“A school setting is not conducive to human development and self-esteem.”

Debra Bell, homeschool veteran and author of The Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling, is convinced of this. And she has research to back it up. As she pursued her doctorate in educational psychology at Temple University, she explored the fact that non-credentialed, non-professional homeschooling parents are motivating their children to learn and getting results. This flies in the face of popular opinion that the most effective teachers are professionals and the best learning environment is an institution.

“God designed us to learn in a family,” she states, “and kids who learn in a homeschool environment almost always have a life-long love of learning.” Her findings are of interest beyond the homeschooling community. Parents and educators are asking her, “What is it about a family and a home that encourages learning?”

Bell has identified three components of a homeschooling environment that facilitate learning:

A home provides a great environment for a child to experiment and investigate.

“Imagine what would happen,” she asks, “if you left a child in a playpen all the time? A school’s primary concern is crowd control,” she states. “School is a restrictive, confining environment that doesn’t allow natural curiosity to flourish.”

A home, in contrast, allows freedom for a child to be directed by his God-given curiosity. “Children are born with the gift of curiosity and a desire to engage and explore their environment. They are intrinsically motivated,” she says. The homeschooling mother, because she is intimately acquainted with her children, can match a child’s needs to his or her interests and abilities. The dynamic of a mom in tune with her child, she says, allows a mother to adapt and modify her teaching plan to best meet her student’s needs.

In order to encourage children to learn by interacting with their environment, homeschooling parents can offer learning opportunities while setting age-appropriate freedoms, options, and choices. While basic restrictions are necessary for a child’s safety and well-being, Bell says, “Don’t restrict them if it’s not necessary.”

She recommends allowing younger children to make choices between pre-selected options. Ask them, “Which book would you like to read?” As children mature, she suggests giving them increasing freedom to make their own choices within certain parameters. As an example of how to teach time management, she suggests that instead of scheduling every minute of a child’s school day, say instead, “Here’s what you need to do by lunch. You choose when to do it.” By not over-scheduling or under-structuring, a child learns responsibility and self-government.

Home is also a place to celebrate and develop differences. “There is a broad span of normal,” Bell points out. “When our children are young,” she says, “we understand this. We enjoy watching our children develop and recognize that the timetable is pre-designed. We don’t panic if our children don’t crawl at four months or walk at nine. In the same way we treat the wide range of physical development as normative, we should also recognize this to be true of cognitive development.” It is only when we send them to school, she points out, that they are squeezed into a standardized formula that determines what’s “normal.” Because teachers are dealing with 25 or 30 kids, they determine what average is, and teach to it.

As adults, these developmental differences don’t matter, she points out. “Whether we learned to read at 4 or at 8,” Bell says, “we all became functional adults regardless of when we learned. Standardizing is only necessary when we are mass educating.” She shares wise words of advice to counteract standardizing: “Trust that God has placed them on a timetable that’s normal. Let their development determine what your goals are for the school year.”