It was a day I will never forget! Thirty-four years ago, we gathered around the little table in our family room — one teenager, two preteens, one primary child, three preschoolers, and me. We tried to act like we knew what we were doing, but we didn’t. We did not know anyone else who had done what we were about to do, therefore we had no model to copy. So with great apprehension, we began our first day of home education. It was scary!
Many things have changed since that day. I have learned many lessons and wish I could go back and do some things differently. For you who are new (or struggling) home educators, I would like to share some of those lessons and hopefully help you avoid those mistakes on the first day and every day of your homeschool. Here are twelve of the best lessons I learned.
1. Home education is more than an educational method; it is a way of life. Most of us grew up in the public school system which incorporated one teacher and approximately 25 students arranged by age into one room for seven hours per day. Home education does not, and should not, work that way. You are teaching your children all day long in academics, but you are also discipling them in their life skills, good character, and a love of learning. You do not need a teacher’s desk and eight little school desks in a special room of your house. Choose the best place for your children to learn, whether that is the kitchen table, the living room sofa, or your bed. (Yes, when I had morning sickness so bad that I couldn’t stand up, we had school in my bed.) The key to successful learning is relationship (discipleship), not a school desk or “Scope and Sequence” chart.
2. Create an atmosphere conducive to learning. Your home needs to be quiet enough for your children to concentrate on their academics, but casual enough to enjoy each other. Teach them to have a quiet voice inside and to save their louder voice for outside. Turn the television off, limit computer usage and phone texting, and acquire an answering machine or voice mail for your phone. Play soft melodic music in the background, preferably hymns or music from the Baroque, Classical, or early Romantic periods. Instrumental music is preferable, because words can interrupt the thinking process. An orderly home and regular family routine creates stability. Try having your children wear “school” clothes during the day. Just knowing that they are dressed for school helps them behave better.
3. You may need to make lifestyle changes. Homeschool will not go well if you have too many outside activities. They will cause stress, which will cause frustration, which will cause burn out, which will cause you to quit. You don’t want that to happen. Depending on how much of a people-person you are, you will need to stop some of those daily and weekly scheduled events — even some good ones. Cut out all but the very necessary family activities; then as your school days settle into a good routine, add one or two back into your schedule as long as they don’t create stress. Keep your intimate friends to a level that you can handle. Your family and home education come first.
4. Keep an orderly home. An orderly home should serve your needs, not be your master. Everyone works best in a clean and orderly space. Stuff propagates more stuff, so you must control it! Because mom has many responsibilities to juggle, you must assign chores to everyone, even toddlers. The younger children feel important and part of the family, the older ones improve their life skills, and you feel better about your home. Orderliness must be taught; it does not happen automatically. Fifteen minute “flash cleans” are very effective, easy, and fun. Assign a certain chore to each child, set a timer for 15 minutes, and tell him to see how much he can get done in that time. Knowing that he needs to clean for only 15 minutes makes it much more enjoyable, and he will be surprised at how much he actually does accomplish. Another idea is to have an older child help a younger child do chores. It’s fun and usually results in giggles. If you make ‘work’ fun and do it regularly, it will be easier for everyone — especially you.
5. Acquire the proper equipment. Supply bookcases for your books because, as your children begin to love learning, you will find that you are accumulating books at a rapid pace. So you need to have a ‘home’ ready for those books. Books piling up or lying around all the time create a disorderly and depressed atmosphere. Purchase sturdy bins for each child to use for storing his school books. This makes clean up time after a school day easy and you can move your ‘school’ to the closet when company comes. Dads and moms should work together to establish a budget for books, supplies, and extra-curricular lessons. Be as generous as possible.
6. Find out what your child’s learning style and your teaching style are. When we began homeschooling, I taught my children the same way I was taught. That was all I knew and I thought everyone learned the same way. I had no idea that there were different styles and modalities involved in learning. I finally understood why some of my children had more difficulty in grasping concepts than others. I feel like I robbed them of enjoyable learning experiences because I did not teach them the way they were created to learn. Most learning issues can be resolved by teaching the way your children learn best.
7. Take advantage of the unexpected learning moments. Many of the best learning experiences happen unexpectedly — a butterfly coming out of its chrysalis, field-dressing a deer, or planting a garden and watching it grow. When a child exclaims, “What is that, Mom?”, her interest is piqued and she will remember what you tell her much longer. When doing laundry, count socks by ones and twos to learn number sequences, sort clothing by colors to help them learn colors, or sort by owner to teach order. Double your cookie recipe to help children learn multiplication. Teach your children safety rules and first aid so they can be ready if there is an emergency, like a meal burning in the oven or someone breaking a bone. Chronic illnesses provide invaluable experience in loving, caring, and serving skills. Everyday life experiences provide the best opportunities for teaching your children.
8. Use a flexible schedule. From infancy, we all need a good routine that works well for us as we interact with our families. This is especially so when we home educate, because there is so much more to keep track of. Plan a schedule that works for your family, considering Dad’s work schedule, baby’s sleep schedule, and any extra-curricular activities. Keep it flexible for those unexpected interruptions, but keep it firm enough to know ‘where you are’ when you get back to a normal routine. Don’t let a schedule control you; let it work for you.
9. Don’t compare yourself with others. Every family has different dynamics. Yours is unique and God planned it that way. Do try to be the best you can be, but don’t try to be anything different from what God designed for you. Rest in God’s perfect plan. That will prevent stress from trying to achieve unattainable goals and depression from never feeling like you are ‘good enough.’ Be yourself. Let your family live in their “sweet spot” and work together the way the LORD designed you to function.
10. It’s okay to take some “down” time. You need some “me time,” some “alone time.” Don’t feel guilty about it. Your family needs you to be refreshed and energized because they take their cues from you. They reflect your moods, your values, and your spirit. Make sure that you are reflecting the proper things. It is important to keep yourself refreshed. Schedule some time for yourself and it will benefit everyone.
11. Nurture your marriage. Many home educating marriages suffer when mom gets caught up in everything that needs to be done during her days. Husbands feel left out quite often and their intimacy grows farther apart. It’s not that moms do it on purpose; it just happens. Your children are precious and home education is good, but you need to set your priorities. Remember that your husband was present in your home first, long before your children arrived; and he will still be there when your children move out. You don’t want to be strangers. Nurture your marriage relationship from the beginning, on purpose. Plan it in your schedule. Don’t allow home education to damage your marriage.
12. Spend prime time with the LORD at the beginning of the day. The biggest help in our homeschool was the time we spent together reading Scripture and praying together each morning before breakfast. After breakfast, we had our private time with the LORD. The days we spent that time together, things went much more smoothly and everyone stayed in a much better frame of mind. When we skipped it for whatever reason, our day seemed to fall apart. It saves time in the long run to spend that time ‘up front’ with the LORD, than to try to get ahead with our day by hitting the floor running in the morning. This is the most important homeschooling lesson I learned.
I wonder how much time and effort we would have saved if I had known these things when we started home educating. I knew of no one who could mentor me and help me through my mistakes. New home educators today have so many more advantages now because home education has been tried and proven. It works! There are now experienced home educators who can come alongside you and show you how to make it easier, and there are many more curriculum choices and helps available to aid you.
One of your best homeschool resources is your state homeschool organization, with the valuable years of experience and great benefits that it can offer home educators. Support it with your membership, participation, and encouragement. Reap the benefits throughout the year.
Linda Watkins is the wife of David, homeschool mother of eight children (all now adults and home educating their own children), grandmother to twenty-five grandchildren, pastor’s wife, music teacher, homeschool mentor, counselor to struggling women, MACHE conference director,…