:: Homeschooling how you think you should be homeschooling is impossible. Let go of all of those preconceptions you might have had, and your kids will learn.

Two years ago, I had to homeschool my children. It wasn’t a choice. We were in a desperate place, and homeschooling was the only option we had.

With regard to school, I wasn’t in a much different situation than I am now. Suddenly—homeschool. Here’s what happened, and here’s some things I learned.

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Two years ago, we pulled our kids from a private school in October of the school year, completely unprepared to homeschool.

Here’s why: We learned the school was refusing to provide even the most basic EC (exceptional children) accommodations for my kids. You might not know this, but many private schools (most, probably), don’t have to comply with federal disability law because they don’t receive any government funding.

One of my children was completely decompensating. We couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Finally, we met with his teacher and the principal. The teacher said that, when she’d learned about my kid’s disability, she’d put him the back of the class so that he wouldn’t distract the other kids. This is what “she always did with kids like him.”

She required him to rewrite all of his assignments until his handwriting met her expectations, despite his accommodation that directly told teachers to disregard his penmanship.

And then, she took off 25% for spelling on assignments in things like science that didn’t have “spelling” as part of the learning rubric, and despite his accommodation that directly told teachers to disregard minor spelling errors. He was learning to spell, but not in her class, and never would in her class.

Friends: my son, my loving, precocious son, thought he was a stupid, worthless, failure. He was 8 years old.

For her part, the principal was aghast to hear these words coming from the teacher’s mouth. But it was too late. We had to rebuild our child’s self-esteem and self-efficacy. We pulled both kids from the school, got our money back (that wasn’t hard), and “emergency homeschooled.”

I had no idea what I was doing.

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Now, under COVID-19, the entire U.S. is facing the challenge of homeschooling. The schools are doing their best, from a generous point of view, at providing curriculum and learning opportunities for children at home.

Where I live, we have rather strong public schools. But even these public schools are struggling. I’m sensing a lot of top-down pressure—the teachers, I’m sensing, have a better idea about what’s right regarding the kind of instruction we can expect in a situation like this. Those higher up the food chain of educational barracudas have their ideas about accountability and measures and all of that is driven by a whole lot of mistrust of both teachers and children. And above them is the spectre of money. Always money: state and federal. If we don’t abide by rules or meet criteria or whatever, then the money might be yanked. Even now. When everything is so in flux. So desperate.

So here we are. Teachers drawn as thin as parents. Children nervous and uncertain. Many children and parents under food stress, financial stress, technological stress.

We have opted to reactivate our homeschool instead. You will likely choose not to do what we did—and in which case, most of my advice will still apply to you. (Or you might find that homeschooling, rather than following your school’s curriculum for the rest of the year, is the better way to go.)

There are two very important things two understand before going forward.

First: Every family’s situation is different. I’m a white, disabled mom of two disabled kids. We have the financial support to be able to afford technology for our children to be able to do online learning. We are not under food stress. Although our finances have contracted, we are not under financial stress. This is my position, and I want to make that very clear up front.

Second: Homeschooling is about trust. You have to trust yourself, and you have to trust your kids. Nothing will work until you do those two things.

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Here is my advice to you, parents who are desperate and new to homeschooling, from a parent who was desperate and new to this not too long ago.

(1) Your curriculum is broader than you think, and it starts earlier in the day than you think, and is easier for you than you think.

My children are 8 and 10. They are what is called “twice exceptional,” which means they have learning disabilities AND are what is called “gifted.” 2E kids are hard for schools and teachers to understand sometimes. Parents of 2E kids, perhaps more obviously, understand our kids’ strengths and weaknesses. But this advice applies to all kids, customized in ways that make sense for your family. Therefore:

The school day starts when the kids get out of bed. My kids have a simple list of “morning duties” they must complete. Get dressed. Brush teeth. Make beds. Care for pets. Make own breakfast. Of course, I’m supervising from a distance, but the point of the “morning duties” is to teach them independence and how to care for themselves. Compare your list of home duties with the duties they perform when they get to school: Hang up your coat. Hang up your backpack, get out your folder, etc. Learning these skills and routines is important.

Back when regular school was in session, at least at my house, we were rushing so much in the mornings that we didn’t have time to spend on these life skills. We were too busy trying to make sure the kids were wearing socks. When we homeschool, we do have that time.

Here’s what to do: Print out a list, hang it on the wall, and when the kids look at a loss at what to do, encourage them to guide themselves. “What’s next on the list?” In my case, I created the list with their input. This team list-creation increases buy-in. And we have a similar list of evening duties. We even negotiated their actual bedtime together.

Final note: Notice that the duties lists make your life easier. You will do lists like this for the entire day. See below.

(2) Don’t try to invent your own “real school” curriculum.

We use Calvert’s homeschool program, which we used before (calverthomeschool.com). They’re running a generous free trial right now. Take a look. There are others, too. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. (We also use IXL on their iPads as a supplement.) Calvert is an accredited program, and you have a parent dashboard to track progress, they grade assignments, etc. Really, for the “real stuff,” it’s great. But note:

I realize these online programs presuppose access to technology and money. Homeschooling has real money costs. I also have the benefit of being able to bring my kids with me places. They can IXL or Calvert in the back seat when I drive-through at the pharmacy. I work from home, and with my long-range supervision, and the use of a timer, they complete their tasks. (With plenty of bitching and moaning. I don’t want to paint a rosy picture here.)

One way to homeschool on a budget is to form a co-op with other parents and take turns. But we can’t do that right now, and it’s one of the hardest things to deal with as a homeschool parent. But there are lots of homeschool co-ops that have turned online, and there are online resources.

I prefer Calvert for three main reasons: (1) It reads out loud the lessons to my child who has a reading disability (it will read all texts aloud). This accessibility feature is outrageously wonderful for us. (2) It grades assignments and keeps track of things for me, which is an immense timesaver and load of my shoulders. (3) It’s inexpensive for an accredited online school that gives you everything you need.

(3) Get your paperwork in order.

In our state (NC) filing for a homeschool is done online, and the process is easy. Once your homeschool is approved, you withdraw your children from public school, also easy. Then, you must keep track of your kids’ homeschool “report cards” and “tests” to create a “file” in case your kids ever return to public school, and for when your kids apply to college. I have a computer folder where I keep these records, literally called “School Record” for each kid. Also not hard.

(4) PE is FUN and FREQUENT.

When the kids start to bounce off the walls, send them outside for 30 minutes to ride bikes or skateboards or whatever. PE should be part of the curriculum, and it should be whenever you think they need it, and whenever you need it, too. When I feel like I’m about to lose it, I say, “Oh hey look! It’s time for PE. Go outside.” Amazing. When, someday, we’re able to resume normal life, PE is also their sports: soccer team, swim team, whatever sports your kids used to play as part of their daily lives. By that same token…

(5) Their “Extracurriculars” are now part of the curriculum.

Piano lessons? We are still taking those via Facetime with their piano teacher (surprisingly well, too). So piano practice happens each day. Music class! Coding lessons, taken via Zoom (we us IDTech.com), which used to happen after school? Coding class! No more cramming everything into the day and coming home at 8pm exhausted by all of this “enrichment.” It’s all “school” now, and you’re in charge. (Remember what I said about trusting yourself?)

(6) Buy them planners, and have them use them.

Think about the skills you want your kids to learn. My kids use their planners to keep track of future things like their online coding lessons, riding lessons (with social distancing), and piano lessons (via FaceTime now). They also keep track of the school work they’ve completed each day. We do planners throughout the day. “What have you done so far today?” Keeping a list of “What I’ve done” is very satisfying to them. It’s so satisfying right now that I’m doing the same for myself. Plus, learning to use a planner, to write a to-do (or have-done) list, is a great part of your curriculum. (If you are noticing a pattern, you are correct. What your kids are learning beyond “school stuff” is just as important as “school stuff.”)

(7) Figure out their strengths, and nurture them.

My kids love coding. They love riding horses. They love reading books. We do a lot of these things. Doing things that they are good at builds self-efficacy. (On that note, learn about self-efficacy, and how it is different from self-esteem.)

(10) Figure out their weaknesses, and teach them skills to overcome them.

It will become very apparent to you what your kids’ weaknesses are because they will dig in their heels and/or scream at you when you ask them to do the things they are weaker at. This is one of the great things about homeschooling: grades don’t always show weaknesses. Conversations do.

My advice: Don’t rush! You aren’t on a timeline, actually. Sit down with your kid, preferable someplace where they feel comfortable. “I’d like to hear your feelings about this. Where should we talk?” Or something like that. If they say they want to talk in the closet under the stairs, in you go. The issue is your kid doesn’t feel safe. Now in that closet, they do. Let them tell you why long division freaks them out. Be gentle and generous. And, I promise you, you will find the balance between “this is something you must make the best of, even though it sucks” and giving in because your kid is sad. On that note…

(9) Your kids will have some strong emotions; don’t give in.

My kids, when I asked them why they were freaking out at me one day about…something I cannot remember, gave me some hard wisdom that went something like this:

You are our mom, not a teacher at school, so you have to love us no matter what—even when we freak out at you.

I took that nugget to bed with me and held it like the precious treasure it is. And then the next day I set some boundaries. One thing I did was created the duty lists, with their input. Now they get mad at the lists, not at me. But even with all of these safeties in place, your kids will have meltdowns. They are melting down because you’re you, and it’s safe to meltdown with you.

Aren’t you lucky. 💕

(10) If you have a partner, you must—must—be on the same page.

Getting on the same page as your partner is way harder than it sounds, and, at least to me, it already sounds hard. One of you is likely already more strict, and the other more lackadaisical, because that’s the way it usually is in most relationships.

But when it comes to homeschooling, you need a united front, or the kids will sense the discord and exploit it. (That is, unless your children are perfect angels, in which case I don’t know why you are reading this piece at all.)

(11) Don’t work your kids until they fall apart.

When you homeschool, your school day isn’t a school day at all anymore. Your schedule is your own. You can do things in your own order, on your own time.

But be sure you aren’t doing too much.

Think about all of the individual attention your children are getting from you—customized curriculum, endless conversations about the world, learning from sunup till sundown. And remember that kids need time to explore their world, to build things with Lego, to dig in the dirt, to be kids. All of those things they learned? About how water works, and Newton’s laws? They’re implementing those discoveries when they build things in the driveway.

Earlier in this essay, I wrote that homeschooling is about trust. Here is where the trust comes in. Trust that your kids are learning; trust that you are doing a good job.

(12) Don’t work yourself until you fall apart.

Do you have a job, like, besides teaching homeschool? Right now, during the C-19 crisis, are you remote-working from home? Can you work and homeschool at the same time?

The answer is yes, with caveats. I have always worked full time and also homeschooled my kids. But they are older—I don’t have an infant or toddler. They’re 8 and 10 now, and so they’re more self-contained.

I’ve organized our school into short time chunks governed by a timer that gives me time chunks during which I can work:

My kids have “writing time” when I set a timer they can write or draw in their journals. They have “reading time” when I set a timer and they read. If they want to write longer or read longer, they can. I work during those times. I work during PE, when they go outside until the timer goes off.

But here’s the truth: I work in whatever margins I can find. I’ve learned to work in smaller chunks of time. But I’ve also learned when to just end the school day so I can work or take a break or do both of those things. Here’s why: My kids need me to be okay. That’s the most important thing they need.

Remember: Don’t be afraid to let your kids lead you. Homeschooling is about trust. You create the structure, the predictability. And within that structure, you give them freedom to explore.

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