How do you manage to teach all your children together? I have been asked this so many times, and I’ve written about it a little bit in another post but in response to a number of requests I am going to try and write a more detailed answer.
I think that one of the issues is that it is easy to set unrealistic expectations of what we want our children to achieve, and then feel that we are failing if they don’t meet our goals. Some home educating parents aim to replicate what goes on in school, which creates a lot of pressure to attempt to tick all the boxes of the over-complicated National Curriculum. Having worked as a teacher, I am aware how much of the school day is wasted, and how little is achieved in comparison to an average home educating day (or even a less than average one.)
One of the advantages of home education, is that you can be flexible from day to day and respond to your children’s individual needs. There will be many days when you achieve far more than is possible in school, so if there are other days when things are not going so well, you can write it off and have a fresh start the next day. You don’t have to stop in school holidays (how can you make children stop learning anyway?) so you have a lot more time to play with.
Another issue is the question of what counts as work/ learning/ education. Many people are negative about the idea of home education and doubt that is possible to teach several children at once, perhaps because they have a narrow idea of what education is. Even those who are doing it may be unsure if they are doing it right, and want to be reassured by the sight of lots of school-type written work at the end of each day. While there may be a place for this type of work (depending on your educational philosophy), it only represents a small part of the way children learn. From the moment they wake up to the moment they go to sleep, children are learning all day every day.
Perhaps one way to deal with the question “How do you teach them all together?” would be “Most of the time I don’t, they just learn without having to be taught.” I suppose you would have to be in quite a bold mood to answer in that way, but there’s certainly some truth in it. Personally, I use a semi-structured approach so some of what I do would definitely count as teaching in the traditional sense, and often it is very successful and enjoyable. However on some days it doesn’t work so I leave it, and they learn just as well without me by following their own ideas and interests. I know that on those particular days by trying to teach them anything specific I would have actually interrupted their learning.
Some practical suggestions
- Work alongside each other. Children can work at the same time on different activities, related or otherwise. We often use this approach for Maths, where Owl may be working from his Junior text book, Monkey with a workbook or an activity I have made up for him, and Rabbit with a dot-to-dot book or a counting and matching activity for example. Tiddler does not want to be left out, so he climbs up to the table and demands to “do Maths”. He is usually happy with a pencil and paper, doing his own Maths which generally involves shapes. As long as I respond to his requests to “make a circle” or “make a triangle” on his paper from time to time he is happy, and is getting rather good at drawing shapes himself ( he has worked on it for weeks with great determination because it was his own idea.) When he’s had enough of this, I often give him multilink cubes, Lego or counters to count and sort which he enjoys.
- Work together. This works best for practical activities – art, practical science, cooking, maths investigations. We recently had a good time doing Smarties Maths (counting how many Smarties there were of each colour, doing a tally chart and making a bar graph) and the difference was only in how much help each child needed with the recording. This approach can also work well for projects. We have been learning about minibeasts recently, for example, and all the children have been bug hunting together. The big three then drew what they had found, and wrote labels and captions according to their abilities. They also drew a stag beetle which Rabbit and I had found at her Pre-school, and Tiddler coloured in a picture which I drew for him and enjoyed sticking it in his very own (first) project book – he was not going to be left out and luckily I had a spare book!
- Be flexible. Sometimes it works perfectly as described above, but if it doesn’t, be flexible. If I am doing some work with Owl and Monkey at the same time and one or other starts messing around, I will tend to focus on the one who is being most sensible and turn a blind eye for the time being if the other one wanders off. That way the child who is behaving best gets my attention, and when his work is done he can go and play while I turn my attention to the other one. If that doesn’t work, or you haven’t got time, it may be necessary to change your goals for that day. I tend to find that if I have a completely free day it is almost never necessary to abandon any planned work, but if we are under pressure to go out at a certain time it is more likely that we will have to. Which leads me on to…
- Don’t plan too much. One of the advantages of home education is that we have the opportunity to avoid the over-scheduling of our children’s lives. Children in school have a busy day with many different activities and constant transitions with little time for reflection, and in many cases they also have after-school clubs several evenings a week. Home educators do not have to do this, but very often we do. There are so many home education groups, outings and classes, all very worthwhile, and of course plenty of after-school activities to choose from as well. If we are not careful we can create a life for our children which is not that much different from the busy school days we may be trying to avoid. It is better to choose a smaller number of activities, allowing space between them for relaxation, reflection and down time. It is also best to avoid planning too many things for our children to do in the time we are at home, so that we have time to allow them to develop their own ideas as well. I am definitely talking to myself here!
- Value different ways of learning. Children can learn through playing, talking, asking questions, making things, experimenting, acting, singing, cooking, gardening, shopping, using the computer, watching television, listening to stories, reading – and there does not always have to be written work to show that learning has happened. If, like me, you love writing, you may need to keep reminding yourself of the fact that it is not the only way to learn!
- Accept help. If you are lucky enough to have friends and family who are supportive of your decision to home educate, make the most of any help they are able to offer. And get to know other home educating families in your area so that you can support each other. Many families get together so that parents can teach subjects they particularly like, children can enjoy learning together and younger siblings can play together with supervision by one parent while another teaches the older ones.
- Take up other learning opportunities. If you can afford to, you could pay for some specific teaching for your children, in Music, English, Maths, languages, and probably anything else you would like your children to learn. There will also be free learning opportunities if you look out for them. Obviously these will vary from place to place, but may include libraries, museums and art galleries, and small local ones are often just as good as the big ones.
- Encourage your children to teach each other. It’s easy to overlook this, as sometimes we are too busy to notice what is going on under our noses, but older children really can and do teach their younger siblings a lot. I have noticed this many times among my children. The older ones read to the younger ones, explain things, answer their questions, teach them the names of shapes, colours, letters, numbers – and often without prompting. Give them lots of encouragement when they do this, and they will do it more often!
- Make it fun! I had to include this because I just asked Owl what is the best way to learn together and that was his answer. For example, you can do something fun like weighing things and everyone will want to do it. Advice from an eight year old – I can’t top that!