Homeschool Essentials

Whether unschooled or highly structured, religious or secular, all homeschools encounter the same challenges. All successful homeschools exhibit the same essential qualities. This weblog will help you understand and apply those qualities, minimize frustration, and enjoy more success sooner.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Three Crucial Skills Learned at Home

Most of us attempt to copy the school model at home because we've been schooled ourselves. Part of that schooling includes the notion that learning takes place, if not in a school building, at least in a schoolish fashion-- doing "assignments," memorization, drill-and- practice.

Robert Fulghum both dented and reinforced the school-as-temple-of-learning idea with his best seller All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, recently re-issued in a fifteenth anniversary edition with new comments by the author. It's a good book for homeschoolers if you recognize the basic fallacy of his book--he really learned most of it-- "share," "don' hit," and other useful notions-- at home, not in kindergarten. I've had the misfortune of teaching some of the children who didn't learn them until they came into the school environement.

Schoolish classrooms, in fact, teach just the opposite. Children not allowed to hit or be hit at home quickly learn both at school. Kids who wouldn't think of carving their names in their furniture incise their names in their desks. Words never spoken in their hearing at home became part of their vocabulary at school.

Fulghum, does, however, point to a large truth. All the really important things are learned in places other than school -- at home, at work, at church or synagogue.

Which brings me to three of the most crucial skills anyone learns. These skills are learned at home, before age five, and under the tutelage of amateurs. First, they learn to walk. Yes, walk.

Walking is a complex psycho-motor skill. If you don't think it's difficult, just ask an adult who has been injured so that they have to re-learn how to walk. Elderly people sometimes lose the power of locomotion, because of its physical demands. Walking is extremely difficult. Yet infants under two commonly learn how to do it, without the benefit of professional instruction. Indeed, when children learn to walk, most cannot understand spoken language, and cannot benefit from detailed instruction, examples, or coaching.

Understanding how children learn to walk sheds light on how they learn anything. When we learn how to approach other skills the same way we help our children learn to walk, we will be amazed at the results.

In the next blog, I'll look at the next crucial skill children learn. Compared to that primarily cognitive task, things like reading, calculus, particle physics are simple and easy. No, the next crucial skill isn't rocket science-- it's much more difficult than that.

NOTE: Comments and questions are welcome. Disagreement is fine, but personal attacks, etc. will be removed at the discretion of the blog management.

Monday, December 20, 2004

A Wholistic Approach

Far too many involved in homeschooling act as though a child's academic performance can be isolated from everything else happening in their life. Think that's an extreme statement?

A school principal called me one day, concerned about a teenage girl who had been withdrawn from school for homeschooling. “I’m very concerned about Robin,” (not her real name) the man said. “She was skipping classes and not completing her assignments last year. You need to make sure she buckles down.” I made grunting noises and put down the phone. Based on his account, you’d conclude that Robin exhibited a stereotypical teenage irresponsibility, that if you could overcome her laziness, deal with her attitude problem, she’d be fine. He broadly hinted that Robin had deceived her mother into pulling her out of school so she could shirk even more.

However, the conscientious Robin and her worried mother had already talked with me. Yes, Robin had missed classes during the previous semester. Her parents were concluding a bitter and messy divorce at that time, and understandably this upset the thirteen year old. Either the school didn’t know or didn’t care about this domestic turmoil. They expected this thirteen year old to keep her emotional balance and continue to perform in school while her home disintegrated around her.

Real life doesn’t work that way. Adults’ work performance suffers during times of stress. Illness in the family, birth of a baby, loss or change of job–all of these things cause stress in the family, and affect learning. Sometimes homeschool families express anxiety that children have “fallen behind” because of family trials. But there’s no way to avoid that. Stress affects children, including their development and learning readiness, every bit as much as it affects adults. Expecting learning to go on as though nothing is happening is unrealistic and unfair. Homeschools can take this into account, can be people friendly.

The wise, and ultimatelyl successful homeschooler understands the need to address learning problems within the whole context of the child's life. Fail to do that only results in frustration and breakdown of that most precious commodity-- trust.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Pushing vs. Encouraging

First, today's recommended resource.

Several years ago, after I had commented on the damage that "pushing" causes in homeschools, I got this question. "But if you don't encourage children to do better, won't they just slide by?"

"Encouragement" is one thing. "Encouraging forward" is another.

Let me share with you a concept that I learned from observing homeschoolers, and which underlies everything important I do and say.

All real love, real nurture, real acceptance, real approval, all of these are unconditional. The minute they become conditional, they become manipulation. Manipulation is always ugly, because it treats others as objects, rather than as living individuals.

Now, the one thing I know for sure is that all of us manipulate. We take no more notice of our own manipulation than we do of the air, or than fishes do the water. We are immersed in it.

All of us need love and nurture. All of us resent manipulation. Some catch it sooner, some later, some react actively, some passively. But it always costs us dearly.

"You're not going as fast as I want you to," "You're not going as fast as the others," "You're too slow," all these send the message, "You're defective. You don't please me. You disappoint me. You're not living up to my expectations." These cannot redound to the benefit of anyone.

Pushing, telling the child to go faster, sends a couple of damaging messages. First, something's wrong, you're too slow. Second, you don't need to take responsibility for speeding up (if that's really necessary), because I'll see to it you keep moving.

Once the parent accepts the responsibility for pacing, for pushing, for "keeping up with," for "having the child ready" at a certain time, they are in danger of keeping it forever.

When I give the talk on pushing, I always walk up to someone on the front row, and have them hold up their hand, palm toward me. I then place my hand on their hand, and begin to push. I've never had anyone simply let me fall! When I push, they push back. I even step back and say, "I didn't tell you to push back!" And then everyone gets it.

The most natural reaction to being pushed is pushing back. If we start it early enough, and keep it up long enough, most children won't appear to resist. Instead, they exhibit what psychologists call "passive aggression." You may have seen demonstrators, who, when arrested, don't fight back. Instead, they go limp, making the police pick them up and carry them physically to the paddy wagon. Where one well-trained policeman may be able to wrestle a struggling protester to the police van, it may take two orthree to carry the "unresisting" limp protester.

I hope you'll forgive me for sharing a couple of paragraphs from my detox booklet.

"Teacher dependent students mentally “go limp,” requiring the teacher to break down every task into its smallest possible parts, and spoon feed them to the student. Some parents and teachers actually desire this state of affairs. In order to feed emotional needs of their own, they encourage students to be dependent.
"But this requires a great deal more energy from the teacher than the student. Over the long haul, it stunts development and increases friction. Trying to propel the mentally limp, passive aggressive student down the path of learning eventually exhausts everyone involved. "

This situation will not rectify itself. When the teacher-dependent student goes to college, where no one herds the students into class, or forces them into study hall, these students flounder.

Encouragement sends the message, "You can do it." Pushing sends the message, "You're not doing-- not good-- not smart-- enough." How can you tell when you've crossed the line?

Students welcome encouragement, and they resist pushing. Once you encounter resistance, it's time to re-evaluate what you're doing.

Thursday, December 16, 2004


I'm always fascinated by those who think an emphasis on character is somehow "softer," or "less rigorous" than an emphasis on academics. From secular people this doesn't surprise me too much, but I've received the same message from a number of religious families.

It becomes all the more interesting when you observe that government schools* have revived their interest in character after nearly a quarter century experiment with "value-free" classrooms. Since I was studying character education in grad school when the movement to value free classrooms began, I've watched it with interest. My original position, largely vindicated by history, held that it is impossible to have a value-free classroom. The very fact that you require students to be there, and expose them to certain ideas, communicates a set of values. To put it another way, if you didn't value certain ideas and information, you wouldn't bother teaching them.

Having said that, I must confess that they came much closer to establishing a value-free classroom than I expected. We see that in surveys of now young college-age students who say things like, "Yes, I think the Nazis were evil. But who are we to criticize someone else's beliefs?"

Apparently horrified by things like the Columbine High School shootings and other indications of morally and ethically illiteracy among students, and hoping to quell the appearance of increasing violence in schools, we're seeing a new emphasis on character.

Dr. Thomas Lickona is a proponent of what he calls character education. You can see my review of his book "Character Matters," and recommendations for books on this topic, on my main web page, here. I won't duplicate that on this site.

Let me close with two points. Number one: Character Matters.

Diligence, integrity, fortitude-- you name the positive character quality -- and it makes a student a better student. It not only boosts academic achievement, it gives them a foundation for a successful life beyond the classroom. A child who doesn't master an academic skill may need help in that area later in life-- but which of us excels at every academic area? Geniuses in one area often know little about other areas. My mechanic doesn't understanc computers. But many software engineers don't understand cars.

A child with an academic gap may cause us an inconvenience in later life, but a child without character can give us heartbreaks that never go away. Good friends of mine did a good job with academics. But one daughter had several children by different fathers, some out of wedlock. Her continuing difficulties are an unending burden for her parents. Ask them if they'd trade a few points on the SAT for more character.

The second point is this. It really doesn't matter what government schools tackle, you can count on them making a mess of it.

In 1848, when the government school program got its start, America had a high rate of literacy. After more than 50 years of reading instruction in government schools, literacy rates continue to drop.

Or take "sex education." When this movement took off in government schools, relatively few children were born out of wedlock. Now the rates are nearly 70% in black families, and approaching 30% among whites.

So look out, now they want to take on "character."

* I know that many in the government school system resent calling them "government schools." "Public" schools are schools which accept the public, just as restaurants and stadiums, which accept the public, are regulated as "public places." The court house, federal office buildings, and so forth, are "government buildgings," because they're paid for with tax monies and staffed with employees paid from tax revenues. That describes the so-called "public school" system perfectly-- buildings and employees paid from tax revenues. Not only that, they are run by elected boards who serve as government officials, and their curriculum is determined by elected bodies as well.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Homeschool Success? or ?

What constitutes success for homeschoolers?

Take Daisy(not her real name), for example. At eighteen, she finished a formal homeschool career with high test scores, and played the violin beautifully.

Attractive, healthy, and bright, she entered college, and quickly became totally lost. Although academically well-prepared, she had no sense of personal identity or purpose. Offered a job in her preferred field, she couldn’t convert that opportunity into a career, because, although she had worked hard growing up under her parents supervision, she lacked the motivation to work diligently on her own. As her work performance flagged, she lost self-esteem. Her appearance suffered, and then she missed work. What might have been a leg up in her chosen field now became a disaster.

She’s a productive member of society, but instead of a fulfilling career in a field that matched her talents, she moves from one job to another at the lower rungs of employment. Several years later, she still doesn’t know what her life is about. In terms of strictly academic performance, Daisy is a star. Give her information to remember and reproduce on a test, and she shines. But so far, the sterner course of Life 101, gives her no better than a C+. She’s not pregnant, and not on drugs. Nor is she happy, or living up to her potential. If she were my child, I would not consider her education truly successful.

On the other hand, compared to many other young women in her generation, she is doing well. The parents worked hard, and were successful, at duplicating the school environment. She even scored well on standardized tests, often the state's preferred mode of measurement. But the really important things were missing.

One mother, highly competitive and quite certain of herself, though she had neither experience nor training as a teacher, discounted my approach. "We're not people who feel that as long as you get character right, academics don't matter." As though that were the choice. But experience repeatedly demonstrates that if you get character wrong, academics truly don't matter. Get character right, and you get all the academic achievement that child can produce.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Homeschool "Essentials?"

A colleague of mine, describing a presenter at a homeschool conference said, "She did O.K. for someone who homeschooled two kids for two years."

I often wondered, when I first got started homeschooling, how people with children no older than my own, and no in-depth exposure to others homeschool families, could speak with such certainty about matters that my training and experience told me were wrong. Now I know.

They spoke with certainty, but without knowledge, like mapamakers in the sixteenth century, coloring in the blank spaces with their own fancies, whether romantic or frightening.

You'll find a lot of that today. Many books, some contradicting each other, all telling you how to homeschool. Some seem to indicate that any method you use will work just fine, populating the blank parchment with cities of golden opportunity. Others indicate only their approach has any hope of success, guiding you past the dragons and sea monsters of their imaginations. Most people make the journey only once, and, as the Donner party could testify, conditions can vary greatly from one trip to another.

Since this blog sports a title that includes the word "essential," you probably expect that I intend to map out your journey in some detail. And you have every right to wonder how I fill in the disputed areas, whether with dragons or treasure.

First of all, I can point to the success of own three children, all educated exclusively at home, in accordance with the principles in this book, until college entry. More to the point, scores of other young adults and their families have demonstrated the value of what I'm sharing. The qualities I share here arise out of experience with hundreds of homeschool families.

I'm not talking here about people who've written me letters or talked to me at conferences. No, I'm talking about families who invited me into their homes, week by week, month by month. Some families I have worked with for nearly twenty years, watching one child after another go from reading their first word, to getting their first job after college. Like an experienced frontier guide, I have made the journey many times, with many families. I can tell you where the water may be found, and whether rain clouds herald salvation or calamity.

Of even more value are the two seriously failed homeschools I was privileged to observe. Their failures threw the essential qualitites of success into sharp relief, just as the dark shadows on a sunlit landscape reveal both the depths and the heights. As in the case of all learning, we often benefit more from our mistakes than from our successes. Autopsies reveal disease mechanisms that weaken and kill, making it possible to identify symptoms of the illness in its early stages. Doing a post mortem on those sad failed homeschools permits me to recognize problems long before they become fatal. It also enables me to prescribe remedies that prevent or alleviate problems. Had any doubt remained about the essential qualities of success, these failures eliminated it.

But enough of failure. What about success? Like one of my longtime homeschool friends, your initial definition of success may be "Better than public school." But if you didn't think you could do that, you wouldn't start in the first place. No, my definition of success requires more than that. Here’s my definition of success, a success which is within the reach of every child. A truly successful homeschool produces individuals who possess:
● Clear and positive identity
● Clear goals
● Positive Outlook on Life
● Initiative
● Responsibility
● Enthusiasm
● Creativity
● Ability to think clearly
● Academic tools to reach their goals

I want for your child, for every child, the very best. I set such a high goal, not so that I can label those who fall short as failures, but so that we can attain as much as possible. Browning wrote the famous lines:

A man's reach should exceed his grasp,

Or what's a heaven for?

But what I'm advocating is within your grasp. I've seen many families reach it. You can, too.

By ordinary standards, almost every homeschool succeeds. The failed homeschools I mention make up a tiny percentage. Out of the more than 600 homeschools I've closely worked with (I quit counting after that) only two could be considered significantly failed. Even they produced results similar to many schooled children. But, limiting the total sample to 600, and counting those two as seriously failed, they still make up one third of one percent. So, in one sense, the books that say any method will produce success have a point.

In the next post I'll examine one of the failures, and one of the successes.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Homeschooling in Poland

Ordinarily, it will be at least a couple of days between posts here. But I just had to share this fascinating article about homeschooling in Poland.

As one who has experience with legislators, educators, and regulators (see here), I find this tale particularly interesting.

Essentials for Homeschoolers in a Hurry to Start

Although probably a majority of families who decide to opt out of schools and help their children learn at home, sometimes called "homeschooling" (see my first post on why I hate that term), in my 25 years of helping homeschool families, I've seen that some choose it every month. And the New Year, just after the holidays, and around the beginning of the second half of the year, is a very popular time.

Over time, I'll be getting into almost every issue right here. But if you're in a hurry to get underway, I can direct you to other resources of mine on the web.

My home page for homeschooling is can be foune here. From there you can find a great deal of information. But if you're really in a hurry, go to my beginner's page first thing. If you already know about your state law, the next thing you need to know is about the transition phase, of shifting from schoolish thinking to and understanding of learning at home. A quick diagnosis of your children's attitudes (and your own), here, can tell you how much needs to be changed. This page will help you make a start on that. Further posts on this blog will elaborate, especially as questions come in.

For those concerned, the Ten Worst Mistakes homeschoolers make can be found here. For those interested in more information about your humble author, it can be found on this page.

If you're interested in homeschooling in my state of Iowa, there's a good deal of information on compliance with our law here. There's a handy glossary of terms, to make the sometimes opaque legal language easier to understand. I have been intimately involved with every stage of development of our law, and have several pages on the various types of complicance: supervising teacher, testing, or portfolio evaluation.

Yes, I have a homeschool book, or more accurately a workbook for parents, to help them put together a homeschool curriculum tailored to each family's, and each child's needs. It was piloted with scores of real homeschool families, to make sure it actually worked in real homes. And it's in continuous use by hundreds of families right now.

But this post is not about selling my book, or anything, right now, but to help new families get a quick feel for what may be facing them in the weeks and months immediately ahead.

That's it for now.


Thursday, December 09, 2004

I Hate "Homeschooling"

No, the title doesn't refer to those days when Mom is ready pack the children off to military school and take herself to a convent (even if she's not Catholic). It doesn't refer to the times when the in-laws spend the weekend regaling you with the achievements of their other grandchildren, you know, the normal ones that go to school. It doesn't even refer to the times when you've just bought the perfect curriculum, or designed the killer unit study, only to have the little darlings turn up their noses.

No, it's actually the term itself. "Homeschooling" misleads a lot of people into thinking that the major difference between learning at home and learning at a formal school is a matter of location. As a matter of simple logistics, that's not possible. As an experienced teacher and school principal before my own children reached school age, I wasn't looking to duplicate the classroom experience at home-- simply reduce class size and shorten my commute.

On the contrary, what I sought was a different quality of experience. I wanted my children to love learning, to develop initiative, to be self-starting, self-motivated, self-disciplined learners. I wanted them to develop the character that would enable their talent-- after all, few things are more common than unrealized potential.

Not only that, but in observing more than 600 families close up over the last twenty years, those who work hardest at duplicating the classroom at home suffer the most. They often suffer chronic burnout.

One mother who ran her homeschool with near military precision strenuously denied my last sentence. She did the very best to duplicate the classroom, she said, and she had never burned out. Some weeks later I saw her again, looking even more austere than usual. She had just returned from the Mayo Clinic, she told me, where the doctors had spent two months trying to understand the origin of, and treat her mysterious case of pneumonia. I nodded sympathetically, thinking to myself, "Well, at least she didn't burn out."

Anyway, I prefer the term "learning at home" to "homeschooling." I think the former phrase describes, without misleading, the actual process much more accurately. but I continue to use the term "homeschooling" for one reason: it is a term everyone knows and accepts. If I titled this blog "Essentials for Learning at Home," most people would simply shake their heads. Google the term "learning at home" and you'll get a very different result than that for "homeschooling."

As I will explore in the future, the misunderstanding engendered by the term "homeschooling" causes almost endless grief for families who want their children to learn at home. But we have to deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it to have been, so this blog is homeschoolessentials, and homeschooling we will discuss.

Just as an aside. I'm not interested in debating the opponents of homeschooling here, nor will I waste energy with gadflies. For those who want to have active learning children at home, I have all the time in the world. Whether you're homeschooling one child or twenty, those under 5 or over 15, I've pretty much seen it all. It can work for you, as it has for so many others.