Successful Transitions in the Middle

Article by Tara Bentley, Executive Director of Indiana Association of Home Educators (IAHE)

When our oldest daughter was four years old, we had never heard of homeschooling. That fall, we did what was expected of us when we marched ourselves down to the local public school and enrolled her in kindergarten.

Our years in the public school system included the usual ups and downs that most families experience until sixth grade. Suddenly, we reached a breaking point with the school and began searching for alternatives. No one was more shocked than we were when we made the announcement that we were going to homeschool.

Our youngest daughter was still a preschooler. With one child that spent seven years in the public school and one that never went beyond a couple of months at the local preschool, our experiences with our two girls were very different. Looking back, it is easy to see that moving from public school to homeschooling in the middle school years presented a unique set of challenges.

Are you beginning your journey in the middle? Recognize that the longer your child has been in a traditional school, the stronger your expectations and their will be of what “school” looks like. It takes time to shake these false expectations and reimagine what EDUCATION looks like.

Top Ten Tips for Starting in the Middle

1. RELAX AND START SLOWLY

The temptation to recreate school-at-home will be strong. While it is helpful to create a dedicated space in your home, there is no need to load the spare bedroom with school desks or a flagpole. Home education happens at the kitchen table, the living room couch, or on a blanket in the back yard.

Avoid the mindset of a traditional school calendar or daily schedule. Don’t start your year with too many subjects at one time, or set your schedule based on when the school bus goes up and down your street.

Letting go of this traditional school mindset is called “deschooling,” and it takes time. Celebrate "NOT Back to School Week" as a way to start your year and to serve as a reminder for your whole family that you are breaking old habits and starting new ones.

2. REALIZE THAT YOU HAVE MORE HOMEWORK THAN YOUR STUDENT

In your first year, read, read, and read some more. Find books, blogs, podcasts, and workshop recordings about home education, parenting, learning styles, curriculum, discipleship, and more. Remember that your goal is NOT to learn each academic subject, but to find the best method to help your student learn.

3. FOCUS ON FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS

When a parent becomes the teacher, principal, guidance counselor, and bus driver all rolled into one, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed. These additional tasks can leave little room for winsome parenting. Focus on character and relationship building before grades. Traditional schools emphasize testing knowledge, while home education allows us to shift our assessment of what our student knows when we work closely with them to “know what they know.” Tests can still be helpful to identify understanding, retention, or learning gaps – but they shouldn’t be the driving force as you are both still finding your way.

4. BE INTENTIONAL WITH FRIENDSHIPS

Cultivating quality friendships in the pre-teen years can be difficult, even in the best situation. Making the shift from public school to homeschooling at this time of life adds additional challenges. Talk with your spouse and your children to decide which current friendships are a priority. Are these relationships healthy?  Or will they bring a discontented spirit into your home during the transition? Open communication is the key to making wise decisions.

Building connections in the homeschooling community won’t come quickly, but new relationships for students and mom will help tremendously. Find a local support group and attend activities that allow you to get to know people.

Recognize that while finding support is vital, joining a co-op is not. What’s the difference? While many groups offer a bit of both, support groups focus on building community, social events, and field trips, while co-ops focus on academic classes for the student.

Homeschool pioneer, textbook author, and college professor Dr. Jay Wile recently shared, “Co-ops are not necessary. In fact, for most homeschooled students, I would say too many co-op classes end up being a negative. One of the reasons homeschool graduates were my best university students is because they learned WITHOUT the benefit of a class. They learned on their own. If you do too much in a co-op, your children will not learn that way. Co-ops are great for certain classes, but an over-reliance on them takes away one of the biggest strengths that homeschooling provides.”

5. DON'T BE A BOOK SNOB

I attended our first homeschool convention before we started homeschooling in 2001. At that time, the self-publishing industry was small, and color printing was far more expensive than black and white. I will never forget my attitude as I walked the exhibit hall literally judging each book by its cover. I was convinced that a quality education required books that looked like what was in the public school. I wasted time, money, and energy in our early years by choosing materials for all of the wrong reasons.

The homeschool marketplace is full of excellent, quality materials from high-tech, online courses, to low-tech, black and white, classic books. There are pros and cons to both. While it is tempting to grab an all-in-one curriculum solution for your first year, be sure to pick a couple of subjects using something outside of the box. Take a balanced approach to your curriculum choices as it takes time to learn what materials work best for your family. Choosing one methodology for all subjects can lead to very monotonous days.

6. WRITE A MISSION STATEMENT FOR YOUR HOMESCHOOL

Chances are good you will have difficult days and there will be tears along the way. During the rough days, it will be tempting to give up if you’ve lost sight of why you decided to homeschool in the first place. Write down your reasons and post it in a place you’ll see every day.

7. STAY FLEXIBLE

Life rarely goes as planned. Leave space in your calendar and lesson planner for things that will take longer than you expect. Leave room for field trips, trips to the grocery store, bad curriculum choices, family time, and more. It’s easy to start the school year with high expectations of how much is possible to accomplish in a year. I remember sitting down and planning an entire semester at a time in ink! Oh, my! I set myself up for failure in our first week. Are you a planner? Create a separate list of goals and only move completed tasks to your student’s lesson book once they are completed.

8. PLAN A GENERAL ROUTE TO HIGH SCHOOL

The beauty of homeschooling is the ability to customize your student’s education. This freedom creates a lot of room for options along the way. But jumping into home education in the middle school years also means keeping an eye on the line of when middle school ends and high school begins. Curriculum placement tests are only one piece of the puzzle. What learning gaps does your student need to tackle before high school? Or are they ready for a challenge? Identify any priorities for the years ahead to give your student a strong foundation.

Include your student in this process. Remember that their understanding of your family’s long-term goals will help reduce friction during the rough days. (Refer them to the mission statement!)

9. KEEP EXTRACURRICULAR ACTIVITIES TO A MINIMUM

In spite of the success and growth of home education in today’s world, many families still enter this journey leery of turning their child into an “unsocialized homeschooler.” Chances are good that your public-school student was in an after-school club, played a new sport each quarter, and started learning an instrument in band. Learning how home education works in your family takes time. Don’t load your family’s calendar down with outside activities in an effort to fight a false stereotype.

10. DON'T SEEK OUTSIDE AFFIRMATION

We all want to know when we’re doing a good job, and homeschooling is no exception. Leaving the traditional school model behind also means making a shift in how we evaluate success. Moving from weekly tests and report cards to relational learning means we don’t always have a tangible yardstick of how we are doing. Seeking the approval of others too early in our journey can lead to discontentment and comparing our student to others, instead of focusing on their actual progress.

Don’t let other people grill your children. Well-intentioned family members may choose to put your efforts to the test. Have a prepared answer ready to put an end to an uncomfortable situation for everyone.

BONUS TIP: HOME EDUCATION IS A MARATHON, NOT A SPRINT

Give yourself enough time to find out what works. Your first year will be full of mistakes and rough days, so make a two-year commitment to this new journey.

And give yourself the grace to fall behind before you learn how to fly.


Originally published in Homeschool Arizona magazine, Fall 2017 issue