How to start homeschooling: 10 tips for bootstrapping

This year (2020) has seen an unprecedented influx of new homeschoolers because of the pandemic. Many parents ask “how do I start?” or say “I’m not sure I can teach my child.” Whether they planned to homeschool or chose it to avoid virtual classrooms, social distancing, or for safety, parents find it daunting to take on their children’s education.

To that I say, it probably won’t be a smooth start and that’s okay. Some days you’ll be ready to march straight to the school to register them for regular classes. Other days you might be spooked by how well it went. You’ll probably have a lot of the former in the beginning just because you’re not sure what you’re trying to do. Rest assured, you can adjust along the way and find your groove.

To speed up the adjustment process, I’ll share a few ideas on how to bootstrap yourself and your family into homeschooling. These aren’t one-size-fits-all or complete solutions. However, I think it’s worth trying a few of them before you give up on homeschooling. (Note that I live in Wisconsin. Other places might have different laws regarding homeschooling. Always know the homeschooling laws where you live.)

Let me know in the comments what you find most difficult or dauting about homeschooling.

Hire out for some subjects

You don’t have to go it alone.

I am not my kids’ first homeschool teacher. While I was pregnant with my third set of twins and still working 20-30 hours per week, we hired an off-duty kindergarten teacher to watch the first and second sets of twins one day per week. She also did preschool type activities with them.

Although I wasn’t teaching them directly, I had much more say in what they learned than I would in a public or private school. I talked to their teacher weekly and we chose together how to approach their education.

You can also hire a private tutor if you want help with a specific subject or use online courses that teach by live or recorded video a la Outschool or Khan Academy. Look for local co-ops or Classical Conversations groups to see if any fit your needs.

Check your local laws about what you can count as educational hours. For example, in Wisconsin co-ops don’t count because multiple families get together. Online courses do count. The parent doesn’t have to be the teacher, but the class can only include students from one family. That’s not to say co-ops are useless or illegal in Wisconsin. They certainly provide social and academic value. I just can’t count co-op time towards the required 875 hours per year.

Choose open-and-go curriculum with a good teacher guide

I have taught atmospheric physics and jujutsu to college students, so I have some teaching experience. That doesn’t mean I have any idea how to teach reading to a four year old. I needed a script to follow and activities with supply lists and printables ready for me to copy (remember, I have twins so everything comes in duplicate at least).

Since reading was my first priority in formal education, I looked for a reading program that was extremely simple to follow and thorough: All About Reading. Each lesson in the teacher guide includes an introductory section that explains how to prepare for the lesson and lists any supplies you need. Then the guide explains step by step what the teacher should do with the kid(s) and even includes exact wording of some questions and statements. Now, you don’t need to say these verbatim, but it provides an excellent starting point for a parent who feels wholly unprepared to teach his/her child.

Start gradually

You don’t have to plan a full schedule on your first day of homeschooling. Start with one subject for a few days, then add a second. A couple days later add a third. A few weeks later you’ll have your full schedule in swing. This works for new homeschoolers and veterans transitioning from a break period back into daily schooling.

Imagine it’s like starting a new job, except your coworkers (who are also new to the job) run off to play hide and seek if you have to stop to figure out something. Frustrating, right? It’d be much easier to start with a single goal or task on day one that is small enough for you to keep most of the details in your head at once.

Similarly with homeschooling, it’s much easier to start with one new lesson or curriculum at a time. Not only is it less daunting, but it limits how much you can crash and burn from the beginning. It’s easier to recover from small failure than an entire day of nothing working despite hours of careful planning.

Don’t be afraid to quit for a day

Some days just are not meant for school. Kids might be sick and need a movie or free reading day. Or maybe they’re tired or antsy and the park is better than home. Just because you give up on one day doesn’t mean you’re failing. Tomorrow is a new day. Adjust whatever wasn’t working and try again.

Write out your reasons for homeschooling

Why am I doing this? It’d be so much easier to drop them off at school for the day and be free until pickup.

Sound familiar? When you think homeschooling is a terrible idea and question your sanity for even attempting it, having a written list of reasons for homeschooling nearby helps. Review it weekly and whenever you need a confidence boost. You chose this sometimes difficult path for a reason–or many reasons. It’s not easy, but it is rewarding.

If you need help starting your list, take a look at mine: 8 Reasons We Homeschool Preschool and Kindergarten

Find a homeschool group online or in person

A homeschool “group” might be meeting with one other homeschool parent a couple of times each month. It doesn’t even have to be for school stuff. Even though I don’t need anyone’s approval for my kids’ education, having someone to talk to about homeschooling helps me feel more confident that I’m not completely off target. I also can ask about all the homeschool things if I’m thinking of making changes in our homeschool.

Start with weekly goals, not daily

One week, tried scheduling our curriculum in a daily planner. That close to the worst week of homeschooling I’ve had. Even if it might not have been much different from other weeks, I felt like I was failing and falling behind. When I get frustrated or stressed, I get impatient. Then the kids misbehave and the problems snowball.

I had already figured out that routines are less stressful than schedules. I don’t know why I thought homeschooling needed to be more exactly structured. Maybe it’s a hold over from my own public school experience? In any case, writing a list of goals for the week and having a loose idea of how I can meet mini-goals throughout the week has worked much better. If I were better at keeping records, I might write down in the daily planner what we did. This is called “planning from behind.”

Meet your kid at their level

My oldest are five, but missed the kindergarten cutoff date by 15 days. Right now, they are working on (approximately) first grade math, first grade reading, kindergarten writing, and other subjects that can span multiple grade levels. They’d be bored and their education stagnant if they had to go back and do basic phonics.

On the flip side, I’ve read a lot of comments from parents who recently pulled their kids from public school and realized that their child was way behind grade level in certain subjects. Math and reading come up a lot. There’s no use in staring your child on fifth grade math when s/he hasn’t mastered third grade math yet. S/he won’t learn and everyone will be frustrated to tears.

Instead of using the grade level on the curriculum, find your child’s skill level through placement tests or trying examples from the curriculum. Start there or a little earlier even to build confidence and get used to a new type of schooling. Progress is more important than some arbitrary standard set by the Department of Education.

Use curriculum as a guide, not as gospel

After saying that I loved how scripted All About Reading is, you might think that I follow it exactly to make sure I “get it right.”

Nope. I only used that to bootstrap myself. Now I look over the lesson to discern the key points. I might use the examples in the book or I might switch them out for something more relevant to my kids’ interests. Sometimes I skip the activities if we’re short on time or my kids don’t want to do them. As long as I can tell that they know the material they need to, I don’t really care how much of the prescribed work they do.

Do I think that All About Reading is a waste of money since I don’t use parts of it? Not at all. The extra activities and scripts are there if I need them when I’m sick or my kids might get stuck on a concept and need more practice.

Could I have found a cheaper way to teach my kids to read? Probably, but I see no problem investing in resources that save me time and hassle. I paid for someone else’s time to organize the curriculum so I can focus on other subjects that I feel more qualified and compelled to plan myself, my homestead, and my personal goals.

Separate subjects if your child needs it

As I mentioned earlier, my kids’ skills are not at the same grade level according to public school standards. The bigs can do first grade math, but they have trouble writing the answers because writing numbers and letters is still a work in progress. I cannot hand them a worksheet and expect them to do it.

To allow them to progress in math, I sit down with them and their worksheet. They read the instructions and each problem since their reading skill is good enough. Then they tell me the answer and I write it. In this way, their handwriting doesn’t hold them back in math.

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