Congratulations! You made it through your first homeschool week and while you didn’t do it perfectly, you did it. The great news is the first week is always the hardest, and it only gets easier from here.
To help your second week go a little more smoothly, I thought of five more tips I’ve learned the past six years of homeschooling my kiddos. (To see last week’s post and my Top Ten Homeschooling Tips, click here.)
#1 – Preparation is Everything.
As I’m sure you learned from last week, preparing for the week while trying to teach at the same time is like trying to learn how to swim by being thrown in the deep end without wearing any floaties. It feels like drowning more than swimming and at some point, you will end up at the bottom of the pool. The key to a successful week of school at home is the preparation you do before your week starts.
Every weekend, I sit down for an 1 1/2-2 hours to read through lesson plans and on-line teacher notes, print out handouts I will need for the week, and make a list of supplies or materials my kids will need to get their work done. Each child has her own clipboard or notebook where I put all of her lesson plans and handouts she needs for the week. For their sake and my sake, everything is located in one place and saves us searching high and low for that one elusive piece of paper.
While I do all of the reading and printing for my two youngest girls (Kindergarten and 3rd grade), my two oldest girls (5th grade and 7th grade) are responsible to prepare for their week on their own. They read their teachers’ notes and print out all of their own lesson plans and handouts, but I read all of the notes as well and touch base with the girls to make sure we are on the same page about what work needs to be accomplished, projects finished, books read, etc, for the week. As much of a drag as it can be (after all, who wants to think about homeschool on a weekend?!), the time we set aside to prepare for our week helps all of us feel more prepared for the responsibilities ahead.
2. Establish a Morning Routine that Does Not Depend on You.
Trying to get everyone up, dressed, moving, fed, and ready to think deep, intellectual thoughts every morning can feel a little bit like trying to turn around the Titanic – it takes a lot of physical and emotional energy. A few years into homeschooling my girls, I realized I needed to establish a morning routine that did not depend on me to get my people moving. Everyone had to be responsible for herself if I was going to have enough stamina to make it through the day.
This means on homeschool mornings, I do not wake up anyone. My girls are responsible for setting their own alarm clock at night and getting up at a designated time. My little one sleeps in the same room as my big girls, so she wakes up at the same time as her sisters. They know that when their alarm goes off, they are responsible for getting dressed, making their beds, and having their own devotional time with the Lord. If there is still time before breakfast, they can begin their school day routine, which involves reading independently for thirty minutes and practicing the piano. They do not have to wait for me to give them instructions to know what they need to start working on.
This might sound too rigid or strict, but having time to myself in the mornings has absolutely saved my sanity. In a household with four kids, once everyone is awake and moving, any time I have to myself is pretty much null and void. If I want to have time to spend reading my Bible, writing, studying, or doing anything in the realm of being quiet and still, it has to be before I begin my day with the girls. And to their credit, my girls are respectful of this.
- Practically speaking, this meant I bought every child an alarm clock she could easily use. (To see one your child could easily use, click here.) Even for your older children who have cell phones they could use as their alarm, I would encourage them to keep their phones in the kitchen or a common area at night and set an old-fashioned alarm to wake them in the morning. This ensures a good night’s sleep without distracting texts or calls from friends and without the temptation of looking at a screen.
- This also means the first few years we homeschooled, I typed out our morning routine and taped it up in the kitchen where everyone could see it and have easy access to their responsibilities in the morning.
- For my younger children, I highlight on their weekly lesson plans the things they can work on without mom being right there to help them. Again, this ensures the start of their day does not depend on me. This also ensures that if something comes up in the morning I have to take of, they are not waiting around on me to begin their day.
3. Make One Meal a Day a YOYO Meal.
If you don’t want to feel like a cafeteria lady or short order cook in a diner, tell your kids one meal a day is a YOYO meal: You’re On Your Own (I will be eternally thankful to Susan Ertan for introducing me to this term).
In our house, my girls are responsible for making their own lunches (everyone except for Mia Grace; the older girls take turns preparing her meal). When I first implemented this, my two oldest girls were probably in 2nd and 4th grade, and I thought they would think I was introducing them to cruel and unusual punishment. But to my utter shock, they started jumping up and down in excitement: “You mean we get to fix our lunches by ourselves?!” Wow. I should have started that sooner. Fixing their own lunch gave them a sense of independence and helped them feel very grown up about their day. Certain rules applied: like you can only have one bag of chips and something green or carrot-like must be included on your plate. But one YOYO meal a day preserved sanity for me in the kitchen and a feeling of independence for them.
4. Turn Negative Complaining into Joy
Maybe it’s just my house, but with five women under one roof, negative complaints and comments abound. And I can be just as bad as my girls. Not only am I making negative remarks on my own, but I nagging everyone else about their negativity and only making matters worse. In January, I grew so tired of my own complaining, I made a jar and put it in the kitchen where everyone could see:
Philippians 2:14-15 is taped on the outside of the container: “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world…”
Everyone has their own color pompom, and any time anyone makes a negative remark, she has to put a pompom in the jar. At the end of every month, whoever has the fewest number of pompoms gets cold hard cash. Say whatever you want to say about bribery, but the atmosphere in our home has changed dramatically. More than anything, the thought of putting a pompom in the jar catches us in our speech and helps to hold us accountable with our words.
A word of warning, though, to the wise: one of the rules of the jar has to be that you are responsible for your own negative comments. Siblings cannot put a pompom in the jar on behalf of another sibling. If they do, they have to put one in for themselves as well. This, too, is a YOYO-NC kind of jar: You’re On Your Own for Negative Comments.
5. Keep Your Sense of Humor
Don’t be afraid to insert humor into your day.
Write your spelling words with a tiger mask on:
Have a pajama party and serve popcorn for lunch (or keep it a YOYO meal and have your kids serve themselves popcorn for lunch).
When your Kindergartner has a story in her reader like this one, go ahead and laugh and wonder out loud, “What the heck are we teaching are kids?!”
Practice phonograms in shaving cream on an outside table or while doing jumping jacks on the trampoline or in the yard.
But whatever you do, keep laughter an essential ingredient in your homeschool day.
Remember, just like last week, the goal is connection, not perfection. At the end of the day, if your kid sticks her finger in a light socket, has popcorn for lunch, and wears her pajamas and a tiger mask all day while laughing a lot and learning a few things along the way, you can rest assured the day has been a good one. In twenty years, they might not remember how to carry the one, but they will remember a momma who pressed in and held her home with love when the rest of the world seemed to be falling apart.
"The eternal God is your dwelling place,
and underneath are the everlasting arms."
As you hold your home this week, may you feel God's arms underneath, holding you in His love.
During these turbulent times, it is easy to find ourselves paralyzed with fear. But God promises peace with His presence behind every locked door. Take a moment to look with me at John 20:19-22 to see how.
Six years ago, my family and I decided to immerse ourselves in a homeschool model. My girls go to school on campus two days a week and are homeschooled the remaining three week days. But notice I said I “decided.” Homeschool was a choice my husband and I intentionally made together. But thanks to Corona (or “Rona” as we call it in our house), homeschool is now not a choice but a mandatory part of many families’ everyday routine. Can I just take a moment to rub my hands gleefully together and say, “Welcome to the jungle!!!” In the brave and immortal words of my next-door-neighbor who has two school-aged children, “If you need me before April 10th, just look for me at the bottom of my pool.” If this is how you are feeling, these tips are for you. I’ve learned a few things over the past six years that might help in your everyday routine over the next few weeks.
Two things you need to know up front before you start your Distance Learning Plan: yes, having your children home for school will be as hard as you think it will be. Go ahead and set aside funds for counseling for everyone in your household, for yourself first and foremost.
But having your children home for school will also be better and sweeter than you have imagined it to be. Not only will you learn things about yourself as a teacher and a mom, but you will learn things about your kids – good things, beautiful things, things that make them unique and individual – you would never know unless you had the opportunity to be home together and learn how to do this thing called “school.”
So here we go: ten tips to get your DLP off to a good start:
#1 – Make a plan and stick to it.
Decide what time you want to start school every day and finish school every day. I do NOT do well with dragging our homeschool routine into the late hours of the day and afternoon. Having clearly defined boundaries for everyone in your household will be extremely helpful and will keep your house a home first and a school room second. You can even say something like, “I will be available to you between the hours of 9am-3pm. If you choose not to get your work done during that time, then you are on your own.”
#2 – Create intentional homeschool space.
I learned early on I do not do well with books, papers, and supplies strewn all over my house, so gather the supplies you will most often need and store them in a basket – scissors, tape, glue, pencils, dry erase markers, etc. Then sit down at a designated table and do school together. If you have older kids who work independently, have them pick a space where they feel most comfortable working but that is also in earshot of you and the rest of the family. This creates family community (and the ability for you to make sure they are actually working and not on their phones all day) but also gives kids a sense of independence. Once school is over, pick up your supplies and books for the day and put them out of sight from where you do life as a family. Keeping the perspective that school work is part of your day but not all of your day is extremely helpful for you and your kids.
#3 – Start with school day together with a short, simple Bible reading and prayer.
I know this sounds crazy, but everything in you will resist doing this as a family together. Every morning you will think, “I don’t need to do this today,” or “We don’t have time to do this today.” But I have learned how you start together sets the trajectory for how you finish together. Don’t worry if you don’t feel equipped to lead your family in this way. You will learn how to do this as you do it. Pick a Psalm, Proverb, or chapter of Scripture to read together, and let your kids take turns reading out loud. They love to do this, and it helps them engage with God’s Word on a personal level. Then pick a few things from the chapter to discuss or talk about that have relevance for their lives or their day, or read from a short devotional book or online resource you trust. Then pray for your children’s day. Let them hear you pray out loud over them. They soak up your prayers like a sponge, whether they admit it or not. Starting your day this way does not guarantee a sin-free, frustration-free, argument-free household. Far from it. But it does remind them and you of who is in control and of whose words will remain when all other words fail, yours included.
#4 – Set up block scheduling with each child.
When homeschooling multiple children, it’s easy to feel more like a circus ring manager than an actual teacher. Create a schedule where each child gets your undivided attention to work on the subjects where she needs your help. Your other kids have to know that if they have a question for you during the time you are working with another child, they will have to wait. You will have to remind them of this about ten times a day, but they CAN actually wait for your attention without shriveling up and perishing on your living room floor. If their questions for you become a free for all, no one will get anything done and you won’t be able to remember simple facts like your name or what you ate for breakfast by the end of the day.
#5 – The subjects that make you want to cuss or punch a hole in your wall, hand off to someone else.
As my oldest daughter reminded me the other day, “Mom, please don’t try to help me with physics. We will end up in a cat fight and pull each other’s hair out.” Ahem, right. I hated math and physics in junior high and high school, and guess what? I still hate them now. Maybe now more than ever when I have to try to explain it to someone else. I have learned the hard way there are certain subjects I just cannot do with certain children. Sometimes it’s the subject; sometimes it’s the child. But if trying to explain algebra, physics, or composition causes you to see red and roar in anger like the Incredible Hulk, walk away. Your child can get help from someone else who has the patience of Job or actually likes the subject. This is what tutors, grandparents, aunts and uncles, math-savvy friends, and FaceTime is for.
#6 – Motivate through reward.
My natural bent is to motivate through discipline, not reward. We can analyze that later, but suffice it to say, telling your child, “If you can’t remember your phonograms, you are going to have a consequence” just doesn’t work very well. My oldest daughter snapped to it at the mere mention of a consequence, but my youngest daughter gagged. So there you have it. When gagging over phonograms ensued, I had to rethink my methods.
So I’ve learned to motivate through reward. This is where the large bag of M&M’s comes in handy, especially with younger children. For every phonogram, or math fact, or spelling word (or whatever it is they are working on) they can remember, they get to put a tally mark on a white board or sheet of paper. At the end of the subject, they get to count their tally marks and get the corresponding number of M&M’s, or pieces of popcorn, or whatever it is you have decided is a worthwhile motivator. It’s amazing how much my daughter learned and retained when candy was involved.
#7 – Use a timer.
Slow poke children can drive you to the point of insanity. Here’s what I learned: set a timer for certain subjects. If math is supposed to take them thirty or forty-five minutes, help them get started, set the timer for an appropriate amount of time, then walk away. It’s amazing how having a time limit can help motivate children to get through a subject. And if the subject is still taking them crazy amounts of time, this helps you know your child might be legitimately struggling with a certain concept or subject. This enables you to then get them the help they need or have a conversation with a teacher to see what adjustments can be made.
#8 – Determine consequences ahead of time.
This sounds negative, but it is actually super positive. With four children at home all day, I can quickly feel like my role as mom or teacher becomes referee or disciplinarian. At 9am, my responses to a bad mood or a snarky remark to a sibling can be pretty rational. But by 3pm, if someone looks at me the wrong way, I can hear myself yelling, “That’s it! You’re grounded for a month and have no screen privileges for the rest of your living days!” I’ve lost credibility in their eyes and in mine. So this year before school started, I tried something new. I thought through typical hot spots in our day and reasonable consequences that should follow them. I even typed them out and put them in a place in our kitchen that was easily accessible. So when it’s 3pm, and someone makes a rude comment to a sibling for the 100th time that day, instead of exploding like a nuclear reactor, I simply look at my sheet and give a calm response. (This is in theory, mind you. There are still times I have a nuclear reaction.) Consequences can be anything from a loss of screen time, to a lap around the block (it’s amazing what big body movements do to calm and refocus), to extra chore time. But the point is this: they are thoughtful, not reactive and helpful, not punitive. They are helpful in getting everyone’s hearts, attitudes, and spirits back to where they need to be, my own included.
#9 – Practice social distancing with your children.
Homeschooling your children takes a tremendous outpouring of mental, emotional, and creative energy, so after being together all day on a homeschool day, I have to take time for personal space. Sometimes this means I will go up to my room for forty minutes to read or take a nap. Sometimes this means I will go on a run or walk by myself. I don’t even take our dog; I need an hour of solitude where nothing is pulling on me. But my children have learned that during this time to let mom have her space so that she can come be a human being again for the rest of the afternoon and evening.
#10 – Your goal is relationship, not the grade.
The goal for these next few weeks is not for your children to make or maintain a certain grade. Your goal is deepened relationship with them. You are their mom first, then their teacher, and your children’s grade is a reflection of their work, not yours. I have to remind myself continually, “I have already done 7th grade, or 5th grade, or 3rd grade, or Kindergarten; this is my child’s work, my child’s life, my child’s responses and decisions, not mine.” The best learning happens as I learn how to release my own grip and watch my children learn how to use their own.
Just know this, Mommas – “You got this.” Not because you are so smart and so capable and so prepared to be a teacher but because God made you specifically to be your child’s mom. And through this time of uncertainty, at the end of the day, that’s what your kiddos need – their mom. They need your love, your prayers, your peace, your snuggles, your time – and that is precisely what you know how to give and what to do. Anyone can teach them physics or phonograms, but they only have one mom, and that’s you. So step into that role with confidence, and the rest will come.