Tuesday, January 14, 2014

To the Worn Out, Stressed Out, Disillusioned Homeschooler

I read four posts in the last week alone - moms struggling with homeschooling.  Feeling worn out, stressed out, disillusioned, helpless, and hopeless.

If you are one of these mothers, then this post is for you.

First of all, I want you to know that my heart aches for you and for the situation you find yourself in right now.  It aches because it remembers that pain, that desperation, that feeling of failure.  Yes, I've been where you are, thinking that maybe I'm doing my children more harm than good, questioning all my own thoughts and decisions and most of all questioning if we should be homeschooling at all!

I'll tell you a secret that shouldn't be kept secret at all: pretty much every veteran homeschooler out there has been right where you are.  The only thing that separates a successful veteran homeschooler from one who is right where you are is the fact that they hung in there and didn't give up.

So believe me when I say: if you hang in there and see things through, moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day....it will get easier.  Things will run more smoothly.  The day will come when you go to bed at night happy with how the day went and wake up in the morning with a light heart, looking forward to what the day will bring.

With that said, I'd like to share with you some pieces of wisdom that I've discovered in my years of homeschooling, in hopes that they might help you in your own journey...

* Release your expectations.  Forget about what everyone else is doing, what the latest guru says is best, what your mother says about your schooling, and most importantly....that idyllic picture you have in your mind of how your perfect homeschool should be.  Days will not always be picture perfect.  Your children will not always (ever?) dance around you in joy as you study the wonders of the world together.  There will be days with struggles, interruptions, fights, tears, bad attitudes (and not always from the kids).  That's OK.  Every one of us has days like that.  What matters is how you handle those days.  And trying to force your kids and yourself to be the poster family for homeschooling doesn't do anyone any good, so let go of that picture in your mind and step into reality with all its problems and challenges.  Face them head on.

* There is no such thing as "normal," and even "average" is just a math term.  Your children are not your neighbor's children.  They're not your sister's children.  Or the children at church, or the children of some famous perfect mother.  They will not be just like any one else's children.  They won't even be just like each other!   What works for one family may not work for yours, and what works for one of your children may not work for another.  Don't ever let anyone tell you that you have to do things a certain way because it is the best way, or that your children aren't where they "should be" on the learning curve or doing what they "should be" for the grade they're in.  You know your children better than anyone else, and if you feel like you don't know your children well enough, then spend some time getting to know them.  Ask them questions about what they like to learn.  Research learning styles.  No one can give you the answer as to what will work best for each of your children.  You will have to put in the work to figure it out.  It may take awhile, and that's OK.

* Listen to your children.  Sometimes we get it in our head that because we are the parent, we must make all the decisions in our homeschooling.  Not so.  Your children can be a wealth of amazing insight into what you should study this year, how they like to study (workbooks...living books...documentaries), even what time of day is best for them to do school.  You want to teach your children that their opinions matter anyway, so start out by letting them help plan how your homeschool works.

* Rethink your job description.  It is not your goal to force information into your child no matter what, but to think, "How can I make this information both interesting and relevant to this child?"  No matter how highly acclaimed the curriculum or the method, if it isn't working, trying to force it down will never do any good.  It could be said that your entire purpose as a homeschool mom is to figure out how to make your child happy to be learning and once you do that, watch out, because they'll take off and you'll have a hard time keeping up!

* Sometimes your teaching style will clash with your child's learning style.  None of us want to hear this, because guess what...yep, more work for us.  Sometimes you will have to step outside your own comfort zone to teach your child well.  No one ever said homeschooling was easy!

* The housework really can wait  Now I don't mean you should never clean your house.  But if you're really going to do a good job at homeschooling your children, it is going to take a significant chunk out of your day, and maybe part of that chunk of time is what used to be devoted to housework.  Rethink what is really necessary in cleaning your house.  Maybe some task can be once a week instead of every day, or once a month instead of every week.  If your children are old enough, by all means get them helping out by doing chores.  My oldest daughter took over the laundry about 2 1/2 years ago and I could count on my fingers the number of times I've had to do a load myself since then - huge time saver!  Now, I know, you're agreeing but you're secretly thinking that everyone says this, but you are going to be the one really awesome mom who can do it all, homeschool and have a gorgeous sparkling clean house. Here's another secret: we all think that at one point or another.  We all think somehow we will be the one exception who will prove to the world that you can do it all perfectly.  Get over that thinking.  Get over it fast as you can, and run screaming from it.  Remember when I said release your expectations?  Your own expectations are the ones you need most to release!

* School does not have to happen during certain set hours.  You are not required to do school from 8 am to 3 pm.  First of all, most homeschoolers don't need that much time.  Second, you might work part of that time, then do other things, then work some more.  Maybe certain parts of your work with the older kids will have to wait til the littles are down for a nap.  Maybe certain parts will be easier in the evening when dad is home to help out.  Maybe none of you are morning people at all and it's best you don't even try to start til after lunch.  It doesn't matter when you "do school."  Just figure out when is the best and easiest time for your family and go with it.

* Never underestimate young children.  Here's where I offend a lot of people.  Yes, I know, let's be honest, little ones can really, really get in the way when you're trying to teach the big kids. But that's what they do.  They want in on the action.  The big kids are doing something with mom so they want to do something, too.  You can make your busy bags or busy boxes or whatever you want, but honestly, I never saw a toddler who had any trouble keeping busy.  What most parents really want is a way to keep their littles quiet and out of their hair while they try to teach.  What you will find if you just take the time to do it is that those littles have a much bigger learning capability than those big kids do, and you could be taking this time to teach them so much right now as well.  Don't just keep them busy, keep them thinking and learning right along with the big kids.  Trust me!  And....when all else fails, go outside to do schoolwork.  Most littles will want to run and play while you work with the big kids, and you'll get a little respite.

* Give yourself a break.  This advice can be taken multiple ways.  First of all, you don't have to be perfect and you don't have to do everything on the lesson plan and you don't even have to use the teacher's guide if you don't want to.  Second, if you're getting frustrated with a child or with the day in general, literally take a break.  You need one, they need one.  Listen to some music, make some cookies, sit outside, whatever.  Cool off, calm down, start over. Third, schedule in breaks to your day.  When you work, your employer has to give you a 15 minute break for every 4 hours worked.  I give us a 15 minute break every two hours (or so).  It helps everybody out when brains have a chance to rest a little between tasks.

* Take care of the basics.  OK, the brain is not exactly a muscle.  It's an organ.  But it helps to think of it as a muscle (hey, it controls all the muscles) and to think of what muscles need to be healthy.  We want healthy brains, for ourselves and our kids, right?  Well, healthy muscles need three things, and your brain needs them to function properly as well.  First, good food.  Make sure your kids eat breakfast before they start school, make sure snacks are on hand throughout the day, and do your best to make them healthy snacks.  Second, hydration.  Make sure your kids are drinking enough, especially during school hours.  Dehydration is the number one cause of headaches and mental fuzziness.  Third, oxygen.  Our muscles and organs have to pull oxygen from the air we breathe.  Guess where you can get the most oxygen rich air?  OUTSIDE!  Make sure your kids are spending time outside each day.  If possible, do a lot of your schoolwork outside in the fresh air.  Take care of those brains so they can work well!

* Lay off the electronics.  I am not one of those people who is going to tell you to throw out your TV and don't you dare let your kids touch video games.  But please, please, for the sake of all that is good, limit the time your kids spend with these things and be very much aware of what they are watching and playing.  Excessive use of electronic entertainment actually alters the way the brain works, turning into an addiction, making the brain crave fast paced information download like it gets from games especially, and that is not the way real learning takes place.  So just please puh-lease limit the time they play.  Also, studies have shown that kids who fall asleep watching TV at night don't sleep as well, and a kid who hasn't slept well is in no shape for learning

* Model a love for learning.  If the last time you learned anything new was sometime in the 90's, you have to step it up.  Children learn what they live.  If Mom and Dad are always excited to be learning something new, kids will be, too.

* Review, review, review!  Throughout your day, pause and ask questions about you've been learning.  Don't just tell them to read something and do a worksheet, really talk about things with them.  Review over and over throughout the day and week. Just two or three minutes of a review, two or three times a day, can do wonders to make newly acquired knowledge really "stick" in their minds.

* Some things must be inspired rather than taught.  What comes specifically to my mind is reading and writing.  No curriculum can make your child a good writer if they don't want to write.  No curriculum can make your child a good reader if they don't want to read.  But a child raised on good stories will want to read more good stories, and a child allowed to write what matters to them in the way they want to write it will eventually become a practiced writer.  Give them good books and good things to think on, and just watch what happens.

* Don't be afraid to change.  You bought that $600 curriculum and now they better darn well use it and like it.  Susie down the road uses this book with her kids and they're geniuses so your kids are going to use it, too.  You spent four months making these lesson plans so by golly you're going to follow them.  Hold up, wait a minute, stop right there.  It doesn't matter how much it cost, how long you spent on it, or how well it works for someone else, if it isn't working for your family, then it just isn't, and something needs to change.  Don't be afraid to change.  Don't be afraid to do something totally different from everyone else, or even from what you yourself are used to.  Life is all about change. More work for you?  Possibly   Better outcomes in the end?  Definitely.

* Learn to laugh.  That's right.  Just laugh.  Have a sense of humor.  So you tripped over your words when reading aloud, or your beautiful display you spent so much time on just fell over.  So your child misunderstood the assignment and did something totally different but still amazing.  Just laugh.  It's just you and your kids.  Let your hair down a little.  Be silly.  Have fun.  It's OK to have fun while learning.  Really!

* Share what you love, and then share the load.  At our house, I love literature.  I love old stuff like Shakespeare and Poe and anything written before the 1900s.  When we get into good literature, I am on my A game and I teach with a passion!  When we do certain kinds of science, like botany, zoology, ecology, oh, I just love it!  History of the middle ages, Renaissance, anything up through the Edwardian era, I just get so excited!  It's fun to teach what you love because your love for it easily transfers from your to your kids.  But then...oh, ugh.  Modern history?  Chemistry?  Technology?  Ick.  Give me a break.  So those subjects...they belong to my husband to teach, because he loves them.  Share the passion you have for the subjects you love, and find someone who can help out with the others.  If your husband can, great!  If not, find someone else.  They don't have to do all the teaching every day but they can share their love and passion enough with your kids that when the kids are at home with you, some of that passion will remain when they work on those subjects.

* Re-evaluate what subjects really matter.  This pertains especially to high schoolers.  What is really important to know in life?  Is what is important to you the same thing as what is important to them?  Assuming that by this point, they can read well, write well, and do basic math, everything else can be tailored to what they want to know and what they need to know to function in the life they hope to lead.  A teen who wants to be a computer programmer will have way different needs than a teen who wants to be a marine biologist who will in turn have way different needs than a teen who wants to be a makeup artist.  It's OK to vary from the norm and let them study things that will actually be relevant to them.  They don't have to learn every bit of information in the world to be an intelligent person.

* Study hard, plan hard, teach easy.  That's the one thing they don't always tell you when you start homeschooling, that the parents do far more work than the kids do.  The hours of researching and planning that goes into it.  Funny how they leave that out.  But it's true.  You will do more work now than you ever did when you were in school yourself.  And the one thing I think many parents leave out that would help them so much if they're willing to put in the work.  You have to study.  That's right.  Whatever you're about to teach your kids, you need to know it yourself.  Which is not to say you have to have already learned it when you were in school, oh, no....you can learn it NOW.   I've learned so much about Medieval history in the last 6 weeks than I ever learned in school, because that's what my kids are learning, so I try to stay a week ahead of them so I can share this history with them, rather than them just reading it and doing some work on it.  More work for you again?  Yes.  But it will make your teaching so much more effective.  So get busy studying!

* A good parent-child relationship is the most important thing.  If every day is a battle, something is wrong.  We homeschool our kids because we want what is best for them, and yet so often at the end of the day our kids are sick of us.  Not how you dreamed it would be, right?  I am here to tell you: you should be your child's best advocate.  They need to know you are on their side.  You are not some dictator who assigns punishment in the form of schoolwork and gets mad when they don't understand.  In those moments when you're ready to throttle the kids and they're in tears and you're in tears and nothing is going right, remember that getting work done is trivial compared to making sure your child knows that you love them and want to help them.  Oftentimes this is a mindset we have to work on for ourselves.  Build up the relationship.  When the relationship is solid, when they know you are going to help them figure it out, no matter what it takes, and without making them feel inadequate somehow, then you and your child can work together and accomplish anything.

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