What to do when your homeschool lesson just *isn’t* working

It happens to every homeschool parent: You put time and effort into preparing a lesson or a curriculum only to realize that it simply Is. Not. Working. What do you do next? For many of us, our gut reaction is to feel frustration and push forward. After all, life can be challenging (and you can’t always do what you want to do), and we want our kids to understand that. We want to prepare them for reality. As a result, though, we often end up feeling more frustration, and so do our children. We end the lesson feeling like we’ve failed—failed our child and failed at teaching them.

Fortunately, there is a better way. It’s a way that starts with redefining our own preconceived notions about educating our children and ends with finding a solution that works for your child’s way of learning and your style of teaching.

The first thing you learn when you begin researching homeschooling is that there are a lot of ways to do it. From different structure philosophies to different learning styles, there are many, many ways to educate your family. What this also proves is that there isn’t just one way that works for everyone. Rather than feeling pressured to pick a single path, consider the first few months of homeschooling as your opportunity to learn from your child. Experiment with different philosophies, and be open to trying lessons and activities even if you’re not sure they will work. (Even if you’re not sure they even feel like “school” in your mind.)  

Ok, so now you are in it. You’ve purchased the supplies, set up your at-home school space, and begun your first lesson. So…what if it’s still not working? 

The idea of “failing” at a lesson has more to do with how we define learning—and how we define success in education. To get a true scope of success, we often need to separate the “brick and mortar school” ideal from the realities of homeschooling—and our feeling of failure almost always has more to do with us as parents than it does our child. So, time for self-reflection: 

  • What do you think it means to learn? 
  • How do you learn now? 
  • What are your personal memories of school as a child, as a high schooler, or as a college student? 
  • Can you separate your parents’ educational choices for you from the ones you are making for your child? 

The fact is, learning at this stage often happens in ways that don’t look like a child sitting at a table. Play is learning—and it’s actually one of the most important methods of learning for children. When you create an environment where a child is able to experience new things and experiment with their ideas, that is learning. If we remove our own deeply rooted ideas of what learning is from the equation, our homeschool life will become so much more enjoyable. 

Here are some tips to help identify when the learning is happening—and what to do when it truly isn’t:

“I can never get my child to sit still!”

It is actually perfectly normal that they don’t want to (and can’t) sit still during a lesson. In fact, this 2017 study found that children improve at math when their instruction engages their bodies! Instead of fighting it (and driving yourself crazy), work with your child’s need to move. Instead of a chair, have them sit on a ball like this or they can use a small rocking chair. A wobble cushion can be used on the floor or a chair to keep them “moving” but also learning. Or give them more movement breaks! When my kids were little, I encouraged the boys to do jumping jacks or “laps” around the table between activities if they needed to move. Other times we deliberately made movement part of the lesson. 

“My kid never pays attention when I’m reading!”

Again, you might need to wipe the image of a teacher reading to a seated group of quiet children from your mind. Read stories the way your child listens best. Auditory skills are developed through practice and vary from child to child, so try different settings and modify the length of your story time. Maybe they like to sit on your lap while you read, or maybe they prefer for you to read while they are coloring or working in a sensory bin. One of my kids needed to have a car in his hand and drive it up and down the floor whenever we read. As my kids got older, they needed a fidget spinner in hand for long read-aloud sessions. Give them the tools to succeed and the room to develop these important skills. 

“It’s like their mind keeps hopping around, and it’s hard to get them to focus on a lesson.”

Most lessons can take a turn in a different direction and still have value. You might be plan a lesson that is supposed to be focused on one skill set, but because your child’s engagement shifts, it becomes a completely different lesson. Follow their lead and be flexible! Let’s say you are doing a lesson about paper airplanes. Is it wrong that your child wants to explore the light and shadow of the plane as it flies through the air instead of the physics? What if they discover they are much more enamored with the process of folding the planes than in actually flying them? Is that wrong? No! They have just discovered something really cool. And you just witnessed their little brains figure something out. Be proud! 

“It’s like he’s just not getting it, and I’m worried we’re falling behind.”

Say this with me: You aren’t running out of time. One of the best things about homeschooling is that you and your child set the pace—and you don’t have to keep up with anyone else. If your child doesn’t grasp something at first or loses interest without learning the skill, that’s fine. Come back to it again later in the day or in a week or in a month. On the other hand, if they love something and want to keep learning about it in more depth, keep going! Don’t just move on for the sake of “being done.” Pursue their interests and build on their knowledge while something captures their attention. 

“I’ve tried all of that, and my kid still just hates it.”

Sometimes it’s okay to give up on something. The same way we shouldn’t let our minds get stuck on traditional schooling as what school “should” look like, sometimes there is a homeschool philosophy or activity that just isn’t a win with our child. As a new homeschool mom, I was in love with classical education. So we went all in and purchased a whole curriculum. The history program was a success, but after months of attempting to force the language arts program on my kids, I realized it just wasn’t working. I may have loved the idea of it, but they hated it. So we stopped. As a result, we found peace and a different way that worked for the way they learned. It didn’t mean I failed. It didn’t mean they failed. It just didn’t work for us, and that’s ok. 

At the end of the day, you know your kid best and you should always go with your gut. If your child is displaying a severe lack of interest with play, lack of purposeful engagement with toys or people, not attending to any books, demonstrates a lack of interest in participating with family activities, or anything that shows marked differences from the children in their environment, talk to your pediatrician about it. Parents always have the right to request an evaluation from a professional. You know your child best, and you will always be their best advocate.

In any case, be patient with yourself and your child as you figure this out. Give yourself the space to learn right alongside your child, and don’t feel rushed. Happy homeschooling!

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