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.
Our children are born learning. At first it’s how to eat, they discover the movement of their hands, they learn to recognize mom and dad’s faces, familiar voices and songs. The first year alone is chalk full of learning; from feeding themselves, walking, to imitating sounds, and so much more. Babies don’t have to go to school to learn these things. It comes naturally. Learning isn’t limited to just books; you can educate your children long before they are ready for school.
Learning is innate. But it is a process that requires time and what is often referred to as “scaffolding” in the education profession. Scaffolding refers to how, just like a building is constructed from the ground up, learning starts with a foundation. The brain builds more connections and pathways over time. The more these pathways are used, and connections are made, the more information is retained. For example, for a student to learn about marine animals, it’s important to have some sort of prior knowledge or experience with beaches or oceans. I have read stories of inner-city kids who have never seen a beach, or a field of grass before. How are those student’s supposed to comprehend the vast size of the ocean? Or a lion’s ability to hide in the prairie as it stalks its prey? Prior experiences build foundations upon which learning can be built. This is what the early years are for!
Reading to your child, beginning in infancy, is a great way to expose them to different lands, people, cultures, and animals. Reading is one of the primary foundations for schooling. Reading increases vocabulary, and an understanding of how language works.
Zoos and museums are an infinite source of wonderful sights, new ideas, and exploration. Don’t worry about how many times you have been to the same place. Remember those neural pathways our brains create? Repetition in information creates well-worn pathways that increase retention. So, visit the zoo and look at the same animals twenty five times, or read the same books 9,458,553 times.
Nature is a fantastic place to learn and grow! Walk through the woods and notice all the different types of plants, trees, birds, and animals. Do this through every season to learn about the changes that take place.
Play is one of the biggest building blocks to a successful education. The development of imagination and creativity help build strong critical thinking and observations skills. Allow your child plenty of unstructured playtimes. The more simple the entertainment, the better! I have watched my kids have more fun with sticks and a rope, than their expensive toys. Ingenuity is born out of necessity. Let your kids develop their own games and worlds. Play at parks, play at the beach; play in the mountains, a garden, and your backyard. Each of these environments has something different to offer.
My advice is to not get caught up with the “early is better” frenzy when it comes to formal schooling. Early is not always better; but a nurturing environment filled with books, explorations, and play-time will prepare your child for school better than any work-book, or curriculum can. When they have experiences with a variety of things, they will make faster and stronger connections to new information they gather in school. These connections will develop into pathways. Those pathways will serve them all through their school years if rooted in sound and meaningful experiences.
Words are one of our most powerful weapons. It is no mistake that even our constitution protects our ability to speak our mind. Our words have power over our children. We have the power to build up, and to tear down. We can inspire, or discourage. Sometimes we are unaware of how we are discouraging our children, and the things we say with good intentions, have the opposite effect. Praise and encouragement may sound like the same thing to you, but let me show you the difference, as well as their significance.
Praise is “the act of expressing approval or admiration.” When we praise our child for doing something, we are expressing our approval of them. You might be wondering what is so wrong with that? Over time this creates a child who does things just to please you. Eventually, they will transfer the desire to please you, with the desire to please their peers, a boyfriend or girlfriend, or others in their life. This can cause them to steer away from your values and make choices you will no longer praise. Praise is also focused on the end product, rather than the effort. When it comes to school, not every child is an “A” student. For some, earning a “B” in math is a huge accomplishment and that needs to be recognized. Praise is a short-term, extrinsic motivator. We want to build an intrinsic motivator in our children that drives them towards working hard, and making improvements.
One of the most common mistakes made by teachers and parents is to tell students, “You’re so smart!” It may seem like an innocent enough comment, but what does it mean when they fail the next test? Are they still smart, or have they lost that valuable label? If students are afraid of failing, they are less willing to try. When their value remains the same regardless of performance, students are more likely to put in effort to learn new things and try challenging tasks. Labels can be easily changed from positive to negative, so you want to avoid placing labels on your child or student.
So, how do we strengthen that intrinsic motivation and avoid labeling? We do it through encouragement; the word that means “the action of giving someone support, confidence, or hope.” We want to instill courage in our students; courage to try new things, work harder, hope for more, and even to fail! When we encourage our children we are focusing on the effort and improvement, rather than the end product. This simple act will build up an internal guide that empowers them to make better choices and work to accomplish their goals.
When we say things like, “Wow, you worked really hard on that project, you must be proud!” we are recognizing the effort put into the work. “That’s a tough one, but I know you can do it” instills confidence in their abilities. “It might not have worked perfectly this time, but you worked hard. What did you learn that can help you next time?” makes it safe to “fail” because it wasn’t wasted time or effort. “I see you love art” encourages them to enjoy what they are doing, regardless of skill or outcome.
When you are at a loss for how to use encouraging words rather than praise, consider this guide (adapted from Positive Parenting Solutions):
Describe what you see and feel- I can see you really enjoy_________; you did a really thorough job on__________; look at those bright colors!
Sum up it up in a word- You really persevered; That shows leadership, creativity, friendship, etc.
Recognize effort and improvement- You really put a lot of time into that! That took a lot of effort!
Show confidence- I believe in your abilities, you’re right on track, you’ve got this, etc.
This subtle shift in our focus and words can make a really big difference in our children! We love them for who they are, it’s time to show that through our words of encouragement.
Positive Parenting Solutions online course (www.positiveparentingsolutions.com) was a huge resource for writing this article. They also recommend a few other resources for further reading on this topic:
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Faber & Mazlish
Mind-set, the New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck
Dictionary definitions from www.dictionary.com