Raising children is hard. Homeschooling, though easier in many important ways than sending children to school, is still hard. When the number of children you are homeschooling involves multiple levels, and feelings of never getting anything truly done, it is even harder.
Additionally, society often does not see what we do as parents, particularly homeschooling mothers, as valuable. Society sees talented women burying themselves at home, narrowing the sphere of their influence, giving up fulfilling and important careers, giving up power and success, to perform unimportant, largely menial tasks. Even though education is regarded as important, to educate these four, or six, or even 12 children, is pretty small potatoes compared to what we might have done with our lives. "Think of those you could have influenced!" we are told. Sometimes we even wonder ourselves about the value of what we do.
In the book Holiness for Housewives (a book which I most heartily recommend), Dom Hubert Von Zeller quotes G.K. Chesterton, who is responding directly to this attitude. He says, “...I cannot, with the utmost energy of imagination, conceive what they mean. When domesticity, for instance, is called drudgery...the difficulty arises from a double meaning in the word. If drudgery only means dreadfully hard work, I admit the woman drudges in the home--as a man might drudge at the Cathedral of Amiens or drudge behind a gun at Trafalgar. But if it means that the hard work is more heavy because it is trifling, colorless and of small import to the soul, then, as I say, I give it up; I do not know what the words mean. To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors, and holidays; to be Whitely within a certain area, providing toys, books, cakes, and boots; to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene, I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No, a woman’s function is laborious; but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.”
This is what we have to keep in mind as we are schooling our multiple levels of children. What we are doing is huge. And every good thing takes effort. God has ordered our universe in such a way that most worthwhile ends are attained only with real effort. We see this in every area. Physical prowess requires years of dedicated labor (ask any of the Olympic athletes). Intellectual achievement also entails significant time, attention, and plain hard work. Think about how long it takes to acquire mastery of a language, or medicine, law, or theology. In the spiritual realm as well, achievement is granted to those who persist and are willing to give themselves to the task. We have been told to follow Christ, to conform our lives to His, but we have also been told that this will require the daily taking up of the Cross.
So within that context let’s talk about some ways to make this great task of homeschooling our children easier. I have some suggestions that have come from friends, some that I have implemented in my home, some that my children who are homeschooling are implementing. The following are various suggestions that have helped other homeschooling families. My hope is that some of them will be helpful to you.
Balancing Older and Younger Children
- When you have a large number of children, simplify, concentrating on core subjects and getting them done. A consultant is helpful in determining what is essential, what you need to be involved in, and what you can leave to the student’s initiative.
- Remember that reading aloud is a way to work with many children simultaneously. Read something that has a broad age range appeal, and then you can discuss with the group.
- Avoid the trap, in a large family, of working with the little ones and leaving the older children alone. It’s true the older children can do more on their own, but it is also true that we have fewer years left with them, and a certain number of key concepts and moral formation that they have to know. If a Kindergartener does not learn to read this year, it won’t matter, but a ninth grader who isn’t having his math or writing assignments corrected, or his questions about life answered, will suffer.
- Having older children take turns watching younger children has helped many large families. Mom can work with whoever isn’t on baby duty, and everyone knows they will get a turn with mom.
- I frequently recommend that older children also take turns helping the younger children. It’s good for everyone. It provides instruction for the younger child, reinforces concepts for the older child, and allows him to contribute in a tangible way to the common good of the family, promotes family unity, and helps mom check off an item on her long list.
- One approach is to alternate working with older children and younger children: on Monday work with the older children, and on Tuesday work with the younger children. The children work on things they can do by themselves on the alternate days.
- Plan around the baby’s nap times, in any case. Use that time to work with the oldest children. Also, right after baby has been fed is usually a good time to do some one-on-one teaching.
- Use the pockets of time that tend to get ignored, like time in the car, folding laundry, or doing dishes. You can have great discussions about literature and religion in those contexts. You can also listen to recordings (CDs or MP3) in the car or as people are doing dishes. An added benefit to those ideas is that they become shared activities.
- Consider getting up earlier with one child and doing some subjects that need to be taught one-on-one.
Occupying Younger Children
- Have some workbooks for the pre-schoolers, so that they don’t feel neglected or pushed out of the way. They want to participate in the activity of the family. So let them, as long as they want to. When they stop, it’s their choice, and not that they are being forced to leave.
- Have some special school time toys that only come out during school time. That gives the little children something to look forward to. Rotating these toys (so taking them out for a couple of weeks and then putting them away for a couple of weeks while others come out) can help, too.
- Stories to listen to, like the Holy Heroes stories, or Beatrix Potter, can help keep younger children happy and safely occupied during the school day. There are apps with free audio books, as well as the Audible app which, used with an Amazon subscription, gives you access to a huge number of books.
- One of my friends suggested trading housework for help with schooling. She had a neighbor’s child join them for school and the neighbor came once a week to clean my friend’s house.
- A benefit to that system is the incentive to stay on track with school. If someone else is joining you for school, you will do school. That is important in a large family, where many interruptions can derail the day.
- Along those lines, have a schedule for school and try to stick with it. It is very important to have a regular starting time that everyone is aware of. One of the benefits to starting the day with early Mass is that everyone is up and dressed at a specific time. Even if early Mass is not possible, I recommend having a beginning of the day prayer time, so that everyone has an expected starting time.
Housework & Chores
- As the children get older, institute a home economics course. In our house, each child over 12 made dinner once a week. They also took turns making breakfast (Malt-o-Meal, oatmeal, scrambled eggs). At first, this is not easier for mom, of course, as the children need instruction and modeling to learn a skill, and mom has to provide it. But, eventually, it makes a huge difference in the smooth running of the house. And it makes clear to the children how important they are to the running of the house.
- Help with housework can be crucial. The first and most important help is having the children do particular jobs regularly, as part of the rhythm of the household. Have five-minute pickups throughout the day.
- Some families rotate cleaning chores, and others assign a particular area of the house that is theirs to keep clean. We did the latter. The children would straighten that area at every cleaning and pick up time during the day. It prevented wasting time arguing about who was responsible for the particular mess. Clear expectations are so helpful.
- But don’t start out the day cleaning up the house (a quick pick up is different; it can be helpful to do that right at the beginning of the day). If you start cleaning the house at the beginning of your day, it will be an all-day project, and will derail the school day. Instead, start school, clean before lunch, and use five-minute pickups to keep things reasonably clear.
- Your schedule is significant in successfully homeschooling multiple levels of students. That regular starting time, with assigned and expected chores during the day, is freeing. Knowing what to expect when means everyone can move ahead with their day, not waiting to be told what today’s activities will be.
- If mom is feeling overwhelmed and thinking about putting kids in school as a result, she should think seriously about hiring outside cleaning help. Either way one is going to spend money, most probably, especially if the school is a private school, but having someone clean your home for you is much better than having someone raise your children for you.
- Think about what physical set-up works best for you. We primarily schooled around one big table. That worked best for us, because I was able to work with one child while keeping an eye on everyone else. I did have a desk in my bedroom for the younger child who needed more quiet to concentrate, when he or she was doing a subject that required that kind of concentration. My older children would sometimes work at a desk in their room. But, when people were working with me, they came out to our large dining room table. That way I was always at the heart of the activity in the house.
- Remember, too, that if there is a day that is a washout as far as school is concerned, it won’t matter. It won’t work if every day is like that, but homeschooled children have so much more differentiated instruction, and so many more mastery-learning opportunities, and so many fewer busywork activities, that occasional days where not much school gets done is not going to affect the outcome in the long run.
- Say no to most outside activities during your four days of school. If you have a large family and everyone has a number of activities to go to, you are going to spend a lot of time in the car, and your children are not going to have a school schedule. A calmer life leads to happier children. Use the fifth day of the week for activities, and, even then, keep it reasonably limited. Our rule was one activity per child, and as there were more children, we moved to one activity all the boys could participate in (some sport) and one activity all the girls could participate in (Irish dance).
Organizing School Supplies
- Have a stable location for each child’s school books. Train the children to take out the books in the morning and put them back when done. I had a bookshelf for each child. That way we all knew where the books were. It saved hours.
- Buy a box of pencils so that, when someone can’t find theirs, you can just pull out a fresh one. It’s worth it for the time saved.
Utilizing Weekly Lists
- Make sure each child who can read has a list for the day and uses it. This is huge. My life changed dramatically when we instituted the weekly list. Instead of me trying to remember what I had to get done with each child, and having to do so when this child was asking what to do next, I could say, “Look at your list, honey”.
- I would work on the weekly lists during the weekend before, and I would do them for two weeks at a time, staggering the children so I didn’t have to do everyone every week. So on one Sunday I would generate lists for children 1, 2, and 3, for two weeks, and the next weekend I would do children 4, 5, and 6 for two weeks.
- Learn to use the list generator on the Family Site to facilitate the list making. If you don’t know how to use it, call the office and set up a time to have them walk you through it.
- When you make the lists, think about your time. What subjects need to be done with you? Make sure that the children’s lists are coordinated so that they aren’t all going to be needing you all day. Make a plan that involves some time with you, but also has work the children can do on their own (except for the littlest children, of course).
- I recommend starting the day with the youngest children, the toddlers. Do a puzzle, some finger plays, a little story, and/or our new Pre-K materials. Just spend some ‘school’ time with them so they feel part of the group. Then work with the next up child, while the toddler goes to play with his school toys, or with the sibling doing baby duty. Do with that next child what he needs you to do. The older children should work from their lists, with whoever has baby duty taking their turn. Move up the ladder, so to speak, with the children. The oldest children can do most on their own, so let them, but make sure you do spend some one on one time with them, too, at least twice a week, if you can’t manage every day. When we had to do that, I used Monday and Thursday as the days I would work with the older children.
Finding Time to Grade
- Correcting work can be an issue. For math, I think correcting daily is important. Have the children come to you as soon as they finish a lesson. Train yourself to stop what you are doing, whatever it is, and correct the lesson (five minutes with an answer key is all it takes). Then the student can go fix what he can, and the rest you can go over with him during your one-on-one time.
- For other subjects, figure out a system with your schedule that will work. Correct on Fridays, or evenings, or early mornings. The specific time you choose is not as important as having a regular time. Some subjects have to be corrected regularly, even daily. Some you can ‘spot check’. You don’t have to correct every Concepts and Challenges lesson, for example, but you do have to check a number, regularly. Sometimes I would check something with the student during our one-on-one time. That gave us a chance to work on mastery right then.
- We had a system of clip boards. I had a vertical file and each child had a clip board with the weekly list on it. As they finished their assignments, they put the work behind the list. That way I could find it when it was time to correct the work.
- Many moms find hiring a tutor, signing up for LS classes, or using TS grading to be helpful in a large family. Thinking about who needs the most help staying on track, or what areas you need the most help correcting, can guide you in a good use of those services.
Instilling Domestic Virtues
- There is one other area that is essential to consider when thinking about teaching a number of children at multiple levels. That is the question of domestic virtues. Frankly, this is hard to talk about, because as those who know me well will attest, I am not the best role model for this subject. However, in my years of homeschooling and counseling others who are homeschooling, I have seen that those who are successful at homeschooling are those whose children are obedient, and who are themselves disciplined.
- If the children will not do what is on their list, or take their turns watching the younger children, or get back to work after taking their turns, it is hard to accomplish what you intend in your schooling. I found that targeting unwanted behavior can be helpful. Even though there might be many areas you could concentrate on, pick one. Then make your expectations for that task and the consequences for both doing it and not doing it clear.
- Say, for example, that your 12 year old has started disappearing, rolling his eyes, or saying, “Aw, I don’t want to,” when you ask him to mow the lawn, or empty the dishwasher. Explain to him what you expect, namely, when he is asked to do something, he will say, “Yes, Mama.” Then give him the positive and negative consequences of doing or not doing what you have asked. To do this effectively you have to think about what matters to him. (When I was young my parents sent me to my bedroom for punishment. I read in my bedroom, so it wasn’t as effective a consequence as it might have been.) Does this child like to use the computer? And is there only so much time available for such use? Then tell him that each time he says, “Yes, Mama,” you will add five minutes to his computer time, and each time he says, “Aw, I don’t want to,” he will lose five minutes. Then comes the hardest part. You need to keep it in mind all day long for as long as it takes.
- Various moms have told me the different techniques they have used to keep track of positive/negative consequences. Paper lists, stones in a jar moved from one jar to others, and sticker charts are some that come to mind. The important thing is that you are helping your child form a habit, and that takes repeated action. I have found that if you are consistent about rewarding and punishing the targeted behavior, it doesn’t take that long to improve. You will probably have to address the problem again, or similar problems, but it can be remedied.
- Other virtues that are extremely important for both teaching and learning are self-control and self-discipline. These are areas that our children need to learn, and I’m sorry to say that the most effective way of teaching them seems to be good example. The ‘do what I say, not what I do’ school doesn’t have many graduates. When we are frustrated with our children or feeling the need to ‘just get something done‘ we are apt to react in ways that we don’t really want our children to react. That consideration was what most helped me. I did not want my children to think that under stress one should yell, or snarl, or that unwelcome but necessary tasks can just be neglected. I found that saying, “If this were Margaret, Theresa, John, Rachel, James, or Richard, what would I want them to do?”, helped me do it. God is good, and He provides many ways of moving us to virtue. For us who are homeschooling a powerful motivation is the power of example: our example for our children. That’s a gift to us.
Homeschooling is not easy, but it is definitely worth the effort. Recently, when I was teaching a Health course for parents, I was struck again with this quote from Casti Connubii.
"God wishes men to be born not only that they should live and fill the earth, but much more that they may be worshippers of God, that they may know Him and love Him and finally enjoy Him forever in heaven; and this end, since man is raised by God in a marvelous way to the supernatural order, surpasses all that eye hath seen, and ear heard and all that hath entered into the heart of man. ....Christian parents must also understand that they are ....to educate...children who are to become members of the Church of Christ, to raise up fellow-citizens of the Saints, and members of God's household..." (Casti Connubii, 12-13, Pius XI, emphasis mine)
What a charge we have been given! Our job, as Christian parents, is to participate in God's saving work as it is carried out in our families. We have a work that is ordered to eternity. Those of us who homeschool do so because we think homeschooling is especially effective in this work. It seems obvious that, if our goal is to raise up children who will share eternal life with us, and that this is specifically what God wants us to do in our families, then anything that furthers that goal is good. My mother says, in the introduction to my book, Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum, “An appetite for achievement is built into human nature. What men and women seek is not a life of easy luxury, but a lifework deserving the expenditure of all their gifts. Through homeschooling, Catholic parents - especially mothers - can find that kind of joy in the work of leading their children to God within the shelter of a living Catholic culture.” That is what we are doing, and that is a noble work.