When Homeschooling Wasn’t Your Plan: 10 Tips to Help

Let’s face it — 2020 has been a mess. In the worst cases, we’ve endured illness and death, with loved ones cut off from each other during their hardest moments. Violence and hatred seethe on the streets. Jobs and hard-won businesses crumble. Our only solace, is that our God is so great, so far-reaching in his sovereignty, love, and mercy, that he works all things for good for those who love him (Rom. 8:28). . . even this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year.

And yet, as we cling to this hope, we weather some tough circumstances. Even in the best cases, the pandemic has brought isolation, loneliness, fear, and a life in which our usual routines are turned inside out. And for many people, the changes of 2020 mean that in a month, they’ll be homeschooling — when it was never in their master plan.

Some are considering this change because weeks of compulsory distance learning have revealed the benefits of home education. Many more, facing school closures and restrictions, feel it’s the best in a list of suboptimal choices. If you find yourself in either of these scenarios, you’re likely feeling some anxiety about how to make everything work in September. . . especially if you’re planning to juggle homeschooling with a job.

As someone entering her fifth year of an adventure in homeschooling elementary-aged kids, I’m sharing a few insights that might help if you’re taking the plunge. I especially have in mind those who are homeschooling in harried or unexpected circumstances — while still holding down a job, etc.

Lots and lots of online posts talk about the joys of homeschooling, which are innumerable, but if you’re homeschooling unexpectedly, you’re probably more concerned about surviving the year without damaging your kids, your job, and your ever lovin’ sanity. For those of you, the following might help you take a breath, and maybe even glean some joy along the way. There’s much joy to be had, if you can create a rhythm that suits your family.

1. Pray.

And then pray again, and then some more. The idea of homeschooling can be daunting, especially if you’re juggling other things and feel thrust into the situation. Pray for wisdom, for discernment, for strength, for the Holy Spirit to guide you along the way. And don’t ever stop praying! (1 Thess. 5:17) Carve out time for prayer and reading the Word, even if it’s only 5 minutes every morning, to guide you when you want to rip your hair out (or cry, or eat a pint of Ben & Jerry’s in one sitting, or quit, or any combination of the above).

2. Draft some goals for homeschooling.

I don’t mean academic goals (although those can help too); I mean a set of values underpinning your philosophy for homeschooling. For those of you thrown into homeschooling out of necessity, this step might elicit groans, but trust me, it can help to buoy you through the bad days. When one child is crying about math, the other has written all over the wall, your boss is mad at you for completing an assignment late, and the dog has vomited on your antique couch (these. days. happen), the values and goals you set ahead of time can anchor you. In what ways do you hope your kids will grow over the next year? Try to look past the morass and cling to these goals when things go haywire.

3. The Three R’s are essential; everything else is icing on the cake.

Your second grader will be okay if he doesn’t know about the Trail of Tears or photosynthesis this year. Truly, he’ll be fine. History, geography, science, art, music, foreign language, etc., etc., are delightful to delve into with your kids, and important for character development and growth, but especially in the elementary years, they’re secondary to the crucial skills all kids need: reading, writing, and math. Cover other material if you can, but if life is hard, focus on the 3 R’s. If they read fluently, you instill in them a love for reading, and you give them access to rich story-based books, they’ll pick up a lot of enrichment content on their own. Give them the skills and resources to explore, rather than try to formally cover every single subject.

There are many, many options for teaching your kids the 3 R’s. Here are the resources we’ve used:





4. Don’t try to reproduce school at home.

Traditional school takes eight hours daily because there’s no efficient way to steer twenty kids through six subjects in less time. Homeschooling, however, is a totally different animal. You’re offering your kids 1:1 instruction, and are more akin to a tutor than the classic teacher with a chalkboard and pointer. You can sit beside your child to walk them through problems in real time. By comparison, a teacher has to lecture, give kids exercises, and assign and grade homework and tests to see how all twenty kids are faring.

Given these differences, the actual time spent in instruction at home will be much less than in traditional school. Your modes of assessment might also drastically differ; you may not need to “test,” because every session with your kids combines teaching and assessment. Because you’re tutoring rather than juggling a classroom, you’ll work through a concept with your kids one-on-one, and have an immediate sense of whether or not they’re mastering it, need more time, or are ready to speed ahead. No pop quizzes required.

Knowing this, don’t try to recreate the school experience. One of the joys of homeschooling is the flexibility it affords you to experience life with your kids. Aim for a rhythm, but there is no need to regurgitate traditional school at home. Do lessons on the back porch on sunny days. Have them practice math facts in the swing. The goal is for them to learn, and that will be a lifelong endeavor, not confined to the rituals we see in brick-and-mortar school buildings.

5. Having said that, seek to create a routine.

Your sanity, and your kids’ sense of peace and security, will improve if you have a rhythm and stick to it. This can be as detailed or as vague as you want — “lessons start at 8:00 am sharp,” or “we have school in the mornings, and go out after lunch.” Whatever fits your family best is the way to go, but at least try to have some predictable rhythm to your days. This will help reduce complaints from kids, even when they’re feeling moody, because they’ll know that after they muscle through simplifying fractions, they’ll have time to play outside, go to the park, etc. It will also bring you some peace of mind, allowing school to be something natural that plays out daily, rather than a problem to figure out each time the sun comes up.

For ideas, Simple Homeschool has a yearly day-in-the-life linkup, during which homeschool families post about their routines. Check it out to brainstorm what might work for you!

6. Treat school hours as “protected time.”

This is a big one. While it might not always be possible, try your best to set aside your actual instruction time with your kids as protected hours. Treat homeschooling like a job. Put the phone in another room of the house, and don’t check it until you’re done. Don’t schedule meetings or phone calls during homeschool time. Leave the laundry and vacuuming for another hour.

I recommend this, because it’s so easy to let other things creep in, and the result is usually frustration for everyone . When you’re distracted, school takes longer (even while you’re trying to be efficient by juggling multiple things at once), bickering and complaints happen, and you end the day despairing that you’ve done *nothing* correctly.

Treating homeschool hours as protected time will take practice, and will also need reinforcement with others who presume that since you’re homeschooling, you’re always available. Gently explain to friends and colleagues that you’re not. I recently changed my voicemail greeting to indicate that I’m involved with schooling until the early afternoon on weekdays, just to drive the point home. It’s hard to draw that line, because we all want to be conscientious and we all feel obligated to so many people, but giving homeschooling your full attention for a set amount of time daily makes a big difference in how smoothly homeschooling happens.

7. Outsource to create margins for yourself.

If you’re finding your time is really constrained, take advantage of the many, many online learning resources out there. There’s been an explosion of these on the internet, so I won’t belabor the point, but I will mention those I can personally vouch for:

SQUILT Music Appreciation — fantastic courses in music appreciation and theory. My kids look forward to our twice monthly SQUILT webinar sessions, and now routinely try to identify instruments each time a song plays on the stereo in the car.

You ARE an Artist — chalk pastel art lessons, led by an instructor whom the kids adore for her gentle and calm demeanor.

Curiosity Stream — huge repository of educational documentaries

Jus’ Classical — I have to put in a plug for this one. There’s a homeschooling mom on YouTube, who’s put together some hilarious, yet informative, videos about famous composers and artists. My kids love her.

Typing.com — My 7-year old has dysgraphia, and the (free!) lessons on this site taught him to keyboard fluently in 2 months.

8. Encouraging a love of reading is more impactful than any shrink-wrapped curriculum.

If you instill kids with a love of reading, they’ll accrue more knowledge on their own than you’ll ever cram into their gray little brains. I can’t count the number of times Pip has walked into a room, chattering about something he’s learned on his own from perusals of books I’d forgotten we had.

Make reading together a part of your routine, whether it’s during lessons, over meals (you’ll have a captive audience!), before bed – whatever works for your family and your routine. Choose high-quality books that are rich in imaginative story telling. For ideas, Sarah Mackenzie’s site The Read-Aloud Revival has fantastic lists of great read-alouds with your kids. When you explore great stories with your kids, they’ll be more excited about embarking on adventures independently.

9. There’s no one right way to homeschool.

Homeschooling will look different for every family, because every family is different. Look to others for ideas, but don’t get stuck in the comparison game. Your neighbor’s kids might thrive in a classical program, but yours might find it stifling. The unschoolers’ kids might be blossoming, but your kids might need more structure. The great beauty of homeschooling is that you can tailor it to the needs of the unique, amazing, quirky, one-of-a-kind, wee image bearers whom God has entrusted to you. Whatever works for *your* family, is exactly the right way for you to homeschool.

10. Know that you are forgiven.

Not every day will be replete with Pinterest-ready cupcakes and woodland searches for fairies. In fact, most days won’t be! Amid all the wonderful moments, when you get to witness your kids’ minds come alive as they master a concept or lean in, enrapt, to hear about what happens to Bilbo, there will also be plenty of moments when arguing happens, when complaints happen, when your voice is too stern and you’re just. so. tired.

Know that this side of the Fall, such days are expected. Know also, that we serve a God of grace, who gave his one and only Son for us (John 3:16). When we fail, he succeeds. When we fall short, he pours out love and mercy.

Know that you are forgiven, and that God’s grace covers even the messiness of lessons at home, even the backwardness of life in a pandemic.

Take a breath. Say a prayer. Then try again, and glean joy from the journey.

13 Comments Add yours

  1. Dawn says:

    VERY informative and helpful!


    1. Katie Butler says:

      Thanks Dawn, I hope it helps! Sorry for all the initial typos and grammatical errors — yikes! Teaches me not to blog while Bean is talking to me nonstop. 🙂 Hope all is well with you and yours.


  2. Deanna Sallee says:

    Hello! I am the community Coordinator for my local homeschool group of around 300 families. We recently created a “new to homeschooling” page, may I put a link to this post on our page?

    Thank you! Deanna Sallee


    1. Katie Butler says:

      Absolutely Deanna, thank you! Please feel free to post any other content from here as well (the drop-down menu under “Writing” has a “Homeschooling” tab).


  3. This is well written. Maybe seed material for a new book? 😁


    1. Katie Butler says:

      Hi, thanks for the suggestion! 🙂


  4. oakcrest304 says:

    As a former homeschooling mom of 16 years, these recommendations are such good wisdom! They speak sustainability and realism into the real day-to-day struggles of homeschooling real- life kids and being a real-life mom.


    1. Katie Butler says:

      Thanks so much! And congrats on 16 years juggling all this — wow! I’ll bet you have a lot of good stories. 🙂 Blessings to you.


  5. Kads says:

    This has really been so helpful. I’m only 20 but educating my younger brother is going to be much more effective thanks to your advice. God bless you Katie!


    1. Katie Butler says:

      How generous and loving of you, to help your younger brother in such a time! Blessings to you in your efforts!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Roxana says:

    Fantastic post! Excellent tips and I love how you’ve listed them in priority! This will be our third year homeschooling and even though I’m not “new” to it, I really needed these tips and reminders. Especially as I’m currently working on creating some semblance of a schedule (we were totally derailed this past spring/summer)! Thank you!


    1. Katie Butler says:

      Thanks Roxana! I’m glad they’re helpful. Best wishes to you as you march on this year!


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