homeschooling: how to start

Sep 1, 2011

I have had many people ask me over the years how to start homeschooling. The whole thing feels big and overwhelming and uncomfortable because it is an unknown. We all know how to do the whole public school thing, but homeschooling often feels like unchartered territory. We don’t know what it looks like, so we don’t know how to create it.

If you are a brand new homeschooler or even considering it, this post is for you.

First, breathe.

Really, take some deep breaths and allow that oxygen to saturate your body. Breathe, breathe, and breathe some more.

Second, pray.

Start each day in prayer or meditation and ponder what your children need from you. I promise you, the answers will come.

Third, read lots of different books about educational philosophy. Erickson, Dewey, Montessori, Waldorf, Charlotte Mason, Leadership Education, Classical Education, Prussian models (learn where the current American model came from), colonial-era ideas, Sir Ken Robinson (watch him at TED!), John Taylor Gatto, etc. As you read, ideas will be bouncing around in your head…some will feel right, some will feel wrong, some will feel like you need to ponder them more, some will be intriguing, some will be rejected immediately. Let yourself experience all sorts of ideas and sort out what feels right and what feels wrong. You will come to understand what your view of childhood is, how you think education happens best, and what course you want to pursue with your own children. Some books that have greatly impacted my life are Leadership Education: The Phases of Learning, A Thomas Jefferson Education, You Are Your Child’s First Teacher, Better Late Than Early, The Charlotte Mason Companion, The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher, The Well-Trained Mind, A Mother Just Like You, The Underground History of American Education, The Three R’s and Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56 (I love all of Rafe Esquith’s books…read them all!). I have read hundreds of books about education and each have influenced me. It is hard for me to go back in time to when Blythe was five and figure out what was impactful then, but I think the books above will give you a wealth of fodder to chew on.

Fourth, focus on rhythms, routines, and relationships. What are those things, you say?

Rhythms are the flow of your day. These things don’t need to necessarily happen at a certain time, just have a rhythm to them. Rhythms are family specific…each family’s daily flow will look and feel different. Some will start with yoga, some with gardening, some with snuggle time, some with music, some with cleaning, some with eating and then from there they will continue to look different. Some homes are high energy, some are calm, some are orderly, some are a tad chaotic feeling. Figure out what you want your day to look AND feel like and start creating or fine tuning your rhythms.

Routines are the way things get done. Cleaning, meals, learning time, phone calls answered, errands, email, etc. Anything that needs to be done will usually go more smoothly and efficiently if there is some kind of learned system for how it is to be accomplished in your home.

Relationships are the connections and trust (or lack thereof) you have with your children and they have with one another. A wise mentor once told me if they can’t trust you emotionally, they won’t trust you academically. If a child feels you understand their heart they are much more likely to listen to you, yearn to obey you, and desire to learn from you.

I actually struggle with all three of the R’s…none of it comes naturally to me, so if it doesn’t come naturally to you, please don’t give up or think you can’t homeschool. Homeschooling is a journey, an adventure ride, and a refining process all at once. Homeschooling helps me grow into the mother I want to be. Homeschooling teaches me what I need to change in my mothering so I can be who and what they need me to be. People often tell me, “I could never homeschool, I’m not organized enough” or “I want to homeschool, but I am not patient enough” and I tell them “None of us are the perfect homeschooling mother, we all struggle with organization and patience and systems, but we keep trying and learning and growing and loving and it gets easier and more natural as time goes on.”

Fifth, start with some basics. Study your Core (your source of truth) Book(s) and make those truths come alive for your children. Gather your children around you and have time together in the morning. You may have a big ol’ family devotional or just read-aloud time or singing time. Pick some things you want to do every day and make them special. Then add in read-aloud time. Read books that reinforce your core values, that nourish the soul, stimulate the mind, and are a pleasure to read. When that is going well, add in something else, like math, science, history, geography, nature studies, narration, FIAR, music, art, poetry, etc. Study the lives of great men and women. Choose things you are interested in and do them. Go on walks, collect rocks and bugs. Go on bike rides. Make a picnic and read outside under the trees. Cook with them. Enjoy them. Find what works in the course of your day and what doesn’t. You will know. Trust me, you will know.

Sixth, pray (if that works for you) and breathe some more.

Seventh, keep educating yourself. Study, learn, read, write, discuss. Model learning for your children. Share what you are excited about. Invite them on your learning journey.

Eighth, smile, laugh, create family traditions you love, make being part of your family (and your homeschool) super cool and special. Enjoy your children and love them.

Ninth, pray and ponder what your mission is and what your children’s missions are. Prepare for those things and be ready and willing to serve, lead, sacrifice, and love those people and causes that you feel led to. Assist your children in doing the same.

Tenth, build a community of people who are on your same path.

It works. It really does.

Now, I have had a lot of people ask me what our days look like. I hesitate to share this because the whole point of this post is to inspire you to create your OWN days, not copy mine, but for those of you that need a picture before you can start tweaking, here you go…but remember create your own.

In our home, we start with singing time…we pull out all our drums, shakers, and rhythm sticks and sing at the top of our lungs. Each person picks out at least one song, but often it is much more. Then we have a prayer to start our learning time, recite the pledge, learn about our temple of the day and find where it is located on our big maps. Many times we find lots of other things on the maps too. I often read a story of faith, courage, or sacrifice from our family, religious, nation’s, or world’s history. We read our scriptures and discuss them. We learn or practice our Poem of the Week. Then we do spelling words, a grammar lesson, and whatever else I feel like teaching them at that time. This is my special time to share what I love with my children. We may discuss a current situation going on in the world, read a science book, each write a poem, act out a historical event, or whatever…I just share what I am thinking about and we go with it for however long we are interested in it. Then Blythe heads off to her room for her studies while I read to the younger three for awhile. Sometimes read-aloud time is fifteen minutes, sometimes two hours. Keziah camps out on a couch surrounded by her math books, art work, handwriting, and whatever else she wants to work on while I read. Fisher and Annes usually draw or play with blocks while I read to them. Reading time is often interrupted with questions, finding places on the maps from our readings, needing to grab a snack, or someone at the door. We have learned to go with the flow of the morning. When I am tired of reading or their interest has waned we move on to the next phase of our morning. I often work with Fisher on reading or math, play learning games with Fisher and Annes, work one on one with Keziah in her studies, teach them all about whatever I am excited about, or if they are all happily learning on their own I will sit with them and study my books, knowing I will be interrupted on a regular basis. By now, it is lunchtime and Blythe makes lunch and we all eat and clean up together before starting our afternoon routine. Afternoons are often full of personal reading time, artwork, outside time, sewing, projects, science, FIAR time with Fisher, one on one time with any children who need me academically or emotionally, and my study time. During the mornings we are all together in our learning room (well, except for Blythe who studies in her room), but during the afternoons we are all over the house and yard. We gather back together for dinner prep, eating, and clean-up. Then we have scripture study and family read-aloud time in the evenings when Richard can join us. On some days I throw the whole routine out the window and go on a hike or park or some other adventure with them.

Many days go really well, some go so-so, some are terrible and I want to give up and throw in the towel, but usually at the end of a day I am grateful for my life as a homeschooling mother. Errands, email, blogging, phone calls, etc are all squished in around the edges and I have to force myself to not let those things take over my life. Laundry is my nemesis, as are dishes and the amount of messes that occur when five people are home together all day every day. I haven’t figured any of that out, but I have learned that I can clean all day long or I can learn all day long and either way my home is in about the same condition the next day. There will always be work to do in the upkeep of a home, but there won’t always be children wanting to learn, so develop a cleaning routine that works for you and then focus on the learning and being together.

I have been homeschooling for fifteen years. I am in a different place than someone just starting out. I have different worries than I did back then…and a different sense of peace. If I had to do it over again, I would make many of the same choices, but I would also gather them around me more and BE with them more. I would go on more walks in the mountains, schedule less of our days, and relish in the joy of learning together more. I did all of those things, but now that I see how fast life changes into having a youth with all sorts of needs and schedules, I would go back and do less. I would relish reading Charlotte’s Web for a whole afternoon. I would turn off my phone, build a fort, bake some cookies, and read with her. Now that she spends her time studying in her room for hours upon hours every day, I wish I could back and snuggle with her again as a precious little six year old.

Now my eyes are full of tears as I think back to those early days of homeschooling. We had so much fun together. Before Blythe was eight years old, we had read our core book over and over and over again, all of E.B. White’s works, all of the Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, thousands of picture books, Little Britches, The Little House on the Prairie series, and so many more. We spent our days reading books, going on walks, and collecting bugs. Now I have a busy schedule and lots of people who need me and I rarely have a day to spend sitting in a fort or going on a two hour walk. I need to figure out a way to be in this current phase of my life and still create the magic that I had with Blythe.

If you are just starting out or even thinking about the possibility of homeschooling, I am happy to talk in-depth with you and help you on this journey. It is a journey I am so grateful to be on and I love helping others on the path.

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  1. What a beautiful, wonderful, informative post! I was wondering how to start my 9th grader on the TJEd path and this sounds like a good start. Thanks, Tracy.

    • tracy

      This post was written while I was picturing a family with a child in the 0 – 8 year age range…many of the ideas still apply with a ninth grader, but Scholar Phase is a whole ‘nother ball of wax. Is your child in Scholar Phase? What are her interests? Does she yearn to study for hours on end?

      Would love to chat more Sara!

  2. Michelle

    Thank you for these words of encouragement. I’m only semi new, this is our third year, but it is the first with two full time, a toddler, and a baby. Reflecting on your post is helping me regain some focus and, yes, helping me to remember to breathe!

    • tracy

      Hello Michelle,

      Good to see you on here! Keep it simple, focus on the essentials, and enjoy the journey.

      You are in a great phase of life!

  3. LaPriel

    Yes, yes and yes! I agree. Great post.
    One thing that really helped me was to decide at the beginning of the year what each child needed to accomplish or experience. The reason this helped me so much was I frequently found myself caught up in what they “should” be doing according to public school. Public school wasn’t working for them. That’s why they were at home. I constantly had to remind myself what the goals for that child were. Then I could relax and focus.

    Here’s an example. After much thought and prayer, I knew that there were 3 major things that must happen for my son in his 4th grade year. He needed to have his confidence boosted, learn to enjoy reading – anything, and to gain more of a love of learning. I would get all panicked about everything we weren’t doing!

    He is now 16 (May). He went back to public school for 8th and 9th grade. He attended a private school last year. He wants to move on to college. He is applying now. He took his ACT in Feb. and scored a 24. That’s solid. He just took the first half of the GED and can’t believe how easy it is! Passed both the Eng and Math sections without any trouble. He has totally taken a hold of his education and has all the confidence to do it!

    I hope that makes sense.

    Thanks Tracy for all your good words of advice!

  4. Vanessa

    Beautiful! Thank you for giving me permission to just enjoy my 5 year old daughter! I like that you said they need to trust you emotionally. I have felt impressed to build my relationship with my 7 year old boy before he will be able to learn anything from me! So I bought us some tennis rackets and now we are learning to play tennis together. It is so fun and I have already noticed he respects me more and is more obedient. How neat you read the classics multiple times by the time she was 8! Thanks for the inspiration…any tips on what to do with a toddler and baby while homeschooling?