Homeschooling Encouragement, Christian Homeschoolers

4 Secrets to Transform Your School Year

  • Lori Hatcher Contributing Writer
  • Updated Aug 15, 2014
4 Secrets to Transform Your School Year

It’s always the most popular homeschool support group meeting of the year. The veterans attend willingly, and the newbies are equally eager. Everyone takes notes, jotting down golden nuggets of information to make their homeschooling year more organized, efficient, and fun. It is the SECRETS meeting, one where everyone, from the first-year homeschooler to the 20-year veteran comes prepared to share their best homeschooling tips and learn from each other. As you head back to school, here are four secrets I learned as a new homeschooling mom that transformed my school year:

1. The body of knowledge is cyclical. You don’t have to teach it all the first time around. 

The first time we encountered reptiles and amphibians in our curriculum, I dove into the subject with passion. It was fascinating, and I wanted to teach my daughter everything there was to know. Unfortunately, she could only absorb so much. After all, she was only in kindergarten.

As a new homeschooling mom, I didn’t realize the body of knowledge was cyclical. As we continued to homeschool, reptiles and amphibians appeared again in the second grade curriculum, the fourth grade curriculum, and several more times thereafter. Each time we studied the material at a greater depth. Realizing that the subject matter repeated itself and increased in complexity allowed us to learn the material without feeling like we had to cover it all the first time. It also gave us the freedom not to fret if we didn’t make it through all the material. If we missed something, we knew we’d see it again.

2. If your child is struggling with something, it’s ok to set it aside.

I firmly believed that if I did everything “right,” my daughter would read early and well. To that end, I read to her from the time she was born, filled our house with books, and carefully chose a phonics program. Every day during her kindergarten year, we labored through a phonics lesson. Some days she cried. Other days I did. “Will she ever read a three-letter word without sounding out every letter?” I wailed privately to my husband.

Summer came, and we set aside “school” for a time. I continued to read to her every day. When school began in the fall, we began formal reading instruction again. By Christmas, she was reading.

Looking back, I realized that summer break came at a providential time. It gave us a natural pause, during which the synapses in my daughter’s brain continued to grow and develop. When we began school again, her brain had three more months of maturity with which to approach the process of reading. Now she was ready.

I learned from this experience that it’s okay to set aside a difficult concept for a while, especially if the effort to learn it results in tears (yours, theirs, or both). Each child matures on a different timetable, and we are wise to allow for and work with their differences.

This same child who struggled with reading is now a legislative correspondent drafting constituent communication for a United States congressman. And she loves to read.

3. Little formal learning occurs during the months of December and May. 

The Christmas holiday season, packed full of concerts, parties, shopping, and cooking, can wreak havoc on the most carefully scheduled lesson plan. May, with its spring Siren’s Song, end-of-the year recitals, sports competitions, and standardized testing, can be equally destructive to serious academic progress.  

Classroom teachers know May and December are difficult months for concentrated book learning. Rather than fight a losing battle by setting unrealistic academic goals, they take these two challenging months into consideration when they create their yearly lesson plans. Homeschooling parents have even greater flexibility to tailor their children’s schoolwork with these troublesome months in mind. Here are a few suggestions for working around the distractions of December and May.

  • Schedule the most concentrated book work for the beginning months of each semester, reserving December and May for less structured learning. Doing this freed us to attend the Nutcracker Ballet, bake Christmas cookies, and create holiday art projects during December. In May, my girls participated in Field Day and the Science Fair, took nature hikes, and went camping. It’s important to remember that some of the best lessons are those our children experience, not just read about. Be sure to count these days as school days also.
  • Use December and May as hands-on learning months and plan an abundance of field trips and outside-the-classroom learning opportunities. Rather than fight the distractions of December and May and set ourselves up for failure, we made special provision for those months. We adjusted our calendars and lesson plans accordingly, giving ourselves the freedom to enjoy outside-the-book learning and events.

    One year, we studied the Civil War. We planned a trip to Charleston, South Carolina to visit Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the war were fired. Later that month, we travelled to Appomattox, Virginia, where Lee surrendered to Grant. Because we had already completed the reading and history lessons surrounding this time period, we had a context in which to put the people and places.
  • Log the hours your children spend in non-traditional school activities and count them toward the 180 days required to complete a school year. I developed a spreadsheet on which I recorded the date, time spent, and activity. I also checked off to which subjects the activity related (Sumer reading counted as Language Arts, baking counted toward Science and Math, and swimming and tennis counted toward PE). Periodically I’d add up the hours. Our school district considered 4-1/2 hours the equivalent of a school day, so we used that as a rule of thumb. If I kept careful records of all the hands-on, non-book learning opportunities, we’d often have nine or ten school days recorded even before we began our “official” school year.
  • Begin early enough in the calendar year so you can take the last three weeks of December and most of May off. Don’t even try to do school. Our family did this for many years. Rather than feeling torn between the need to do formal school and the desire to bake cookies, go shopping, and attend parties, plays, and performances, we just closed our books on the first Friday in December. We did the same for May. In the South, where I live, even traditional schools finish by the first week in June, so May is typically the last month of the school year.

    To do this, we had to start school in the middle of the summer, but by then, it was too hot to play outside anyway. Skipping most of the Monday holidays traditional schools observe also helped us gain a few more days during the school year to compensate for our May and December absences.

4. The best thing you can do to help your child succeed is to stay married.

Daily news reports tell us that marriages, even Christian ones, continue to struggle. We know that divorce affects children socially, emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually.

In his article, “Divorce’s Toll on Children,” Karl Zinsmeister, editor in chief of The American Enterprise, quotes a study by The National Survey of Children that states, “Children exposed to divorce are twice as likely to repeat a grade, and five times likelier to be expelled or suspended.”

If we want to help our children succeed, we need to stay married. It’s not enough, however, just to stay married. We need to be joyfully, wholeheartedly, and enthusiastically married. While a “do or die” commitment will carry us through difficult seasons, God intends for us to rear our children within strong, sound, God-loving families. Homeschooling is often a natural outcome of this family structure.

As a homeschool support group leader for ten years, I believe one of the greatest threats to a homeschooling marriage is child-centered parenting. One of the beauties of homeschooling is the ability to respond immediately to our children’s needs. In a homeschooling household, children receive lots of attention during the school day.

It’s easy to carry this mentality over into the evening and weekend hours as well, allowing children, instead of parents, to rule the household. They become tiny tyrants, reducing their parents to servants who jump at every beck and call. Dad finds himself on the bottom of his wife’s priority list. He feels neglected and jealous, then conflicted because he feels like he’s competing with his children for his wife’s attention.

Although our children may seem happy when they rule the roost, what they truly need and want is two parents firmly in control of their household and committed to each other and their children (in this order).

One of the most effective ways to establish that Daddy comes first is to give him first priority when he arrives home. In our household, which had become dangerously child-centered, we regained lost ground by implementing Talking Time. Here’s how it works: When Daddy arrives home, I encouraged the girls to welcome their dad with their usual enthusiastic greeting. Then I instruct them to play quietly for 20 minutes without interrupting us while we sit on the couch and talk.

“We haven’t seen each other all day,” we explained, “and we need time to talk so our love will grow.” We set the timer and held firmly to the “No Interruptions Unless You’re Bleeding” rule. It took some training. The children certainly didn’t catch on overnight, but eventually came to understand that Daddy deserves first priority, and we were committed to investing in our marriage.

Watching Mom and Dad prioritize their marriage gives our children the security to approach life, including school, with security and confidence. I hope someday my children will follow our example and invest in their marriage as diligently as they invest in their children. On a lighter note, whenever you get discouraged because you’ve had a bad homeschooling day, you can comfort yourself by saying, “I may not have accomplished much this week, but at least I stayed married!”

As you begin your new school year, I hope you’ll consider some of the secrets I’ve shared. If you remember that knowledge is cyclical, it’s okay to set a subject aside, it’s important to plan for non-traditional learning in December and May, and it’s vital to invest in your marriage, you’ll be well on your way to a terrific school year.

This article originally appeared in The Mothers Heart magazine, Issue 77.

Lori Hatcher is a 17-year homeschooling veteran and the author of Joy in the Journey – Encouragement for Homeschooling Moms and the blog, Hungry for God; Starving for Time. A women’s ministry speaker, she enjoys walks with her dog, chocolate covered almonds, and sunshine. She and her husband live in Columbia, South Carolina.

Publication date: August 15, 2014