Common Pitfalls That Can Make Homeschool Fail (Part One)

Have you ever met someone who, when hearing that you homeschool your child, responds by looking wistful and saying something like “I tried homeschooling my kids for a while, but it really didn’t work”? If you are like me, you have met many people like this. Or, maybe you are someone who has tried homeschooling and found that, well, it really didn’t work for you. I have also met many people over the years who say things like “ Well my son just wouldn’t do it. I mean, he’ll listen to his teachers, but not to me! We just ended up arguing all the time.” Or, perhaps you are a dedicated homeschooler but have run into some challenges lately, and would like to get into the “flow” again. I’m hoping this four-part article will be helpful to folks in all of these categories.

Homeschooling is a way of life, in most cases an ideological choice, and it requires as much commitment and sacrifices as any lifestyle choice. For starters, there are financial choices that have to be made- one parent must almost always choose not to work outside the home, or to work part-time. Sometimes both parents can be equally involved if they both have flexible jobs. In cases of single parents, the financial constraints may be insurmountable. But in almost every case there is some level of financial sacrifice. Unfortunately, this aspect is outside the scope of this article, (maybe coming soon though!). For our purposes, I will assume the logistical structures are in place and the reader is ready to begin the homeschool journey, or has already attempted it and ran into roadblocks. I will explore 8 common problems I see homeschoolers, including myself, run into, generally of the more philosophical or relational ilk.

All of the “pitfalls” I address here can be grouped into two categories: Lack of Communication and Unrealistic Expectations. Indeed, we could probably group all human social problems into those categories! Because homeschooling requires a great deal of communication, cooperation, and negotiation between parent/teacher and child, I believe it actually requires a whole-scale analysis of the relationship between parent and child, and a level of self-reflection on the part of the parent that doesn’t always exist naturally. In writing this piece, I found they are all large topics in themselves, thus I have broken them into a series to follow each other. Here are the first two!

The parent sets an expectation of the amount and timing of work to be accomplished

You might have noticed, this topic is also one of the essential differences between unschooling and traditional homeschooling, but in truth, I think it can affect both groups.

Even if you are not working with a curriculum, expectations regarding the amount of progress that should be made on a certain project, what level of math one’s child should be at, etc., can be hard to avoid. Coming from the achievement based world most of us do, this can be a troublesome issue. It can affect your child’s joy of learning or your ability to be flexible and respectful.

The best way I have learned to combat this mental challenge is to think of learning as being 3 dimensional (at least!). Much of the learning process cannot be seen at first glance or assessed by typical measurements. A child may learn many crucial, potentially complex or indescribable keys for understanding the world from a powerful book, field trip, or art project. It may take the time to digest and assimilate this learning, and by pushing through to other tasks or work that is not as engaging, that assimilation could be interrupted, or at least they may not be able to focus and apply themselves to those tasks. The key, as I think in every situation, is to notice when your child is fatigued or distracted, talk to him/her, take a step back, and be reflective. If they are resisting work (even if it’s of their own choosing) maybe they need to take a break or switch gears. It doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t doing enough!

A child can’t articulate their interests, or parents can’t decipher or accept them

The basic tenant of unschooling, as far as I can tell, is that it should be based on the child’s interest. But what if your child doesn’t seem to be interested in anything? Or, what if everything they’re interested in (comic books, movies, playing with friends?) doesn’t seem to be enough to base your days on, or just doesn’t seem to provide enough educational opportunity for your taste? Having run into both of these problems, I know they can be complicated. In my case, I have a son who says he’s interested in computer games, but he doesn’t want to learn to type so he can learn how to code them. He’s interested in building machines, he says, but not in learning the math and physics that make them work, or creating plans to design them, or even measuring the parts he cuts to construct them. We have sent him outside many times with tools and parts and let him tinker, my partner has tried to help him construct catapults and welding machines, and in most cases he has come back frustrated and disheartened, complaining that his machines “never work.”

So what is gained from all of this (ok, there was a little bit of venting in that one, sorry!)? At the moment my son has lost interest in trying to build or design things for the most part, which of course is frustrating for us; But, it is his process. I am a firm believer that failure, multiple failures ideally, gives us the most valuable insights. Although it can be maddening when your child won’t take your advice, especially if it means watching them become disappointed with their own work, we have to step back and acknowledge that our kids are gaining rich experience from the effort.

Children often don’t know what they really want- that is part of the nature of childhood. If we are to follow their interests we have to be prepared for some confusion and false starts. Some kids may find a passion early on and follow it to great satisfaction (Christopher Paolini for example), but many will explore and flounder. And, many, I believe, may not feel interested in anything at all, sometimes. This is where we have to stretch the most. Can we try something that’s the parent’s idea, and if they’re still miserable, switch to something else? Can your child work on something they started before, and if they still don’t want to finish, call it quits? Can we play a game, watch a documentary, go to the coffees shop and play word games? Sometimes kids just need to regroup with a book for a while and may come up feeling refreshed and ready to try something new.

To homeschool without set guidelines and continue to make it interesting and engaging, requires enormous energy, commitment, and creativity. But of course, you have to give yourself breaks too! There are innumerable factors that can lead to kids feeling disinterested or conflicted about where to put their energy, from physiological aspects such as tiredness, hormones, and dehydration, to emotional or intellectual factors such as overwhelm lack of confidence or unresolved resentments. We cannot be expected to anticipate every one of these factors. The important thing is, again, to step back and give yourself time to reflect before frustration takes over. Recently I signed up for a learning analysis program where the kids submitted answers to a range of questions and were sent back a list of learning style preferences (such as preferring to do academics in the morning vs. afternoon). I’m not sure how applicable it was, especially since kids evolve so rapidly, but it definitely gave us a guideline to play with and taught them valuable self-awareness tools. There are times when coming up with new ideas feels like a Herculean task, but I have faith that our kids benefit in the long run, as much from the journey as the product.

Stay tuned for part two.