Older Homeschoolers: Bringing Them Home

by Janie Levine Hellyer

You’ve made the decision to bring home an older child. Perhaps you’ve experienced problems at school, had health problems or your child is simply bored to death with the typical classroom experience. No matter what the reason for bringing your young person home, the first question is usually, “What do I do now?” While there are plenty of folks out there who are ready and willing to provide you with THE answer to that question, let me suggest that there is no one answer right for every family and young person. While it’s more time consuming to explore your options and take into consideration such things as personal interests, learning styles and availability of resources, it will be well worth the time and effort.

The Love of Learning

Think back to when your child was very young. Do you remember the look of excitement on her face when she made a new discovery? Remember how proud she was when a new skill was mastered? When our children are very young we understand that each child has her own timetable. We allow them to learn as they are ready, trying not to push, but to provide encouragement. Our children learn so much in those early years. At about four or five years of age many of us begin to change how we think about children and learning. We begin to think that there are certain skills each and every child should master at certain ages and that age should also dictate which learning experiences children should have. Most schools function on these beliefs.

What happens is this: the child who is developing at the level of the fives timetable gets along. Children who are developing at other rates (either slower or more quickly) and those with interests other than those presented in the program are not well served. They can become either bored or frustrated and can quickly lose the love of learning they had as preschoolers. The older child who is being brought home has had years of such experiences affecting his or her overall attitude about learning.

Dependence

So here you are, homeschooling your 13 year-old son. You have a small fortune invested in recreation equipment, bicycles, books, games and toys. It’s 10 AM and you’re attempting to have a cup of coffee when your son enters the room and announces; “MOM…there’s nothing to do and I’m bored!” As adults this is difficult for us to understand until we look at the schedule this young person has kept up for the past seven years. Children in school have precious little time for themselves. From a very young age they are told what to do and when to do it. The typical 7th grader has a schedule that goes something like this:

7 AM: Get up, have breakfast, and dress for school
9 AM: School begins with English class
10 AM: Science Class
11 AM: History Class
Noon: Lunch
1 PM: Physical Education
2 PM: Math Class
3 PM: Time to go home
4-6 PM: Chores, sports or music lessons
6 PM: Dinner
7-9:30 PM: Homework
10 PM: Bedtime

A young person with such a schedule soon grows dependent upon it and has difficulties knowing what to do when something isn’t planned for him. The youngster who announces that he is bored may require a “weaning away” period when brought home from school.

The easiest thing to do for the parent would be to provide a schedule similar to the one the young person had in school. This does not, however solve the problem of dependence. Parents with the goal of nurturing an independent learner will need to spend time doing things with the young person, encouraging him to pursue his interests and most of all, renenewing the parent-child bond, helping him to regain a healthy sense of security.

Back in the mid-1980s, a well-respected education “think tank” made some excellent suggestions on how middle school education could be improved, including:

1) Put the textbooks away and have more activity based learning experiences.
2) Place young people in small groups.
3) Do not have the children change classes or instructors…have them in one room with one adult teacher during the school day. Children of this age are learning about social interaction and if they change classes and instructors, they will not bond with the adult or get to actually know their fellow students.
4) Encourage students to explore their personal interests instead of having a set curriculum.
5) Have all students out in the community working on some sort of community service project during the school year.

This sounded a whole lot like what we did at home! While some in the education community obviously read these suggestions, it was regarded by the education establishment as an impossible thing. Well, perhaps traditional schools cannot provide this type of environment, but we certainly can at home! With this more “natural” environment, young people learn about relationships, how to work together, how our communities function and the need for community involvement. At the same time, they will develop motivation not often found in traditionally educated young people of the same age.

Motivation

There are two basic types of motivation. Intrinsic motivation comes from inside, is natural, inherent and is joyful. Learning that takes place because it is intrinsically motivated is REAL learning and is something the child can draw upon later in life. These things are remembered. Intrinsic motivation generally happens when there is personal interest or need.

Extrinsic motivation is something we feel we have to do for one reason or another. While some external motivation is common in life, take just a minute to consider what life would be like if everything you did was motivated by some external force or something you believed you had to do. It doesn’t sound like a very happy existence, does it? Well, that is exactly how many of our school children view their lives … as if they have no say in what they read, what they do, or how they spend their time.

When we take children out of the school setting and give them freedom, they often don’t have any idea what to do in the beginning. As I stated earlier, most of us find that there is a weaning-away period. During this time we need to provide interesting things to do part of the time while also allowing the young person some time for himself.

Healing and Renewal

Many children, when they come home after a school experience, are not happy young people. They may be suffering from fatigue or burnout, or perhaps they feel less than valuable. Whether physical or emotional, the hurt that so many children suffer requires healing.

When an older child is brought home, parents often find that the child they love is a stranger to them. They don’t know the child’s interests or how he feels about much of anything. They aren’t sure how well their child reads or does math … report cards seldom tell us what we need to know about basic skills. The first few months become a time of getting to know each other, of learning the likes and dislikes, taking time to do things together ..and a time for both individual and family renewal and healing.

Get your priorities straight – remember that nurturing a happy and healthy young person who feels secure and loved is much more important than memorizing times tables or history dates. A young person who knows how to solve problems and find answers to his questions will get along better in adult life than one who is dependent upon being spoon-fed information or spent great amounts of time memorizing a limited amount of data. It is simply impossible to memorize all that is necessary to function in life today.

New Beginnings

So, where do you begin? Many families find that sharing a hobby or other personal interest with their child is a great place to start. Let’s say you spend some of your time working on craft projects. Include your child! This is an opportunity not only to share the skills you have, but also to talk about how you became interested, where you learned the skills and how you went about finding the information that you needed. Whether you are restoring an old car or baking cakes, sharing the experience with your child can bring you closer.

Perhaps your child already has an interest in learning a new skill. Help him learn to find information and answers to his questions. Encourage him to pursue his interest. Enjoy his company and let him enjoy yours. You are now practicing the fine art and science of parenting.

All of this is learning! Without even knowing it, you’ve already started building a curriculum. Your child will very likely acquire all the skills he needs during the coming years. Think of homeschooling as an apprenticeship to adult life and living.

More Formal Studies

There is nothing wrong with pursuing more formal studies at home as long as you don’t attempt to recreate a school setting. Many young people themselves will list areas of study they wish to pursue. Here are a few helpful suggestions for those who choose to pursue a more formal learning program.

Schedules

A good “family” schedule helps most of us. Having family meals at regular times helps us plan our individual activities, so we can also have time together. When thinking about a schedule for learning, remember to keep it flexible. Attending an art show or visiting Grandma are not disruptions to learning … they are an important part of it!

Textbooks

Most homeschoolers find they don’t need to go out and buy textbooks for every subject. The library has interesting books on every subject, and in the case of many subjects, it is preferable to learn them in ways other than reading from a textbook. When using textbooks, remember to use them as a tool and a resource, but don’t allow them to control the learning.

Choosing Areas of Study

There may be subjects your state requires homeschoolers to study. Other subjects are those which you, as parents, believe are necessary. It is essential that the young person have some amount of control over what she is learning, when she wants to study and how she will go about the learning process. When “required” subjects are presented, discuss the topic and how it relates to your child and to life in general. Young people who are presented with subjects they don’t see as relevant seldom learn much.

Socialization

Of all the questions and concerns regarding homeschooling, socialization remains at the top of the list for most. The fact is, socialization happens. Young people do not need to be surrounded by others of the same age for many hours each day. After all, as adults we socialize with people of many ages. Most homeschoolers cultivate a circle of friends in their neighborhood, at church or other youth activities in which they participate. Homeschoolers are generally more at ease with a wide range of age groups than are their schooled peers. If your child has had a negative social experience at school, you may need to help her find positive experiences. Scouts, church groups, 4-H and homeschool groups are good places to begin.

Life and living is one continuous educational experience you will now share with your child. You are beginning what can be a wonderful adventure … one that will build a strong individual, a close family and memories that will last a lifetime. Yes, it will take some time to become reacquainted with your son or daughter, to learn the individual likes, dislikes and become family with how your child learns. But can you think of anything more important than getting to know your child? I promise it will be well worth the time you invest. This is an investment in the future of your child!

About the Author

Janie Levine Hellyer was a longtime Washington state homeschooling parent, advocate and writer. She parented three children (now adults) with her husband Steve. On November 27, 2001, cancer took Janie away from her loved ones. Her friendship and words of encouragement are greatly missed.

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