustments can we make?
When looking at resources, we should first ask whether or not it will appeal to the student since it is easier to teach when the student likes the material and the approach. But then we must be realistic about our time and energy. Will we buy it, but not actually implement it? In that case, it is likely that we will end up feeling guilty, like failures, and grab workbooks for the kids to do on their own while we try to “get our act together.” Instead, we should begin by considering alternatives, a way to compromise.
My son would have preferred constant field trips, projects, and co-ops. Health problems drained me of the energy needed for the pace he preferred. I did incorporate many projects and field trips (although not as many as he would have liked), but quickly discovered that my unpredictable health and lack of stamina made co-ops too difficult for me. Instead, I tried to fill his need to be with other kids by enrolling him in outside activities (my husband could drop him off) and arranged for friends to sleep over. He also wanted my undivided attention twenty-four hours a day–not possible for any of us. I looked for something that he would enjoy doing without me at his side. I realized that he loved telling me interesting bits of information that he had discovered on his own, and knew that he preferred watching to reading. So, I selected both fiction and nonfiction videos that would be valuable contributions to his schooling and added them regularly to his schedule. From his perspective, it was just an enjoyable way to have something interesting to talk to me about.
Although willing and able to be flexible, I still felt the need for a sense of structure. I’m a list person. I like organization and order. It would have been easy to consider a packaged curriculum, an orderly choice, if my experience as a teacher hadn’t already taught me how much more difficult that approach is with kids like my son. Instead, I developed lists so that I could choose objectives and monitor progress by checking off concepts and skills covered. In this way I was able to satisfy the need in my personality without imposing a method that would have hindered him.
As a consultant, I have been impressed with the wide variety of creative ways in which parents have adjusted to the needs of their children and themselves in order to homeschool effectively. More often than not, these are parents who pray for guidance and share their stories with the preface “And then the Lord showed me.” The mother I refer to in this article also prayed. As a result, she had allowed her daughter to study ancient Egypt and begin with algebra, among other things. But the Lord also knew her needs, and so we discussed ways to choose objectives and keep track of concepts and skills covered. “As we train up our children in the way they should go” let’s always remember whose children they are so that we really will trust His leading. Our homeschool may be very different from what we imagined. It may be different than that of our friends. But, if we seek God’s guidance, it will be the perfect homeschool for each of our families.