Homeschooling 101 – Common Questions & Answers
Any Homeschooling 101 series involves sharing about the basics and some steps to get you started, but there are always questions! You’ve got the concept, but you’ve also got questions!
Over the last 20 years, I’ve heard some of the same questions many, many times. They are the questions you ask sincerely and you’re looking for reassurance that homeschooling works, that it can convey a worthy education so that young adults are equipped to engage society and the culture, and you want to know how to keep your sanity through it all!
If you’ve got a question about homeschooling, chances are good that I’m going to answer it below. If I don’t answer your question, leave me a note in the comment box at the end of the post and I’ll do my best!
What about standardized testing?
Be sure to check with your individual state’s requirements – many mandate testing each year. Some states leave that up to individual homeschoolers, and that is the case for the state in which we live (Alabama).
Keep in mind that tests are one way of assessing, and they certainly aren’t the best way of assessing. Is assessment important? Yes. It’s necessary. But in assessing a child, it is essential to recognize and respect the child as a person, made in the image of God, with a soul that needs to be nurtured. The child and his knowledge is not a product to be measured.
Some children – some very, very bright children – simply do not perform well under the strains of standardized testing, while some children can quickly navigate the strategy of test-taking and perform measurably well.
Testing can cause anxiety and it doesn’t accurately reflect a child’s strong areas, but rather highlights areas a child is weak. It offers no encouragement on ways to improve – the admonishment is simply to take the test again and again…and again. And score higher. The result of this emphasis is that the focus can then shift away from the joy of learning toward improving test taking skills and a pattern that can be destructive to a child’s confidence can begin.
A test is just a measure of a child’s ability to perform and exercise test-taking strategy under specific pressures in that moment.
I never tested my kids until high school, around the 11th grade. (I’ll give that a minute to sink in.) I chose to wait because I wanted to first nurture a love of learning and allow for a maturity in understanding that would allow me to convey to each child that this standardized test is a measure of a reflection of one tiny moment – it is not a reflection of a student’s intellect or worth.
When it was time for my high school student’s to take standardized testing for college entrance, I spent a little time preparing them with a workbook easily obtained on Amazon for SAT/ACT prep. We treated the test like a skill to prepare for – not the make-or-break experience for which it is often portrayed. Each of my kids performed well – meaning their test scores were enough to qualify for college entrance and academic scholarship. For reference, my kids are not gifted, they are average students. I mention their general performance level to illustrate that they were not harmed by their late introduction to standardized testing, and to illustrate that a thoughtful homeschooling career can prepare an average child for the standardized test.
A few years ago, I listened to a Circe talk given by Andrew Kern (and was thrilled to find it’s still available to share with you!) titled, Assessment That Blesses. I think you can find some important ideas about ways you can assess your child that elevate and encourage rather than point toward shortcomings.
If you are of a mind to test in early elementary years, or your state requires it, do your best to put that test in context for your child so that it doesn’t harm confidence and love of learning.
What about socialization?
This is hands-down THE most frequently asked question homeschoolers receive, and the biggest myth and misunderstanding of homeschooling – that homeschool kids are deprived of socialization.
Socialization IS important – on that we can all agree. But the idea that homeschoolers are not socialized is the longest perpetuated myth surrounding homeschooling.
- MYTH: Homeschoolers lock their children away in a spare room that is plastered with alphabet posters and then release these sheltered children into the world at 18.
- MYTH: To be properly and adequately socialized a child must be at a school.
School socialization provides peer-to-peer/same-age socialization, often without adequate supervision (because of the very high student-to-teacher ratio).
Homeschooling provides children the opportunity to engage and socialize with all ages and across a wide expanse of experiences.
Homeschool children have generous flexibility of schedule. This flexibility allows homeschool children to engage in classes, activities, sports, and events with their same-age peers. Homeschool children are able to participate in homeschool co-ops, dances, homecoming and prom, labs, clubs, and in many states, take advantage of dual-enrollment classes in community college during high school. Their peer-to-peer/same age socializion experiences are generous, equalling those of their public/private school peers.
But wait, for homeschool kids, there’s more…
When homeschool families gather, entire families are present – adults to babies. Homeschool children grow up engaging all ages!
Additionally, homeschool families take advantage of schedule flexibility and homeschool children can be found engaging persons that are not of their same or similar age. They learn to communicate respectfully with those younger and older. Think for a moment what an extraordinary gift that is for a young person – to learn to value and communicate across a spectrum of humanity’s ages and experiences.
Homeschool children are often volunteering outside the home in soup kitchens, building houses with Habitat for Humanity, and volunteering in their neighborhood, community, and local church.
With such a wide and varied body of experiences, homeschool children are nurtured in the ability to exercise empathy toward their neighbor, and are socialized in such a variety of diverse situations that they are equally comfortable conversing with a 2 year old, a 12 year old, a 20 year old, or a 92 year old.
The net total of all of this yields a young person that is socialized in very healthy ways, formed in empathy, respectful of diverse experiences, communicative, and well-rounded.
So – that socialization argument? I’ll happily take it on!
What if I have toddlers alongside my school age kids? Help!
I get it. I’ve been there! And while challenging, it is do-able! You may need to adjust any unrealistic expectations, and for goodness sake, stop looking around and comparing your sweet mess with unrealistic picture perfection! Because life with children is messy. That’s just a fact. It’s joyful and creative and nurturing…and messy. And toddlers bring a whole other level of joyful noise and mess! If I could give you one piece of advice for all of your homeschooling it would be: work with the grain! Toddlers are no exception!
Toddlers are challenging for many reasons, but if you spend some time brainstorming and working-with-the-grain of a toddler, you’ll find a way to homeschool successfully with them – not in spite of them! I’ve lived through 5 toddlers, all with different needs and personalities, and some of the things I’ve found helpful and set us up for success are:
- Create play areas down low for toddlers – baskets of little toddler-safe toys that are only available for school time. Here’s where I share my no-fail toy method that I’ve used for my entire parenting career of 24 years – toy rotation! I never set out all the toys at once! This idea will require a storage space (room, attic, collection of bins).
- I let the child choose a reasonable number of toys or toy sets (legos) and those are set out on shelves. Reasonable = the number of toys a child can pick up on his/her own!!
- The rest of the toys go in bins in the attic, under the bed, or in a big closet – and that space is the toy rotation space!
- When kids want a new toy they know what’s expected – clean your room and choose a toy off the shelf to exchange for a new toy out of the toy rotation space!
- Do the same thing with your toddler’s toys! Set out a very small number of things, and put most of the things away. Do that now! If you do, by the time school starts, you’ll have some toys that have been hiding for a few months and they will be irresistible when they appear! Set out little baskets – finger puppets, chunky cars, blocks – quiet toys that don’t have whiz bangs. Put the toddler baskets away at the end of the school day!
- A few judiciously used videos have saved my skin more times than I can count.
- Little Bear
- PBS Kids
- Leap Frog
- Mister Rogers episodes here and on Amazon Prime
- Employ your big kids to help with the littles! Assign an older student to play with a toddler for 15 – 20 minutes – that’s long enough to teach a lesson! You aren’t depriving that older child of some nonsensical idea of entitled-24/7-privacy – you’re fostering family community and service! Let them help you!
- Save topics that need your full attention for toddler nap time or for when an older child is helping your toddler – subjects like Algebra, or teaching another child how to read fit here.
- Be flexible.
- Be flexible.
- Be flexible.
- Homeschooling requires it, and homeschooling with toddlers demands it! Toddlers have a way of showing you very quickly where you’ve overplanned or added in something that requires more attention than you can give. Build enough margin in when scheduling your day so that you feel comfortable slowing to deal with toddler needs that are often pressing and sometimes crisis-level (for example, when your toddler decides to paint your entire dining room floor with Crayola paints while you stepped away for 20 seconds to go to the bathroom). It happens. And if you over-schedule, it will still happen, but you will burnout trying to keep up. So, moms of little people, build schedules that follow more of a rhythm than a rigid timed structure (more details on that in a future post!), and build with generous breathing room. Because you’re going to need it!
- Remember, toddlers grow up. These days may feel like an eternity, but don’t blink because the years – they fly. Ask me how I know!
What if something happens and the family is in crisis in the middle of the homeschool year?
Great news – this is where homeschooling excels! Do you have aging parents you’re taking care of? A chronic illness/disease? A child with intense medical needs? A job loss? A crisis pregnancy? A surgery looming? Homeschooling is a malleable approach to education and bends into any crisis you meet.
Drop back to reading if you have to. Only reading! I have! For almost an entire year! And my kids did great! There are lessons in those times of suffering that are far more valuable than the planned academic moments that you expect to unfold in an orderly way! And guess what – if you average all of our crisis-schooling days (and there have been many over these 20+ years) with our high-output days, you end up with a really well-rounded education! Lean into the season God gives!!
Practically speaking, crisis-schooling has looked like this in our home:
- Reading books – I usually leave our literature/history schedule intact. I have always made reading aloud a priority in every season, even those seasons which involve me being very sick for prolonged periods. This focus has borne more fruit than I could have hoped, and allowed me to relax into the season of suffering. If you do one thing – read.
- Spend time outside. As often as the weather allows. Being outdoors has a way of refreshing and renewing spirits! If you take away only one thing, let this be it.
- We did math only when I had energy. Yep. That’s right. Math isn’t my priority when we’re in crisis. Yet I still have a kid who is an engineer. Please hear me: I’m not advocating ditching math! I am telling you that it’s a high-energy subject, and when I didn’t have the energy, it wasn’t my priority. And the kids still did ok.
- Educational programs – netflix, PBS, History channel, documentaries, Science channel – all have great options! I consider these my “substitute teacher.” If I need an afternoon or a day off, I call in my sub!
- Here is where the investment of planning your year will pay off. If you build simple, readable, breathable plans, your children from 4th grade+ should be able to follow their plans and accomplish 80-100% of their work without you. I’m not advocating this as a long-term strategy, but it is workable during times when I must focus my energy elsewhere because of an emergency. I lean on it as little as possible, but when needed, I do lean on it.
- As Catholics, during times of crisis, my biggest priority is getting my kids and myself to Mass. Don’t neglect your faith when you’re suffering! It’s your foundation.
And that’s it. Notice there are no workbooks or other things that require my time to assess and fine tune. Drop the busy work and read and you’ll be able to live and grow through a crisis season.
What if I don’t know the answer to something?
Great! Your education begins here!
If you can’t find the answer, also great – unanswered questions build curiosity and wonder!
Don’t be afraid of this! You’re going to confront questions for which you won’t know the answer! Be humble and say so, and then start digging and learning and sharing. Your inquisitiveness and willingness to learn will convey more of a lesson that any academic lesson you give!
What if there are holes in the kids’ education?
Ok, buckle in!
There are going to be holes!
I’ll repeat that for my friends in the back – there is no way that you (or any teacher in any school) can provide an education without holes. It’s a fallacy.
The purpose of education is NOT to churn out an 18 year old who, having completed 12 years of education, knows everything there is to know about the things one should know.
The purpose of education is to convey to a child some basic skills (reading, writing, mathematical logic) as well as a wide and generous expanse of ideas and experiences AND equip the child with the tools to be a life-long self-educator.
How do you do that?
Read. Read well; read often. Build a reasonable curriculum peppered with skills and ideas. Assess it in a way that encourages a child in natural strengths as well as growth in weak areas. Let them fail and then encourage them to get up. Nurture wonder! Engage conversations and challenge them toward Truth and to own their ideas. And cut yourself some slack. You’re not perfect, but…you ARE the most perfectly equipped person to educate your child. Trust that and your children will grow into adults that self-educate. And that is what you want by the end of a child’s homeschool education experience; not some nebulous fantasy of education without holes.
What if our budget for homeschooling is very modest?
You can still homeschool! Many, many resources out there provide support, curriculum, links to free ebooks – all in an effort to support parents on a tight budget. Here are a few:
If there is a good library near you, make use of it.
Also, many homeschooling parents find that using ebooks in the curriculum is a great money and space saver. The kindle fire is a very affordable tablet with a robust set of features. (There are child profiles that allow for regulation of screen time) With a table in hand, there are many, many books available for free in the public domain, or affordable in digital format.
Where do I start if my kids are little?
There are sooooo many educational studies with results that all point to slower and later starts for formal education with young children. Please, I beg you, do not spend hundreds of dollars on a curriculum for your 3 year old and expect him/her to sit down for 3 hours and have anything resembling sanity for either of you at the end of a day. You’ll kill a love for learning so fast and once that’s done, it’s hard (not impossible) to recover.
Read picture books. Read more.
Work together on chores around the home.
Have conversations and foster kindness and honesty.
Build good habits.
And discipline. I’m not going into details and particulars of discipline here, but you need to know that you’re going to need to exercise it with your children. You are in a position of authority – exercise it wisely and judiciously, but exercise it.
This is me, adjusting your crown.
You can’t teach them if they’re not teachable. For that reason, I encourage gentle days that foster and build good habits in the early years. Once children are old enough for formal lessons (around 6 years old in my home), they’re both developmentally ready and progress quickly, and they have the tools to know what they ought to do, and the discipline to do it. It’s not ever perfect, but loving discipline lays a foundation you’ll need.
For those of you ready for something more, read through my post: A Year Considered: Nurturing Wonder in the Preschool Years
What if my kids have been in public school and I bring them home to homeschool? Is there a transition?
Yep. There is. Like any kind of paradigm shift – and this is a big one – you’re going to need to prepare to transition.
Those that bring kids home after public/private school generally agree that a full year is needed to transition. This “de-schooling” year is going to encompass a lot of things – establishing your authority as the person who now conveys education, transitioning to a very different vehicle in conveying that education, establishing helpful home routines, and finding a new family chemistry.
Any time you add (new baby) or subtract (a kid moves off to college) someone from the home, the chemistry of family changes, and this chemistry is a big part of the atmosphere of your home! Spend a significant amount of time insisting on respect and kindness within your group of kids because dis-respect and unkindness will create a suffocating cloud of discouragement over your homeschool days!
I’m not going to lie, that can be a tricky one, especially if you’ve got kids (teens) that are apathetic. That apathy can add volatility to your family chemistry and that volatility can make things challenging. If you find yourself in this situation, spend some time brainstorming a lot of “why” and “what” questions – why is this going on? why does this child feel this way? why am I homeschooling this child? what can help bridge this transition? what does this child need to feel validated and loved? Be honest with the answers and allow them to animate gentle accommodations to reach a child.
High School Side Note: I’d like to encourage those of you with older kids – high schoolers really should have “buy in” with their education. I spend some one-on-one time with each of my high schoolers and start handing the reins over. I’m still facilitating education through high school, but I want my high school student to take responsibility for living it. Because in high school, I do not have time to beg and cajole a student to complete work. They either complete it, or live with the consequence. Thus, that student needs to be ready to live and own the education you’re facilitating. If you’re bringing a high school student home, I encourage some honest, open dialogue about expectations!
I think you can see why you need to be gentle on yourself if you’re bringing kids home!
- Build in a lot of margin in your schedule. And when you think you have plenty of margin, add more. You and your kids will need a generous amount of room to breathe.
- Caution: be extremely careful when choosing curriculum!! Flexibility is your priority! Some curriculums look very enticing because they’re all built for you – open-and-go right out of the box. You’re going to exchange flexibility for convenience if you purchase something like that, and I’m not going to say that it won’t work, but I will say that it won’t set you up for success if it doesn’t also come with options for generous flexibility! You’ll burn out so fast if you constantly feel your feet to the fire of someone else’s standards and rubrics because your kids are each going to move at a very unique pace! If you want a recipe for stress – immerse a child that needs to move on a slower timeline into a prepackaged curriculum that requires fixed assessment points. Ok. I’ll stop. Your superpower is flexibility – don’t let your cape get hung in the door!
- If your day frays (and this goes for anyone homeschooling), build in enough margin in your plans that you feel comfortable taking a mental health day. These are more important than I can adequately convey. Take time to breathe and relax when it is needed!
- Go outside a lot!! Time outdoors has a way of refreshing spirits like almost nothing else!
- Keep a notebook and use your own observations to assess. I promise your kid won’t turn into a 3-headed-mythical-monster if he/she doesn’t take a quiz, test, or write a book report for a few months. This process of observing will foster some good habits and skills for you, the parent, and it will provide you valuable insight about your kids’ learning styles and needs so that you can meet them where they are.
- You’ll know when you can pick up speed. You’ll sense smooth in your days more than friction; kids will know the daily routine and (for the most part – let’s be real!) will be able to move along those rails of routine. They will begin to be involved in their own education – and at that point, you’re ready to pick up steam.
My hope is that after this series, you feel armed enough to know:
- If homeschooling is a path for you and your family.
- If so, you are equipped to begin!
I won’t leave you here if you’re a beginner, or even a veteran looking for a little refreshment. I’m going to continue sharing about ways that I plan in homeschooling (and ways others plan so you have a well-rounded view of options and styles). I’ll share how I facilitate independent learners that ultimately grow into self-learners, and some of my favorite homeschooling tools like my lesson planning printables available in my new shop!
Whatever form education takes in your home this year, I hope it is a joyful year of learning and meeting ideas and experiences that enrich your child as a person!
I thought this was such an enjoyable read- such good answers to the common questions. Thank you, Jen, for sharing your insights!
Thank you so much, Meg!