Emergency Homeschooling: A How-To Guide
By Bryan Caplan
Hundreds of millions of parents around the globe are suddenly homeschooling. I’ve been homeschooling my older sons for the past five years, so I predictably think I’ve got valuable pedagogical advice to share. At the same time, the emergency has suddenly doubled enrollment in my homeschool, because now I’m teaching my younger two kids as well. Now I’ve got two 11th-graders, one 5th-grader, and one 2nd-grader under my wings. Thus, despite years of experience and reflection, I’m now confronting many of the same issues as first-timers.
Fortunately, I know how to start. Here’s how.
The foremost question for any homeschooler is: What are you trying to accomplish? My answer is twofold:
1. Teach kids what they need to know to become self-supporting adults, even if it isn’t fun.
2. Give kids a happy childhood.
In pursuit of goal #1, I focus heavily on mathematics. Why? Because most good jobs in the modern world require strong math skills, and very few kids like math enough to learn it on their own. I also mandate reading and writing – but I don’t especially care what they read or what they write about. Indeed, the best route is if they read and write whatever excites them most.
In pursuit of goal #2, I give kids ample breaks, a long lunch (at cheap restaurants in healthy conditions), and plenty of outdoor time. If there’s any academic subject outside math, reading, and writing that they enjoy, I energetically support them. But I don’t burden them with any additional mandatory work – not even economics. I naturally encourage kids to consider the possibility that they might change their minds, but I don’t push.
My other goal, frankly, is to do my own job while my kids learn. Most emergency homeschoolers are probably in the same position. How are you supposed juggle your kids’ education and your job simultaneously? The answer: With calm but strict discipline. Specifically:
1. Create a tentative schedule and share it with your kids – then enforce it like clockwork. This means more initial effort for you, but will quickly pay for itself in both time and frustration.
2. On day one, run diagnostic tests to find out what your students already know. Assign tasks with a wide range of difficulties. Once you find the easiest thing they don’t know well, have them practice until they can do it well. Especially for young kids, don’t worry about completing a curriculum by a specific date. Just know your final destination and start marching. Tell your kids they’ll learn new tasks as soon as they master the material they’re doing. Drill, drill, drill.
3. If your kids have short attention spans, build more breaks into the schedule – but then enforce that schedule. If your kids need to run around, build that into the schedule too.
4. Build parental feedback time into your schedule, then require kids to hold their questions until the scheduled time. This is crucial if you want to get your own work done.
5. Start the day with the most boring material. For 95% of kids, that means math.
6. Reliably respond to misbehavior with calm but firm enforcement. Don’t express anger – but don’t feel sorry for them. There is great wisdom in the tautology that, “The rules are the rules.”
7. Don’t judge case-by-case; except in extreme circumstances (e.g. vomiting), remind off-task kids of the schedule and tell them to keep working. Don’t be afraid to use mild punishments to address misbehavior – but scrupulously enforce all the punishments you announce. It is better to turn a blind eye than to make idle threats.
8. Remember: The main cause of unhappiness is the disparity between what you expect and what happens. Similarly, the main cause of parent-child conflict is the disparity between what you expect and what your kids expect. Once your kids take their schedule for granted, they will feel better about the situation. Once everyone knows what to expect, conflict fades away… usually. Remember: If your own parental weakness makes you miserable, you will be unpleasant company for your kids. So think of the children – ultimately they too will suffer if you let them push your around!
9. Be open to constructive student feedback outside of learning time. During learning time, though, stick to the schedule.
10. Don’t tell kids that something is “fun” if they resent it. Just be honest and remind them that some boring work has a big long-run payoff. Before you tell them so, though, critically assess whether the boring task does in fact have a big long-run payoff. Sorry, mandatory musical instruction is absurd. If kids have to suffer, they should suffer for their own benefit – not your pride.
Example: Here’s my younger kids’ schedule for last week.
I’m still working out the kinks, but overall I’m pleased with the structure. I bought almost all of the Humble Math workbooks, found out my kids’ current level, and set them to work. I can’t say they’re delighted, but at least they’re making good progress and look forward to the breaks. The reading and writing are easier sells. And at the end of the day during Activity period, we exercise outside, then learn about whatever’s on their minds. So far, contagious disease is a hot topic – we’ve studied smallpox, Spanish flu, and more – complete with graphic medical photos from the internet. Personally, I’d like to teach more economics, but I’ll wait until they’re more curious.
Needless to say, my approach is far from the unschooling popular among many of my homeschooling friends. I admit that unschooling works better than most parents would expect, but I’m definitely troubled by unschoolers’ subpar math skills, especially relative to their potential. Furthermore, in the absence of a clear schedule, I don’t see how parents can simultaneously teach their kids and do their jobs. I couldn’t, anyway.