Kids at home? Here are a few tips from a successful homeschooling family.

Photo: Gustoff family
No, this is not my family. But it looks a lot like we did.

My wife and I homeschooled our two children. One has now graduated Tufts University, magna cum laude, and the other is studying computer science at the University of Massachusetts. They’ve grown into smart, moral, and caring people. Here’s a little of what we learned from schooling them that may help you survive the next few months.

If you want to help your kids as you’re all cooped up at home right now, you must understand this one thing above all else:

Your job is to help your children learn, not to duplicate what they do in school.

If you attempt to duplicate a school environment, you are likely to fail. That is a full-time job that requires training and preparation. Your kids are probably unwilling to sit still for it. And unless you are already a teacher, it will strain your mental resources — and theirs — to the breaking point.

So give up on the idea of classroom-style teaching.

I hope you have just heaved a sigh and are relaxing a bit.

Now, let me suggest a different goal for you — one that you are likely to accomplish.

Your goal should be that your children learn something every day.

What will they learn?

The names and languages of all the countries in Africa.

The positions of all the presidential candidates on racial justice.

How to dance like J. Lo.

Three types of karate blocks.

What happens when you take a number and double it, double it again, double it again, and keep repeating that over and over.

How mortgages work.

Wait a minute. What about all the stuff they are supposed to be learning at this particular moment?

Trust me. None of the other kids are learning those things right now either. What I learned as a homeschooling parent — and my wife and my children taught it to me — is that kids want to learn, and will eventually become interested in everything that matters.

The rigid constraints of the educational system may be fine for a classroom where a single teacher must manage 30 kids at once. But you don’t have that limitation. So you can go wherever their interest leads you.

I have one more insight for you. You already know how to homeschool. You already did it. Before your kids went to school, you read to them, taught them to count, and taught them to wash their hands before dinner. You taught them to share and to sing. You’re a homeschool teacher already. You just stopped (or slowed down) once they went to school.

The only difference between homeschooling parents and those whose kids went to school is that the homeschooling parents never stopped. Once you remember that, you have the right attitude.

On to the tips:

Pay attention to what they’re interested in

If your daughter loves Legos, perhaps you’d like to interest her in some of the great architectural buildings and encourage her to build models of them.

If your son likes Harry Potter, could he make a chart of the relationships between the characters? Why did J.K. Rowling cause them to interact in that way?

If your daughter was having fun in French class, introduce her to “La Marseillaise” on YouTube. What do the words mean? (They’re actually pretty gory and frightening.) When was this written? Why did the French choose this song as their national anthem?

If your son loves to write, have him start a blog. Have him research a topic and write a post intended to persuade.

If your kids love chem lab, have the research the chemistry of baking and bake some cookies.

If they wants facts about infectious disease, have them research viruses and exponential growth. (That may be too scary for most of them — and most of you right now, but it’s worth thinking about).

Your kids are interested in something. And you have all the books and toys in your house, and the entire Internet, as materials. Let them work on what they enjoy.

That’s easy on them. It’s easier on you. And they will be learning.

Spend your time on preparation, not supervision

I get it. You have limited time. You may need to work from home. You can’t do that if you’re standing up in front of them and lecturing.

Take some time in the next few nights or weekends and research some topics. Create a plan for them to do some sort of activity — preferably one that does not require constant supervision.

Sit down with your kids and set a time for these activities. They should know what to expect, and when. “After lunch, you’re going to explore the nations of the world from your computer. Yes, this is necessary. No, it is not like school. And no, there will be no grading. You just have to tell me what you found.”

When the time comes, set them loose with the challenge. Depending on how old they are, they may or may not require a lot of supervision. But it’s best to train them to do these tasks on their own. If you spent the time on appropriate preparation, you can design things so you don’t need to spend hours on teaching and supervision.

Divide up the teaching duties

If there are two parents in your house, divide things up. Maybe one of you is good at math and the other loves to read to them. You do what you like, and your spouse should do what they like. (In some homes, one parent may be more able to spend time on this than the other, but in my experience, that has more to do with circumstances than gender.)

If there is a teenager in the house and some younger children, what can that teenager teach? If there is a ten-year-old and a seven-year-old, can the ten-year-old teach the seven-year-old how to count to a million? Or how to clean the sink?

There is no better way to learn than to teach.

Maybe you should ask your kids to teach you something — like how to use TikTok.

There are infinite resources

Everything you need is online. Math practice. How-to videos. Kindle books for homeschooling.

Here’s a list. But you have Google. You can find more.

Connect with others

When we were homeschooling, we conducted activities with our kids and other homeschoolers. I taught math classes and writing classes. My wife taught science and social studies (which she called “Explorers of space and time”).

Regrettably, in the age of Coronavirus lockdowns, you can’t duplicate this experience. But you can try.

Connect with the other parents near you. Is somebody willing to teach a class on German? Is somebody else willing to give a ten minute lesson on the quadratic formula, and review some homework? Does someone want to run a shared therapy session for anxious seventh-graders? Will someone lead a yoga class for teenagers?

Google Hangouts and Zoom can make these experiences work.

I have no idea if these sorts of video-based shared classes can work — but it’s certainly worth a try. We’ll figure it out.

Build things

I know one thing: kids like to create things. You can tap into this to make homeschooling more interesting.

What can they create?

  • Videos to teach others.
  • Stuff built from blocks or gumdrops and toothpicks.
  • A series of blog posts.
  • An original play, created together with others on Google Docs, and acted out using video sharing.
  • A song about the Greek alphabet.
  • A perspective drawing of the furniture in your living room.
  • Code that demonstrates the powers of ten and exponential growth.

Really, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that building things is fun. It will engage them. And they’ll show you and say “Mom, Dad, look what I made!”

Pay attention. What is great about it? What do you notice? What have they done in a way that you would never have expected?

And what could they do next? How could they expand or improve what they built?

This shut-in era may end up generating some of the most amazing things ever created. And your kids could be creating some of that stuff right now.

Lighten up

You know, some days, it’s a triumph just to get to the end of the day without injuries, tears, or running out of toilet paper.

If that’s all you can do on any given day, just pat yourself on the back (you’re the only one that can do that, with social distancing and all) and go on to the next day.

It’s not easy to learn to do this — and to run the rest of your life and keep your family safe and sane. Admit it, it’s a challenge.

But on some days, your kids will learn something.

If they learn anything — whether it’s how to be kind to others or how to use a CAD program for 3D printing action figures — you win. They win. You did great.

Do it a little, and it will get easier, for you and for them.

Even if you send them back to school when this is all over, you’ll have sparked something awesome. You might find this leads to activities outside of school that you all can do together.

Homeschooled kids are the most creative people I’ve encountered, and they learn to think for themselves and challenge assumptions.

I’m “sheltering in place” with my adult children right now. And every day, they amaze me with the way they think. They disagree with me often, and that makes my life interesting. I’m proud of what they accomplished and who they have become.

I hope you get to experience a little of that in the next few months. And that you don’t have to tear your hair out to do it.

3 responses to “Kids at home? Here are a few tips from a successful homeschooling family.

  1. Thank you Josh! However, the schools have sent home packets and requirements. And just this morning received emails from the teachers with assignments which have to be scanned and returned to them sometime today. Sigh. More work for me on top of the full time job! I like your ideas and years ago when my son was little and bored in school had really wanted to homeschool, unfortunately the other parent wasn’t on board at all. At least I can take some consolation in the fact that mine is 13 and pretty autonomous.

  2. Thanks Josh! Our kids (11 and 14) are keeping up with their classes via Zoom (tae kwon do and soccer, too!). I shared your post with our school principal, and she shared it with the entire school. I think it will help parents approach this crazy period creatively and with less pressure. Hope you’re staying sane and healthy.

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