As fall approaches, you may be considering your options. Here’s what an experienced homeschooler wants you to know.
Let me guess: You became a first-time homeschooler this past March, when the COVID-19 pandemic caused widespread closures of schools, right? Actually… no.
What you did — at your kitchen table, with Zoom classes and online math software and assignment after assignment from your kid’s teachers — wasn’t even close to homeschool.
You crisis-schooled. You participated in distance learning. You pulled your hair out trying to follow someone else’s academic plan for your child, all while juggling your job and your Boomer parents and your crushing anxiety about the new viral illness spreading across the country.
You survived (just barely, but we won’t tell if you don’t), and you did an awesome job, but you did not homeschool.
I’ve been homeschooling for the last 4 years so trust me, I know. Every time a friend messaged me during the lockdown and said, “OMG, how do you do this every day?” I bent over backwards to explain that I don’t—that my family’s homeschool looked nothing like their family’s pandemic school.
If it had, I would have sent my kids off to school a long time ago.
So what does homeschool actually look like? It’s an important question, because more and more families are choosing to withdraw their kids from school this fall, opting to homeschool instead of deal with whatever chaos COVID-19 brings.
If you’re thinking about homeschooling for real, know that it won’t look anything like what you did last spring. Here are five things you don’t have to do (seriously!) when you teach your kids at home.
Sure, it helps — and most kids thrive on routine, so you might not want to wake up every day winging it. But a homeschool schedule doesn’t have to be planned down to the minute. It can be a general order of activities, like reading first, then math, then brain games or spelling practice before lunch.
One of the best parts of homeschooling is giving your kids the time they need to learn. You can allow them to dive deep when something interests them, or slow down and review more when they’re struggling.
And if you need to toss your whole plan for the day to accommodate an emergency, special event, or last-minute crisis? Go right ahead… it’s not like your kid has to sign into his Zoom math class or anything.
When you homeschool, there is no reason for you or your kids to be sitting in a chair for 8 hours every weekday.
How long it will take you depends on your child’s grade level and learning style, but here’s the most important thing I think you need to know about homeschooling: learning happens everywhere, all the time.
Just because your child is sitting at a desk doesn’t mean they are learning, and just because they would rather go outside and hunt for real bugs instead of counting plastic bugs at a desk doesn’t mean they aren’t.
Make a plan for what you want your kid to learn during your homeschool year — start by looking at your family’s lifestyle, your daily or weekly schedule, and your child’s interests, talents, and academic and emotional needs — and choose the minimum amount of time you think you’ll need to help your child meet those goals you set for them. Aim for that.
It’s okay if it takes longer, but it doesn’t need to. Homeschooling should take as long as it has to for your child to learn whatever it is you’re trying to teach them. The rest of the time is for playing, creating, exploring, and imagining.
Raise your hand if, at some point during the school closures, you threw (literally or figuratively) your child’s teacher-assigned projects, lessons, or curriculum out the window.
You’re not alone: Most parents began the quarantine with good intentions, but by April, they were done trying to teach their child what the school was telling them to. Forget the worksheets, honey. You can learn fractions by helping me cook dinner!
Look, teachers did the absolute best they could with the terrible circumstances — no one’s blaming them for having to pivot to distance learning with zero warning.
But it’s also really difficult to implement someone else’s instruction methods, from a distance or not. It is much easier to work within a curriculum of your choosing, according to your teaching style and your kids’ learning style.
When you homeschool, you call the shots: You pick what your child learns, along with when, where, and how they learn it.
It can be an intimidating amount of freedom at first, but once you get a taste of it, it’s hard to imagine going back to doing what you’re told (you rebel, you).
Speaking of learning fractions by cooking dinner, you can do as much of that as you want when you homeschool. The only type of learning you have to do is the kind that works best for your child.
Do you have a visual learner or an auditory one? Does your child remember facts better when they write them down or say them out loud? Can your kid spell out words better when they type versus when they handwrite?
Figuring out how your child learns best and embracing that is not only the first step to homeschooling, it’s the one that makes every other part of homeschooling enjoyable. No more fighting with your child about word problems because they’re better at solving math equations in their head than on paper.
You can introduce the concepts, practice however you want, and then head out into the real world to apply them. “Testing” that knowledge can look like everything from coding a computer game to building a working robot to creating a new cake recipe from scratch — not getting an A on a unit review test.
Okay, so this one won’t entirely be in your control this year, but normally, leaving the house is a typical part of a homeschool day.
Homeschooling families socialize with other local homeschoolers, sign their kids up for music lessons, theater programs, sports, and community classes, and frequently take their learning outside (to the beach, the forest, the supermarket, the museum).
Over the years, the definition of homeschool has changed from “doing school at home” to participating in any kind of learning outside of a public or private school building, meaning it can happen just about anywhere you go (assuming you’re not on lockdown, that is).
Even if you can’t gather with friends, you can safely make the most of the outdoors and don’t have to feel tethered to a computer or a desk.
Even though you don’t need all the answers, you should know a few things — like your state’s requirements for homeschooling. Some areas require certain things, like for the parent to have a high school diploma or GED or for the school district to be notified.
The good news is, if you’re invested in your child’s at-home education, you’re capable of teaching them — even if you don’t have any teaching degrees! But it can be tough to find the confidence to get started.
Normally, homeschoolers build a network of fellow homeschooling families in their area that they can rely on for advice, group field trips, and social events. That may be a little more limited during COVID-19, but thankfully there’s no shortage of online communities for you to join when you have a question about homeschooling or need support.
Most states have local homeschooling groups on Facebook, so you can start by looking there. You can also contact your state homeschooling organization for info about membership, support groups, and homeschool conferences (which, again, might be virtual this year — but you can still make connections!).
The Homeschool Mom maintains a list of online and in-person resources by state, and Hip Homeschool Moms is a fantastic community of parents sharing everything from tips about handling tough situations (like how to handle your kid’s refusal to do schoolwork) to strategies for homeschooling kids with special needs.
Basically? You don’t have to know it all to homeschool. You just have to decide to try. Get out there — in masks, 6 feet away from other people! — and learn.
Sarah Bradley is a freelancer writer from Connecticut, where she lives with her husband and three sons. Her reported features and personal essays on parenting and women’s health have appeared at On Parenting from The Washington Post, Real Simple, Women’s Health, Parents, and O the Oprah Magazine, among others. In her so-called “free time,” Sarah is an amateur baker, homeschooler, and aspiring novelist.