Boys vs. girls.
Type A vs. laid-back.
Expressive vs. thoughtful.
Creative vs. by-the-book.
Rambunctious vs. restrained.
God has made each of our children uniquely. As a parent, all it takes is a couple of hours caring for more than one child to confirm the obvious: each one is wired differently.
Deep in my heart as a mom, I want the best for each of my children. Specifically, I want each of my kiddos to live up to his or her potential. As a homeschooling parent, I’d love for each of them to excel academically.
My husband and I have six children of varying ages, widely different learning styles, and a mixed bag of personality types. Years ago when we made the decision to homeschool our children, we did so knowing one of the distinct advantages of homeschooling is the ability to customize each of their educations. We can choose a curriculum that suits their learning styles and select enrichment programs to maximize their personalities, interests, and strengths.
That’s good to know in theory. But what about in practice? A mom spread too thin isn’t healthy or helpful to her children. Can you tailor-make each of your kids’ learning experiences without overloading yourself? Or, like Laura Ingalls teaching in a one-room schoolhouse, do you need to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to keep your sanity and assure academics are still achievable?
Unfortunately, I can’t give you a prescription for how to tailor-make your homeschool. There isn’t a cookie cutter answer to ensure the perfect balance between customization for students and simplicity for mom. I don’t know you well enough to predict how many balls you can juggle in the air this year. Speaking for myself, it’s more of a one year at a time approach. What follows are some takeaways that have helped me strike a balance over my almost years of 20 years of homeschooling and watching other moms succeed.
Bundle What You Can
Some of the weariest moms I know attempted to simultaneously teach too many levels of a literature-intensive program when their children were in elementary school. I vowed not to do that to myself. Lately, I see moms who get burned out by using a popular, memory-intensive curriculum for their primary students that also requires at least one day away from home. Be honest with yourself: can you handle the time a particular curriculum requires? It’s OK to pick something different from your friends.
With four elementary-aged children and a preschooler, I needed to group my kids together as much as possible. I chose a basic, literature-based history program for all of my children. No matter their ages, they circled around the sofa to listen. I would assign additional reading to my older children, such as a related biography or historical novel and then have them research and write about it. The youngest ones tagged along (and it’s amazing what they grasped). Remember that grade levels are an artificial creation of the public schools meant to group large numbers of students who are all the same age. In homeschooling, we focus on family relationships and mastery of a subject, regardless of age, so it’s OK for varied ages to use the same curriculum.
In our family, in addition to history (including relevant maps or timelines), I usually lead Bible study, logic, and any fine arts with all my children together. Often I hold our group times immediately before or after meals since we are already gathered and quiet at the kitchen table. (Bonus: the toddler is in the high chair!) Over the years, we’ve studied bird calls, famous painters, memorized over one hundred country’s locations, capitals, and flags, watched caterpillars turn into butterflies, and listened to G.A. Henty audiobooks at lunchtime.
Takeaway: bundle what you can.
Focus on What’s Most Important
As you gradually discover how God has wired your children, it’s tempting to a la carte everything for him or her. Picking separate curriculum for each subject is what’s called eclectic homeschooling. I never recommend a new homeschooler attempt it, because it can be an overwhelming task. Instead, choose one program for all subjects except math and reading (more on those to follow). I also would discourage an eclectic approach for a parent with several young students, because the younger they are, the more individual attention they require.
Math and reading/writing MUST be customized. A child must be working at his or her ability in those two critical areas. Therefore, customize these two subjects according to the child’s learning style. Consider auditory, kinesthetic, visual, and verbal preferences. If Math-U-See complements one child and Saxon Math or a workbook from Costco suits the other, go for it. Find a math and a language arts program that works for your child—and thank God when the one you used for his or her older sister can be reused with a younger sibling, too. Limit yourself to personalized programs in just math and language arts so you don’t burn yourself out, especially when your children are in elementary school.
Based on your child’s unique abilities, find the best programs for your child that someone else already created. Why reinvent the wheel? Some of the moms I know who are trained as teachers and taught school for a living before the arrival of their own children create their own studies, pursuing every possible instructional idea, and set up every corner of their home as a learning center. In a homeschool, combining education, childcare, laundry, meals, and outside lessons is a recipe for burnout.
Takeaway: spend your time on what’s truly important.
Launch Them in Middle School
I’ve found that once my children reach the age of twelve or thirteen, two developmental milestones coincide:
- Their God-given abilities and interests are becoming clear to them and to us as parents.
- They are mostly ready to be independent learners.
Now the fun begins!
If I both know what they are good at and what they are most gifted in, and they can take the reins to do most learning by themselves, I can customize to my heart’s content. In middle school, I shift from being a full-time teacher to being more of a counselor. Sure, I still review essays, grade math pages, invite them to read aloud with us, and maybe study biology alongside them, but it’s their education, and I have equipped them to learn. Together we select subjects and curriculum, then I hand them the syllabus and ask them to keep me aware of their progress. As a homeschooler, I still require them to formally learn subjects I consider essential (math, history and government, writing, and science), but I want to help them creatively pursue subjects in which they are the most gifted.
Takeaway: launch them!
Much like marriage or parenting in general, homeschooling does not come with a roadmap. In times when I desperately needed a how-to manual, I’ve sought advice from three sources.
First, I talked to moms in my area, church, or co-op who are ahead of me on the journey. Like Hebrews 12:1, veteran homeschooling moms have cheered me on and given tips to keep my days manageable.
My husband, my partner for life, knows when I am overwhelmed and can make suggestions. He also knows our children well; he gives another set of eyes and ears to identify abilities and potential academic and career interests. Getting my husband’s input into planning our homeschool is crucial.
Finally, I turn to my Heavenly Father for His wisdom. After all, He created my children and me. He put us together as a family and called me to homeschooling. He cares for my needs and wants to give all His children His best.