Thinking of home schooling? Here's how to do it

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Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS

Families across the U.S. will be getting yet another taste of home schooling this fall, as many school districts opt for some degree of remote learning due to risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But others are thinking about untethering from traditional schools altogether, adopting their own, more flexible curricula that can be better adapted to parents’ schedules and children’s needs.

Indeed, interest in home schooling — which first gained traction among religious families over the past few decades — has spiked since the pandemic began. Taking responsibility for your children’s education, however, can seem daunting. We spoke with some experts for their tips on how to home-school this fall.

—Mentally prepare yourself.

Even before you start digging into the logistics of setting up your home school, pause to consider your goals. Every parent is going to have a different philosophy about what a child should learn, but avoid setting rigid expectations.

It’s more helpful to focus on helping children develop strong learning habits and practices than specific content, said Nichole Pinkard, associate professor of learning sciences at Northwestern University.

“Make sure learning becomes fun, learning becomes part of the lifestyle,” Pinkard said. “Make it a family thing.”

—Follow state guidelines.

In Illinois, for example, the State Board of Education encourages — but does not require — families to register to home-school. Children must receive instruction equivalent to that provided in public school in language arts; math; biological and physical science; social science; fine arts; and physical development and health.

The board also encourages families to notify your child’s current school and your local Regional Office of Education of your intent to home-school by sending a dated letter, along with the state’s home schooling registration form. It also advises parents to work with schools to understand the process for re-enrolling your child at a later date, so that you understand how grade placement would work.

—Find an online community for support.

Home-schooling groups have proliferated on Facebook — often organized around geographic location, religion or identity. Find one that aligns with your family’s goals and values to access advice, resources and encouragement. Pinkard recommended Surviving Homeschool, which was launched in March to help families thrust into home schooling as a result of the pandemic.

—Recognize that your home is not a school — and play to its strengths.

Don’t get hung up on converting your dining room into a Pinterest-worthy schoolroom. Jennifer Knick, author of The Organized Homeschooler blog, said her family had a dedicated room one year out of the 10 they’ve been home schooling, but they never ended up using it.

Surviving Homeschool founder DeLise Bernard agreed, adding that it’s key to be organized, so you’re not scrambling every day or constantly fielding questions from your kids about where to find supplies.

Another tip: Use the comforts of home to enhance your child’s educational experience, said Julie Bogart, author of “The Brave Learner: Finding Everyday Magic in Homeschool, Learning and Life.” It could be as simple as giving a kid a clipboard so he can write an assignment while petting the cat, or offering a snack to fuel a child through the last few pages of her book. Bogart recalled one mom whose children were resisting math, so she set up a cozy tea party during their workbook time, and she found they didn’t want to leave the table at the end of the lesson.

—Establish a routine — one that’s much shorter than the average school day.

You don’t have to supervise 20 to 30 children the way a schoolteacher does, so your home schooling shouldn’t take as many hours of the day. Even for older children, who may need more rigorous instruction, Knick said much of the work is self-directed. For her two children, who are now in the 7th and 10th grades, she lays out the week’s assignments on Sunday evening with a 4 p.m. Friday deadline, allowing them to set their own pace for the week.

For working parents, Bogart said she advises they set aside mornings for instruction, if possible, and save some of their own work for time when their children are asleep. Start the day by asking your children to identify one immersive activity they really want to do — whether that’s a self-directed art project or maybe a computer game — and schedule that to coincide with any time you need to block off for your own work.

If you have older children, enlist them in helping the younger ones while you’re working, Bernard said. That could mean having the older ones read with younger children or make them a sandwich. It helps to build agency.

Whatever your schedule, plan breaks throughout the day and remain flexible, said Terri Sabol, Northwestern University assistant professor of human development and social policy. “Be kind to yourself,” she said. “That’s what good teachers do, right? Good teachers can read the room and switch things up.”

—Indulge your children’s curiosity as you plan your curriculum.

Consider this an opportunity to tailor your children’s education to their interests, and use it to inspire them to develop a love of learning. Particularly for history and science assignments, Bogart said, identify an area of curiosity and plan a project around it. Allow your child to choose books appropriate to their grade level, but aligned with their passions. As a practical measure, if you’re teaching more than one child, get them to agree on topics, and teach history and science as a group as much as possible. For skill-driven subjects, such as math and writing, choose the same textbook style for all children and purchase curricula based on the appropriate grade level.

—Seek out creative and affordable options.

A substantial market exists for selling home-school supplies and curricula, but Bernard suggests parents tap into their local public library and other free or affordable resources, such as local cultural institutions, park districts and websites such as Starfall.com. Also call on extended family and friends to help.

One exercise Bogart recommends is what she calls “the great wall of questions.” Write random questions your children raise during the week on sticky notes and post them on a wall, but don’t answer them. Then, take them down and use them as starting points into research projects.

—Develop a plan for socialization.

How do you maintain safety during the pandemic while allowing your children to develop meaningful social relationships? This is something each family will need to determine for itself, but it’s important to consider this upfront and plan for some level of interaction, whether that’s developing learning pods with like-minded families in your area who are taking similar preventative measures; participating in remote learning, either through a school district or other online educational providers; Zoom playdates; or allowing more screen time for older kids to text.

“Parents should be out in front of this and thinking about socialization,” Sabol said. “We all know education is more than learning ABCs.”

Also consider: Learning pods can offer parents educational and emotional support, allowing them to divvy up instruction based on their own areas of expertise or scheduling availability.

—Model resiliency.

Use this moment to teach your children about life and how to live it, Bernard said. This can be a moment to show children how to make sacrifices for the common good, how to find truthful information in confusing times, and how to thrive even in difficult times.

“Life can throw you some curveballs,” she said. “Our children are watching us and learning from us. While we’re in the midst of teaching — our children and ourselves — we can build resilience.”

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©2020 Chicago Tribune

Tori Mraz, 16, outside her school in Wauconda, Illinois, on July 30, 2020. Mraz, a junior at Wauconda High School, said, "As much as I want to learn in school, I'll be safer at home and still able to learn." - Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS