Considering homeschooling? Here’s what you need to know

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Forget signing your child up for fall sports, buying new school uniforms, and stocking up on three-ring binders: if you’re like every other parent of school-aged kids in the U.S. right now, your back-to-school prep involves a whole lot of worrying.

Will your first-grader be able to wear a mask all day? Stay at least six feet away from his friends? What happens if his classmate or teacher winds up with a confirmed case of COVID-19...will school be forced to close again?

All that worrying may have you asking yourself another question: Should I be thinking about homeschooling instead?

It makes sense: School administrators and state officials are working hard to formulate plans for the fall, but there are a lot of unknown factors and strict safety regulations. Many parents are also facing the reality of a hybrid model of education, including some combination of classroom and online learning—a model that is sure to make working a full-time job next to impossible.

Still, homeschooling is a big decision. You need support and resources, as well as a lot of patience and flexibility. As a pre-pandemic homeschooler entering my fifth year of teaching my kids at home, I can help with the support and resources. (I can’t give you patience and flexibility, but you survived 10 weeks of quarantine with your kids, so I think you’re good.)

What do I have to do to homeschool in my state?

It depends on where you live. Some states have no regulations, while others make parents jump through some hoops; in California, for example, parents have to file an affidavit to establish their home as a small private school. Before you un-enroll your child from their school district, Google the homeschool laws in your state (or check out the map at the Home School Legal Defense Association) to find out exactly what you need to do to meet the requirements in your state.

Do I need to buy some kind of curriculum?

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Credit: Getty Images / pinstock

An online curriculum can help guide homeschoolers.

You don’t have to, though some parents prefer to work their way through each subject in a consistent, organized way. There are many different curriculums designed around a variety of learning styles, so make sure you’ve looked into how your child will learn from the materials in a given curriculum before buying one; some are very textbook-heavy, while others require lots of time spent online.

You can also join an online charter school, which will give you curriculum and teacher support, or design your own curriculum, piecing together materials that will help your kids learn whatever it is you want them to. (That’s how I homeschool my kids, and it’s easier—and more fun—than it sounds!)

Online homeschool programs:

  • There are three options to choose from here: free online public school, free online homeschool, and tuition-based online private school learning (which includes personalized courses and live tutoring). Education for grades K-12 is available with all three options.

  • Time4Learning: This is an affordable and flexible homeschooling curriculum based totally online, so if you have any textbook-averse kids at home, it might be the most appealing. It’s important to note that it’s a curriculum, not an online school, so you will still be responsible for your child’s education.

  • ABC Mouse: Best for the elementary set, ABC Mouse focuses on education along a “learning path” that advances as your child masters skills. It’s recommended for kids ages two through eight and is available on desktop computers and as a phone or tablet app.

  • Adventure Academy: Created by the same company as ABC Mouse, this online curriculum builds skills as your child completes quests and engages in an “epic adventure.” Suggested for kids ages eight to 13, it’s the perfect way to graduate ABC Mouse lovers to the next level.

  • Connections Academy: Connections Academy describes itself as an online public school, catering to families with kids who can’t or don’t want to learn in a brick-and-mortar school (but also don’t have the ability to direct their own homeschool). It offers its own unique curriculum and is available for grades K-12.

What does my child need to learn for his grade level?

If you’re buying a packaged curriculum, you shouldn’t worry too much about this since most are designed with common grade level standards in mind.

If you’re planning your own curriculum or concerned about your child keeping up with his peers—especially if you think he might go back to traditional school at some point—you can do a little research online to find national education standards by state and determine what your year-long learning goals should be. FYI: You don’t have to implement the Common Core standards, specifically, but they are a good jumping-off point.

Keep in mind, though, that one of the best parts of homeschooling is being able to let go of some of the prescribed goals of a standardized education. Try not to worry too much if your child is taking his time, needing extra review, or wanting to pursue parallel topics of interest. The time and space to learn on his own schedule is something you can give him in homeschool that he may not get in a traditional school setting.

Websites to supplement learning:

  • Khan Academy: Literally anyone can learn something from Khan Academy: there are free online classes in every subject imaginable, educating little kids all the way up to adults. There’s even an app for the youngest grade levels (Khan Academy Kids).
  • BrainPOP: This is a subscription-based site, but the content is excellent and well worth every penny. Covering everything from science topics like meteors and extinction to language arts skills, the main BrainPOP site is catered to kids in 4th grade or higher (and adults!). Younger kids, in K-3, are better suited to BrainPOP Jr.
  • Prodigy: Prodigy is an online role-playing fantasy game that lets kids advance through the levels by solving math problems. Totally free and super engaging, it’s a perfect way for kids to independently practice their math skills.
  • Duolingo: You can learn 38 different world languages with Duolingo (on your desktop or via the app). Build skills, earn points and rewards, and keep advancing until you’re a master linguist. Though it doesn’t specify any ages, it’s better for older learners (over age eight or nine) through adults.
  • NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program: Got a budding writer on your hands? Kids can access the resources and community needed to write a novel in 30 days (though you can take longer, if you need to!). Writing challenges, prompts, and brainstorming tools make the process even easier.

How much time do I spend homeschooling every day?

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Credit: Getty Images / VioletaStoimenova

Homeschooling allows parents to choose how much time to spend on each subject.

This is entirely up to you! (Scary, right?! Not really.)

Personally, I plan around weekly blocks of learning, rather than days, so we can take advantage of good weather or play date opportunities. We spend some time every morning on math and language arts, then block schedule our other subjects by day (so Mondays are for science, Thursdays for social studies). I keep Fridays open for stuff we didn’t get around to or special activities, like holiday crafts. We’re always done with “official” school work by lunch, leaving us the afternoon for open-ended and outdoor play.

Again, you’re the teacher here—so you decide what works for you and your family’s schedule. Generally speaking, most homeschool parents spend about 30 minutes a day per grade level; so your kindergartener would do school for 30 minutes, your second grader for 90 minutes, and so on. But remember that older kids can take on more independent work (meaning you don’t need to be teaching or supervising them for five hours a day) and some of their school time might be spent on long-term projects, online math games, or even silent reading.

What if it doesn’t work out?

No more homeschool
Credit: Getty Images / FamVeld

If homeschooling doesn't work out, your child can easily transition back to regular school.

As much as I love homeschooling, I don’t think it’s the right fit for every family—not everyone has the lifestyle, schedule, resources, or support to happily homeschool. And some kids, like those with special needs, may need more academic assistance than a parent can provide. (Keep in mind that many kids with special needs thrive in a one-on-one homeschool environment, so it really can go either way.)

If you try homeschooling and it simply doesn’t work for your family, it’s typically not an issue to re-enroll your child in school. The less time you homeschool, the easier it will be for your child to pick up where they left off, but many kids who homeschool for years still manage to blend seamlessly back in. It’s possible that your child may need to take a placement test for their grade level and there will be an initial adjustment period while they reaclimate. Overall, though, homeschooling is not a barrier to resuming a traditional education.

What if I don’t know where—or how—to start?

I get it...homeschooling takes a lot of planning and preparation! I recommend starting out by doing some reading: peruse homeschooling blogs for ideas (I love Confessions of a Homeschooler and This Reading Mama), check out homeschool boards on Pinterest or hashtags on Instagram for inspiration, and pick up a couple of introductory books (Teaching From Rest by Sarah Mackenzie and The Brave Learner by Julie Bogart are my favorites).

In this stage, your goals should be to:

  • Learn more about how other families homeschool
  • Form an initial opinion on how you want to do it
  • Talk to your kids about your plan to homeschool (and why)

From there, start making some lists of the resources and supplies you will need, choose a curriculum or plan out your own, and figure out where you’ll set up your school area in your home (it can be the kitchen table or even just a corner of your living room). After that, all that’s left to do is jump in Remember that you may need to change your plan as you go...and that’s OK! If your kids are happily learning something, you’re doing just fine.

Other helpful sites

  • Read-Aloud Revival: The only site you need for reading lists, founder Sarah McKenzie has a treasure trove of fiction, nonfiction, and picture book recommendations for all ages, grades, holidays, and subject matters.
  • The Homeschool Mom: This site could also have been called “Homeschool For Dummies,” because that’s basically what it is. Homeschool styles, deschooling, curriculum accreditations, local and state regulations...if you’re asking yourself about it, The Homeschool Mom has your answers.
  • Simple Homeschool: If you don’t have any real-life friends homeschooling their kids, Jamie over at Simple Homeschool can fill in. Reading through the articles on her site feels like chatting about homeschool with a BFF over coffee, plus her quizzes and listicles are both fun and informative.
  • Weird Unsocialized Homeschoolers: “Okay, but HOW do I actually homeschool?” is something every prospective homeschooler asks themselves at some point. Thankfully, the oh-so-wise mom behind this site provides enough tips, resources, and how-to’s to turn thinking about homeschooling into a doable reality.

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