Do you know what it looks like when your child has completely tuned you out? I do. Dead stare straight ahead, barely blinking, barely even breathing. Sometimes I throw soft objects at them to get their attention. Sometimes they just flat refuse to do their school work. This is the moment that I am forced to choose between being the bigger person, and entering into an epic power struggle to attempt to regain control. I usually choose the high road. This means I have to acknowledge that what we are doing is just not working.
One of the first things I do when getting to know my students is to watch facial expressions and body language while they are working. I want to get to know their signs that tell me when they are losing focus or interest. There might be subtle changes in posture, tensing of facial muscles, staring off into space, or verbal expressions of frustration. When I see these signs, I determine whether they need assistance or a complete shift in activity. Every student has different cues, different needs when they get to this point, and varying abilities to rein it back in.
Exhaustion and/or boredom can set in pretty quickly, especially if it’s a subject in which they don’t have a high level of interest. Check the time, how long have they been working one activity? It may be that the student just needs a break. In this case I have them grab a snack, walk around, or burn off some excess energy outside. It may be that they have spent enough time on this activity for the day.
If you find that instead of returning to the activity, you need to take a longer break, make sure you talk this through with your student. Let them know that it’s ok to put a task aside for another time, but that you aren’t leaving it altogether. When you pick it back up, talk about how you can work through the frustration, distractions, etc. Make a plan to successfully finish the activity.
Sometimes a simple change of subjects or activities is all that is needed to recapture the student’s attention. It is for this reason that I usually schedule favored subjects in between the less-liked ones. Sometimes a simple change like reading aloud, or drawing what they learned instead of writing can accomplish the same goal, but with less resistance. It’s ok to cut one subject short and move on, as long as you have a plan for finishing. Sometimes students can get so frustrated and emotional about what they are doing there simply is no way to continue. That’s ok. Take a deep breath and decide together what to do. Giving the student options allows them an amount of control and can help restore peace to the classroom.
During this process it is valuable to help the student learn to identify when they are not focused, getting frustrated, or need to take a break. This self-awareness will go a long way. When your student identifies that they need to shift focus to another subject or take a break, honor that! Sometimes we need to help them push through some frustration so it’s good to check on why they want to put it aside. Knowing your student is key in making the right decision here.
Teaching new concepts to our children can be a difficult and frustrating process if you aren’t sure how to do it. Whether we are teaching them how to cook, clean the bathroom, or complete a new math concept there’s an effective way to do this that eases the student into mastery. It’s called, “I do, we do, you do” and works for any age level, and nearly every subject.
“I Do”: After you have laid the foundation of information the student needs, you demonstrate the process in its entirety. Explain the steps as you go so the student can see your thought process as you work it out. This step might need to be repeated a few times if the student still has questions. You might even need to demonstrate the process in a different manner. Once the student has a good grasp on what you’re doing, it is time to move on to the next step, “we do.”
“We Do”: This is the step in which you and the student complete the process together. This should be as hands-on and involved as you can make it. You may want to do this a few times so that you can be sure the student is comfortable with the process. This is also a step that can be revisited when the student needs to review the concept. Once the student feels comfortable in this step, it is time to move on the final step, “you do.”
“You Do”: In this final step a student demonstrates and practices what they have learned. They should be able to independently complete the process with accuracy. If they are unable to do so, you can go back to the “we do” step and work through it together.
This simple teaching method is one of my favorites. I have applied it to handwriting, composition, math, science, art and many more subjects. Sometimes the entire process takes two minutes. Other times it takes a whole subject period. When needed, we spend a lot of time going between the “we do” and the “you do” depending on the level of difficulty for the student. The goal is always to get the student working independently with confidence and accuracy.
“Mom! Where’s my book?” “I can’t find my homework!” “Help me, Mom! My project is due tomorrow and I haven’t started it yet.” – Sound familiar? What about this scenario: You’re once again running late for an appointment. You have no idea where the time went, let alone your keys, your purse, and that paperwork that must be turned in today. You blame it on pregnancy brain, but then you remember your youngest is five, and that excuse no loner flies.
This is all related to something called Executive Function. Harvard University’s Center for the Developing Child says, “Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.”
We are not born with these skills already in place. However, they can be developed through example and training. You may notice that your child has a natural gift for organization, and that is great! However, most of these skills will need to be cultivated and taught over time. Whether you homeschool or not, your student can benefit from training in this area.
Having structure and routine allows kids to develop a rhythm in their day; and they learn what to expect and how to plan for it. It helps to also develop independence as the student learns to complete daily chores and tasks on his own. You don’t have to structure every second of the day, there should still be free time and choices. Having some form of schedule helps kids learn time-management and how to complete a task on time. The schedule should be written down, or in pictorial form for younger students.
Older students, particularly those in middle and high school, benefit greatly from learning how to manage their time, keep a schedule, and set goals. Complex assignments, or long-term projects require the student to break down the process into small, achievable steps to complete it by its due date. This prevents students from resorting to “cramming” sessions one or two days before the assignment is due. This requires a lot of training through practicing together until they have demonstrated proficiency. Do not expect even a high school age student to be able to stay on task all day, manage their time well every day, or complete every task without prompting. This is where routines and structure help build habits; and encouragement is key to prevent frustration. No matter the age, goal setting, both short and long-term, should be practiced regularly. It could be related to a test score, a grade, and number of books to read, a physical ability, anything! Guide your student through the goal setting process and the steps they will need to take to accomplish it. And don’t forget to celebrate when they reach their goal!
Another way we can help our students in their development of these skills is to model and provide organization of schoolwork and materials. Orderliness in the work environment helps students be able to better focus. If students know where to find the things they need, it cuts down on wasted time and distractions throughout the day. By requiring students to maintain this organization, they are developing their own skills in this area. Some students come by it easily, while others struggle with getting a single sheet of paper anywhere near the section it belongs. Create notebooks with clearly labeled sections; provide storage for books, pencils, paper and other required supplies. Color-coding can help students distinguish between subjects, or time periods, or whatever you are wanting organize.
Investing time and training into the development of executive function skills will always be worth your time. Use these basic concepts to build a homeschool program that educates and equips!
The Harvard Center for Child Development is an excellent resource for more information on this topic. http://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/
The words “record keeping” strike panic in the hearts of many homeschool parents. Take a deep breath; I’m here to walk you through this. According to the Washington State law (RCW 28A.200.010 (2)):
You must keep records.
Daily record keeping is the easiest way to track your instructional and educational activities. You can create a chart on Excel, with a column for each subject (Washington has 11 core subjects, but some can be combined) and the day of the week. In each box is recorded the activity done (i.e. book title and the page numbers read,) assignments completed, location of field trip, etc., and the time spent on the lesson. I like record keeping on the computer because you can store it digitally and keep records by year. I recommend Google Drive for saving documents for long-term.
If your child is not enrolled in a private school, there is no minimum time requirement. In high school, if a college or school were to ask for proof of credits earned they may ask for this information. This is not common, but it is always better to be prepared! If your child is enrolled in a private school program (such as Academy Northwest), they need to complete 1000 hours and 180 school days.
All students enrolled in my learning center are required to also maintain a portfolio for each year. I require this because it validates your record keeping, and helps you see what you and your child have accomplished during the school year. I recommend using a three-inch three-ring binder, with tabs for each subject. Finished work gets puts into the binder. Workbooks can be stored in a page-protector; online class grades can be printed and inserted into the appropriate section. I also like to see my students keep a reading list of all the books they have read that year. Another reason the portfolio is really helpful is when it comes to doing year-end assessments. One of Washington State requirements for homeschooling is that your child is tested, or has an assessment done by a certified teacher. The assessment can be easily and accurately done when the teacher has work from throughout the school year to evaluate. Having it all in one place means you don’t have to scramble to collect what you need at the end of the year.
As you can see, record keeping doesn’t have to be a big strain on your day. Find a daily record-keeping system that works for you, create a routine to keep it going, and assemble a yearly portfolio. You’ve got this, you can do it!
The English language is a confusing language to learn at times! How many times, when teaching your child to read or spell, have you had to say, “That word doesn’t follow any of the rules, you just have to memorize it”? I tell my students that English is a mutt language. It comes from many different languages; therefore we have to borrow rules from other languages. One of the most effective ways I have seen to help develop a deeper understanding of the English language is to study Latin and Greek root words.
Latin and Greek are the foundation for many languages world wide, and account for 60% of English words. Studying the roots of the English language builds a strong foundation for growing and using a large vocabulary. I can remember first studying root words in fourth grade, and what I learned has stuck with me even now.
Take “video visum” for example, it means “see.” Can you guess which words we use daily that come from this Latin word? Television, video, evidence, advise, invisible, provide, and visit. When you know the definition of the root, we can quickly assign a meaning to the derivations. Even if we don’t know the exact meaning we get a pretty good idea. I find a lot of connections in the subject of science. Biology, sociology, psychology, astrology….what do these words all share? “– ology” which comes from the Latin word for “word, study.” It makes sense now doesn’t it? Each one of those terms I listed above is the study of something. “Biology” is the “study of life;” it comes from two root words: bio, meaning life, and logos. It’s sort of like putting a puzzle together. Once you fit the pieces together, you can see the big picture.
As I do for many different resources, I look to Cathy Duffy to help me select the right curriculum. There are multiple sources out there for teaching roots words, but one of the most popular (and the one I used when in school) is English from the Roots Up (Volumes I and II) by Joegil K Lundquist. I find that the suggested study method in this book leaves a little to be desired for some students, but the information is great. I like the color-coding system for visually identifying the language. Whatever approach you use to studying the information, I find it well worth the time. Encourage your student to make personal connections to the words, and challenge them to use them in their writing. I find this study appropriate for most students age 9 and up.
You can read Cathy Duffy’s review at http://cathyduffyreviews.com/homeschool-reviews-core-curricula/spelling-and-vocabulary/vocabulary-resources/english-from-the-roots-up
Roots and Fruits: A Comprehensive Vocabulary Curriculum, by Jill Dixon is designed for grades K-12! It has great reviews on the website Cathy Duffy Reviews. To read more about it, go to http://cathyduffyreviews.com/homeschool-reviews-core-curricula/spelling-and-vocabulary/vocabulary-resources/roots-and-fruits-a-comprehensive-vocabulary-curriculum
Word Roots, by Cherie A. Plant takes a more classical approach to teaching the root words. It uses both workbooks and software. See more at
Whether you decide to make it a main course of study, or just do a little here and there, studying the root words can improve your student’s vocabulary, spelling, and reading comprehension. What do you have to lose? Your student might not be the only one to learn something new!
This article ties in with the previous one, “Letting Go and Letting Be,” where I encouraged parents to consider what expectations or assumptions they are holding onto for their children. Once we let go of how we think our child should learn, and what they enjoy doing, then we can move forward with an open mind, allowing our child to direct their own learning process.
Albert Einstein said, “I never teach my students; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” The conditions your child needs in which they can learn, might look different than what mine needs. Each of your children might also require something slightly different, but you have great ability as the parent to learn these differences and create a powerful learning environment.
So, what does this look like? A student-directed program simply means that learning is happening at the student’s pace, through independent experiences, on topics of interest to them. There is a time and place for teacher centered learning, where the you (the teacher) presents new information, introduces a new concept, etc. but beyond that the student is enabled to explore, experiment, discover, and work in their own way.
One of the easiest places to start is where your child’s interests lie. If you read my article on goal setting, you will know that I basically separate the eleven core subjects into content-based and skill-based categories. Start with your content-based subjects (history, social studies, science, language, health, art and music appreciation) and figure out what your child is most interested in learning about. Through the elementary grades, there are no specific topics in each subject that you must teach. Therefore, within each of the required subjects, you have complete control over the specific areas you study. Does your child love horses? Beautiful Feet Publishers has a program on the history of the horse. Maybe your child is obsessed with a sport or sports team. They can research the history of the sport, how it has evolved; the health regimen and workout routine of the players for health; health and science be can covered in studying effects of injuries, or drugs on players.
There are an infinite number of possible studies that can be done. Once you have settled on your topic together, figure out how the information will be learned. The more control a student has over their study method, the more effective it will be. Knowing your child’s learning style will help tremendously in this area. Provide access to the materials they need, equip them with the skills they need to utilize them, and then turn them loose to develop their own ideas, experiments; to try things out, take risks (and even fail!). Typically, students who are given this freedom will pursue learning with a passion and dedication. Students should also be able to evaluate their own learning, and identify what the next step is, and where they need to improve. You are there to support, ask guiding questions, and provide encouragement. Sometimes a student will get stuck, or frustrated and in this case you step in to provide some suggestions and assistance, but leave the options open for the student to decide the direction.
Play, creativity, and time are critical components of effective student-directed learning. If students feel hurried, they may not feel safe trying something new. It’s good put deadlines on an assignment, but if your student genuinely needs more time to increase their learning, homeschooling provides that! Not every subject lends itself to this sort of creativity and flexibility, so choosing a curriculum with your child gives them some input and will increase their willingness to work.
Also, learning how to integrate subjects will help ease the burden of teaching each subject individually. Since student-directed learning is very much a continuum between totally teacher directed and totally student directed, with practice you will find the right balance for each subject as you approach it with an open-mind and in collaboration with your child.
My students would all laugh if they knew I was writing about my most favorite teaching tool of all: The Sticky Note. My planner is full of these bright notes, my books are marked with strips of color, and my classroom walls are littered with these magical little papers. I love the vivid neon, the different sizes, and even shapes! An infinite number of uses make these one of my favorite and most used tools of the classroom.
I firmly believe in giving students as much control of their daily schedule as possible. Time management and progress tracking are a valuable skill. So one of the ways that I have utilized sticky notes is to create a chart of daily subjects that need to be covered, and then writing the day’s assignments on sticky notes and putting them on the chart. As the work is completed, the notes come off and are placed in the record book for recording (look for my post on record keeping soon!). Time spent and other information can be easily added to the note.
Subjects such as history, social studies, and science involve reading large amounts of non-fiction. Particularly in the higher grades, reading is often followed by a writing assignment. Sticky notes are a really easy way to take notes along the way as the student is reading. They can write down facts, main ideas, or quotes as they find them. They can also record the book and page number for reference later. Once they are done reading, they can assemble their notes in whatever order they need to for their writing assignment. They can also be rearranged easily for revising. Because of their sticky nature, placing them on the wall or white board make an easy way to copy the notes. If notes need to be saved and turned in, they can simply be taped onto a piece of paper and saved.
Word walls are one of my favorite student-lead activities for writing and language arts. We look for those “million dollar” words in our reading and add them to the wall to use at a later time in their writing. For example, I make different categories for adjectives, verbs, and adverbs. I use a different color for each category so they can learn to identify the different parts of speech and how they work together. This word wall grows throughout the year and is an easy reference while writing.
Writing revision is a challenging process for many students. Sometimes they aren’t sure which sentence to revise or which words need to be changed. One of the exercises I have done with students is to write the entire sentence on sticky notes, one word at a time. Then we place the notes in order on the white board (or wall, or even the table) and can take out words, add different ones, and rearrange the order all without having to erase a single thing! Sometimes the act of writing it out like this helps the student identify run-on sentences or fragments. It’s a great way to practice adding adverbs and adjectives into sentences, and to incorporate grammar by identifying the parts of speech.
I have even used sticky notes, taped onto a manila file folder to create a math reference chart. These are easy to layer to add more examples, and they are just the right size for condensing down to the basics. This could also be used for science notes, history time-lines, and anything else that you want to create a quick reference chart for.
There are a lot of studies right now looking at the right age at which kids should start kindergarten. These studies are done regarding the public schools, which add elements that we, as homeschoolers, don’t need to consider. There’s a trend that says “early is better.” This is not the case with every child, with plenty of evidence to suggest this trend can be harmful to some students. So, what is the right age to start homeschooling? What do we need to consider? I find that it’s not so much a matter of when to start, but how much time is spent at what age.
If you read my previous article on building strong foundations, you know that learning is an innate ability. Learning increases when pathways through the brain are created and frequently used. At a very young age, we can prepare our children for a formal education by giving them rich and varied experiences upon which further learning can be built. Play is one of the most important gifts we can give our kids. Letting them just be a kid, nurture their imagination, and explore new things will do more for their development than hours in the school desk. Play with your child outside, go to new places, visit the zoo, splash in the water at the beach, star-gaze at night, plant gardens, visit a farm, the fire-house, the library. These experiences will grow your child’s understanding of the world around them, and develop new interests.
Schooling can begin in stages. For example, reading is a complex skill that requires proper development of the eyes, brain, and cognitive understanding. Students must be able to decode the words, interpret the meaning, and make connections. Not every child is ready for all of these parts to work together at the same age. Some are early and eager readers at five years old, while others aren’t ready until seven, eight, or even nine. The challenge to parents is allowing kids to be outside the range of “normal.” This freedom to develop at their own pace means that when they are ready, they will take off! Forcing kids to perform a skill before they are ready can result in frustration, power struggles, and a dislike of learning.
Learning letters, sounds, numbers, and shapes usually start around three to four years old. This should be done at the child’s pace through play and games. Avoid highly structured settings at this age if the child is not developmentally ready for sitting still and staying focused for long periods of time. Attention spans at this age run from five to ten minutes. Keep the sessions short and fun.
By five years old you may find that your child is ready to start putting letter sounds together to form words. Again, pay attention to your child’s tolerance for structured schooling, and keep it light and fun. The same goes for handwriting. This is a fine-motor skill that can be developed through lots of play, and doesn’t have to be done through structured, sit-down work. However, if your child is excelling in one or both of these areas, follow their lead. You may find your child loves learning about science, but they aren’t ready to read on their own. That’s ok! There is plenty of learning and exploring that can be done without that skill.
From five to around seven years old, I recommend no more than an hour or two of structured, sit-down schooling time (workbooks, writing, math, etc). You may find they have a longer attention span for content-based learning. Yes, this is very different than the public school! I find that kids are usually ready to add about an hour of work per grade level after Kindergarten. So, from five to seven I recommend one to two hours (of high interest schooling), the following year would be around three hours, up to no more than five or six hours by the end of middle school. I find that six hours is a lot of work when homeschooling. This time includes practical life activities (cooking, taking care of animals, gardening, etc.), focused bookwork, and hands-on learning activities. You might still be concerned that this isn’t enough time (especially in the younger years). But consider how the rest of your child’s day is filled. Learning is not isolated to “school,” keep the enrichment activities going! Sports, 4-H, music lessons, art lessons, Girl Scouts/Boy Scouts, you name it. All of these activities will enhance their schooling, without having to be sit-down structured work.
Don’t be afraid to experiment as you learn what best suits your child. You might find out the hard way that twenty minutes of sit-down work is way too long for your six year old. Break it up, change the activity, or ditch that program altogether. As the teacher parent, it’s your job to create a program that meets your child’s developmental needs. And all areas of development must be considered – emotional, physical, social, and cognitive. Allow the pieces to fall into place on their own. You will be astounded to see what your child can accomplish when they are ready!
There’s little argument over the lack of life skills that many public high school graduates possess. It’s sad, and discouraging to think about, really. There is often debate over whose job it is to teach skills related to finances, cooking, car maintenance, and insurance (among others). Is it the teacher’s job or the parents? When homeschooling, the job falls to the one person who is both! This is the purpose of parenting, to equip our children to be successful and independent members of society. So, what life skills do you want to ensure your child has upon graduation?
Finances are one of the most important areas for students to have a healthy and functional understanding. They need to know how to open a bank account, use a savings account, and manage a budget. Many young adults don’t realize the power they have to impact the security of their retirement if they start young enough. But this takes discipline. I’m a big fan of Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University for Teens. This program guides young adults into understanding the power of money, the importance of budgeting and saving, and how to invest in their future wisely. There’s also a program for kids, and I believe that the earlier they start practicing good habits, the more likely they are to be successful with money later in life. In this category I would also put paying bills on time. This is so important for money management. They need to understand how to manage all of their bills, and know how and when they are paid.
Along with budgeting money, budgeting time is equally important. Being able to accommodate work, school, and “play” time will help them grow into a balanced and responsible adult. Young adults need to be able to recognize when they are over-committed, or not fulfilling their responsibilities. Showing up on time is a challenge for some that requires intentional effort.
Insurance is still a confusing muddle to me sometimes. I understand enough to know that I need it, and what I need it for. This is the minimum that we want for our children, too! They need to understand what insurance does, where to get it, how to shop around, and how and when to file a claim.
Basic car maintenance is no longer just for boys! Empower all young drivers to understand what they need to do to maintain their vehicle through oil changes, and checking brakes and tires. Who do they call when they are locked out? What do you do when you blow a tire on the highway? We can’t possibly prepare them for every different scenario they may experience, but we can give them the ability and confidence to work through it.
The last one I’m going to touch on is certainly not the last life skill they need, but if they can do these five things, they will have a great start at adult-hood! Cooking, more than just boiling a pot of water for macaroni, or slathering peanut butter and jelly on some bread. Basic meal planning and grocery shopping (on a budget!) is great way to cut down on unnecessary spending on eating out. Nutrition is a bonus topic to throw in there. Understanding how food fuels our body, may encourage them to make healthy choices on their own.
There are an infinite number of things that we want our kids to know before venturing out on their own. But if they can handle these five things, they will be off to a great start. One of the most wonderful things about homeschooling is that you have the opportunity to instill these concepts early on, and encourage them to practice them in preparation for life outside Mom and Dad’s house!
At age five, I can remember going downstairs into the family room and playing Hooked on Phonics on the record player. I would sit and read those books for hours. At six I would come home from school and read books to my imaginary class. I did that for years. From the very beginning, I loved to learn and to read. I always assumed that my daughter would be just like me. We would read books together, she would be an early reader, and be reading above grade level in no time. The reality is I couldn’t be more wrong!
When my daughter was three years old, she wanted so badly to read. I was excited and proud that my love of reading had worn off so early! But that’s where it stopped. She wasn’t ready to read for quite some time. It took a lot of patience and experimenting with methods to find one that worked for her. And then it was a lot time waiting for her to be ready. When she was finally ready to read real books on her own, she didn’t like my suggestions. It took my husband’s idea of graphic novels for me to finally see what I wasn’t seeing before. My daughter is far more like my husband, than like me. She loves the graphic novels! She has read it three times in as many weeks, which is a huge accomplishment for her.
Even though I am a professional teacher, and I explain this to parents all the time, I hadn’t experienced it for myself yet. As parents we always have expectations, hopes, and ideas about what our kids will be like. Sometimes these expectations cause us to be blind to what our kids are showing us. Maybe I’m the only one that does this, but I have a feeling I’m not! It is easy to teach in the way that we learn, and teach subjects that interest us. But what do we do when our child learns in a different way, and doesn’t share our interests?
It took me some time, but I came around to giving up expecting my daughter to be just like me. We still share interests, but homeschooling her is quite different than I imagined it would be. She doesn’t innately love school the way I did, and her favorite subjects are the ones I struggled with the most. Math is her best subject. She loves the math program we are using (Right Start Math), and often we do 2-3 lessons per day. On the flip side, reading has to be taken slowly and without pressure. Finding books she loves to read is imperative, but also difficult! Knowing her learning style, her interests, and how much time we can spend on each subjects has helped me create a program that is working very well for her.
Getting to the place of an effective program took letting go of my preconceived ideas, and letting my daughter be herself. If you find yourself struggling to work well together on a subject, consider whether you are holding onto an expectation or assumption that your child simply doesn’t fit into. You might need to consider a different curriculum altogether. You may need to adjust the amount of time you spend on one activity or subject. It could be that you are expecting them to perform at a higher level than they are ready for. Be willing to try new approaches, back up a little bit, or change topics altogether! Maybe history doesn’t interest your child much, but they are really into computers. Study the history of computers and the inventors that lead the way to modern day computers. Shifting focus, even just a little bit can drastically improve learning.
Let go of some of the control you want to feel, and let your child be in control of the learning process a little more. You will find that you both enjoy homeschooling that much more. You never know what you may learn from your child in the process! I know more about DC comics than I ever did before, and my daughter is discovering the joy of reading.