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5 Small changes made a big difference for this homeschooler

mom-dad-child-kids-homeschool-homework-learn-school- - Yuri A

Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 04/14/24

If you’re new to homeschooling and just wish you could peek inside an older homeschool mom’s schoolroom for a day, this one's for you!

When I started homeschooling, I often thought it would be so helpful to sit in on a seasoned homeschool mom’s school day to see how she handled things. 

Many aspects of homeschooling were kind of hard to figure out, especially as my background wasn’t in teaching before I became a stay-at-home mom.

How long should the kids do their schoolwork before taking a break? When do I get alone time? What do I do with my baby and toddler during school time?

Questions like these filled my head, and I’ve slowly figured out answers to them by trial and error over the past 6 years of homeschooling. Here are a few tips I’ve learned over the years.

If you’re new to homeschooling and just wish you could peek inside an older homeschool mom’s schoolroom for a day, this one’s for you!

Get up before the kids

Ugh, I know. No one wants to do this. It was really hard for me to build this habit, but I can’t tell you how happy it makes me now. 

I have so much more patience and ability to remain calm with my kids when I’ve filled up my own cup with quiet and peace before they wake up in the morning.

A few days a week, I go to the gym around 5 or 6 a.m. for a workout class. The other days, I read a book, listen to a podcast, pray, or listen to a prayer reflection on the Hallow app.

Even just 15 or 20 minutes to myself in the morning makes the whole day go so much better.

I might not feel such a need for this morning time if my kids all went to school, because then I would get alone time while they were in class. But homeschooling constantly forces me to grow in huge and sometimes uncomfortable ways, and to me, this is a feature, not a bug. 

Start schoolwork at a consistent time

We start school around 9 a.m., preceded by the kids doing their “Morning 5”: get dressed, make bed, brush teeth, brush hair, and put away pajamas.

When the kids finish breakfast, I tell them, “You can play until school starts if you go do your Morning 5 right away.” They often skip making their beds, but at least the other things happen pretty consistently. And they usually do get in about an hour of playtime before school starts!

I have homeschool friends who are fine with their kids doing school in pajamas, and that can be fun as an occasional thing, but I think getting dressed first helps the kids to treat their schoolwork seriously as their “job.” 

Occupy the little ones

I try to rotate fun activities for my toddler and preschooler to do during lesson time for the older kids. DUPLO, Magna-Tiles, and kinetic sand are perennial favorites. I’ll often pull out stickers or Water Wow if we have them handy as well.

Setting out a special toy or activity for the little ones usually keeps them occupied long enough for us to get at least a head start on schoolwork, but honestly, it’s not easy doing school with younger kids. They interrupt a lot, and our school days often take much longer than they otherwise would because of the younger children.

I try to keep in mind that “Sometimes the baby is the lesson.” Our kids are learning from our example to model patience, courtesy, and problem solving when the little ones need something while we’re trying to work with the bigs.

Sometimes you need backup

And sometimes you need to call in back-up for a creative solution. Could you imagine a teacher at a school trying to teach her class with toddlers running around wreaking havoc? Last year, I had one of my kids attend preschool two mornings a week while I focused on school for my older kids. We haven’t needed to do that this year, but I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again if I started to feel too overwhelmed.

One of my friends has a babysitter come to her home to watch her younger children while she does school with her older ones. Another friend does a babysitting swap for regular childcare. And many of my friends have a grandma who comes over to help with either babies or schoolwork (or both!).

I definitely recommend seeking out this extra help if you need it.

Work in 45-minute blocks (and use a “time timer!”)

I love to read books about education to learn and get inspired, and especially about Finland, which has the best education system in the world. 

One of the most interesting things I learned about Finnish education is that schools there are legally mandated to give kids a 15-minute break for every 45 minutes of instruction. It turns out that kids come back from these frequent breaks with renewed enthusiasm and focus for their schoolwork.

Switching to timed 45-minute work blocks is one of the best hacks for homeschooling I’ve found. Before we followed this system, schoolwork would drag on forever; now the focused work time and frequent breaks motivate the kids to zoom through their lessons in a fraction of the time. If you are feeling like it’s impossible to motivate your kids, try it out!

Using the “time timer”

The kids also hugely benefit from a visual aid to help them see how much time they have left to work. I bought this little time timer and I cannot recommend it enough. It is honestly the best thing I’ve ever bought for my homeschool room.

Here’s a real “sitting in on the classroom” description of how things go in my house: I tell the kids, “It’s time for your first work block. If you finish your work before the timer goes off, you can go on break early.” This is incredibly motivating for them!

We generally start with math or handwriting, because I tell them we need to “eat the frog first,” that is, do the hardest task first. Also, it’s a lot easier to squeeze in literature or history as a fun afternoon read-aloud if we get short on time, but the kids never want to do writing subjects in the evening.

Usually, they finish math in the first work block and language arts in the second (or vice versa). When the timer goes off, we put down our pencils, I set the timer for their 15-minute break, and they scamper off to play!

I love these little breaks too, because I can get myself a cup of tea, lay out the books for our next work block, and maybe even read a book or fold a load of laundry while the kids are playing.

Pair “writing subjects” with “listening subjects”

Anytime the kids are working with their hands in something that doesn’t take much thought, we pair it with a “listening subject.” They really don’t like doing things like handwriting practice and copy work, so we always pair these with a fun audio selection to sweeten the deal. They also like having something to listen to while making handicrafts (sewing, knitting, origami), creating art (drawing, painting, sculpting), and making school projects (such as modeling a country out of kinetic sand for geography, or building a volcano for science). 

I read aloud their history or geography or literature books, play classical music or a folk song for music appreciation, or play an audiobook or kids’ podcast if I’m tied up with a younger child. Pairing a “handwork” or “writing” subject with a “listening” subject is also an incredibly efficient way to get through their schoolwork as we can do multiple subjects at once. 

Relatedly, one of the best things I’ve done for homeschooling this year is to use audiobooks for as many read-aloud subjects as possible. We always have a robust conversation about the book, so I know they are learning and taking it all in, but playing an audiobook instead of reading all the books aloud myself frees up my time to focus on the younger kids or do a school subject with another child while one is listening to their book.

Activities in the afternoon

Even with the magic of work blocks and the time timer, my kids usually don’t finish all their work until around 2 or 3 p.m., owing to all the toddler interruptions and splitting my time between three kids currently old enough for lessons (not to mention taking breaks for lunch and snacks). But then they are totally done for the day, and don’t have any homework to monopolize their evenings. 

When schoolwork is done, we are ready and eager to see friends and socialize, so we often head out to play dates, sports practice, choir, or other activities at this point in the day. It’s nice to look forward to these after school activities as a fun outing in the afternoon, and having these on the calendar motivates my kids to finish their work as quickly as they can.

I hope hearing about these little changes that made a difference for me will be helpful for you. Of course, let me know in the comments if there is anything you would add, or anything else you would like to know!

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