Conversations about homeschooling often center on the kids—how they’re learning, what they’re learning, if they’re learning—but often, especially in the first years of homeschooling, the majority of the learning is actually being done by the parent. After all, becoming a teacher, developing an educational philosophy tailored to your child, navigating state education requirements and still parenting is a tall order, especially for someone just starting out. If you are considering homeschooling but are unsure where to begin, here are four tips to help you get started.
- Figure out the legalities. Just as public school curricula vary from state to state, so too do the rules about homeschooling. “The best thing for parents who are thinking about getting started is to be prepared,” says T. J. Schmidt, an attorney with the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA). “There are 50 different state laws; [parents should] know what your state requires.”
Though all states allow parents to educate their children at home, some states (like California) require parents to register as private schools, while others (like Pennsylvania) mandate that homeschooled children take standardized tests as they reach the third, fifth and eighth grades. Not sure what the rules are in your jurisdiction? Your best bet is to contact your state’s homeschool association or the HSLDA. And to be safe, parents should put in a phone call to their local school district to see if they need to formally withdraw their children from the classroom roster. Otherwise, says Schmidt, you might get a visit from a truant officer investigating “educational neglect.”
- Decide on an approach. One of the advantages of homeschooling is that it allows parents the freedom to determine what and how their kids learn. Are you looking to re-create a traditional school environment within your home? If so, a structured curriculum approach (also called traditional approach) might be best. Proponents of classical education focus on the great works of Western literature, while “unschoolers” [link to article on unschooling] allow their children to determine the course of their own education.
Helen Hegener, the Director of the American Homeschool Association and a mother to five unschooled children, likens finding an educational philosophy to finding a religion. “You have to find what you’re most comfortable with and what fits your child.”
Sometimes the most effective way to get into your own educational groove is to take cues from other homeschoolers. That’s what Laura Clark, a proponent of classical education who homeschooled her oldest son until high school and currently homeschools her two younger sons, recommends. “The best thing you can do is talk to other people who have done it, and if you agree with them, go with it, and if not, find something else,” says Clark.
- Tap into your local homeschool community. Like anything else, homeschooling can get lonely without outside support. But as homeschooling gains in popularity, many zoos and museums are instituting events designed specifically for homeschool parents. In addition, homeschooling co-ops, in which parents trade expertise, are cropping up in different areas. Clark, who joined a homeschool co-op seven years ago after going it alone for three years, says the support she gets is invaluable. “I wish I had tried to link to up a larger homeschool community earlier on,” she says.
- Be patient. Hegener estimates that it takes about a year for parents to get into the homeschooling groove, and Clark agrees. “I’ve never talked to anybody who hit the ground running and immediately knew exactly what they were doing,” she says.
So be patient with your child—and with yourself. It’s okay to try out different curricula or philosophies of education, says Sherri Jones, the founder of HSadvisor.com, a website designed to match parents with curricula. “The beauty of homeschooling … is that you can tailor [the] curriculum according to a child’s needs.” The key is being willing to keep trying until it feels right.
And while juggling parent and teacher responsibilities can feel overwhelming, it’s important to keep things in perspective. “Homeschooling should be an enjoyable thing for kids and parents,” says Hegener. “There’s work to it, but it should also be enjoyable.”