© 2020 Gwen Dewar, PH.D., all rights reserved
Making the transition to homeschooling? Here’s how to start homeschooling right away — even if you haven’t yet worked out your ultimate plan.
Suddenly, your kids aren’t attending their old, bricks-and-mortar school. You want to provide them with educational experiences at home, and you’re scrambling to get up to speed.
What to do? I have a lot of personal experience with this. Trying out a local public school for a while, and then switching — mid-year — to homeschooling.
It’s happened with each of my kids, and at various educational levels — elementary, middle, and high school. And it always begins the same way.
You want to develop a plan, a program, a curriculum. But this takes time, and meanwhile, your child needs something intellectually rewarding to do.
What you need is help with the transition to homeschooling.
So let me share my own self-help kit. I begin with some thoughts about scheduling. Then I lay out my two, basic, go-to options for getting home-schooling off the ground.
Before you begin: Tips for creating a sustainable, family-friendly schedule
Humans learn in spurts — so be sensitive to your child’s rhythms and needs.
Human beings don’t download information like a computer. We learn in spurts. How long are these spurts? It depends.
If we’re really excited and curious, we might be able to keep learning for a relatively long stretch of time — maybe an hour or more.
But we can’t sustain our attention indefinitely, and there is only so much new information that anyone can learn in a single session.
Push beyond these limits, and a lesson backfires. Not only do we start to shut down — we learn less overall. Studies suggest that we learn more from a series of brief, daily lessons than from a single, lengthy one (Vlach and Sandhofer 2012).
So when your child is deeply engaged and having fun — great. Don’t get in the way. But otherwise, be sensitive to your child’s needs for downtime.
Don’t expect young children to stay focused for more than 20-30 minutes at a time. Encourage older kids to take breaks, as needed. Even young adults should plan on a 15-20 minute “recess” after every hour of school work.
When scheduling activities, consider the big picture — the functioning and harmony of the whole household.
Your home has limited space and resources, and multiple family members who are trying to coexist. So think ahead about potential conflicts, and find ways to minimize them.
- What hours are reserved for doing school work? What parts of the day are left open for recreation, rest, free play, quiet resting, and exercise?
- Who gets to use specific rooms or resources (like the television), and when?
- When is it okay to practice on a musical instrument, or make other noise that can distract family members working on their own projects?
And when will you get blocks of time for yourself — intervals when your kids will stay busy without interrupting you and your work?
Remember, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to scheduling. You need to find what works best for your family.
Next: Consider these options for a quick start.
Option #1 is highly structured. Option #2 is more free-wheeling.
Option #1: Transition immediately to a standardized curriculum (available online).
This is a good choice for many students — particularly if they are older and self-motivated. They want to continue whatever they were studying before, and they’re ready to plunge into the outstanding, free, self-paced coursework that is available online, including:
- Khan Academy’s free, self-paced web courses,
- YouTube’s Crash Course lectures, and
- CK12’s open source textbooks (details below).
For example, suppose Maria stops attending school mid-year. She was taking high school chemistry, precalculus, computer science, and AP world history at her bricks-and-mortar school, and she wants to continue her studies.
She can find all of these courses at Khan Academy, and supplement those programs with video lecture series by Crash Course and other excellent YouTube content providers. She can access interactive textbooks at CK12.
Right away — without leaving home — Maria can get started.
The same is true for lots of other kids ready to plug back into a traditional curriculum. Khan Academy, for example, offers comprehensive instruction from kindergarten through high school.
And of course there are many other programs and resources available, including self-paced curricula for purchase; private tutors; and public and private online schools.
But what if you aren’t ready?
Maybe you have a child who will require substantial tutoring and support from you. You need time to brush up on the material your child will be learning.
Or maybe you aren’t interested in re-inserting your child into the standard curriculum. You’d like to develop your own alternative, and — once again — you need time to prepare.
Or maybe you just want a stop-gap. You expect your child will return to institutionalized schooling soon. You just want to find something intellectually rewarding for your child to do until he or she returns to bricks-and-mortar school.
If any of these apply, I can offer some help: A quick remedy I’ve used multiple times myself.
Option #2: Launch a more casual, freestyle curriculum that delivers excellent educational benefits while keeping your own labor to a minimum.
In broad outline, this is a plan for letting kids devote themselves to “passion projects,” while also providing them with opportunities to develop their mathematics skills.
It can be useful for multiple weeks — potentially longer, if you cycle through several different projects.
And your key responsibilities are these:
- Help your child choose a special research topic
- Find appropriate educational resources
- Set goals and assign activities
- Add some mathematics practice and instruction
- Meet regularly with your child — to launch assignments, check-in, provide help, and share discoveries
How exactly does this work?
I’ll let the last item speak for itself. You need to make yourself available at certain times, and be prepared to talk, tutor, and listen.
But as for the rest — let’s drill down. How to do you pick a topic? Where can you find student-friendly educational resources? Help with generating assignments? Help with math?
How to pick a research topic
How do you choose a topic for research? It will be helpful if you know something about it. But the most important criterion? Your child’s own interests.
If your child loves his or her topic, learning will come easily. Curiosity is the best learning drug. And your child will be self-motivated to spend blocks of time engaged in independent, self-directed activities. More “alone time” for you. It’s a win-win.
So help your child pick something exciting. Here are a some ideas to get you started (with a few, select links to relevant resources).
Topic ideas for “passion projects”
- The sun, the solar system, Mars, outer space, or space exploration;
- Rocks and minerals; earth’s geological history; volcanoes; earthquakes;
- Extreme weather (e.g., thunder and lightning; tornadoes);
- Animal behavior topics — like communication, intelligence, tool use, and “architecture” (e.g., beaver dams and beehives);
- Your child’s favorite domestic or wild animal (e.g., cats, dogs, bees, sharks, birds, snakes, dolphins);
- Dinosaurs (see my article about using dinosaurs to teach biology concepts);
- Earth’s biomes (e.g., deserts, rainforests, grasslands);
- Plants — how they grow and reproduce; plant-animal relationships (e.g., pollination and seed dispersal);
- Food — where it comes from (from farm to table); the science of food; sustainable foods of the future;
- The science of gardening; hydroponics;
- Genetics and cloning;
- Micro-organisms, cell biology, and pathogens;
- Human evolution and prehistory;
- Cultures of the past (e.g., ancient Egypt or China; the Mayans, Romans, vikings, or samurai);
- Engineering and architectural topics (like bridge-building, castles; how electric lights work; how automobiles work; airplanes; rockets; robotics);
- Computer programming and video game design.
What if your child’s interests aren’t “academic” enough?
Your child’s research topic doesn’t have to fit what we normally think of as “academic.”
Part of the value of the research will come from the process — tracking down information, absorbing the material, and then communicating it to others (e.g., through written work or an oral presentation).
But just as importantly, you are going to give things a nudge. You’re going to take your child’s interests, and find academic angles for them to explore.
For example, if your kid is keen on superheroes, you might try a project inspired by Spiderman. What are the abilities of real spiders? What can spiders do that Spidey can’t?
What if you’ve got a child who is obsessed with video games, movies, or TV shows?
These probably aren’t going to make suitable research topics. But there are ways to incorporate these interests into your child’s passion projects.
For instance, does your child like Minecraft? Scholastic.com offers these ideas for making use of the game in academic projects. And visit Minecraft: Education Edition for a huge collection of educational Minecraft lesson plans and projects.
I also suggest that you introduce your child to computer programming. It isn’t hard, even if you have no experience yourself. That’s because of Scratch, the free, easy-to-learn computer programming language and online community hosted by MIT.
Scratch (for kids aged 8-16) and Scratch Junior (for kids aged 5-7) provide kids with a drag-and-drop system for writing code. There are tutorials online, and tools for creating games, stories, and animations. In addition to learning principles of programming, your child will have a new medium in which to communicate about his or her special research topic!
For more information — including recommended books about Scratch — see my discussion in this Parenting Science guide to STEM resources.
And for movies and television?
Check out the website Teachwithmovies.org.
It offers discussion questions and project ideas for a wide variety of movies and television shows, including Disney and Pixar films (like Mulan and Wall-E), historical epics (like Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus), docudramas (like Never Cry Wolf and Hidden Figures), and science programs (like Planet Earth).
Topic selected. Now what about those resources?
Finding excellent educational resources can be a pain. There is a bewildering amount of material published off- and online.
How do you find the really useful, appropriate, high-quality content? Engaging, relevant material that is tailored to your child’s academic needs, interests, and abilities?
My advice? Keep searching for the best, but don’t wait for it. Get your child started with material that is “good enough.”
That’s the whole point of this method — to get your child busy now, to give you some time to plan your next move.
While you keeping looking for the educational mother lode — or creating your own curriculum — your student will be learning. Learning to take charge. Developing a specialized knowledge base. Learning how to learn.
With that in mind, here’s a short list of my own recommendations — free, high-quality resources available online.
Recommended websites and YouTube channels
Scholastic: Free, educator-vetted reading materials for elementary and middle school students
Scholastic.com has made a series of e-books and articles available for reading online. They are organized by grade level, and include books on a range of subjects, including natural science, social science, and cultural topics. Check it out here.
BBC Bitesize: Free, online lessons (with quizzes) in a wide array of academic subjects, for students K-12
The BBC has an extensive series interactive lessons for students K-12, all geared to educational standards adopted in the United Kingdom. Go to the main landing page at BBC Bitesize to look up your child’s academic level and subjects of interest.
Note: If you live outside the U.K., you probably won’t be able to access the video segments that accompany the lessons. But in many cases, the video segments are supplemental. The lessons are still very valuable without them.
National Geographic Kids: Reference articles, games, video clips, experiments, and online quizzes (about natural science and social science topics).
The menu on the home page emphasizes animals. But there is also a lot of material covering topics in geography, history, and physical science. So poke around, and use the site’s internal search engine to find what you’re looking for. Aimed primarily at elementary school students (who know how to read).
Khan Academy, Crash Course, and CK12: Individual lessons relevant to your child’s special topic.
As I note in the introduction, these are outstanding resources if you’re seeking a complete curriculum in a basic subject — like 4th grade mathematics, high school biology, or AP physics.
But these resources are open for you to sift through. You are free to pick and choose among individual lessons. So if you are looking for quality content relevant to your child’s research interest, it’s worth checking them out.
Khan Academy and CK12 offer content appropriate to students from kindergarten through high school. Most Crash Course lecture series are aimed at high school students and academically-advanced middle school students.
Other educational videos from the folks who produce Crash Course
Hank Green’s excellent SciShow (on YouTube) tackles an array of fascinating science topics. It’s appropriate for secondary school students, and advanced primary school students.
SciShow for Kids offers hundreds of brief video shorts about science for kids in the lower primary school grades. The questions they address are really intriguing (e.g., “Where did the earth come from?” “Do fish drink water?” “What’s inside a bean?”) and may help your child find new topics to explore.
For somewhat older kids, Crash Course has made a series of science videos aimed at the 5th grade level.
Bill Nye the Science Guy
Bill Nye the Science Guy has a website that includes video clips and transcripts from his famed science program — as well as instructions for science experiments you can carry out at home.
TED-Ed: Excellent animated video shorts and related quizzes that cover a wide range of subjects — from science to the humanities.
There is a treasure trove of excellent material here, and it’s not just a collection of videos. If you watch via their website, you can follow each video with an online quiz. Just what you need to make the knowledge stick. You’ll also find links to other pages and videos, so you can dig deeper.
What about work products? Assigning activities, exercises, projects?
If you feel intimidated, I understand. Activities and assignments are partly what makes teaching so time-consuming and challenging.
I also understand if you’re trying to avoid regimentation and busy-work.
But there are ways to provide structure without overburdening yourself or your child. And there are good reasons to incorporate written work and other agreed-upon projects into your home-schooling program.
1. Clearly-stated goals and assignments provide structure, and structure helps kids avoid feeling confused, lost, or overwhelmed.
It might sound fun, “go learn more about your favorite topic.” But there’s a lot of information out there, a lot of shiny objects vying for your child’s attention.
When we assign specific tasks or activities, it’s like giving kids a road map. Kids can still take detours. But they have a basic structure to guide them. They know where (at minimum) they need to go.
2. Kids learn better when they actively engage with the material and explain what they’re learning to others.
Reading, listening, and watching are important components of learning. But if we want to process the information more deeply — if we want learning to stick, we need to do something active, too.
When kids explain what they’ve learned — by talking, writing, drawing pictures — they are more likely to store it in long-term memory. They are also more likely to master the material. (Read more about it in this Parenting Science article.)
3. When kids are busy — writing, drawing, creating — it provides parents with some time to themselves.
It doesn’t always work that way. Some assignments require your ongoing presence and involvement. But there are lots of activities — even for young children — that kids can work on independently.
So what are some examples? Consider these.
Assignment ideas and resources
1. For each study session, ask kids to jot down answers to a few comprehension or discussion questions.
If your child is reading a textbook or educational article, the author might provide such questions for you. Or you and your child might come up with questions of your own.
2. Use teacher-created worksheets.
There are a lot of quality worksheet resources online. One I like is Tes.com, an offshoot of the Times Educational Supplement. To find topical worksheets, visit the Tes.com teaching resources page, select your child’s grade level, and do a search that includes your keyword and the term “worksheet.” To find free worksheets, sort the results by price.
3. Ask kids to make maps.
If there’s a geographic angle to your child’s topic, try printing out the appropriate outline maps to label and color. You can download free, printable maps from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
4. Use educational coloring pages.
Coloring isn’t just for preschoolers and stressed-out hobbyists. To see what I mean, check out these free coloring pages about biological subjects (offered by scientists at Arizona State University).
5. Have kids create their own flash cards.
Ask kids to choose their own favorite facts, and describe or illustrate each on an index card.
6. Encourage kids to explain what they’ve learned in a variety of media:
- Create a poster or an instructional comic strip
- Write an essay
- Make a diorama
- Prepare and deliver a talk
- Create a game, simulation, story, or animation using Scratch
- Record an audio program or video log
- Make up a rhyme or song that emphasizes key facts
- Write a fictional story designed to teach others about your subject (along the lines of The Magic Schoolbus)
And don’t forget about family conversation. Simply talking together — about your child’s interests, discoveries, and questions — is a crucial learning experience.
Ready for more? Add mathematics.
The next step is to add some mathematics to your child’s schedule, and here’s why.
Students don’t usually make progress in mathematics unless they are actively engaged in regular lessons and practice.
In fact, if they stop practicing their mathematics skills, they start forgetting. Researchers have found that kids lose up to 50% of their school year learning gains over the summer break (Paechter et al 2015; Thum and Hauser 2015; Cooper et al 1996).
So it’s important for kids to keep exercising their “math muscles.”
One approach — which you can begin immediately — is to set aside some time each day for your child to practice mathematics skills.
For preschoolers, this may take the form of number games, like the ones I outline in this Parenting Science article. For older kids, this may include basic drills and problem-solving.
IXL is a well-known, solid option if you’re looking for guided practice exercises online. The curriculum covers preschool through advanced high school mathematics, as well as other subjects (like English, science, and social studies). I’ve used it in my family, and found it to be helpful. Kids get immediate feedback — and instruction — when they choose the wrong answer.
Years ago, I also used Dragonbox, which produces a series of award-winning, children’s mathematics game applications.
For a no-cost option, be sure to visit Homeschoolmath.net, a teacher-created website that allows you to generate and print out your own math worksheets — complete with answer keys.
In addition, you’ll find interesting mathematics activities and puzzlers — with solutions — on NRICH, an online mathematics resource created by mathematicians and educators at Cambridge University.
A more ambitious approach is to re-establish a formal mathematics curriculum for your child.
I’ll be frank. This may require a considerable amount of work on your part.
At minimum, you’ll need get acquainted with what your child is learning, and be ready to help when your child has questions.
But here’s the good news. You don’t have to bear the full burden of explaining, teaching, and testing. Online instruction is available.
My favorite resource, hands down, is Khan Academy, which offers self-paced courses in mathematics (preschool level through calculus).
You can sign your child up for free, and get a parent’s account for yourself. Via your parent’s account, you can monitor your child’s progress, and preview all the videos and testing materials that your child will see.
A tip for saving time: You don’t have to watch the instructional videos at speed. If the child-friendly version is too slow for you, you can adjust the playback speed in the settings.
Another extremely helpful resource for online mathematics learning is the previously-mentioned CK12 foundation, a nonprofit that provides free access to open source educational content to students from kindergarten through high school.
If you’re looking for a free, textbook-based curriculum — with practice questions and answer keys — this is it. Some textbooks are highly interactive and must be used online. Other textbooks can be downloaded for use offline.
But kids need to do mathematics calculations on paper, and there is nothing quite as handy as a “consumable textbook” — i.e., a textbook designed for students to write in. A good one provides lessons and explanations in addition to practice problems.
For example, when I was teaching one of my kids elementary school mathematics, I used the Envision Math series (published by Pearson), and I found them to be very comprehensive.
New concepts are introduced gradually and intuitively. Once a student has grasped the material, you can skip ahead as needed. To save money, I purchased only the student books. So I can’t comment on the quality of the teacher’s editions and support materials.
There are many other publishers, too. Scholastic provides an overview of some of the most popular textbook-based programs in the United States, including Envision,Go Math!, Singapore Math, and Saxon Math. You can read the article here.
What about adding extra subjects?
That’s easily done, and in fact you might find that your child’s “passion project” is the perfect stepping stone to more systematic coursework.
For instance, if your child has enjoyed studying bees, your next step might be to begin a more comprehensive study of biology. The resources mentioned above, including Khan Academy and CK12, may provide you with what you need to get going.
Homeschooling is also an excellent opportunity for kids to begin formal study of subjects in the humanities that are often lacking in traditional schools — music, art, and foreign language instruction.
And on a personal note, I’d like to make a suggestion.
In my experience, kids rarely get presented with a survey of world history. Nor do they learn very much about world geography.
These subjects are crucial for us to understand –now more than ever. And they are extremely well-suited to homeschooling because
- the whole family can study these topics together (albeit at different levels of sophistication);
- the subject matter can be used to teach language arts (i.e., reading history textbooks and works of historically-relevant literature; writing research papers and “time traveler” stories);
- there are many opportunities for incorporating film, video, and games (e.g., historical movie epics; children’s TV series like Horrible Histories; simulation games like Civilization; and quiz-style geography challenges);
- the study of history and geography exposes kids to a wide range of other subjects, including archaeology, economics, political systems, human ecology, and comparative religion.
So I’d encourage you to consider delving into history and geography. It’s an investment that will help your child make sense of the world.
More reading about education and homeschooling
I’ve written a wide array of articles about teaching and learning. Search the website for your particular interest. And check out this sample of Parenting Science offerings:
Cooper H, Nye B, Charlton K, Lindsay J, and Greathouse S. 1996. The effects of summer vacation on achievement test scores: A narrative and metaanalytic review. Review of Educational Research 66: 227–268.
Paechter M, Luttenberger S, Macher D, Berding F, Papousek I, Weiss EM, and Fink A. 2015. The effects of nine-week summer vacation: losses in mathematics and gains in reading. EURASIA J Math Sci Technol Educ 11(6):1339–413.
Thum YM and Hauser CH. 2015. NWEA 2015 MAP Norms for Student and School Achievement Status and Growth. NWEA Research Report. Portland, OR: NWEA
Vlach HA, Sandhofer CM. 2012. Distributing learning over time: the spacing effect in children’s acquisition and generalization of science concepts. Child Dev. 83(4):1137-44.
Content last modified 4/6/2020
Title image credit of girl with book by istock