Homeschooling Basics: Tips for Success from a Veteran Home Educator

by Dr. Lisa Dunne

As 57,000 schools in the K-12 sector across the country are set to close this week, sending home 25 million students, some parents are becoming acquainted with the term “homeschooling” on a whole new level. As both a college professor and a home educator for over 18 years, I wanted to share a few of our secrets of success to help you navigate the opportunity that lies before you as you educate your children at home.

First, let me put your mind at ease. No matter how many children you have or how far apart their ages are, you can make homeschooling work for your family. As someone who’s been part of the homeschool movement for two decades, I’ve known parents that homeschooled with one child, with five kids under the age of eight, with five teenage boys (my friend Denise Mira—check out her book No Ordinary Child), and with seven (yes, seven!) kids all homeschooling at the same time. No matter where you fall in that mix, you can do this!

The time you spend with your children over the next few weeks will play a powerful role in their overall development – in a positive sense – so don’t worry that your student will fall behind or that she won’t get into that college you’ve been dreaming of. In fact, the more time you spend being involved in your child’s education, the better his or her chance of success will actually be in the end! Harvard University’s former FINE program (Family Involved Network of Educators) has shown that the number one predictor of a child’s socio-academic success K to college is an involved parent. So, you are actually increasing your child’s chances of success just by investing this time, energy, and focus into your child!

If you have a spouse who can share the load with you, don’t feel like you have to do it all alone. For most of our homeschool journey, my husband and have I shared responsibilities, with him teaching classes like music, arts, and math, and me covering classes like literature, history, and the sciences. Not only did this distribute the load more evenly, but it also gave us individual time with our kids to nurture their own gifts and talents – and we were both still able to have our own careers. If it’s just you, or even if it’s just you while you’re also trying to juggle a new working-from-home schedule, you can do this.

I’ll be posting some developmental guidelines later this week to help you navigate this time together in terms of socio-emotional needs by age category, but for now, here are a few helpful tips to get you started.

  1. KEEP IT IN PERSPECTIVE: First, don’t panic. This is an incredible opportunity to spend time with your children and to discover and sharpen their gifts and talents. You will be amazed at how smart your children are and how much they already know! Focus on the benefits of being able to educate your children at home, even if it’s only for a few weeks. Get a vision for the character growth and development you want to see in them.

  2. KNOW YOUR STRENGTHS: Recognize that you know a lot more than you think. Moms tell me all the time that they don’t feel qualified to teach their kids anything. When I remind them that they’ve already taught their children to clap, to speak, to walk, to read, to write, to color, to use table manners, to play nicely with other children, and to interact appropriately with other human beings in general, they remember that they are indeed teachers by nature! (And if you haven’t yet taught them those last two skills, that’s a great starting point that will help you get through your week much more effectively and efficiently). 🙂

  3. PLAN AHEAD: Set a schedule the night before, recognizing that school won’t take 7 hours at home. In the traditional sector, 65% of the school day is spent on what we call classroom management (sit down/get out your books/stop throwing spitballs, etc.). Plan for 2-3 hours in elementary and no more than 4-5 for junior high to high school. And I would also recommend NOT starting before 9am. The 7:30am start times at traditional schools were not established for the emotional or physical health of children. Numerous studies show that kids do better in school when they start later rather than earlier. So, let them sleep in a little! Don’t worry. They will still get their work done – and they will be less moody and more focused during the day. Sleep deprivation is a very real concern for children, and you have the privilege of being the solution to that problem right now! 🙂 And don’t forget the arts! Children need a place to express and explore their creativity, even if it’s as simple as handing them a mini canvas and turning on a Bob Ross video for art class. You might even discover you have a budding artist on your hands!

  4. BEGIN WELL: Start your homeschool day with a time of conversation and devotion. Before you begin your homeschool journey, take some time to talk with your children about the adventure, what they can expect, and what you are excited about. Read a chapter of the Bible to your kids, discuss what it means and how it applies, and pray together as a family. Even very small children can understand the Bible and learn how to pray. Again, you’ll be amazed at how much your children know and how much they remember! As you move through the day, work in short bursts of time, depending on your student’s attention span. For little children, this may only be 20 minutes per subject area at a time, but even for high schoolers, avoid planning lengthy, non-interactive blocks for each subject. Discuss the learning together. Ask them questions. Have conversations.

  5. KEEP IT REAL: Have realistic expectations. It’s okay if you don’t get through everything you planned – that doesn’t mean deep learning didn’t take place. And be realistic about academic expectations too. Your seven-year-old will not perform at peak efficiency if you require him or her (but especially him!) to sit quietly for two hours without a physical break. Kids (and adults) need outdoor time, mental rest time (especially boys, whose brains experience regularly occurring patterns of what neuroscience calls a “neural rest state”), and physical activity. Make rests and PE part of your day. Take a walk together. Go outside and watch the rain, collect leaves, listen to birds, enjoy the beauty of the natural world around you. Human beings need times of reflection and connection to grow and develop in a healthy manner. Build in both.  
  • FOCUS ON WHAT’S REALLY IMPORTANT: Focus on relationships and enjoying your time together. Children of every age need guidance and direction – what we call “scaffolding” in human development. They need to be socialized by trusted adults (way more than they need to be socialized by their peers). Integrate your kids into the real world instead of doing everything for them. Help them see (and learn) how you cook, clean, plan, run a household. When she was in fifth grade, our youngest child felt so empowered when we let her take over her own laundry duties that it literally became her favorite chore. You may even find your own “chores” growing a little lighter as you integrate your children into the household as participants rather than just spectators. We do a disservice to our kids when we cater to them and don’t expect anything of them. I know — I teach college students who are totally stressed out because they never learned to cook, clean, do laundry, create a budget, or care for themselves. Raising successful citizens of tomorrow means teaching them how to be adults today.

  • AVOID PERFECTIONISM: You don’t have to know all the answers. Even as a college professor, I know that I can’t teach my students everything they need to know. Instead, I’m teaching my students how to learn – developing patterns of life-long learning that will help them succeed in the world and in the world of work. The same is true for homeschooling. We are teaching children how to learn, how to interact with others, how to develop social and emotional intelligence, how to find information, and how to process information. This last one is a vital skill in the “information” age – they need to know how to filter through what is real and what is false at every level of culture.

  • MAKE IT FUN! Harvard professor Dr. Shawn Achor has shown that learning is more actively retained when teachers or parents (or employers!) are positive communicators. As Proverbs 16:21 puts it, “Pleasant words promote instruction.” Our students actually learn more effectively when we are positive and encouraging in our feedback. Find small things to praise throughout the day instead of focusing only on weaknesses or mistakes. And have some fun! Incorporate games or puzzles throughout the day. Pick up some inspiring historical biographies on Amazon and read them aloud together. When kids are young, they typically love being read to. But somewhere along the way, we often stop that habit, and they (and we) forget how special it is. Keep those reading skills alive – reading strengthens the creative imagination and helps children learn to quiet themselves and practice self-discipline. This will be a powerful tool that will serve them well in adulthood too!
  • BE ENCOURAGED: Know that you are not alone. There are numerous online and on-ground resources for making home education successful. Some of these include math games, puzzles, and simple support books for reading and language skills as well as online support centers.  And many people have gone before you on this journey! In fact, prior to the Industrial Era, most children were educated at home. Family life was built around the context of transmitting the values and the craft of the family name to the next generation. In the Industrial Era, however, we developed a “factory model” of education. This one-size-fits-all modality of academic instruction became the norm, and this trend has continued to the present day. Right now, though, you have the opportunity to offer an individualized learning approach to your child! Be encouraged at the potential fruit you might see. Many historical leaders, authors, and creative geniuses had the benefit of being homeschooled for all or part of their educational career, including the following:
  • Benjamin Franklin
  • George Mason
  • James Madison
  • George Washington
  • Andrew Jackson
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Theodore Roosevelt
  • Winston Churchill
  • Alexander Hamilton
  • Patrick Henry
  • Albert Einstein
  • William Blake
  • Claude Monet
  • Leonardo da Vinci
  • Alexander Graham Bell
  • Thomas Edison
  • Orville and Wilbur Wright
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Hans Christian Anderson
  • Charles Dickens
  • Robert Frost
  • C.S. Lewis
  • Beatrix Potter
  • Walt Whitman
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder

Let this list inspire you to see the potential within your child! And who knows? You may end up deciding you want to continue in this format of education! If you do, be sure to get plugged in to some of the great homeschool support conventions like California Home Educators Association (or the equivalent in your state – virtually every state has one!) or Great Homeschool Conferences. Check out incredible curricula from Apologia and Sonlight, two of our personal favorites. And be sure to follow Dr. Brian Ray’s research on the powerfully positive results of the homeschool movement.

For us, homeschooling was one of the most incredibly rewarding journeys of our parenting lives. Whether it’s two weeks, four weeks, or eight weeks, or whether you decide to switch to homeschooling by choice, your relationship with your children will be strengthened and deepened as a result of your time together during this season.

Home education builds stronger, more resilient homes and provides a “secure base” for attachment and confidence. And stronger homes strengthen the fabric of our society, so that’s a win-win for everyone! Most importantly, though, homeschooling is a purposeful and powerful methodology for ensuring the transmission of the faith from one generation to the next. As Psalm 102:18 says, “Let this be written for the next generation, that a people not yet created may praise the Lord.” Your willingness to train up your child in the academic arena during this season will have a positive, lasting impact on your relationship and on your child’s sense of self. You can do this!  

If you need encouragement or direction as you begin your home education journey this week, please feel free to contact me! I will be praying for you on this adventure.