Common Pitfalls That Can Make Homeschool Fail (Part Two)

This article is a continuation of a series about common problems that can cause homeschooling families to struggle and sometimes give up. In the first article, I talked about issues that can arise around parents expectations of how much work their kids should accomplish, and working with kids who don’t seem interested in many things or can’t decide what to focus on. Today we will cover the type of learning kids are expected to engage in, and the ways in which the environment you’re homeschooling in can affect learning.

Teaching “like school”

Even when parents decide not to use a curriculum or pre-determined guidelines for their homeschool system, it can often be difficult to abandon cultured notions of how learning is achieved. When my kids started reading independently, for example, I thought it would be great to have them read books (of their choosing and my approval) and write essays about what they read. I developed worksheets with questions about some books and found others already written online. Great idea, right? I do believe this can be a great way to process what one has read and analyzed aspects of literature. In fact, I think it’s a skill that everyone should have at least some practice in. Problem is, my kids hated it, with a passion.

I couldn’t understand this vehement opposition, and for a while, I continued to push the idea in spite of the growing conflict. Eventually, however, I had to accept that this style of processing a novel or nonfiction book, though beneficial in many ways, wasn’t developmentally appropriate for them, or maybe just bores them to tears. If I truly wanted to create an environment of engaged, interested and spontaneous learning, I would have to allow other techniques to emerge. Fortunately, my boys are both quite verbose, so we found that answering the questions verbally worked well, and they were able to be quite thorough. I realized it was mostly the writing process that was holding them back, and the important thing was that they understood what they were reading and could explain it clearly.

Similarly, there is often an attraction to worksheets, because they clearly demonstrate what the child has learned (or seem to). We use worksheets sometimes, as we’ve found they can be grounding after more complex endeavors, but we don’t do it often. Sometimes I use worksheets as a guideline and find more engaging ways to practice the subject material (see my article “10 tips for homeschooling”). To achieve truly engaged learning, I believe we need to include as many of the senses as possible, say doing hands-on projects outside, keeping the blood flowing with physical activity throughout the day, and engaging the social and playful parts of the brain. Worksheets, unfortunately, do not cover any of these bases.

In my article “The Magic and Science of Learning Through Stories”, I mention a great deal of research about how the human brain learns the best. Essentially, when there are social aspects such as empathy engaged, and material is presented in a way that the learner can relate to, as in a storytelling narrative, we tend to retain a lot more important information. There is a myriad of ways to achieve this. Taking a walk and imagining what it would be like to be a songbird and try to survive in that particular environment (a great game premise); talking to an adult who has personal experience in a profession or with a particular subject; reading biographies of all kinds of people from all walks of life; having your kids tell a story or act out a role from a time in history.. the possibilities are endless, and not only that, they are so much more fun than your average school activity!

Too many distractions

This is an issue we struggle with every day, especially since adding a new member to our family who is now of an age to cause all kinds of trouble during school hours. As many families have no doubt discovered, homeschooling with a toddler can be extremely challenging. Likewise, having siblings close to their age (as in my twins) can be its own challenge if, like mine, they are constantly punching each other or discussing role-playing games whenever there’s a moment break. I have often wished for an extra room in which we could set up their school materials and desks or tables to work at, but because we choose to live in very small spaces to allow for more financial freedom, that concept has not become a reality. I would guess that even for families who have such an arrangement, the distractions are still plenty:)

So how do we create a focused, fertile learning environment when we school in our homes? I’m still in the learning process of course, but I think establishing routines before and after “school” times can be a great help. No matter how unstructured your learning time might be, the focus is still on engaging the mind for maximum learning and having a sort of ritual to separate this time is important. Basic things like putting away dishes and toys or other cleaning/de-cluttering tasks can be a part of this. You can also create a habitual first activity of the day, to calm everyone’s mind and settle into a more focused state. I used to read out loud to them at the beginning of every school day. If you are family that meditates or sings those could be great options.

Light exercise can also be a great way to help get the mind calm and focused. There have been many studies recently on the effect of exercise on learning, and some schools have found that exercise before class has a beneficial impact on attention and reading ability. As well, exercise has been shown to have positive impacts on issues related to ADHD and attention problems in general. (“Build your muscles, Build Your Brain, https://www.additudemag.com/exercise-learning-adhd-brain/). Like a writer who has a special cabin or mother in law suite to work in or a business owner with a home office, we all benefit from creating a separate sense of space for focused mental work, even if it is more symbolic than physical.

Similarly, I have found that some ground rules during school hours are helpful as well. I am a believer in following kids leads on break times, as I feel this honors their biological learning process, so I try to not to be heavy-handed about time frames. But some families might benefit from scheduled breaks. I have found that putting away personal electronic devices and banning certain discussion topics (such as role-playing or video games) for periods of time is very helpful for my kids. Every family has to find the balance between structure and free form spontaneity that works best for their values and personalities. The important thing, I think, is to help kids learn the skills they need to focus and accomplish tasks when they put their minds to it. If there is too much chaos, it may lead to frustration and a sense of failure. If there are utter silence and regimented structure, the child may never learn to regulate their attention and reactivity, and may not be able to focus in real life situations. Like everything, I think there is a balance to be struck, and part of the journey is to adapt to the needs of our own families to find that balance.

Stay tuned for part three!