Keeping Kids on Track

I know this sounds like a really strange topic from someone who claims that self-education is the best way to go. “Keeping kids on track” sounds like something a school board would care about, but bear with me, because I’m talking about a completely different approach.

In my last post about getting kids to try hard, I talked about the importance of ownership. Anyone, including kids, will work harder for something that they feel committed to, something that they created or envisioned. It also helps to have a personal stake in the outcome. Good leaders know this. They try to give their people as much creative control and autonomy as possible, because it makes the work more satisfying. The same is true for household work or homeschool work. But kids are still kids, and they don’t have much experience with time management or breaking a large job into manageable bits. So, there are ways for you to help give a little structure to support their vision, without taking over or becoming the typical “boss.”

For kids under the ages of 7-8, I really do not believe there is any reason to impose a formal curriculum. I explain all the research and reasons for this in my book, but the main reason is that children are natural learners, and given a warm, nurturing authentic atmosphere, they will learn a great deal of important stuff all by themselves. Most of the “early learning” topics taught to young children in their first 3 years of school (preschool, kindergarten, 1st), could be taught in about 3 months to a child who is old enough. I believe the real reason children are being pushed into early academics is because of parental anxiety and/or competitiveness, thus the term, “Head start,” which seems to imply some kind of race. Having children fill out worksheets matching the big triangle to the little triangle or the mama duck to the duckling are unnecessary. Elaborate phonics programs are unnecessary. Those things give the illusion of learning, because they represent “school,” something that an outside authority has prescribed and can easily measure.

There are so many more important things kids should be doing at this age, usually those that involve their whole bodies: building, climbing, running, playing, throwing, investigating, rolling, swimming, painting, pouring, hiding, seeking, singing, dancing, stomping, cleaning, laughing, visiting, and helping. When they are tired, that’s a good time to snuggle up on the couch and read aloud. Answer their questions as best you can, listen to them, play games, and take lots of pictures. That’s it. The only “keeping on track” you may want to do for this age is journaling, scrapbooking, and perhaps keep a list of books read, places visited, etc. *Note* If your young kids want to learn how to read or anything else, that’s perfectly fine, but there is no need to push it. If you live in a state that requires some kind of proof of your children’s learning, I believe that you can make up a satisfactory portfolio with just your lists of books, field trips and perhaps a list of skills learned; but do check with your local homeschool group for more advice.

Kids aged 8-12 are much more capable of settling down a bit and thinking abstractly, but they still prefer lots of hands-on learning. If they have not been burned out by school yet, they should still have a healthy sense of curiosity, so let their curiosity guide your curriculum. Make a list of stuff they are interested in. Take them to curriculum fairs, used book sales, or the library and let them pick what appeals to them. For hands-on activities, it’s nice to have an assortment of books available that your kids can flip through and put sticky notes on the things they want to do. This is really my favorite age for homeschooling because it is so diverse and creative.

Unit studies work well for this age, because you can concentrate on the subjects that really interest your kids. Talk to your kids. Let them know that this is their time to explore and that there are no absolute rules. If there is something you really want them to learn, just explain your thoughts to them. Together, come up with a learning plan. Pull out a blank grid calendar with all the months of the year on two pages (6 months on one 8.5X11 paper). Show them where you are now on the calendar and mark down upcoming events and vacations. Let them help you pencil in when to do each unit. The length of the unit will depend on the depth you plan to study each topic; it could be one day or one month or more. I’ve written more about planning a unit study here. Unit studies, whether you buy them pre-made, or design them yourself (my favorite) are nice because you can include math, reading, writing, art, geography, music, social studies, science and life skills all in one nice holistic package. Plus, unit studies can be done with multiple ages at once, so it takes advantage of the group learning dynamic. They do take a bit more time to put together, but I enjoyed it because of the creative challenge. If the thought of preparing a unit study makes you cringe though, there are plenty of free and low-priced resources online.

Another option is a literature based curriculum, similar to Charlotte Mason or the program offered by Sonlight. The idea is to focus more on quality literature and use that as inspiration for writing, social studies (map work), and other supporting projects. Math is generally supplemented with a dedicated curriculum. Science topics are also taught through literature or “living books,” as Charlotte Mason called great books. There is the danger here of imposing so much curriculum that your kids might start to rebel. I still believe it is important to give your kids a lot of control over their own learning. If they don’t like the books you have picked out, pick something they might like better. If they hate the math curriculum, look for options. Include them in the decision-making. You may have to do the initial research, to find out what is available and offer suggestions, but let them have input. Then, when you have chosen your resources, take the time to break down each resource into manageable chunks and assign to the days or weeks you have available. It doesn’t have to be fancy – a simple list on notebook paper will work – or you may want to use computer software (like mine) or downloadable planning forms. Your kids will think this is boring and have no interest in helping you. That’s OK. In fact, you may find this boring too. It really helps though to have the year laid out before you. Be careful not to overschedule. Remember that it’s far more important for kids to explore their own interests, for however long it takes, than it is to cover everything. There are no rules, especially for this age. The only reason to make these plans now is to help give you a direction to follow, even when you can’t remember what you did yesterday. It’s OK to skip stuff, or move things around. If your kids start to dislike the idea of “homeschool”, you may want to reconsider what you are doing. If they begin to think that education is something done to them, instead of something they pursue for their own reasons, then they have lost ownership of the process. And it is tough to get that back once it is lost.

Another approach you may consider is a Montessori style environment, where a wide variety of self-correcting learning materials are prepared ahead of time and available within reach of the children. The children are then free to choose whatever interests them and work until they are satisfied. However, the amount of preparation and work space you would need for something like this is intensive, so I would only recommend this is as cooperative effort among a group of like-minded families.  You could also decide to use Montessori type materials for just some of the subjects you hope your child will take an interest in, such as math and science. There are a lot of wonderful hands-on materials for math and science that can be made or purchased. Again, these will take some effort, but if you have a spouse or other family member willing to help you, these items can be a lot more fun than typical textbooks. One resource to check out is TOPS for science. The difference here in using hands-on materials vs. a unit study or literature approach is that instead of planning lessons, you are preparing materials. There is no schedule for when your child will use the materials, you just show them how to use something when they are ready. Perhaps you could have a check-off sheet to show when they have mastered a certain skill. In this situation, there is no need to “keep” the kids on track, only to keep notes of what they worked on each day.

If you have a child who is particularly left-brained and wants to have a more formal curriculum, that’s fine. You can research the possibilities and let him or her choose the most appealing. This alternative is probably the easiest for most parents, because it involves the least amount of preparation. All you will need to do is check their work and make sure they stay on schedule. But in my experience, there’s not many kids who love this approach, at least not for very long. You may have to resort to external motivation to keep them going, which will only yield short term results.

This post is already longer than I intended, so I will wait for the next one to talk about keeping preteens and teens on track. As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions. How do you keep your kids on track?

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