Ask a Homeschooler

Ask a Homeschooler

The questions and answers below have been adapted from some of the advice columns featured in CHNews in the past. They provide advice for some of the touchy questions that homeschooling sometimes presents.

I know testing doesn't prove much, but how else can I know that my children are learning anything?

Oh, how school has trained us not to trust ourselves! Using a garden analogy, try thinking of your children like flowers. You may plant dozens of flower seeds on a particular day. You nurture them by giving them water and sunshine, protecting them from pests and weeds. But you also have to trust that they are growing. If you dig up a seed to check its progress, you will hurt or even kill it. After it breaks the surface, you can measure its visible growth and encourage it with plant food, but interfering too much will again harm it. Similarly, you cannot determine how fast or how big it will grow, or when it will be ready to bloom. And of course, you can’t open the bud to check on the flower’s growth. As homeschoolers, even though we plant all those seeds on any given day, each one will grow at its own rate, bloom in its own time, and have its own particular color and features.

In practical terms, you are really asking, “How do I know if my children have been learning anything?” Well, think about what you were like a few years ago, look at photographs or perhaps read your journal, and you can laugh at that person you used to be. It’s even easier with children. Look at those videos and photographs. Your kids have grown more than just physically. Look at how scribbles have turned into drawings and letters, or even words and stories. Your children have probably outgrown some toys and books along with clothes. Think of all the different things they have been interested in, sometimes to the exclusion of things we think are important.

Children want to learn, and they do it very well because no one has told them that it is work, that they can only learn if someone older teaches them, and that if they don’t learn certain things, they are dumb. It’s scary, but we adults have to learn to trust the natural learning process. Happy Planting!

Can I deduct the expenses of homeschooling from my income taxes somehow?

At one time or another, every independent homeschooling family has probably wondered that, since they are doing the work of the public schools (better and more efficiently, I might add), then could they get a little break from the government for doing so? I’m afraid there’s not much hope of it, and trying could be dangerous. There are basically two options:

  1. You could try to run your homeschool as a for-profit business and file a Schedule C annually detailing your income and expenses. The IRS expects to see signs of profitability after a few years, or it begins to suspect that the business is just a tax-dodge. Since you would be your only tuition-paying customer, it should be soon apparent to the IRS that your business is not a “for-profit” at all. Can you say “audit”?Now, if you accept other people’s children and receive tuition payments from them, you have essentially reinvented the commercial private school, and yes, certainly you are entitled to deduct legitimate business expenses. But then you may need to obtain a business license, obtain suitable insurance, and so forth. Complicated, and probably not worth the effort. Homeschooling other people’s kids isn’t all that easy, to boot.
  2. Or you could try to get your homeschool accepted by the IRS as a tax-exempt organization. The odds of this happening are microscopic since IRS carefully guards against anyone using tax-exempt status for personal or family gain. Can you say “tax fraud”?

So there you have it. You could say that Uncle Sam and his state and local pals haven’t developed a proper sense of appreciation for homeschoolers yet. Maybe that’s just as well, since any time the government allows or gives something, it tells you what you have to do to keep the privilege.

My 14-year-old boy doesn’t seem to want to try anything new. He’s content to sit around reading sci-fi novels and playing the guitar. Is it just a phase?
Should I insist that he 'do something'?

I am sure that you know from both your experiences as a parent and from your own experiences as a human being, people go through different phases of growth and assimilation, risk and retreat, energy and rest. Your son may be in a phase of rest and renewal before he leaps into a more energetic life phase; or he may be in a very active phase, trying to perfect his music skills while expanding his mind with science fiction.

Either way, you might take comfort from the knowledge that musical intelligence is a valid (and quite mathematical) form of intelligence. You might take comfort from the idea that reading anything will tend to develop reading and vocabulary skills and will give background necessary for good writing; reading fiction (and biographies) often gives food for thought about social relationships and tends to nurture empathy (reading fiction is good practice for “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes”); and reading good science fiction can—believe it or not—teach a lot about science facts and help develop the wondering, speculating part of scientific thinking.

Finally, your own role could include not only listening to your son if (or when) he wants to discuss his interests, and supporting him if (or when) he asks for help, but also continuing to make available to him other opportunities and activities, and being a good model, one who has interests and actively follows them.

The other day while driving with my children, we were joking and laughing, really whooping it up. I realized that I truly love their company. In fact, I prefer their company to anyone else’s. I don’t know many other parents like this. Most other parents I know say they are happy that their children go to school
so they can get them out of the house. Is there something wrong with me for preferring the company of my children?

In our lifetimes, mothers numbering in the millions have left home to join the workforce. Economic pressure drove many of them out. Have they prospered? When you look at measures like real income over recent decades, you find that American families are barely staying in place economically, despite two parents working. In some ways, more is less.

Somebody at the top of the food chain has profited from pulling millions of women into the workforce. Overall, most families have not gained enough monetarily to justify the sacrifice, and all families are poorer for the lack of time: to breathe, to listen, to be heard, to know each other, to cuddle, to be cuddled. Serenity is the most precious commodity of our times.

In the long run, society may be the loser, too. The costs of housing children in day care and schools are staggering. We’re not just talking dollars here—we’re talking about the costs of dealing with generations of children who are fragmented and lost. For some, homelessness is a state of mind that begins in infancy.

It is regretful that society saturates us with the message that parents shouldn’t like their children. The message serves economic and political purposes at the expense of families. Once we buy into the message even a little, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because of the estrangement it causes. The less time we spend with our children, the less we know them and the less we have influence over them. Not surprisingly, we find the child who spent ten hours in daycare (eight of them his best waking hours) a strange and annoying creature when we have just spent our ten best waking hours at a desk, a cash register, or a forklift.

If your family has found a way to keep one parent at home, cherish the opportunity and never apologize for it. It simply isn’t true that children are ghastly little creatures. Children are wonderful people. They are fun and they are fascinating. The most interesting people you will ever know are your own children. Part of our mission as homeschoolers is to reawaken society to this fact.

I'm jealous of my friends who send their children to school. They have so much time for themselves. I never have a moment's peace. HELP!

Sounds like you are fast on the road to homeschooling burnout. Even parents need some time off now and then. It may be more challenging, but you can and should arrange some time during your week that is yours alone. Teach your children that you need private time, even just 15 minutes a day, and that you are not to be disturbed during this time unless someone is bleeding. Make a reciprocal babysitting arrangement with another homeschooling parent, then treat yourself to lunch or your favorite antique store, sans kids. As your children grow, sign them up for Red Cross “Home Alone” classes so you will have some peace of mind and can begin leaving them home alone for short periods of time. Most kids will rise to the occasion if given this responsibility.

Finally, remember: Your friends who send their children to school during the day have a bombshell dropped on them every afternoon. Their kids come home from school tired and hungry and are usually shuttled off to one activity after another. Then there is homework to work through and dinner to be made. For most families in this routine, it’s the worst time of day and the only time they spend with their children. You, in contrast, get to see your children at their best, and put them down for a nap when they are tired and grouchy.

I am completely committed to the homeschool concept, and am interested in developing a plan for my daughter. She has all but mastered 'Reader & Math Rabbit' at 3 years and 5 months and has the requisite curiosity to do more. Have you any suggestions?

Know that your instincts will serve you well, just as they have done up to this point. Continue to feed her natural curiosity and to support her explorations. “The canary in the mine shaft” is her attitude toward learning, and as long as she’s learning with a happy heart, you are doing well by her. So, trust yourself and trust her. You are both doing great, and if you just explore and grow alongside each other, your days will be eventful and uneven—but overall fine.

Guard against developing overblown expectations, however. Kids are quirky, and they have a way of confounding their parents’ fondest predictions and highest hopes. Your daughter may seem to have conquered every developmental pre-reading task, and yet it may be many months—or even years—before she actually begins to read on her own. Likewise, each and every child has a personal set of stumbling blocks, tasks or areas of achievement that will pose challenges throughout his or her lifetime. If you and your youngster run up against one of her hard-to-surmount challenges and you place too much stress on achieving success, you may put her in a painful position—wanting to please you, but unable to do so. So don’t hustle too hard, especially now when she is so young and tender. Just enjoy your time together. It will be gone before you know it.

What can I do about sibling rivalry between two young children? This seriously affects our homeschooling.

Make sure each child has your total attention at least once or twice a week. Let the others know that “It’s Mary’s day today,” and then do special things for that child. In fact, do special things for each child at different times. For instance, have one child pick a place to go for a particular day, then give the others a choice if they want to come along or not.

Also, talk seriously with each sibling. Tell each one that s/he is precious to you, so you expect them to love each other, too. Praise each child when s/he does something nice for the other sibling.

Another tactic you might try: I recommend you make a study of the children’s interactions. Frequently squabbling takes on a pattern–becomes a “game,” if you will–with Child A masterfully pushing Child B’s buttons, and Child B exploding in a way that thoroughly delights Child A. Then come the predictable retaliations, and the counter-retaliations, and then each side escalates . . . It sure gets old, doesn’t it?!

With older children, (say, age ten and up) it is sometimes possible to make them see the pattern. You can then give them the power and opportunity to break the pattern, (if they truly want to—sometimes fighting is quite literally a game, and one or both actually enjoys their roles in it.) It’s especially useful to help Child B, the usual victim, to learn to control his or her response.

In addition, watch yourself. Could it be that your signals contribute to them fighting for attention? This requires soul-searching, and I’ll leave you to your own private search.

How do homeschooling parents manage to work with children at different grade levels? I need help!

It can be tough, sometimes, to work with (help or teach) children of different ages and abilities. But it’s not tough for homeschoolers alone; let’s face it, teachers in normal public and private schools have to deal with many more children who have (even if a narrow range of age) a wide range of interests, maturity levels, learning styles, and abilities. Also, parents can have difficulties dealing with the conflicting needs and interests of their children even if they do not homeschool their kids.

Homeschoolers often have a great benefit over school teachers and students: cross-age tutoring is school-lingo for a proven technique that is far easier in the home than in a school. Homeschooled children tend to be closer to their siblings and more apt to spend time in mixed-age groups. Younger kids tend to learn from older ones naturally, through observation and emulation; older siblings often enjoy “teaching” what they know, and thereby learn it twice as well as before, while imparting new skills or knowledge to their younger brothers and sisters.

But you seem to be struggling, so here are a few ideas from veteran homeschool parents:

  • I try to spend a little one-on-one time in the morning with each of my children, discussing the day’s plans and what they want to do.
  • Each of us takes turns having fun with the youngest while the others are doing quiet projects, reading, or using the computer. For example, my oldest child will read a book to the 5-year-old while the other teen and I work on Algebra. Then I spend some time with the oldest on Geometry while the other two play checkers. Finally, I have a great time playing with number scales and colored rods with my youngest while my two teens do art projects and free reading.
  • My children are close together in age (2 years apart) and have always been interested in the same topics. So far, all three of us have learned about space and dinosaurs and such together, each assimilating facts and developing concepts in our own way, at our own level. When I read aloud, I always read to both at the same time. Then we discuss what we read. It works for us! (So far!)
  • When I had a third baby, life went on fairly normally for the first six months. I was still able to do fun projects with my older two children as the baby slept in a sling. But with toddlerhood, everything changed. I suddenly had to supervise the baby almost all the time, so I just COULDN’T work with the older kids very often. However, that time was kind of wonderful; my kids grew in maturity and responsibility and became much more independent, not only in academics, but also in life-styles such as cooking.

There are so many homeschoolers that are not schooling at all in my city. I am afraid the local school system will get wind of these parents, and make it difficult for families like us who are providing a better education. What do you think?

There are almost as many ways to homeschool successfully as there are homeschoolers. And sometimes the very best homeschooling doesn’t look like schooling at all. It might even look like nothing is happening. But I bet a little research will help to allay your fears and boost your confidence in your fellow homeschoolers.

To find out about all the different styles of homeschooling, and especially to understand homeschooling that doesn’t look like school, I recommend you start by reading the magazines Growing Without Schooling and Home Education Magazine. You’ll find parents describing their children’s learning experiences in an unstructured homeschool setting. Yes, kids can and do teach themselves to read with Garfield and Tintin books. And they learn math through catalog ordering, budgeting their allowances, and studying for HAM radio licenses among other activities.

Next, attend some local support group events like park day and spend some time talking to the kids as well as the parents. I know at least one of the kids will be happy to share his or her latest passion and research with you (you’ll not only learn something about a new topic, but you’ll discover just how very good kids can be at teaching themselves). And when you talk to the parents, you’ll find that they are far from neglectful. In fact, they are very aware of what their children want and need to learn and are actively facilitating that learning by providing their students with books, materials, trips to places of interest, and more.

If you’re still feeling unsure, talk to your local librarian. Chances are, homeschoolers are among her favorite patrons because they always have such interesting questions and want to research topics that are off the beaten path. And finally, you might want to attend a homeschool conference or information night. Statewide and local groups sponsor these affairs regularly throughout the year. For information on upcoming events in your area, check with the CHN Local Contact nearest you or call us toll free at (800) 327-5339.

We withdrew our son from school at the end of this last year and plan to homeschool him this next fall. He wasn't doing well in school. We received
several notes saying he 'wouldn't listen to the teacher' and 'was disruptive.' Toward the end of the year the school suggested that he be tested for ADHD and put on medication. What can you tell me about ADHD and do you have any suggestions for homeschooling a child with it?

ADHD (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is not like the measles or a broken leg. It does not have clear physical symptoms. In fact, it is a kind of umbrella term. Let’s look first at how the “experts” diagnose and treat ADHD and then we’ll look at some alternatives to mainstream treatments.

Diagnosis of ADHD is based on behavioral criteria listed in a reference book called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM for short. There are three patterns of behavior that might indicate ADHD: “inattention,” “hyperactivity,” and “impulsivity.” According to the DSM, signs of inattention include becoming easily distracted by irrelevant sights and sounds, failing to pay attention to details and making careless mistakes, rarely following instructions carefully and completely, and losing or forgetting things like toys, pencils, books, or tools needed for a task. The signs of hyperactivity and impulsivity listed are feeling restless, often fidgeting with hands or feet or squirming, leaving a seat in a situation where sitting or quiet behavior is expected, blurting our answers before hearing the whole question, and having difficulty waiting in line or for a turn.

You might recognize some of these “symptoms” in yourself. Most people blurt out, bounce from one task to another, or are disorganized or forgetful once in a while. ADHD is diagnosed when this behavior is excessive or long-term. The identification of those symptoms in a child is accomplished by having adults close to him rate his behavior on a scale. The diagnosis, in other words, is based on the adults’ personal perceptions. One adult might chuckle and say, “Do you have ants in your pants?” or “What are you daydreaming about?” Another adult might respond to the same behavior with disapproval and control. By the way, ADHD is diagnosed ten times more often in boys than in girls. “He’s all boy,” has given way to medicating the active, exuberant child.

The diagnosis ADHD is controversial, because no single cause can be found and the diagnostic tools are subjective. Medicating children “diagnosed” with ADHD is also controversial. The medicine is not a cure but simply manages symptoms; it has side effects; and its long-term benefit is limited.

In my opinion it is very important to rule out other possible causes for ADHD “symptoms” before adopting the mainstream treatment. Work with the whole person and not just a bunch of symptoms. Seek out a sympathetic pediatrician as an ally and explore all the possibilities. As you explore the alternative causes, you might find The Holistic Pediatrician by Kathi J. Kemper, M.D., M.P.H. a useful guidebook. She explores ADHD in chapter 21 of her book.

Are there physical problems that might lead to your child’s behavior? Poor sleeping at night due to sinus infection, asthma, or enlarged adenoids or tonsils can lead to ADHD behaviors. Thyroid problems, high lead levels, undetectable petit mal seizures, and hearing or visual impairments can also lead to acting out in frustration. A word to the wise, vision is more than eyesight. When looking into possible visual impairments seek out a behavioral optometrist. A child might have 20/20 eyesight and be seeing double or have trouble focusing or tracking. Consider any special dietary needs. Identify any food allergies or intolerances.

Are there emotional considerations? A kinesthetic learner in a controlled environment will be disruptive. Classroom management techniques that lead a child to feel like a failure might cause him to fight back by breaking the rules. Differences in personality and energy-level are not easily accommodated in a group situation. The byproducts of being misunderstood, anger, frustration, insecurity, depression, or anxiety can lead to non-compliance. If your child has been in a stressful situation at school or is a delayed learner, homeschooling may bring an end to last-year’s behavior without medical intervention. Inattentiveness and boredom may give way to effortless attention to activities the child enjoys. You can highlight those interests in your personalized homeschool curriculum.

While you can benefit from consulting doctors and other health care professionals, the final decision about what to do belongs to you and your child. Trust yourself and him to discover what is best through time and experience.

I have heard several homeschoolers talk about unit studies. What are unit studies? Should I be doing unit studies? What are the benefits and/or drawbacks?

Usually when people talk about unit studies, they mean concentrating on a particular topic such as dinosaurs, California missions, European geography, ancient Greece, and so on. Like everything else in homeschooling, different families use the unit approach in different ways—and many families have terrific homeschooling experiences without ever using the unit approach at all.

The general characteristics of “unit studies” might include that the unit does the following:

  • is exploration of a topic of interest
  • encompasses several different kinds of activities, and therefore several different traditional school “subjects” such as reading, math, science and art
  • is attuned (in both depth and length) to the needs and interests of the learners

One family I know let the kids choose unit topics. Once the kids chose to learn about space, and the whole family took great joy in discovering resources of all kinds on that topic. Suddenly, the world seemed very full of space stuff—books, videos, museums, and a nearby planetarium show they had never checked out. The “unit” grew and evolved with everyone’s interest, and the family ended up doing space activities and lessons almost exclusively for a while (along with the daily chores of life, of course). They read and wrote about space; computations crept in as they struggled with a borrowed telescope; they learned about astronomers and astronauts, both past and present, and put on a play about them; they even sang songs about planets and space travel! Star-watching was an almost nightly affair. Art flourished all over the house—from pictures of Greek gods after which constellations were named to scratchboard depictions of aliens, from carefully designed spacecraft to collages of galaxies and nebulae. Somewhere in there the kids started an elaborate pretend game about fictional characters that were traveling from planet to planet. About 75% of the children’s free play involved this game. Dolls were used in new ways, and old tennis ball cans were wrapped in foil and sprouted nose cones. Christmas came and went, and the kids were thrilled to have a space-themed Lego set to bring into the game.

The space unit for this family went on for about three months. But it was not a rigid unit planned beforehand, imposed on the family from outside, or imposed on the kids by the parents. There was no particular goal, other than enjoyment—although the family ended up creating a goal—they decided to end their unit with a bang, and invited friends and family to a party called “Space Day.”

Just so you realize that not all units are as immersive or as long as this one, this same family also had a unit on insects that lasted only two weeks; and when they were older, the kids decided to study the United States via a fictional trip around the country. The latter unit ended up taking an entire year, but was not usually very immersive. One day a week would often be transformed into part of the imaginary trip, as everyone got out tons of resources on a particular state, marked their maps, and went with it. Other days came and went with the usual play, reading, art, chores, and volunteer work. Several times during the year the family enjoyed pockets of immersion such as a 2-day exploration of all things Hawaiian, a 1-week trip to Utah and Arizona, and a longer trip back east. Nowadays, this family doesn’t do unit studies at all—it just doesn’t fit their present needs.

There are as many ways to homeschool as there are homeschoolers. Unit study is only one way of exploring a topic, but a lot of families have fun with it.

Boy, do I wish I could get my skeptical mother to support our decision to homeschool. Any suggestions?

For many parents the decision to homeschool comes after a good deal of soul-searching research and careful investigation. It’s only natural after making such a weighty decision to hope your significant others will be just as enthusiastic about it as you are. Keep in mind, your mother probably isn’t quite up to speed on all the issues you’ve just spent months mulling over and is naturally more comfortable with the conventional, institutionalized, one-size-fits-all model of education. Let me suggest a little reverse psychology. Instead of trying to convince Grandma of the wonders of homeschooling, see if you can’t reshape her thinking about sending her little grand-darlings off to school.

Invest in a copy of John Taylor Gatto’s book, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, and encourage your mother to read it. What this award-winning, New York State Teacher of the Year has to say about his 26 years of teaching in the public school system is a head-turning indictment of the industrial model of education and the cumulative effect of teaching methods in today’s schools (we believe this small book should be mandatory reading for families and teachers everywhere). At the very least, it will give you and your mom some valuable new insights to ponder.

Then, just for fun, begin collecting newspaper and magazine articles dealing with education and tactfully slip them in your mother’s direction. You will notice the vast majority of these articles carry a consistently troubling message about what’s happening in today’s classrooms. Of course, the idea here is to add a bit of ammunition to your argument, but keep in mind there is a good chance Mom won’t be totally swayed by these news clippings. As Mr. Gatto points out, most people tend to be complacently certain these problems are happening in somebody else’s back yard, not at the school Junior is attending five blocks down the street.

Still, keep your fingers crossed and give it some time. As your scrapbook grows and her grandchildren flourish, your mother may even come to view your decision to homeschool as a heroic act of responsibility amidst the rising tide of educational mediocrity and public denial.

Meanwhile, the most rewarding thing you can do is to include your mother in the joys of your homeschooling lifestyle whenever possible. Bring her to your support group meetings and let her get to know other homeschooling families in action (this may dispel a few hidden prejudices or stereotypes). Put Mom on the mailing list of your favorite homeschooling catalogs and inform her you’ve just solved her dilemma over what to buy John and Sally for their birthdays this year. Invite her to participate in your unit study on California History and celebrate its completion with an extended family field-trip to Sutter’s Fort. Get Mom online and enrich family communications while inspiring your young writers through the magic medium of email.

Finally, take her to park day get-togethers. Chances are she’ll be impressed with the “social skills” of the young people and the pioneering dedication of the parents. Where else do you find a large, multi-aged group of children playing harmoniously together while their parents sit around the picnic table discussing curriculum choices and teaching methods, planning field trips, creating classes, or sharing books and resources—all in the name of enriching their children?

Homeschooling is more than a way to educate children, it’s a rewarding way for families to live and learn together. Keep up the good work, and before you know it Grandma will be bragging about you right along with those talented, homeschooled grand kids of hers.

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