Homeschooling 101: Setting Good Habits and Routines in the Early Years

Are you new to homeschooling? Are you not sure where to start? You are not alone. Most of us were never homeschooled ourselves. You might not be prepared for this very different life style. Homeschooling is a way of life that integrates family life and academics all day long; keeping those in balance involves establishing a lot of good habits and routines. As a new homeschooler, you might not know where to start! I felt that way, too. You might have a long list of questions. I did, too, when I was starting out. I asked questions of a lot of homeschooling parents, and I read books about homeschooling. It is my personality to really study something before I dive into it. Maybe you are like this, too.

I am trained as a teacher in a specialized discipline. I am a speech-language pathologist, blessed and certified to be able to evaluate and teach ages 0-100+ in the areas of language, cognition, speech, and more. Although I took education courses, and I know how to teach a child one-on-one, there is a difference between teaching someone else’s child in a classroom versus teaching all academic subjects in your home to your own children, when you still need to cook and clean!

There is something different about incorporating school life into home life that homeschooling parents have to figure out on their own. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

Now that my oldest is finishing up 2nd grade and  I am finishing up my 4th year of homeschooling (Pre-K, K, 1st, and 2nd), I will share some advice that might help you as you are starting out. In this post, I hope to give new homeschoolers strategies for incorporating good habits at home. My focus will be on children from early childhood to 1st grade, or ages 3.5 to 7.

1. Establish good habits in the home overall, including self-care skills and every day chores. In a post about homeschooling, you might not expect that I would mention this first. I have learned from Charlotte Mason’s approach that teaching basic skills and habits is key for learning success. Here’s a secret: young children often like chores. They like being by you as you do your housework, and they like being like a “big kid” and helping out.

  • Teach the children how to get dressed, but be gentle with the youngest ones, ages 3 and under, because they are still learning how to balance while getting dressed. Their motor skills are still developing. They will get it!
  • Teach all of your children how to wash their hands with soap and dry their hands.
  • Teach the children how to brush their hair and their teeth. Teach them to floss (ages 5 and older). You’ll still need to floss younger children, but you can slowly let them try to floss under supervision to learn independence.
  • Teach the children to clean up after themselves at the kitchen table.  Ages 3 and younger can often carry their plate and cup to the kitchen sink when they are done.
  • Teach them how to put their dirty laundry in the hamper. Teach children ages 6 and older to carry their dirty laundry to the laundry room (if they are strong enough to carry it without falling–smaller laundry baskets can help).
  • Teach them to make their beds.
  • Teach them to put toys away (e.g., have a toy basket or toy bench).

When children master these little habits and skills, the home can run more smoothly and more time for schooling opens up. You still do the majority of the work around the house if you have young children at home all day, but these seemingly small skills really add up. Teaching independence in daily life skills is important. By the middle of 1st grade, you will want your children to do most of these habits by themselves; it’s attainable if you start when they are young. Need some help? I love Rock ‘N Learn for teaching basic home and school skills. http://www.rocknlearn.com/products/rl952 It’s older animation and music, but the kids don’t mind; they think it’s catchy.

2. Set a schedule for evenings and mornings.   Set a bedtime and a wake-up time, and stick to it. This means setting bedtime and waking time for your children and for you and your spouse. Set evening and morning routines. Need some help? Sign up for “Make Over Your Mornings” e-course by a homeschooling mom. With homeschooling, we have the freedom to go to bed and wake up whenever we want most days…but it is important to remember that it’s healthiest for a body to have a standard sleep and wake cycle. You do have the freedom to decide, but it’s tempting to sleep in later and later if you don’t have a schedule and a reason to be awake at a specific time. If you have children sleeping through the night, setting a good sleep schedule for the house will do wonders for everyone’s attitudes and ability to learn. If you have a standard sleep and wake time, then it’s easier to create a school schedule, which is the next step. Please note, if you have a newborn baby or infant, give yourself permission to be flexible and choose to sleep in, or you can choose to wake up at your normal time and be sure to schedule a mid-morning nap. That way, you can still function during the day.

3. Set a typical schedule for school. Decide what order would be best for your academic time. For us, I love to do math, handwriting, and grammar first. I feel like we accomplish a lot right away, and it is encouraging. Incorporate snack, recess, lunch, quiet/rest time, and reading time. Your goal should be to schedule a break about every 30-40 minute by 1st grade.

Preschoolers or kindergartners might need a break every 10-20 minutes at the beginning of the year, but they can work longer by the end of the year. It really depends on the child. If your goal is to only do 30-60 minutes of one-on-one teaching with your 3-year-old or 4-year-old each day, you have a lot of flexibility.

I recommend having some official school time for children as young as 3 or 4 (e.g., coloring, cutting out paper, tracing, interactive books with flaps, letter sounds, counting to ten, nursery rhymes). They have lots of time in a day for free play and play dates, but a little structure is helpful in gaining fine motor, attention, and language skills.

Not sure what to do with a 3 or 4-year-old who is new to “school time”? A homeschooling mom of 9 children once recommended Kumon workbooks to me. They are are really great! My 3-year-old loves, loves, loves to do her “kitty book.” That’s what she calls her Kumon’s  My First Book of Tracing Book which has a picture of  cat on it. When her big brother and sister are doing school, she asks for her “kitty book” and works right next to them. We also like Kumon’s My First Book of Cutting.

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Sometimes children cannot sit still because they don’t know how or they don’t have enough skills to sit still (e.g., cannot hold a pencil, cannot use scissors successfully, are given tasks that are too far above their ability level). I will talk about ways to teach children to sit still below. If your child is not ready to sit still for long stretches, don’t worry, and start with just 5 minutes. If that’s too long, then do 2 minutes. Set a timer and find engaging, age appropriate activities. Your child will learn.

Set a snack for 1.5-2 hours after breakfast; this is especially helpful for toddlers and preschoolers who have small stomachs. If they are not fed in a timely manner after breakfast, they might melt down before lunch…and then you cannot each your older children. You want a successful morning of school for all of your children, and you don’t want to discourage the home educator (that’s you!).

Set a lunch time for 1.5-2 hours after your snack. The exact time of breakfast, snack, and lunch really depends on the ages of your children, and when you set your wake-up time.

I wake up at about 7:15am, and we are done with breakfast by 8am. We have a snack around 10am. Lunch is usually served at 12 or 12:30, and it’s a bigger meal. They usually have no afternoon snack, and we try to have dinner by 5:30pm; I prefer 5pm, but it usually doesn’t happen! If dinner will be late, such as 6:30pm, due to after school activities, or if my husband works late, then they have a snack mid-afternoon. They drink water throughout the day.

Schedule free play time in the afternoon when you need to make dinner; this time can be flexible for play dates if you make dinner ahead of time.

Follow your “typical schedule” most days. Doing the same thing Monday through Friday keeps it simple, makes it easier to remember, and helps you to cover all of the subjects.  Don’t be surprised if it takes a few weeks to adjust it until you find something that truly works for you. For each draft of your schedule, you can print a copy for your children to see. For example, children who can read can have the schedule posted with words, and non-readers can have a schedule with pictures and words. This will help you and your children learn the new schedule and stay on track.

4. Make one or more “alternate schedules” that you can follow on days when your daily routine is different (e.g., swim lessons, dance lessons, religious education at church). That way, on those days, you can still have a routine to complete schooling. Some moms become frustrated because they don’t get enough schooling done. Planning ahead for atypical days will help you stay on track.

I find it easiest to schedule the bulk of our homeschooling in the mornings, and then do activities in the afternoon.  When my oldest two children were ages 4 and 3, however, we did story time at the library 1-2 mornings per week and that was really great. Mornings can be a great time to schedule preschool events to avoid nap times or to take advantage of community offerings, but coming back to a “typical schedule” the other days of the week is helpful.

5. When it is a school day, tell your students what to expect.  Then repeat your schedule most every day. Most children–and adults–thrive on routine. You can vary how long each subject lasts and the type of materials used, but sticking to the same order of events really helps children not have anxiety about remembering what is coming next or what is expected of them.  Unpredictability can lead to higher stress for some children, which makes learning more difficult. Lower stress makes it easier to learn. Sticking to the same routine for a homeschool day helps children know what is expected and they can feel a sense of accomplishment as they proceed through their day. You will have more compliance if your children know what to expect.

6. Establish that you are the teacher, and they are the students during official schooling time. When I started more formal schooling at about age 4, my first two children would have times where they would treat me like a mom rather than a teacher. When practicing handwriting, working on a project, or doing circle time, occasionally during those early first weeks, a child would try to negotiate what we should be doing instead (e.g., playing outside, using a coloring book, etc.). Does that sound normal? Does this sound like defiance?

Think of it this way. For a 2-year-old, a parent does not usually do much formal teaching. Most of the child’s life is about play, learning words, eating, and growing! When a parent needs to get something done, such as making dinner, it is common for a parent to give a 2-year-old or a 3-year-old toys to play with to let the parent focus on preparing food. When the child wants to play with a different toy, he/she makes the decision and either goes and gets new toys, or asks the parent to get new toys. The child initiated changing  to play with different toys (e.g., choosing to stop playing with blocks and instead choosing to play with trains); it was almost like a change in subject matter, if we were talking in school terms. As a  2-year-old or 3-year-old, that is a great skill to independently choose to switch between two play options.

Now think about a child who is 3.5 or 4 years old, who is just starting the basics of learning homeschooling habits and expectations, at an age appropriate level.  He/she might think that the mom, who is asking him/her to sit still and learn how to write or have circle time might think, “This was fun for a while, but now I want to go do something else. I will ask mom to do something different.” Then the child will say, “I don’t want to do handwriting, I want to play outside!” or “I want to look at my favorite book!” It’s not necessarily defiance; it really is likely not knowing “the rules.” This can be addressed by saying things like, “No, right now it is time to read this book (or work on writing letters). I am the teacher, and that means I decide what we do during school time. During recess, you can play outside. Now it is time to do school,” and then continuing with the lesson is helpful.

Choosing realistic goals and expectations is a topic for another post, but it goes hand in hand with teaching your children that you are the teacher and they are the students. If you say that, and then teach them something and they feel good about what they are learning and accomplishing, they are going to want to learn from you again tomorrow. You want to be inspiring to them and help them enjoy learning; setting realistic learning goals and expectations helps them want to learn from you, their primary teacher, because they will be successful. These little souls are tender, but you can do it!

7. Be positive, especially during your early days as you establish that you are the teacher and they are the students. While you teach them how to learn, it is helpful to sometimes work on easier subjects that they already know a lot about and love (e.g., trains, princesses, nursery rhymes, sports), or give them activities that they already know how to do. That way, they can focus on learning how to sit still for 5 minutes or 10 minutes and work their way up to sitting in one spot for 30-40 minutes. It can happen, even for a 4-year-old. Making it a positive experience, at which they can feel successful, helps them enjoy learning.  Or you can choose a harder goal that has big long-term benefits (e.g., learning letter sounds); set a timer and only work on it for 5-10 minutes and then play a game together like Candy Land. The child will likely be willing to try the harder subject to enjoy playing the really fun game next.

8. Build a good relationship with your child. This is something that another homeschooling mom taught me, and I really wanted to be sure to share it with you! It’s not all about reading, writing, and math (although I value those subjects as an educator). I value loving my children more, and I see that having a good relationship flows from love and time. As Pope Francis asked in an address, “do you play with your children? Do you waste time with your children?”  If your child loves spending time with you, and you love spending time with him/her, then the teacher-student relationship will be positive.

During the early years, this might mean:

  • Making time to play a board game together
  • Coloring pictures together
  • Reading books together
  • Singing songs together
  • Cooking together
  • Baking together
  • Walking or driving to a park together
  • Giving a hug
  • Looking into your child’s eyes and asking, “What did you play with in your room?”
  • Asking, “Tell me about your favorite tv show. Who is your favorite character?”
  • Watching your children play. Just sit by them. If they ask you to do something, do it, but otherwise, just watch them and comment about how neat it is. “You put the princess in the castle!” or “You made a big tower!” Sometimes, young children just want you to pay attention to them and don’t need to you to even move.

These types of activities help build the relationship.

9. Be very aware of your child’s ability to pay attention and minimize distractions. If your child is not paying attention, despite redirection, try to play detective to figure out why. There is usual a reason.

  • Is he/she fidgeting with a pencil, paper, or toy? If so, take it away.
  • Is he/she facing forward towards what you (the teacher) are doing? Are the walls too distracting?
  • Is he/she looking at you and the materials, or daydreaming?
  • Are there too many materials at the table and therefore are a distraction? (If so, take everything “extra” off the table.)
  • If he/she is sitting at a table, are feet flat on the floor? Sitting up straight, or slouching? Good posture can help with focus.
  • Is he/she still waking up? Or is he/she too jittery, having a hard time staying still? Maybe jumping up and down 20 times and then sitting back down could help. (It works amazingly well with my kiddos in helping them re-focus.)
  • Did your child get enough sleep last night?
  • Did your child eat breakfast? Did your child have protein?
  • Did your child have water today?
  • Does your child need to use the bathroom?
  • Is your child sick?
  • Is your child bored with the material? Is the material too hard, or too easy? How can you make the task better?

These are all important factors to consider when making sure your child is able to pay attention to the best of his/her ability.

At ages 3, 4, 5, and even 6, children often don’t know how to pay attention very well. As their teacher, one of your jobs is to consider how to maximize their ability to pay attention to what is being taught. As a parent and home educator, you often don’t have a lot of time. Every minute is important. I bet you have a long to-do list, every day. You have time set aside for school, but you want it to go smoothly. If you can help maximize your child’s ability to pay attention, then learning will be much more efficient and happy.

10. Teach them to sit when it is time to sit for “school,” and teach them to wait for instructions. Teach them that sometimes they have to sit and wait. You are somewhat like a personalized tutor, but that doesn’t mean you can always help each child instantly. Why is this important? Because there will frequently be times where you need your children to finish up putting away their toys, and then sit at the table to start school. It might take them 2 minutes to clean-up or 5 minutes; if you are in the kitchen putting the last dishes in the dishwasher, they might be done cleaning before you are ready, but you want them to be ready the moment you are done. Otherwise, they might take out more toys and then the start time is delayed as soon as you are done.

Learning to wait for mom or dad to help with school work is a virtue.

Students who attend a public school learn to wait patiently for their teacher and classmates, and so can children who are homeschooled. If your children attend religious education classes, take group swim lessons, take an art class, or will go to college someday, they need to know how to wait for a teacher to give instructions, too.

Sometimes kids really don’t know what to do with themselves when waiting for someone! It is very important, though. As a teacher, you need to attend to each of your children or the house at the right time (e.g., laundry, dishes), and sometimes, a homeschooled child needs to sit and wait, ready to learn, as soon as the mom/dad can sit down.

At first, if your young child can only wait silently for 20 seconds, then gradually increase the amount of wait time. Teach them to keep their feet flat on the floor and fold their hands. A child who is 4 can learn to be patient, sit, and wait for 30 seconds while you gather homeschooling materials. You can teach them to watch the teacher (you) as you get ready to anticipate what is coming next. Or you can teach them to pray while they wait (e.g., say an Our Father while waiting without complaining or standing up). Or you can teach them to look around the room as they wait (e.g., educational posters or artwork).

Ask for prayers for patience, and your children will learn to sit still and listen; this is a very important skill for any type of instruction.

11.While teaching young children, keep your instructions simple and repeat yourself.

  • Say simple instructions, such as, “Do this” or “Watch what I do, and you do it next.” or “Do what I do.”or “Say what I say.” If your child repeats what you do, that’s a huge skill for learning!
  • Talk in “First…. Then Statements.” Say things like, “First we are going to write your name, and then we are going to learn about shapes.” Or when working on the letter B, say simple sentences like, “First start at the top, and then go down.” (I love Handwriting without Tears, by the way, for handwriting. The instruction are very clear and child-friendly. Plus it was developed by occupational therapists, who specialize in fine motor development.)

12. If it’s hard at first to homeschool, don’t be worried or give up. It is work for you to learn how to homeschool your children, and it is work for your children to get used to it.  When children start kindergarten or 1st grade at a public school, for example, it is “work” for them to learn a new teacher’s rules and routines. One kindergarten teacher I know said that during the first month of school, it’s all about teaching the children how to behave in a classroom setting, getting along with each other, and learning the routines. After that has been established, then the rest of the school year is much smoother; it’s easier to teach more content because the students know what to expect.

Once you set routines for your homeschool, and your children learn the routines, your homeschooling day will be much easier than if you had no routine. Likewise, your home life will be more peaceful if your children learn self-care skills and how to do some basic, daily household chores. It’s a process, and setting a school routine can take time. Likewise, teaching your children how to do basic, daily chores could take a few years. That’s okay. Investing in these routines, skills, and habits during the early years of homeschooling will make later years more smooth.

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