My Top Ten Tips for Starting to Homeschool

When we decided to pull our oldest out of traditional school and start homeschooling, I was pretty nervous. After all, I work from the home running not just this blog but another much large local website and I have a preschooler in tow who prefers to be the center of attention. Even though we had good reasons for homeschooling, I was also worried that my oldest would find it difficult to be home after enjoying so many friends each day at school.

Now we are at the beginning of April with just two days left in our official count required by the state, and I’m happy to report that even though the year wasn’t perfect by any means we have survived, learned a lot, and my kid has really enjoyed being schooled at home. Many times I get questions from parents who are considering homeschooling, so I thought while it’s fresh in my mind I would give you a quick synopsis of what I learned from my first year of homeschooling with these 10 tips for starting to homeschool.

This article is part of my new series on surviving the first year of homeschooling based on my experiences in my first year as a homeschool parent.

This post contains affiliate links at no cost to you.

Find your support network.

If you are homeschooling, you are going to be spending a lot of time together as a family (which is awesome). But you as a parent are also going to need other people for your own sanity and for your kids. Our area is unique in that we have tons and tons of groups, co-ops, activities and you name it for homeschoolers, but it can also be overwhelming. I found it helpful to pick just one community and a couple friends to focus on. Seeing the same friends on a regular basis, gave my kids a good consistent base for friendship and their weekly co-op provided opportunities to develop new friendships.

My husband and I have also swapped date nights with another couple for around 3 years now. Since our kids get an evening together every other week, they have developed a strong friendship. This consistent social interaction in addition to church and co-op has really kept the kids from getting lonely or having no close friends outside the family.

Utilize your strengths.

As your child’s teacher or guide, you really have to find a system and a curriculum that meshes with your personality even more so than with your kids to have a successful homeschooling year. For me, I finally landed on a combination on online video lessons with books and hands-on teaching to supplement as being the magic formula for success. What works for me is different than what many of my friends do and it took a little bit of trial and error to get there. Be easy on yourself in the first year and just plan on having to adjust as the year goes on.

Be organized.

Being organized, oh, I hate the implementation. You will never find a Pinterest board about the love of organizing created by me. I found though that I experienced more freedom to have fun with homeschooling as I got more and more organized during the year. As you can see from my photos, I’m still not as organized as some moms. But, we do have a place for everything and work hard to keep clutter out of our work space.

For records, I used an Excel spreadsheet to record daily lessons, days of school, and anything else I wanted to record.  I also found that it helped to simply pencil in a date on the top of worksheet pages when they were completed and write a note if necessary about any issues that came up when the sheet was being completed. That way I could assess later at a glance what we had completed and when.

In our homeschooling area, I found that desks reduced chaos (somewhere to stick the stuff) and a bookshelf with ONLY the books and material we actually used each day was essential. I also found that it helped for both of the kids to have their own fully stocked pencil box (just like regular school) and we also keep about 20 sharpened pencils on hand. You would not believe the time that purchasing an electric pencil sharpener saved me. It’s very difficult to lose an electric pencil sharpener since it’s large and plugged into the wall and the kids can sharpen their pencils without help.

Here are couple organizational items that I think every homeschool parent needs:

  • pencil sharpener
  • bookshelf
  • pencil boxes (available really cheap at the beginning of the year)
  • magnetic whiteboard (we have a huge one because we use it magnetic spelling tiles).
  • desks – I know that some opinions are that you don’t need (or want) desks for homeschooling, but I personally found that desks helped promote good posture and kept clutter down to a minimum. I bought several desks from a school that was discarding older desks that had been replaced with newer models.

Enjoy the flexibility of homeschooling.

You will find that homeschooling has some true benefits, probably unique to your family. For me, I love that my kids can wake up naturally in the morning (and wow, they are so much happier). We even can enjoy a little cuddling time when they wake up since we aren’t rushing out the door. I also think it’s great that I can coordinate our schedule to provide extra outdoor time on days that are warm and beautiful.

We also make time for days to the zoo, children’s museum, or science center. I found that allowing ourselves the enjoyment of the flexibility of homeschooling helped keep our family from getting stressed out by the demands of homeschooling and it also helps my kids stay on task when they know that working hard means extra time for play.

We also really enjoyed homeschooling year round. It gave us lots of flexiblity to take breaks for snow, spring weather, or sickness and we are almost done with our required days in April!

But, be sure to have the necessary structure.

It’s great to be flexible, but I quickly found out that starting lessons late in the morning meant school stretched forever into the afternoon (which is no fun when the sun is shining outside). I also found that I needed to be firm about making my kid use the bathroom and eat a decent breakfast before school.

You really can’t learn anything when you are taking a gazillion breaks. Also, this goes back to organization. Be sure to have everything you need in easy to find places that are close to your school area. And, if there is an item that is always “lost” such as pencils keep more than one on hand. It’s really important to be able to school without interruption in order to keep kids on task.

Create measurable goals and a plan for attainment.

I found it very important to actually give myself and my kids measurable goals and work to accomplish. By knowing what our lessons were for each day, we knew when the work was done and we could move on to fun educational activities or to play time. I also had concrete ways to know whether my kids were progressing at the appropriate level or not.

For me adding online lessons covered any gaps in my own teaching and I also found that planning out my week and year in advance helped me know whether we had accomplished the plan. Of course, one benefit of homeschooling is that you can adjust a plan by going quicker or slower, but without a plan it’s difficult to measure your kids progress.

World Book’s typical course of study is a great resource too for evaluating your curriculum and seeing if there are any “holes” that you might want to fill with supplemental material. By comparing to a typical course of study, you can also catch quickly if your child should be evaluated for a learning disability, needs tutoring, or would learn better using a different curriculum.

Engage younger kids.

Oh, I’ve talked with other moms and I know that I’m not the only one that has a younger child that’s always trying to steal the center of attention while school is going on. It’s really important to figure out a way to engage younger kids either in the lesson or in quiet play. For me I found online programs such as Reading Eggs and Starfall helped out quite a bit, plus the universal appeal of LEGOs and Play Dough. I also purchased the early Get Ready for the Code books and Cursive Writing for my youngest so that she has her own school work to do and she’s responded great to them.

I think that everyone who homeschools though has days when a tutu clad preschooler with a pirate hat disrupts the entire lesson. It’s one of the hair-pulling inducing parts of the package. Take a deep breath and move on.

Another great way to engage younger kids is through hands on activities such as this water balloon reading game or color wheel art activity.

The best curriculum is the one that you actually use.

It’s easy to get caught up in trying to buy the most popular homeschool curriculum on the planet (even though a little research will show that some of the popular homeschool curriculum are just created by other parents who have no or little background in education). I found that for me, the curriculum that I thought I would love (reading based) actually ended up being overwhelming while video lessons (something that I thought I would hate) ended up being a lifesaver.

I learned in my first year that it’s easy to the bulk of your homeschool budget on social studies and science which are the easiest subjects to supplement from your library and real-life experiences. In the end though, I found that language arts and math were not easy to supplement and were the subjects where I needed to spend my money.

For us, we found a perfect balance by purchasing the online classes (BJU Press) for language arts and math. We don’t necessarily watch the entire video each day, but the video is great for a good start in the day and to provide extra instruction if my explanation is just not really working. I also like that my child can watch the video while I work (right beside him) this allows me to multitask and get some work done during school hours.

We then take a more flexible approach to the other subjects by following a curriculum (Sonlight) loosely and then supplementing with books and field trips. We stopped trying to accomplish the long read-aloud lists in Sonlight pretty early in the year. My child listens to one to two hours of audio book every night and we already read tons of library books, so I found my time was better spent focusing on teaching him how to read during our school hours together.

I found it really helpful to go to a homeschool conference before beginning to homeschool. Listening to workshops, looking at curriculum, and talking to other parents helped me solidify which curriculum choices I was interested in (and which curriculum choices I wanted to avoid).

Listen to valid criticisms but don’t listen to negative people.

While I think that there are valid critics on particular issues in the homeschooling community, I think that the most important thing to focus on is your kids are their needs. Are your kids getting appropriate socialization and educational opportunities? If the answer is yes, then choose to ignore the people who are critical for no reason other than they don’t approve of alternative schooling methods. I know for me personally, traditional school was tried and didn’t work out well and homeschooling has helped my kid progress much quicker academically. My kid also loves homeschooling and still has friends and social interaction.

At the same time, it’s important to be aware that homeschooling is not a magic formula for academic success. Take steps to avoid pitfalls and evaluate when necessary but don’t beat yourself up when people don’t understand your schooling choice. It’s impossible to please everyone with your parenting choices  no matter how old your kids are.

Learn from your mistakes and move on.

Just like all forms of parenting, you are going to make mistakes and have bad days. Take those mistakes and figure out what you could do better. Do you need to rearrange the homeschooling area, get more sleep, or add a simple rule for structure? Do it. But, don’t dwell on failure instead keep track of progress and find ways to utilize what works for your family. Surround yourself with people who will both encourage you and also help you take steps forward.

Also, don’t measure your success as a parent based on how well you homeschool or don’t homeschool. It’s just one of many options for school and even within homeschooling there are many different versions and types. If your child or you has trouble, get the help you need. Reevaluate your schooling choices each year and give yourself space to make any changes that are necessary.

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