Christian Homeschool Resources & Homeschooling Advice

The Ladder of Learning

  • Melanie Hexter Contributing Writer
  • Published Jul 06, 2006
The Ladder of Learning

Last fall, as my husband worked outside on our house, he invited our oldest child, a daughter nearing her teens, to climb the ladder and join him on the roof. She handed him tools and provided encouragement. Eventually, our oldest son asked to follow Dad up the ladder, too. By the end of the afternoon, our three other little helpers were all wanting to be at the base of the ladder! Prudence dictated that they weren't quite ready to "help," but one day all of our children will be able to climb the ladder.

This scenario parallels many home school families' plights. The first child begins to read and write, masters basic math skills, and takes an interest in science and history. Then, a couple steps--or years--into the oldest child's home schooling, along comes the next child. He or she is also ready to tackle reading, writing, and arithmetic. And what about the other children who follow? How are parents to continue to adequately "climb the ladder" with children of different ages on different steps at the same time? How can they competently add the younger ones' learning to a crowded daily schedule without neglecting the emerging and more rigorous academic demands of the older ones?

The Bible only hints at Jesus' home instruction under Mary and Joseph's parenting. According to Luke 2:52, "Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man." This summary of His upbringing describes the major components of His growth. Since a child must develop in all these areas in order to become a fully mature adult, Mary and Joseph must have had a plan for juggling the needs of all their seven--or more--children (Mark 6:3).

To have a plan and make it work is a tremendous challenge when several children are all climbing the ladder on separate rungs. For me it means teaching a six-year-old to read while answering the eleven-year-old's pre-algebra questions and supervising the copywork of the nine-year-old's new cursive handwriting--all while the baby needs a clean diaper and the toddler wants a playmate. Honestly, it's not just some days that are like this in our home. With five children stair-stepped from ages eleven to one, it's every day! We have days that leave me frustrated at how little we have accomplished; we also have days that leave the children clamoring for more one-on-one instruction from me. Therefore, I am constantly looking, reading, and asking others for ways to manage our ladder of learning. Here are a few of the methods that are working for us.

Training the Youngest Ones

Years ago my husband and I received some of the wisest counsel of our early parenting: Teach our babies to play independently in their playpens. This bit of practical advice has proven to be one of my biggest tools as a home schooling mother. This "play time" began when each of my babies was about six months old as I sat them in their playpen for a very short amount of time, a stack of board books and other small toys in each corner of the playpen. With each month, the time has lengthened. Today my 20-month-old enjoys morning play time for the duration of a musical cassette tape or part of a CD. Now when I say, "Let's go upstairs for play time," he hustles up the stairs and gathers toys to put in the playpen. I know that he is safe, he is developing creativity and independence, and it affords me more focused time with my older ones.

Our toddler's play time has moved in location (from the playpen to his bedroom) and graduated in ability (from infant toys to Legos, puzzles, and cars and trucks) but it remains an almost daily occurrence. I absolutely rely on their individual play times each day to work with my older children on tutorial subjects like math, learning to read, and the language arts (handwriting, spelling, reading comprehension, grammar, and vocabulary building).

Another practical aid for training at various age levels relates to housework. (If that sounds crazy, hear me out.) It's a given that any home with several children has plenty of laundry, dishes, and cleaning to be done. The challenge is to develop in your children the habit of cheerfully helping around the house. For instance, most four-years-olds are very capable of matching socks, putting away clean silverware, sweeping the floor, or picking up toys. We ask our children to "obey all the way, right away, with a smile," a phrase we learned somewhere along the way. My children's ability to help me around the house hands me available time to teach them.

Living by Priorities

Just as a good businessman sets priorities for the use of his limited time and resources, a wise home school parent prioritizes his or her limited time and resources. Every home school decision must be run through this grid: What are our family's priorities for the training of our children? What do we want our children to be? To do? To know? Based upon those answers, and hopefully founded upon Biblical principles, we can make wise choices about the time and tools used to educate our children. By focusing on top priorities we are freed from those things that the Lord deems as unimportant. What freedom!

For the past three years, I have placed in my weekly planning calendar a 3"x5" card listing the priorities my husband and I have determined for our children's learning. These priorities are ranked A, B, C, D, and E. Each day, my goal is to complete priority A. (For us, priority A is Scripture memory.) If I do, I've had a successful day. If I also complete priority B, then I've had a successful and productive day. Some days I get to priority C, and occasionally even to priorities D and E! But if either the needs of the children or some other opportunity from the Lord supersedes B, C, D, or E, at least I have accomplished my top priority. It's a "major on the majors" mentality that keeps us climbing up the right ladder.

Serving One Another

For us, Christian service begins with our closest "neighbors," our brothers and sisters right in our own home. In our family of seven, it is not unusual to see an older girl helping a younger one with her math, or reading a book to her younger brother. Or to see an older brother playing cars with his toddler brother. When a child has finished her school work or is waiting on me for assistance, she knows that those free moments are her opportunity to come alongside someone else. Here is the social development, or the "increas(ing) . . . in favor . . . with man" that Luke alludes to in his description of Jesus' upbringing.

My husband, who used to train adults in technical fields, reminds me that not until someone knows a subject well enough to teach it does he really know that subject! So when I see one of my children teaching another, I can be encouraged that he is confident and hopefully competent in that area.

Learning as a Group

The importance of choosing the right curriculum for all the various ages in a home cannot be minimized. That choice, perhaps more than any other, will dictate how learning time will be spent. Most prepackaged curricula (textbooks and workbooks) are developed for Christian classrooms with one age level in mind. For a family with five children, that means five different science lessons to plan and execute. Exhausting! I finally asked God whether a unit study or a living books approach to subjects like Bible, science, history, geography, and foreign language might be a better fit for our family. Now I often read our history aloud to all my children while they listen and fold clean clothes. Art and its appreciation, music theory and history, and logic and problem-solving are also subjects our family studies together. For example, we try to draw or paint together one afternoon a week, we take nature walks as a family on Fridays, and once a week we build models of simple machines with K'nex. My curriculum choice is a practical matter of time management for me, to maximize my time and their learning.

As for those subjects which must be tailor-made, I try to keep it simple. Take writing, for example. I may ask all my children to add the same verse we are memorizing to their notebooks over a couple days' time. That means my six year old will print it, my nine year old will write it using his newly developing cursive, and my eleven year old will include it in an original paragraph using a personal example from her life. Another week they all may be working on letters to grandparents, the youngest dictating to me and then later copying what she's dictated.

Finally, we do service opportunities, field trips with our support group, and other enrichment activities as a family. If the younger ones aren't welcome at an event, I must carefully evaluate whether it's an activity best suited for our family. What is good can often become an enemy of what is best. I regularly exercise my right to say "no" to those opportunities which separate us from our learning times together.

Learning at Mealtimes

Years ago a friend shared one of her home schooling secrets with me: She and her children do some of their learning during mealtimes. It struck me as a great idea since the kids are already gathered together, seated, and quiet! Ever since, I have utilized most breakfast and many lunch times each week for auditory learning. We do Bible reading, Scripture (and any other) memory work, listen to symphonies and other kinds of music, do our foreign language program's CD's, and occasionally do read-alouds during our meals.

Beginning to Work Independently

One of my goals this year for the preteen in our home is helping her learn to manage her own time and her own studies. In the past, I assigned her the math units to be covered each week. This oversight took quite a bit of my time so at the start of this year, I asked her to look through her book, develop her own syllabus, and discuss it with me. She therefore determined her pace, but wisely approached me a few weeks into this year because she found the work too easy. Together we adjusted her syllabus and she's working independently again. I am also giving her more independence in her language arts work, overseeing but not being directly involved each day. As she is becoming an independent learner under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit, I am now more able to help a younger child with his work. With joy I can say I am gradually being worked out of my job as she reaches the higher rungs on the learning ladder!

And all the while I am looking with a smile to the rest of our children, who are pleased to be climbing the ladder right behind her.


Melanie Hexter and her husband, Matthew, have been married fifteen years and live in Howard, Ohio. Their five children, ages eleven to one, have been home schooled from the start. Their daily prayer for themselves and their children is that they would walk with Jesus and seek to L.E.M.I.L.O.E. (Live Every Moment In Light Of Eternity).

This article was originally published in the May/Jun '06 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine. For more information, or to request a free sample copy, visit