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8 Reasons Homeschooling Works . . . And Tips for When It Doesn’t

By Debra Bell | December 20, 2018 | by Debra Bell, Homeschool For Success

After I finished homeschooling our kids, I headed back to school to complete a Ph.D. in educational psychology. I wanted to know how kids learn best. Wouldn’t that be helpful information for homeschooling moms and dads?

Researchers have studied how children learn for more than a hundred years. We have a substantial body of knowledge and consensus among scientists on many aspects of learning. One day in class I had an ah-ha! moment.  I realized all our research points to one obvious conclusion:

If we built a school based on how kids learn best . . . we’d build a home.

How’s that for some liberating good news? And, doesn’t it make complete sense? A child’s optimal learning environment is the one God designed: a family.

Now, here’s the caveat—we can miss the opportunities our homes afford our kids to learn.  We’ve got to nurture the advantages and eschew practices that undermine their learning.

Let me unpack this with eight major findings. (These results should correlate with your own learning experience.  How kids learn best and how adults learn best is not that different.)

  1. Kids learn best when they believe their teacher and fellow students care about them.

Have you ever taken a class where the teacher didn’t even know your name? Worse, how about a situation where you suspected that the teacher or another student didn’t like you? What did that do for your confidence and motivation? Think about the effect circumstances like these would have on each of your kids. Conversely, think of a learning situation you really enjoyed or you put forth your best effort. Was the teacher or mentor personally invested in your success and well-being? Did you feel included? Didn’t that help you to push yourself?

No one cares more about your kids than you do. There’s a lot of power in this truth—even the best teachers can’t be invested in them like you are.  When conflict arises, hit pause. Wrap your arms around your brood and talk it through.  Learning will be a slow slough until relationships are restored. (And, celebrate the freedom you have to hug your kids. Sadly, classroom teachers can’t do that anymore.)

Motivation skyrockets when we fill our homes with affirmation. I posted notes in strategic places to remind myself to be nice and praise my kids (but I’m sure you don’t have this problem). Get your kids in on the game plan too. They need to know that they have a lot of power to undermine or propel your success and the success of their siblings. You will be the best homeschool teacher possible when you feel loved and affirmed.  And, your children’s learning will soar in an atmosphere that exudes warmth and affection.

  1. Kids learn best when they have opportunities to pursue their interests.

As a classroom teacher, I knew this. But, I just couldn’t allow ninety students that freedom–I was paid to keep them in their seats and away from the windows.  No, you can’t look outside! Eyes front while I teach you about what is out there.  What a shame because interest indicates readiness. Is your child interested in what the letters on the page mean? Then your child is ready to learn how to read. Is your child curious about dinosaurs? Then dive in now before his or her interest wanes.

Our son, Gabe, got fascinated with the physics of flight when he was seven. What a joy to have the ability to drop what we were doing and head to the library to check out all the books on the topic. Many were way above his reading level, but his interest accelerated his comprehension. Dad bought Estes rockets and taught Gabe how to launch them from our backyard. (Neighborhood kids were asking to be homeschooled when they saw all the action at our house!) We all went to an airshow. Even Gabe’s siblings and moi got caught up in his enthusiasm for flight.  By the end of his exploration, Gabe could explain how planes fly better than most high school students–even I remember what we learned to this day.

Think of the lost opportunity if I had said, hang in there, buddy, we’ll get to that in fifth grade. Right now the second grade science standards require us to study plants. It’s a good thing we took advantage of Gabe’s interest when it appeared. By fifth grade he was no longer interested in flight.  His attention had turned to rocks.

Interest is powerful stuff–go with it. It wakens the brain and facilitates deeper learning. Homeschooling works when kids have a lot of freedom and leisure to follow their own pursuits. It empowers them, and they’ll take more responsibility for their education. Fill your home with fascinating, worthwhile things to explore. Banish the media and twaddle to a dark corner or grandma’s (guilty). Then sit back and watch the magic–or better yet, dive in with them.

  1. Kids learn best when they can make choices and participate in decisions about their learning.

Test this against your own experience. How much motivation would you have if someone made you homeschool your kids? How about if someone else assigned the curriculum and determined the schedule you follow? Doesn’t this finding make complete sense? When we have no voice or control, our motivation wanes. We invest the greatest time and effort in areas of our lives where we have freedom to choose and the opportunity to be heard. Kids are wired just like we are.

This doesn’t mean we have to let our kids run the show—but they should have a seat at the table.  Give your kids as much choice and involvement as their age and maturity allows. Young children can choose between two books to read; teens are ready to choose what classes to take. Young kids can participate in setting the schedule for the day; teens can manage their time. Invite younger kids to weigh in on the curricula you are considering, while teens can bring their choices to you for your thoughts. A collaborative relationship with your kids may feel time-consuming at first, but you will be so glad you went this direction as your teens take on more and more responsibility, and your time is freed up to concentrate on little ones.

  1. Kids learn best when they can observe older students who model what success looks like.

Kids learn more in a multi-age setting than a room filled with age-mates.  (It’s why the one-room schoolhouse worked.) A multi-age setting allows younger kids to see older kids achieving success in areas they are just starting to learn about. This visual gives them confidence that, with time and effort, they too will achieve success. Peer modeling also makes the steps involved in progress apparent. Having only an adult (like a teacher at the front of the room) as a model of success is too big a gap.

If your child is the oldest of siblings or an only child, join a co-op or activity that includes kids of multiple ages. Our homeschool drama troupe has a wide range of ages in our productions—it is striking to note the acting chops our youngest members have by the time they reach high school. They’ve had the advantage of watching the kids ahead of them go from stage fright to accomplished actors. Keep this finding in mind—kids learn more from observation than instruction.

  1. Kids learn best when they have a teacher who is available to provide feedback and support.

I believe I was a dedicated high school English teacher. But with ninety students a day, my goal was to return essays within a week. Even that was too big a lag between submitting the assignment and receiving feedback. My students’ lives were eons beyond that assignment by the time I returned their papers—few gave my feedback more than a glance. The more immediate the feedback, the more useful it is to students.

I remember a day my youngest, Kristen, was working on some math exercises. As I took a moment to observe her progress, I saw she was forgetting to carry and borrow when needed. It was a simple matter to review those steps together and have her correct her mistakes. (No tears. No drama.) What a different story if I hadn’t looked at her work until the end of the week—she would have completed several math pages by then and repeatedly reinforced her mistakes. The more we practice a procedure incorrectly (like solving a subtraction problem) the more difficult it is to unlearn our errors.

I realize that your time is limited—so prioritize being available when kids are learning the proper procedure for completing a task. With other types of assignments, I asked my kids to schedule appointments with me if they wanted help on a project or composition. I always tried to get with them within the day. Being available to help when asked is key. (You can also involve older siblings in this responsibility—explaining something to a younger child reinforces learning in both students. Isn’t that amazing? Another finding that explains why homeschooling works!)

  1. Kids learn best when what we ask them to do matches what they are ready to learn.

God has created this fabulous process called development, and each kid has a unique timeline for his or her cognitive growth. We need to cooperate with God’s game plan for each of our kids. We don’t stress out when a child’s physical development is not the same as a peer’s. If our child is two inches shorter than an age-mate, we don’t bring in specialists to figure out how to help him or her catch up. We don’t start remediation exercises. We understand that physical growth is not standardized. But we are conditioned by our own school experiences to believe cognitive growth is. If our child is not reading by age seven, we believe our child is behind. We worry that we are not doing something right when the real reason may simply be that the child is not developmentally ready yet.

This is the fundamental problem with Common Core standards (yep, I’m going there). Not a single developmental psychologist was involved in developing them. These standards don’t account for the wide degree of variance kids of the same age can have in cognitive growth. Some kids mature physically early. Others mature late. We understand this is normal. But, variance in cognitive abilities among children until after adolescence is also normal development. How abusive to make kids believe they are behind because some peers develop cognitively a bit earlier than they do. That’s what the current high-stakes testing climate in our schools is doing. It is harming kids. (One reason homeschooling is growing worldwide, even where illegal,  is parents in Asia and Europe have seen what high-stakes testing does to children, and they believe they are saving their kids from harm.)

  1. Kids learn best when they can experience what they are studying firsthand.

God gave us five senses for a reason. Each one has a limited capacity for processing information. However, our capacity multiplies when we use more than one sense to process new information. When all five senses are involved, our brain’s capacity to learn is exponential. If I read a book about elephants, I will remember some of what I learn. If I watch a documentary about elephants, I will remember even more. But if I travel to Africa to see elephants in their natural habitat, I sure won’t forget that, and my recall will be extensive and vivid forever.

Textbooks are at best a tool to help us save time. As a learning aid, they are limited. Schools have no other real option because they are mass educating. But homeschoolers do. I’m not saying throw the curriculum out the window—but our kids will remember most what they experience. So, make the most of the freedom we have. Liberally link field trips to what you study. And choose to study what your kids can experience whenever possible.

  1. Kids learn best when they have plenty of physical activity, sunshine, and fresh air.

Not only did God intend for us to use all five senses to learn, He situated us on the third rock from the Sun intentionally too. The Earth is brimming with the data our brains are built to process. Our kids need to get outdoors and start processing! Exploring God’s creation promotes brain health. This is one reason I travel. I’m keeping my aging brain healthy. I’ve got to keep processing new information if I want to stay young—just like I’ve got to keep active. Research shows just fifteen minutes in nature increases our cognitive capacity. (What a shame that recess is being eliminated in many school schedules.) We intuitively know this to be true—We go outside to clear our heads, take deep breathes to calm down, walk to help us think straight. We gravitate naturally toward what is best for us.

When you consider these eight findings about learning, it’s obvious why homeschooling works. You’re probably already doing most of these without thinking about it. Our optimal learning environment is the one God has designed—the family and His creation—and it fits our kids (and us) like a glove.