Basic Steps for Beginning Homeschooling

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Step #1: Catch the Vision

Although you may be tempted to skip on down to the more "practical" steps, you will gain greater benefit by taking the time to explore homeschooling in a more philosophical sense. It is very important to know why you are making this decision. Homeschooling is a wonderful journey, but there probably will be difficult days. On those days, you will need to be confident that you made a sound, informed decision.

Begin your journey by working through your philosophy of education and the reasons you are choosing home education. The Vision section of the CHEC Guidebook, A Comprehensive Guide to Home Education, is a great place to start. (Available through the CHEC Store.)

Step #2: Know the Law

One of the things you are required to do as a homeschooler in Colorado is to send a "Letter of Intent" to a school district of your choice (usually your local district). Thanks to the efforts of many homeschooling pioneers, we are blessed to have a very good homeschooling law in Colorado. It offers us a lot of freedom not shared by homeschoolers in other states. It is imperative that each homeschooling parent have a thorough understanding of the law, so please read the Law carefully.

Step #3: Get Connected

It is not wise to embark on this journey alone. The support of other families is vital to your homeschooling efforts not only for support and encouragement, but also for the sharing of ideas and information. Find and join an established support group. Seek out like-minded families in your church. Team up with a close friend who is also teaching his or her children at home. Subscribe to home education magazines and on-line newsletters. Get your name on mailing lists of curriculum and resource providers to keep current on the new materials available. Whichever method you choose, it is worth your effort to reach out and get connected.

Step #4: Explore Homeschooling at Each Level

Although most homeschoolers will consider a child to be in a certain grade, it is common for a student to be working at many levels other than his actual grade level. For example, a nine-year-old fourth grader might be doing sixth grade math and third grade language arts. In this way, homeschooling offers the wonderful benefit of tailoring a child's education to his academic needs and strengths, allowing him to take more time in difficult subjects or progress to the next level of a subject that has become too easy, even in the middle of the school year.

Scope and sequence charts, offering a detailed list of what a child typically learns at each grade level, are available in different forms and from a variety of publishers. While these publications can be very helpful as a guide, it is not necessary to follow them exactly. Instead, you might want to consider your children's school years with broader divisions, such as those below, and use the charts as a place to get ideas and track progress.

Preschool Do's and Don'ts
If you have had the wonderful privilege of deciding to homeschool before your child reaches school age (maybe even before he was born!), you might be anxious and excited to get started as soon as possible. That's great! There are many things you can begin doing right now that will lay a strong foundation for your child's school years.

DO - Pay attention to your preschooler. Get to know his learning styles. (See Curriculum section for more information.) Identify his strengths and weaknesses.

DO - Spend time in the library. Check out books about anything in which your preschooler is interested at the moment. Read aloud as much as possible. Make those books come alive by using voice inflections, pointing out the illustrations, talking about the story, and asking follow-up questions.

DO - Explore and discover with your preschooler. Be "interruptible" enough to look at the cool bug he found. Go for long walks or just sit in the park and talk about what you see. Set an example for observing the world around you.

DO - Begin now to establish discipline. Teach your child how to sit still, be polite, wait, obey, listen, and be quiet at the appropriate times. If discipline is not established early it will not be easily attainable in the older years.

DON'T - Establish a rigorous school schedule for your preschooler.

DON'T - Emphasize reading and writing or sitting at a desk for long periods of time.

DON'T - Expect too much of your preschooler.

Kindergarten: Easy Does It
Kindergarten is not required by Colorado law and not every five-year-old is ready to sit at a desk for even an hour each day. Be sensitive to the needs and abilities of your kindergartner.

If your child is ready and excited to start school, start a very basic phonics program and progress as slowly as needed. Add to this some fun math activities like playing games, sorting and grouping, charting and graphing, and counting. Continue to read aloud regularly remembering to read nonfiction as well as fiction. Don't overdo it! Kindergarten may take only an hour a day and this hour could be split into smaller segments throughout the day.

If you have a child who has no desire for school, consider waiting to start formal schooling. During this time of waiting, there might be some character traits or behaviors you could work on with him. There is wisdom in asking, "What skills does he need in order to start school?" Work on equipping your child with those skills before starting school.

Whether he is ready for academics or not, one of the best ways to teach a child is to invite him to work alongside you as you go through your day. Cooking, sorting laundry, emptying the dishwasher, and putting toys away can be wonderful educational moments.

First Grade: Laying a Firm Foundation
First grade is a good time to focus on foundational reading and math skills. A good phonics program is a must. It is also a good time to incorporate a manipulative-based math program that thoroughly covers beginning math skills. Handwriting can be started, but only if the child seems ready. Science, history, and geography can be taught using projects, field trips, and library books. Make sure these subjects are taught at an appropriate level. It would be a mistake to expect a first grader to comprehend world history or biology. Instead, choose a few interesting people and events from history to learn about and two or three simple scientific concepts to explore over the course of the year. It is important to instill into a first grader a positive attitude toward learning.

Elementary Grades: Exploration and Discovery
Grades two through five can be exciting years as a student discovers the world. Continue individualized language arts and math studies. Develop a greater emphasis on science, history and geography by using the library and the myriad of resource providers able to supply creative ideas, lesson plans and unit studies which make these subjects come alive for your student.

It is not too early to start learning computer and keyboarding skills. If your child is ready and shows interest, get her started with some educational software.

Junior High: Transition
Junior high students are entering that time between childhood and adulthood. Be especially sensitive to your child's needs and emotions during this time. Overloading a young teen who is floundering emotionally with a mountain of school work can be disastrous. Equally dangerous is inadequate challenge or too much freedom.

Academically, junior high is a transition to high school. Now is the time to make sure learning "gaps" are filled. Good study and test-taking skills are necessary. Writing skills need to be honed. It is time to start charting a course of study for high school and to make sure your student is going to be ready.

Emotionally, the junior high student needs support, encouragement, and direction. The older student who might be able to work more independently still needs attention, a listening ear, available help, and lots of love.

High School
The decision to continue, or to begin, homeschooling through high school is one that requires serious consideration. Choices involving classes, career goals, college preparation, work, volunteer experience, driver's training, and social development will all affect your young person's entrance into adulthood.

Since the essence of home education is individualized instruction, CHEC cannot outline one perfect course of study for your high school student. Deciding upon the best course of study will involve research and multiple decisions. Class choices should be made with consideration of your student's long-term goals, interests, and abilities.

Once you start homeschooling your high school student, be prepared to follow it through! In the elementary years you may have homeschooled on the theory, "If it doesn't work out she can go back to public school next year." That is not necessarily true in high school. The acceptance of homeschool credits has varied from district to district in Colorado (a home-ruled state), and you cannot assume that your local public high school will accept your student's work without question. The homeschool law was amended in 2000 to require schools to accept homeschool credits, but this law is very new and has not been tried and tested yet. Private schools are usually more accepting of homeschool credits if re-entry into a traditional school becomes necessary.

If homeschooling is begun during the high school years due to a dissatisfaction with the previous school situation, parents may have additional challenges to consider. Social problems can take time to overcome, especially if rebellion is involved. Take whatever time is necessary to address problems with your child's heart and attitude. Make it your highest priority. Academic problems are more easily addressed when godly attitudes and relationships are restored.

Even if you have homeschooled for many years and feel fairly comfortable with the way you have always done things, ninth grade is still a time to take a deep breath and dive back into the research mode. Start with "A Comprehensive Guide to Home Education in Colorado", then expand your reading with additional supplemental books and resources. This is the home stretch; plan to finish strong!

Taking a Child Out of School
A child who has been in a traditional school for a period of time is going to have different needs than the one who has been homeschooled exclusively.

The reason you removed your child from a traditional school setting will affect the curriculum choices you make. If you have taken him out of school because he is struggling academically, be careful not to duplicate the curriculum (along with the problems) at home. Carefully evaluate his learning styles and consider a different teaching approach. Consider having him tested or evaluated. Test and evaluation results can be valuable tools in determining a course of study. Each child's special needs whether developmental disabilities, physical limitations, or giftedness need to be taken carefully into consideration when choosing curriculum and setting up a program.

If you take a child out of school because he is not being challenged academically, beef up his program by bumping him up to his ability level or expanding his work in a favorite subject.

If your child is coming home because of behavioral or social problems, you might need to temporarily back off academically and can concentrate on relationships and character. Meaningful learning cannot take place until your child's heart is willing and receptive.

No matter what your reasons for bringing your children home, transition from traditional schooling to homeschooling is important. Prayerfully consider: Do you need to take some time off before your official first day? Do you need to ease into homeschooling little by little or start everything at once? Have you taken ample time to communicate with your children why you are doing this, what it is going to look like, and what is expected of them? Have you and your spouse talked through how life is going to be different now? Answering questions like these will help to diffuse some of the stress of taking a child out of school.

Step #5: Set Priorities

Where Will Homeschooling Fit Into Your Life?
It is important that you make this a matter of prayer in your family. As "big" as homeschooling is, there may be many things much more important to your family. Do not let homeschooling "take over" your life and usurp priority that should be given to other issues.

Consider relationships with God, in the marriage, between parent and child, and among siblings. Consider parenting needs for discipline, character training, spiritual guidance, and nurturing.

Ask yourself: "What is my primary calling?" and "What robs me of the joy of fulfilling this calling?"

Do a reality check: "Is there enough time to do everything I feel I should be doing?"

"Clean house" by making a list of everything you do and eliminating those things that are unnecessary, steal your joy, fall outside your calling, and might be "good" but not the "best."

Priorities within Homeschooling
Not only is it necessary to know where homeschooling fits into your life, it is just as crucial to know what is most important within your homeschooling efforts. Knowing this will help you know where to spend most of your time and effort. It will also give you the confidence in times of crisis to know what can be temporarily dropped.

A first step toward setting priorities is making a list of what subjects you would like to cover, putting them in groups of equal importance, then ranking the groups according to importance. (Colorado law requires reading, writing, speaking, math, history, civics, literature, science, and U.S. Constitution.) Of course, each family's list and groupings will be different according to interests, abilities, and future plans. To help in this process, you could ask yourself, "What is essential to my child's life?" Or, "If he learns only one subject, what should it be?" This question will need to be answered for each child according to that child's needs and strengths. Establishing priorities is a tool necessary to keep on track, to emphasize the important, and to not get distracted or drawn away by seemingly good opportunities.

Step #6: Research and Choose Curriculum

As homeschooling becomes more prevalent, many more companies are offering products for home educated students. Making a choice can be overwhelming. Whatever curriculum you choose, you must include reading, writing, speaking, mathematics, history, civics, literature, science, and regular courses of instruction in the Constitution of the United States. These subjects do not all need to be studied concurrently, but should be covered in a timely and age-appropriate way. In order to choose a curriculum, you must know what your goals are for your children's education. Determining your goals is a several step process which begins with a review of your philosophy of education. We recommend reading A Comprehensive Guide to Home Education and Cathy Duffy's 100 Top Picks for Homeschool Curriculum.

Step #7: Create School Space in Your Home

Many homeschooling families set aside a room just for school. Other families prefer to use their whole house. In either case, a homeschooling family needs space both to "do" and to "store" their school stuff!

The Student's Needs
A place to do her daily school work: Each child needs to have access to a desk or table where she can have comfortable, proper writing posture. However, school work need not be limited to one particular space. She might enjoy reading in a recliner or spreading out on the floor to work on a science project. Keep in mind that a younger student might need more supervision, so her work area needs to be easily visible and accessible to the teacher. Likewise, some students will need to have access to an area that is quiet and solitary.

A place to keep her daily school work: If your children do not have their own desks, you can assign each of them a drawer in a file cabinet or a shelf on a bookcase. Or you could give each child a tote bag, box, or bin for her books. Provide a smaller container for pencils, scissors, erasers, etc. Requiring each student to keep track of her own school "stuff" is a good way to teach neatness and stewardship.

The Teacher's Needs
A place to keep her daily school tools: A chest of drawers is a handy way to store answer keys, teacher edition books, and lesson plans. It could also contain supplies like pens and pencils, crayons, glue, and erasers.

Other Needs
A place to store the paraphernalia needed in a homeschool: Bookshelves will come in handy for reference books, school books not being used currently, science equipment, math manipulatives, and educational games. A file cabinet is an efficient way to store paper goods such as construction paper, writing paper, newspaper articles, report cards, lesson plans, and attendance records.

A place for completed daily work: One option is for each child to put his completed daily work in his own expandable file pouch. At the end of the year, this file can be emptied and reused, or taped closed and packed away in a box. Remember, you don't have to keep every piece of paper that your child completes. Sort and keep only what is important to you. It can be fun to keep a special file for each child to show progress in art and writing skills. Younger children enjoy displaying their work on a bulletin board.

If your space is limited, don't worry. You will not be able to accumulate as much homeschool "stuff" as others will, which might be a real advantage! When and if a need arises, you will find creative ways to store what you need.

Step #8: Establish Structure

Getting organized is a must for every homeschool. However, the extent to which you are organized is up to you and dependent on your personality and your natural organizational skills.

Establishing schedules is not a matter to be taken lightly. You need wisdom and caution as you set limitations and budget your time. Adding "Homeschooling Mom" to the already full-time job description of "Mom" makes your life very full! It is very easy for your life to become a juggling exercise as you add wonderful activities to your children's schedules as well as participating in activities and ministries of your own. With prayer and caution, however, you can keep from being unnecessarily pulled in too many directions.

If a homeschooling mother also has a part-time job or operates a home-based business, it is an added stress to the family and must be considered carefully. The school load needs to be kept at a realistic level. The whole family, including Dad, must pitch in with housework. Extracurricular activities will need to be limited. It is not impossible to be a homeschooling, working mom, but you must have realistic expectations and be able to set healthy boundaries around your time and energy.

School Year Calendar
Before your first day of school, it is wise to plan out your school year. A general plan, even if it is very flexible, will help you make sure you will get in the 172 days of school required by Colorado homeschool law.

You are free to choose what kind of school year schedule you want to follow. Following your local school district's schedule is an option. (Obtain a copy by calling your school district or visiting their Website.) Making up your own schedule allows you the freedom to tailor the year to your needs and desires. You may want to school only four days each week, or take a week off every six weeks, or take a longer break in summer. Many homeschoolers consider birthdays as "no school" days. Scheduling several extra days will give you a "buffer" for sick days or other unexpected events that require time off.

Master Calendar
A master calendar for your family will help to keep everyone informed of what needs to happen on any given day. Choose one calendar in your home where all activities, appointments and other commitments are written down. Train your children to consult the calendar before making commitments.

Weekly Schedule
Make a weekly schedule by drawing and labeling a grid on a piece of construction paper. Cover the paper with clear contact paper. Use an overhead marker to fill in your grid with your regular weekly activities. You can use a damp tissue to erase when changes are needed.

Things to consider when making a weekly schedule:

Church activities, sports, music lessons, 4-H/Scouts/AWANA, homeschool work, laundry, housecleaning, work schedules, errands, volunteer commitments, family time, Mom and Dad dates, ministry, holidays, and shopping.

By posting this schedule near your master calendar, you eliminate the need to write in all the regular weekly activities on the master calendar. Whenever an opportunity or request for your time comes up, you merely look at the weekly grid to see if there is any regular activity at that time, then look at the master calendar to see if anything special is happening that day.

Daily Schedule
A majority of homeschoolers do most of their schooling during the morning hours. Afternoons are used for finishing up assignments and for other activities in which the students are involved. However, each family has the freedom to tailor their school schedule to their own unique situation.

To make a schedule, it is wise to have an idea of what you want to accomplish each day and in what order (based on what you have determined to be most important). Remember that every school subject does not have to be covered every day.

Things to consider in making a Daily Schedule: chores, grooming, school work, naps, bed time, housecleaning, devotions, exercise, phone calls, spouse time, work schedules, mid-day teacher breaks, and meals (including preparation and cleanup). Don't forget other activities such as sports, music lessons, and co-ops (including travel time)!

If every time-block of your schedule is all filled in, it is probably too full. No matter what kind of a schedule you are making, you need ample "white space" or "margin" time that is not allotted to a certain task. This buffer will help you absorb an unexpected event and give you the freedom to be more flexible.

Daily Issues
Though each of our homeschools is unique, we all deal with some of the same daily issues. These daily issues will only be as frustrating as you allow. If you perceive them as "hassles," they will be just that. But if you make them opportunities to teach your children valuable character qualities (and maybe grow a little yourself), you will find yourself less stressed.

The phone is a big source of interruptions for the homeschooling family. Answering machines and Caller I.D. can be very helpful, making it possible to answer only the critical calls. Explain to friends, neighbors, and relatives that you will not be available during certain hours and ask them not to call during those times. The goal is to set appropriate limits, neither isolating yourself nor allowing unnecessary intrusions.

Well-meaning friends who don't fully understand homeschooling might assume that since you and your children are at home, you are available to baby-sit or do other odd jobs. Use wisdom to avoid taking on too many responsibilities. As wonderful an opportunity as it may be (to meet a need or for your children to make some money) remember it is still an interruption to your school schedule. If the requests become overly persistent or burdensome, it might become necessary to make it clear what your limitations are.

Dealing with toddlers and infants while teaching older ones has the potential of being frustrating, but it doesn't have to be. Remember, your toddler is part of your family and therefore part of your homeschool. He should not be made to feel "in the way" or a bother. At the same time, he can learn that certain behavior is expected at certain times. It is good to teach your little one to wait his turn, not to interrupt, and to sit or play quietly for a period of time. Likewise, it is good for the older child to cultivate patience and the ability to stay on task even through interruptions.

With some thought and prayer, you will find realistic, creative ways to deal with this situation effectively. Baby's nap time is a good time to focus on older students. Set aside special "school" toys that your toddler is allowed to play with only during school time. Find ways to involve him in what you are doing. If you are doing a science activity, find something he can do to make him feel he's a part of it! If it's writing time, give him paper and crayons and "assignments." During math time, give him his own manipulatives to sort or count or stack or build. Have older children take turns reading or playing with the younger ones so that you can direct your attention elsewhere for a time.

There will be interruptions in school days. Some you can control (the phone) and others you can't (a sick child, a spilled glass of juice). Look at it as an opportunity to learn and to teach by example. Both you and your children will do well to develop flexibility and the ability to stay on task even through interruptions.

Meeting Everyone's Needs
If you have more than one child, there will be times when you will wish you were more than one person! Solving this problem is twofold. First, the children need to learn to wait their turn and be patient. They need to know how to go on to something else while they wait for you. Second, you need creative ideas to keep this situation from happening too often. Scheduling adjustments can help, for example, assigning easier subjects for one child to work on while you are working with the other on a harder subject. You can also schedule one-on-one time for each child each day to take care of any problems she may be having. As you plan your curriculum, choose a combination of independent-study items along with material that has to be taught by you. Group-teach subjects like history or science.

Getting the Housework Done, Too
Setting aside daily and weekly time to get housework done is necessary to a homeschooling family. Take time to establish what absolutely needs to be done on a daily basis, like kitchen cleaning and making beds. Weekly chores can be done a little each day: vacuum on Monday, laundry on Tuesday, dusting on Wednesday, etc. Or establish one house cleaning day when everything gets done. Whichever way you choose, involve your children in the process. Each child no matter what age can do something. (Don't forget to add chores to your weekly and daily schedules.)

Step #9: Set up Record Keeping Systems

By Colorado law, we are required to keep attendance, immunization, and test score records.

Attendance can be kept merely by marking days on a calendar. (Colorado law requires 172 school days, averaging four contact hours per day.) If you want to be more detailed, you might want to log each day with what was accomplished by each child. This can be helpful for high school students when creating a transcript. It can also be useful to review the log when making lesson plans to help you to set realistic daily goals.

Your doctor's office or county health clinic can provide you with an immunization record card. Keep it up-to-date by writing dates and immunizations given, or by asking the nurse to do it at the time of the visit. Those who choose not to immunize their children can keep on file either the physician's certification that immunizations would endanger the life or health of the student or a document certifying that the parent's personal or religious beliefs oppose immunization.

Test Scores
A copy of your children's test scores is to be sent to your school district or registry or kept by a private school after grades 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11. Don't forget to keep the original in a file at home.

Other Record Keeping
Any record keeping you desire to do beyond what the law requires is up to you. If you are a "visual" person, getting lesson plans and assignments and schedules down on paper can be a great help and relief. If, however, keeping track of things on paper is a struggle for you, don't feel you have to do it, as long as you can function well without it! One caution: don't wait until your children are in high school to start keeping records. It might take some time to establish a system that works for you.

Report Cards
Although we are not required by law to give, or keep a record of, grades and report cards, grades are important to some homeschooling families. You can make up your own report cards or use ones offered in homeschool record-keeping packages. There is also software available.

Lesson Plans
Lesson plans can be tools not only for daily use but also as a permanent record of what each child has accomplished. Lesson plans can double as an attendance record, too.

There are many different ways to make lesson plans. What you choose needs to reflect your personality and your goals. The detail-oriented, organized person might like the more detailed grids and will probably plan several weeks, or maybe even months, in advance. A more flexible person might like a simpler, more general format and will make plans on a day-by-day basis. You might want to see all your children's assignments on one grid, or you may want separate pages for each child.

Assignment Sheets
There are many different ways to give assignments. Very young students might not need assignments at all since a lot of their learning is done spending time with you. As children get into elementary grades, a simple check list might work. Sticky notes as book marks inside a book can work. Upper elementary students might profit from their own assignment notebooks where you give daily assignments or write reminder notes. You could give your junior high and high school students the opportunity to make their own assignments by giving them weekly or quarterly goals and teaching them how to divide the work into daily portions, giving them the freedom to do bigger chunks less often if they wish. If planning is a struggle for a student, begin teaching this skill with only one subject.

If you do use assignment sheets, they should be tailored to your own needs and personality and to your student's ability to follow written directions.

Your record keeping system will be unique to you. Copying someone else's system may or may not work for you. Give yourself the freedom and the time necessary to develop a system that is effective for you.

Step #10: Start!

Whether you have had months, weeks or merely days to prepare, there comes a time when you just need to start whether you feel completely ready or not. If you ask a veteran homeschooler, she will most likely admit that she is still getting organized, still learning, still making adjustments. Do not wait until every single detail is in place it will never happen! Instead, do your best to plan and get ready, then start and expect to continue the process as you go.

"Many are the plans in a man's heart, but it is the Lord's purpose that prevails." Proverbs 19:21

"Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." I Thessalonians 5:16-18