Homeschool: I’m Already Worn Out Y’all

We’ve made it to week five! Those first couple weeks were very difficult. My son didn’t fully understand what was happening or what was expected. I’m also discovering that he has some trauma around his time in public school. We can’t even drive by his old school building without him shrinking in his carseat and telling me, “No!” So, experiencing what feels like school in his safe haven at home must be confusing to say the least. Things are improving with each passing day and he has truly been flourishing. He’s demonstrating skills I didn’t know he had! I’m grateful to be able to provide him with a tailored education.

I use Blossom and Root as our educational base and supplement with Preschool Math at Home and Discover Reading to offer extra support in the areas of math and pre-reading/phonics. Starting out, I was concerned that my son would become frustrated with the work, because I hadn’t seen him in “school mode” yet. I have no such fears anymore. He wants knowledge! He enjoys figuring things out. I have found that I can show him something and then get out of his way, because he will go above and beyond what the lesson calls for.

We’re on a 5-day school week in the midst of a schedule that loosely follows that of our local school system. However, I’ve extended it out to give us more time off during the year as well as some dedicated time over the summer months to deep dive into unit studies. I’ve already decided we will learn about the Muscogee Nation whose ancestral land was stolen away to build the town in which we currently live. We will continue to learn more about these people, so that my children will understand genuinely who they are and, in learning about what white people did (and continue to do) to these Indigenous people, will respond with empathy and recognition. I will not have my children coldly reciting facts about a living people who survived such cruelty.

One of the reasons I was so drawn to homeschooling was the opportunity to extract my kids from the white centric, US-oriented educational system. My son absolutely loved his teachers and para-professionals. And, we were fortunate that they understood why we couldn’t participate in certain school activities and why I made special requests (like asking that his class not dress as Indigenous people during their Thanksgiving celebration). They accommodated us and loved my child, but love on its own can’t overcome the harm the U.S. educational system does to children every day, which different families handle in different ways. Our way is homeschooling until our kids are old enough to make an informed decision about going back to public school.

Let me not digress further here, because I haven’t even really gotten to the title of this post. It’s taken only five weeks for me to realize I’ve made some errors in judgment. When I tell y’all I am about done in, whew! But, our first break of the year isn’t for weeks yet. So, next year, I’m switching it up. First of all, we’re sticking to six week terms. They will be punctuated with breaks from 1-3 weeks depending on the season and what we’re planning to do. We’ll still do our summer season unit studies, but we’ll be taking an entire month off before the 2021-2022 school year begins.

In addition to clipping our academic terms, we’re moving to a modified 4-day week. We will be continuing our Charlotte Mason-inspired journey Monday through Thursday, and then Friday will be completely open and learner-led. One of the wonderful side effects of learner-led education is that it ignites a passion for knowledge. My children will be able to lose themselves in the things they enjoy most and they will learn how to pursue their interests, so that they will never be bored. As I find my heart tugged in the direction of unschooling, I came across an interesting mesh of Charlotte Mason and unschooling in something called Tidal Homeschooling. Perhaps that is where we’ll end up. For now, we’re moving slowly and discovering who we are along the way.

Switching from Public School to Homeschool

I’ve long been intrigued by the concept of homeschooling. My parents are both educators who have embraced homeschooling, though they never chose this path for themselves. In the past few weeks, when our local school system gave parents the option of in-person or virtual learning, like many of you, I went through a major ordeal trying to weigh my options. At first, I was going to send my son in. Then, I got their COVID readiness plan, and the safety precautions were awfully light. That worried me.

Nearly a year ago, my daughter was hospitalized with a virus and the fallout was harrowing. She had already been diagnosed failure to thrive at 12 months and had some growth challenges. That hospitalization rolled back months and months of work we had done trying to stabilize her health. So, even though I logically understand that the evidence supports a perspective that children’s risks with COVID are minimal, it simply wasn’t a chance I was willing to take.

So, I filled out an application for virtual learning. As the difficult days wore on, I came to realize that the virtual option would be pointless for my son. He thrives with the hands-on, customized learning he receives in special education, not traditional school moved online. I was edging ever closer to jumping into homeschooling, but uncertainty held me back. I had so many questions. How could I be as effective as a certified teacher? What if there’s something I don’t know enough to teach? What if… I fail my son?

I had to take it back to my Peaceful Parenting philosophy. I believe that children are curious, intelligent people who will learn even if they aren’t being actively taught. So, I started reading in earnest about homeschooling and how it’s done. I got a lot of advice about what worked for other people, but advice about how to make a decision for myself was sparse. So, I’m going to share with you a little of what I discovered.

First, a reminder.

"The decision that you make about school... is the right decision."

Dr. Hope Seidel
Cary Pediatric Center

In-person, virtual, or homeschooling, the decision a family makes about their children’s education during this pandemic is the right decision. Period. All the options have pros and cons, and only we can possibly reason through the impacts of the different options as they apply to our own families. If homeschooling is something that interests you, whether you plan to homeschool or not, I hope this information I’m about to lay out will be intriguing to you!

Our Process

COVID was really just the catalyst for something that was a long time coming. There had been situations along the way in our son’s public school education that had prompted lengthy discussions between Peaceful Dad and me. One of our more recent concerns was the school’s decision to host a Dr. Seuss Week during the NEA’s Read Across America initiative, even though the NEA has moved away from Dr. Seuss in favor of diversity in the past several years. We weren’t at all comfortable with our son involved in the celebration of someone as problematic as Theodor Seuss Geisel. That one issue didn’t push us away. We aren’t strangers to declining to participate in school activities that do not represent our values (e.g. not allowing our children to wear headdresses purportedly “honoring” indigenous people around Thanksgiving), even when it’s awkward. But, the convergence of so many valid reasons to withdraw BB made the chance to homeschool that much harder to resist.

Once Peaceful Dad and I made our decision, a switch flipped in my mind. I had to know all the things. I joined a bunch of groups and started absorbing information. I credit one group, in particular, for giving me a base from which to work: Secular, Eclectic, Academic (SEA) Homeschoolers. Wait, pause. Are you wondering why a clergy wife joined a secular group?? Well, because I’m super pro-science, pro-liberation for marginalized people, and so on. These are things one would expect to find in a secular, eclectic, and academic group and, trust, they didn’t disappoint.

In the SEA group, I found this amazing Homeschooling 101 document that served as my very first guide into the world of homeschooling. In short, the document goes over how to formulate a mission statement, information about state requirements for homeschoolers, an explanation of methodologies, scheduling year-round versus school calendar-based, and naming your homeschool. I highly recommend this group and, especially, that document.

Mission Statement

Since I will be the primary educator for our homeschool, I went ahead and put together an overall proposal for homeschooling to discuss with Peaceful Dad. I thought about what I wanted my mission to be. Since we’d decided to homeschool indefinitely, and not just during the pandemic, I knew I was setting the tone for the foreseeable future, so I wrote a statement that would point to the Peaceful Parents we are and that would serve us for many years to come: To invigorate our children’s curiosity and open doors to knowledge. Our mission statement doesn’t box us in, but it does remind us what it is we’re doing.

State Requirements

Our state is low regulation, but regulations still do exist. For instance, my kids have to take standardized tests starting in third grade. But, for the most part, the state doesn’t ask for the results. They don’t ask for much but a declaration of intent to homeschool. I get the sense that the requirements are a way to check in if necessary, but also a way to make the transition to a traditional school easier should the need or want arise.

If you’re curious about your own state, check out this information from the Homeschool Legal Defense Association.

Methodology

When you call to mind a vision of homeschooling, do you imagine children doing worksheets out of Christian workbooks at their kitchen table while their mother reads from the Bible? I completely admit that was basically where my mind went when I first started my journey. It’s true that Christians rather led the homeschool movement in the U.S. early on. And, it’s true that envisioning a traditional experience makes a lot of sense, because homeschooling supports were limited and the market really wasn’t replete with resources for a long time. However, these days, the homeschooling world has exploded. There are so many options from literature-based to classical to experiential to traditional to completely out of the box. Check out this video that explores the most common approaches in relatable terms.

And, then, if you’re curious, why not try a quiz to dig into what approach you’d enjoy using the most?

Homeschool.com Quiz

Eclectic-Homeschool.com Quiz

HomeschoolOn.com Quiz

Our Approach

This piece was easy for me. When I started looking into the different methodologies, I thought about the way we live out our lives and values, and the way I like to teach. My choice was Charlotte Mason (CM). The CM method is strongly literature-based, using what Miss Mason called “living books.” These are books that use narrative to describe the subject rather than the distanced, technical writing you find in textbooks. Her method is based in real life. She expected children to learn by doing everyday things, by going out into nature, and by discussing ideas with those around them. And, best of all for me, Miss Mason was utterly countercultural. She believed children were born into their personhood and deserved respect from the very start. She believed children were capable of great things and that inspiring children was far more effective than forcing or coercing them into action. She put her efforts into guiding children toward a love of God and a love of learning by gently fostering their self-motivation and moral compass. I especially love how well the CM method promises to support my Autistic child in exactly the way he learns best.

I am calling my preferred approach “eclectic Charlotte Mason” because there are such strengths in the other approaches. I like to keep an open mind, so I can act quickly to help my children if they are struggling to understand something they’re learning.

Schedule

In all areas of primary and secondary schooling, the debate rages over the right way to schedule the school year. It’s happening in the homeschooling community too. If you’re curious what the big deal is, check out this piece by ASL Rochelle. While I lean toward a year-round schedule, we’ve decided to follow our local public school system’s schedule for this first year. We didn’t want to introduce too many variables when we were just starting out and we wanted to be on the same schedule of breaks as our son’s peers.

School Name

Since I’ve already shared my school’s name in homeschooling groups, and because this blog is intended to be anonymous for the time being, I won’t be sharing the name here. But, I will say that I ultimately decided to select a name and create a logo for any future need that might arise, such as the use of letterhead. I also like the way it gives me closure to have a name and a logo. This is the new way and we’re leaving the old way behind. Please note that most states (including my own) do not appear to require a school to be named.

Curriculum

Even though I’m very new, I’m noticing that many folks brand new to homeschooling seem to jump immediately to “which curriculum should I use?” There’s a lot more decision-making to do before then! I’ve placed this Curriculum section last for that reason. We chose a CM-inspired curriculum called Blossom and Root. Peaceful Dad and I have decided to supplement with Kate Snow’s classical-inspired math series until our son has a good grasp of number sense before moving onto anything more rigorous. We need to understand how he learns math the best. In addition to our base curriculum and the math, we will also be adding a reading support supplement called Discover Reading, music and movement at home, and Spanish through the PBS show, Salsa.

It may not seem like we’re doing a lot, but you’d be surprised. The entire curriculum is gentle and largely play-based, but it’s broad and challenging at the same time. More than that, I realized something. My vision of what a homeschool day looks like was way off. Homeschool does not mean replicating traditional school at home. In traditional school, there are lots of disruptions, lots of moving from place to place, lots of waiting, etc. But, in homeschool, it’s easier to focus on work and get it finished. Check out this surprising outline explaining how long children should be focused on lessons.

How long is your homeschool day?

Preschool - 15 to 30 min
Kindergarten - 30 min to 1 hour
1st to 2nd grade - 45 mins to 1.5 hours
3rd to 4th grade - 1.5 to 3 hours
5th to 6th grade - 2.5 to 3.5 hours
7th to 8th grade - 3 to 4.5 hours
High School - 3.5 to 6 hours

Wild, right? Our decision to choose a CM-inspired approach works especially well as lessons are very brief but highly focused.

Our plan is to spend no more than 40 minutes per weekday morning on school and to finish up by 11 AM. BB will be getting a lot more outside time and free play than he did while he was in public school. We’ll also have leisurely lunches, more variety in terms of locations for the lessons, and a truly customized educational experience.

Once I got over my initial fears, everything started to fall into place. And, now, I’m really looking forward to starting school in a few short days! It really doesn’t matter what methodology you choose as long as it’s one that works for both you and your children. There is no perfect methodology. Homeschool graduates from every approach across the board end up in college and in successful careers. Homeschool provides an opportunity to shift gears to a different curriculum or an altogether different approach if a child needs something new to learn their best.

Whether you’re just curious or you’re trying to decide on COVID homeschooling or, like me, you’re transitioning to homeschooling for the duration, know this. Your child will thrive in homeschool, because your child has YOU.

In Defense of Unlimited Screen Time

Did y’all see the study from November 2019 that found screen use greater than the amount recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics was associated with decreased microstructural organization and myelination of brain white matter tracts that support language and emergent literacy skills? Big yikes! Does that mean screens cause brain damage? That’s certainly a question I’ve seen floating around the internet. Parents are rightfully concerned about screen time when study after study shows these terrible outcomes.

There’s that 2013 literature review on screen time use in children under the age of three. Bad news.

And, that 2015 literature review on the effects of screen time on children’s sleep found. Terrible stuff.

And, that 2018 literature review on the physiological and psychological effects of screentime. You might as well just give up at this point.

And, that whole Research Roundup that seems to exist to fill parents with dread. Oh, the horror!

But, check this out.

The 2013 review found that there is very little research on infants and toddlers and that more research is needed to better understand the environmental, socio-cultural, and behavioral correlates for young children.

The 2015 review found that none of the studies they looked at from 1999-2014 could establish a causal connection, measurement errors of screen time exposure and sleep limited the outcomes of the studies, and factors like characteristics and content of screens was not well understood.

And, the 2018 review found that psychophysiological resilience in children requires the ability to focus, good social coping and attachment, and good physical health all of which could be impacted by “excessive” digital media use. They further recommend more research on duration, content, after-dark use, media type, and number of devices.

In fact, there’s a 2015 literature review on the association of parental influences with physical activity and screen time among young children found that there is a causal connection between the parents’ physical activity and screen use and that of the children. It should come as no surprise that the behavior of parents directly influences the behavior of their children.

And, that first study I mentioned? The one from 2019 about how screens change the brains of little kids? If you look a little deeper, you’ll see that the sample size is both small and homogenous and that the survey and testing scores used in the study did not meet the threshold for statistical significance when income was included in the model. Those details change the story a bit.

Minding the Nuance

The reality is that there is valuable research happening, but we simply don’t understand what’s really going on. That’s why the pediatric organizations that exist to protect our kids are sounding the alarm. They’re saying look at all this data we’re seeing! Something is happening. Pay attention. So, if your family’s lifestyle flows better without any screens, by all means, do what works for you. This post is for those of you who want to incorporate screens without fear.

There are some things we can discern intuitively about screen use.

  • It can be distracting. Background sounds from a TV at low volume add static to the environment where infants and toddlers play. A measurable impact has been found on the ability of very small children to develop play skills naturally when TVs are used as noise fillers.
  • It can signal trouble. While we don’t know that screens cause depression, we do know that children who watch a lot of TV often have clinical depression that necessitates medication. So, it’s worth paying attention to what your kids are doing, so that you can intervene if necessary.
  • It can replace other healthful behaviors. A child who is watching TV or playing video games is not outside running around. And, a child who is watching TV or playing video games is not telling you about the troubles they’re having.

Now, something that doesn’t get enough air time in these discussions is the economics of restriction. Essentially, by restricting a thing, we increase its value. As explained by Pam Sorooshian, unschooler extraordinaire,

When you only allow a limited amount of TV, then the marginal utility of a little more tv is high and every other option looks like a poor one, comparatively. Watching more TV becomes the focus of the person’s thinking, since the marginal utility is so high. Relax the constraints and, after a period of adjustment and experimentation to determine accurate marginal utilities, the focus on TV will disappear and it will become just another option.

The more you restrict, the more they’ll crave screens. It can feel uncomfortable to loosen the reins and it’s pretty likely your child will consume seemingly impossible amounts of flickering deliciousness at first. But, over time, and in the presence of intentional investment in your child’s needs and wants, screens will lose their luster and become just another activity.

If you’ve been restricting your child’s screen time, because you wanted to do the best possible thing for them or because you felt their screen use was getting out of control, it’s ok. You’re not alone. Not by any means. Just know there is an approach to screen use that is responsible and respectful, whenever you’re ready.

Anti-Childist Screen Use Monitoring

One of the things about the furor over screens that particularly bothers me is the emphasis on cognition and school performance. We’re encouraged to limit our children to a screen schedule of our making, so they can possibly do better in school at some point in the future. But why? Why is academic success the measure of a good life? Why are we not prioritizing our children’s ability to regulate their own behaviors and activities by giving them ownership over the way they choose to spend their time?

We can trust our children to make good decisions when we set them up for success. In our house, I try to limit my compulsion to set rules for everyone. Whenever my kids want to watch TV, I’m ok with it. They have free access to their tablets to use as they wish. But, I also create an environment where they don’t have any desire to obsessively consume that visual stimulation. We spend lots of time outside. We read. We do chores. We play, craft, and bake together. When I see one of my kids struggling to transition from screens to another activity, I intervene. When that happens, it means there’s something deeper going on that needs to be addressed. It doesn’t mean I need to arbitrarily limit screen time. I have some guidelines for my family in the back of my mind to help ensure that I’m providing the most effective mix of activities and the best possible education around the use of screens.

  • Be Intentional. Consider using screens on purpose. That means avoiding the use of TVs as background noise and trying not to hand your kids screens to keep them occupied. Instead, let your children decide when they want to use screens and for how long. And, have them choose one screen at a time. In general, our TV doesn’t get turned on until 3 PM, if at all. There’s too much other fun stuff to do.
  • Be Interactive. Studies show that children can learn a great deal from interactive touchscreens when their parents help them and reinforce what they’re learning.
  • Be Wise. Particularly when it comes to older kids, parents need to prepare children for the risks of predators and dangerous malware. Talk to your kids about these dangers and make a plan together for how to stay safe.
  • Choose Educational Content. Programs like Sesame Street and Daniel Tiger provide important information and skills to little kids, especially when families reinforce in daily life what the kids are learning online.
  • Eat Without Distraction. One rule we do have is that our dining table is a toy-free, screen-free space when we’re having a meal. It’s a matter of mutual respect and consideration. Family meals are sacred in my house. They’re one of the few opportunities we have to get together and chat over one of the most fundamental human activities.
  • Get Plenty of Fresh Air and Exercise. Getting outside is so important for every member of the family, but especially children. They need lots and lots of movement throughout the day to improve focus, digestion, motor skills, and sleep. Rather than restricting screens, think about encouraging more movement for balance.
  • Practice Good Sleep Hygiene. The so-called warnings about blue light got a little kick in the pants this year. A study challenged the idea that blue light impacts circadian rhythms. We don’t actually know if blue light is a problem. What we do know is that stimulation of any kind interrupts our sleep cycle. In our house, all screens and radios go off at 6:30 pm. That’s our family time and we cherish the ability to interact with each other without distraction. For a great night’s sleep, keep your kids’ room very dark, relatively cool (65 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit), and comfortably quiet.

Like many parents, when I first became a mom, I was hypervigilant about everything. I stressed myself out trying to do everything by the book, until life taught me that wisdom beats out perfection every time. If you want your children to enjoy screens, let them. Formulate some guidelines for yourself and conduct self-checks to make sure your guidelines are working. Talk with your kids about your concerns. Let them know your values and also that you trust them to know what their minds and bodies need. As new evidence emerges, we’ll be in a great position to shift some of our guidelines to better support our children’s development. Screens are ok, y’all. Promise!