I often get the question, “How do you manage homeschooling 5 kids?” To be honest, it isn’t always easy. And my default answer is to say, “It’s God’s grace.” Truthfully, that’s what keeps me going. There are days when my kids aren’t the perkiest students, and I think to myself, Oh no. This is going to be a tough day!
Yet, for the most part, I remain hooked on home education. I can’t imagine doing anything else in the world at this season of my life as a mom. Furthermore, I try to get my kids to the point where they don’t need me to hover over them (which can be exhausting). My goal is to help them become motivated learners, rather than children who are non-functional unless I incentivize them or push them every single day.
Over the years, I’ve implored a few “tricks” that have been working so far. Here’s hoping you will be able to pick up a few that will benefit you, too:
1.Prioritize reading and comprehension. When my kids are 5 and below, this is my primary focus. I introduce phonics when they are 2 or 3 (I started a little later with Tiana). Usually, this happens through song. I still use Sing, Spell, Read and Write, which hasn’t failed me yet. With much repetition, my kids are able to identify letters and their sounds, which then give way to putting sounds together. They begin to read CVC words (consonant, vowel, consonant). As they build confidence and understand how words are formed, they move on to longer words and sight words.
Instructing a child to read must be balanced with lots of read aloud time. Otherwise, learning to read feels like a chore. The inspiration to read comes from time with mom, as they sit beside me, on my lap or around me, and trips to the bookstore or a library to explore the wonders of books!
With my fourth child, Tiana, I didn’t do this early enough and she wasn’t as excited about learning to read. However, a few months ago, I decided to commit to reading aloud with her more often and it has made a big difference! She will come to me with a pile of books and we go through them together.
The Sing, Spell, Read, and Write workbooks have a lot of spelling lists, but I don’t panic when she can’t spell everything. My personal belief about spelling is that good readers get spelling. I’ve seen this with my older boys. The more they read, the better they spell. It’s the frequency of exposure to words that makes an imprint in their minds.
My second son, Edan, who just recently grew in leaps and bounds as a reader, now says, “Oh mom, I saw that word, I remember reading it.” Whenever I give him spelling quizzes, he can write down words correctly, not because we do lots and lots of practice spelling but because he has improved as a reader.
Give books as gifts. Toys are fun to have, but make books a premium. I’m always on the lookout for book series’ to bless my kids with. By the time kids are in 2nd grade (and earlier for some), they can read chapter books with confidence. They may not be as fast as their older siblings, but if they like the story or topic, they will read the book.
Last Christmas, I got my fourth grader, Edan, a set of Boxcar Children Books by Gertrude Chandler Warner. Edan read one for his Language Arts last year and asked if he could get more of them for Christmas. We are currently trying to build his collection. He read 12 of the books in 2 weeks and they are about 200+ pages long each! Titus wanted to be a part of the action so he read a couple of them, too. Every time he would come across a word he didn’t know, I encouraged him to ask me, which was a very “relaxed” way to build his vocabulary.
When children have the skill to read, they are eager to read books with topics that they like. So I tell moms, buy books that are interesting to your children. Don’t rely on the list of children’s classics. Find out what your child is into then take him to the bookstore to get a book on that topic.
As a five year old, my eldest son, Elijah, was obsessed with dinosaurs. Every good book I could find about dinosaurs I got for him. Then he moved on to airplanes and I did the same thing. Today he is an avid reader. Sometimes, I need to tell him to rest his eyes because he will go on and on!
It brings me deep joy to see my children on a couch or bed with books around them. This means they are learning without being dependent on me! When Edan took a liking to Botany, he requested books on plants. It didn’t matter whether they were above his reading level because he was driven to learn more about Botany.
Reading is the key to unlock the door of knowledge, understanding and wisdom. So don’t give up until you have a confident reader who enjoys books. For some children, their time table for proficient reading is longer. Keep going. A very intelligent guy I know didn’t learn to read well until he was 10 years old, but then he picked up a Charles Dickens novel and read it cover to cover.
Sometimes, children aren’t interested in reading because they are distracted by computer games and media. Investigate what activities may be competing with your child’s interest in books and eliminate them or set restrictions.
What about comprehension? Comprehension can be taught through dialoguing. Some of the curriculums I particularly enjoy teaching are those that involve reading to my kids and asking them questions. Most of the time these are materials that I get for Bible and character, science, history, and social studies. Furthermore, these lessons are interesting to me, too! I was never talented at memorizing facts so it helps to go over science, history and social studies again. Whenever I read to my children, I pause at reasonable points (for younger kids, after a couple of sentences or a paragraph, and for older kids, after a couple of paragraphs, a page or a number of pages.) Depending on the age and ability, I start with bite size bits of information to make sure my kids are being attentive before asking comprehension questions.
The ability to comprehend begins with the discipline of attentiveness. Whether it is reading words on a page or being read to, a child needs to be trained to be present and engaged. Asking questions is one of the most informal and effective ways to do this. When I ask a question and my kids can’t answer, I read the parts again, or I give the answer to demonstrate how they should answer. Then I say, “Be ready, because I’m going to ask you a question again soon.”
With younger kids, you may have to say this often, but you can also inspire them to answer by complimenting them a lot when they do. When Titus, who is not as verbose as my other kids, shares his insight on a topic, I affirm him a lot! Maybe I will even throw in a hug or a squeeze to let him know that I’m proud of him for putting in the effort.
2.Logic matters. I have found that my kids benefit from logic exercises, puzzles, and solving problems that require critical thinking. Acquiring math skills becomes a lot easier because they have worked out the left hemisphere of their brains. Catalina is eagerly doing Logico Primo with me. I started this with her recently, and she pulls out the material herself in the mornings so we can do it together. This Grolier product is pricey but I personally feel that the investment has been worth it. It’s reusable and it feels pretty indestructible, too (the plastic part). That’s important when you have lots of kids! (Grolier has a lot of other products that develop critical thinking skills.)
The great thing about homeschooling is that home affords the best environment for kids to experience how math makes sense. Classifying, sorting, counting, learning about time, ordinal numbers, basic arithmetic, and the like happen in the context of everyday activities, and most especially play. Furthermore, these pre-math skills are vital to more complex operations and applications of math in the later years.
3. Play is important. My children have lots of time for uninterrupted, unscripted play. This has especially benefited my third son, Titus. When he was younger, I went a little easy on him with formal instruction because he was and is a more mechanical and physical child.
Today, he hardly needs me to explain his math. Just the other day, he told me how much he likes multiplication. Granted, it isn’t complicated multiplication yet. But I do credit his penchant for understanding math with all the playtime he has had. And he still plays a lot!
Games are also a great way to develop logical thinking skills in children. I’m referring more to strategy board games that involve physical interaction with family members. My husband, Edric, likes competing with our kids over board games. Through the years we’ve seen how board games push our boys to apply mathematics. Titus, although younger than his brothers, wanted to be involved in these games. His math skills vastly improved when he got to use his simple knowledge of arithmetic to calculate his points during or after a game, and when he had to think critically to solve problems he encountered.
Our sons like riddles and mindbender games, too. For example, an app that they recently used is called Can You Escape? It requires you to use logic and math to get out of a building you are trapped in. Last year, a kind relative also donated Puzzle Mania books to our kids, which contain all kinds of creative and unique puzzles to solve.
4. Harness the power of music and art. I didn’t realize how beneficial music instruction was to our children until I began to see, first hand, how it connected to their ability to learn.
Our sons take up violin. It is one of those instruments that will screech in an awful way when it is played incorrectly, but will completely enthrall when it is handled properly. Because it doesn’t give room for error, it trains their ears so they can hear even the slightest off-pitch note that is sung by a person or played on an instrument. More importantly, since it requires both abstract movement from the bow and precise note playing, it taps into the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Learning an instrument like the violin not only increases intellectual capacity, it demands hard work from my kids, which spills over into their studies.
The arts also play a vital role in our children’s academic success. An article published by pbs.org explained the connection between art and academic achievement. “A report by Americans for the Arts states that young people who participate regularly in the arts (three hours a day on three days each week through one full year) are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement, to participate in a math and science fair or to win an award for writing an essay or poem than children who do not participate.” Why is art so good for our children’s intellectual health? It develops a child’s motor and language skills, creative thinking and expression, visual perception and attentiveness, as well as traits like determination and perseverance.
5. Use technology and creative resources. When children have a solid foundation in reading, comprehension, and arithmetic skills, instruction can be supplemented with apps, educational games or educational sites. This liberates a homeschool parent from having to be the expert in a subject area. It allows a child to learn independently and figure things out on his own, too.
Sometimes, they may be better off with an educational site or DVD Rom as the mode of delivery for content they need to learn. In the last two years, I’ve relied heavily on Khanacademy.org for Elijah’s mathematics. He also takes Coursera or Udemy for classes that are relevant to him since I am ill-equipped to teach things like programming, website development, app development, photography, graphic design, etc. Although these aren’t required of him for his level, they are practical life skills that he can use later on.
DVD courses for older children are also effective. I got Elijah a DVD course for his writing called Institute for Excellence in Writing by Andrew Pudewa. Years ago I heard about this curriculum but I didn’t really need it until now. It dramatically improved Elijah’s writing skills. I love to write but Andrew Pudewa is a better teacher than I am, so I conceded to his expertise in this area. Recently, Elijah wrote a 52-paragraph narrative of his Mt. Apo climb, something he could not have done last year. Thanks to this program, his skills have been greatly enhanced!
With the younger kids, I don’t need as much technology. I prefer to interact with them myself. But as they get older and understand how to control their time on devices and can make responsible choices about media, I give them the flexibility to use online sources, DVD Roms, etc. to make the learning experience more engaging and effective for them. The wonderful thing is I don’t have to be seated right beside them. I can be in the same room minding the younger kids while my older ones do their work independently.
6. Address learning gaps. When a child has academic areas where he or she is weak in, it’s hard for him to move forward with confidence. My sister, Candy, is a dentist in the U.S., but when she was homeschooled, my mom noticed that she wasn’t good at spelling. How can you become a dentist and memorize technical words if you are a bad speller? My mom didn’t know she was going to become a dentist, but she knew that Candy needed remedial work in this area. As positively as she could communicate it, she told her, “We will work harder on spelling to catch you up to where you need to be.” Candy improved significantly when my mom took the time to address this learning gap of hers.
Sometimes our children are held back because there is a missing piece to their academic puzzle. When Elijah was in his early elementary years, he wasn’t that interested in math. There were aspects of it that didn’t make sense to him. To cover all possible gaps, I asked him to re-learn basic arithmetic and work up to his level. Since he had covered most of the topics in the past years, he could go through the lessons quickly. In the process, however, he was able to cover weak points in his math foundation. Today, he really enjoys math and is delving into pre-calculus topics on his own. I don’t think he would have been at this point if I neglected to address the gaps in his learning.
7. Be a facilitator, not a teacher. While I am called to instruct my children’s hearts and point them in the way they should go, I prefer the term “facilitator of learning.” I believe in a child’s God-given ability to learn. Given the right factors and environment, they will most certainly learn. However, it’s also my job, as educator Ken Robinson said it, “to control the climate” of their learning environment rather than “to command and control” their education.
When my kids call for my help, my first instinct is NOT to rush to their side to spoon-feed them with what I know or what I think they should know and do. As often as possible, I ask them to figure things out on their own. They may struggle a bit and even express their frustrations, but I let them stew in their emotions for a while before rescuing them. Or, I will explain parts of what they need to know without divulging complete solutions. In the process, they discover how deeply gratifying it is to come to their own conclusions, accomplish or discover things without my interference…especially when their effort index is high. If they need me to show them everything and explain everything it imparts the message, you need mom to learn so don’t do anything until she helps you. There will be occasions when they do need me, especially in the early years, but as they grow in their abilities and skills, I lovingly ease them “out of the eagle’s nest” and let them soar on their own.
A facilitator is not absent. She is present. She watches carefully, asks the right questions, sets expectations and communicates them, course corrects when necessary, gives helpful directions, encourages a child to focus, points a child toward resources to accomplish a task, and supplies opportunities to achieve learning goals. She also communicates confidence in a child’s ability and builds them up.
One of the ways I enable my kids is by telling them things like, “You can do it. Try and do it without me first and then if you really need me, I will help you. You can even surprise, mommy.” When I say something like, “You can surprise, mommy,” they are enlivened by the dare.
They will reply, “Okay, okay. Don’t look, mom!” Some moments later they will proudly present work that they did all by themselves. Tiana is just 5 so I don’t use this trick on her too often, unless it’s something like handwriting practice, coloring a picture, or doing simple math. This especially works for someone like Titus who is 7 years old. He steps up to this sort of challenge.
If my children really are lost after trying their best, of course I come to their aid. However, as soon as I can, I will leave them alone again to apply what I just helped them to understand and comprehend. This strategy varies for each child and subject area. Some kids can breeze through math but slow down when it’s language arts. The longer you homeschool your kids the easier it will be to tell the difference between when they truly need help or when they are simply distracted and lazy.
8. Communicate responsibilities clearly. On one wall of our homeschool room is a list of responsibilities and a daily schedule for each of my kids. At the beginning of our homeschool year, I sat down with them and explained what was expected of them on each day of the week. Responsibilities included their daily assignments for academics and extra curricular activities. I’ve included a copy of their schedules for your reference. Feel free to copy or modify them. This list keeps my kids accountable. They know they have to get all their responsibilities done before spending their discretionary time. I added independent reading time, outdoor exercise, music practice on most days as part of their responsibilities. As a result, they aren’t constantly coming to me to find out what they need to do each day. In fact, my older boys try to get their lists checked off as early as possible. Mendoza Kids’ Homeschool Schedule .
Edan, who is my more structured child, appreciates knowing exactly what he needs to do. He thrives on order. The point is I give my kids the opportunity to take ownership and to be disciplined. Kids actually feel more secure when they are provided with a framework. They appreciate knowing what their restrictions and liberties are.
9. Reward hard work. Even God is a rewarder! Hebrews 11:6 tells us this. Similarly, rewarding our children does wonders. In an older post I wrote about my tab system for motivating my children. Every so many pages in their books, they collect tabs for work accomplished. At the end of the week, they count their tabs or pool them together. If they earn 20 or more, they get to draw from what we call, The Mystery Jar. This jar has pieces of paper with rewards written on them that appeal to my kids, things like a trip to the bookstore, ice cream, a free educational app, a science toy, eating out, etc. Because they can’t anticipate what they will draw (or change it once they’ve drawn it), it’s exciting for them to pick a prize from our Mystery Jar. It’s easiest to use reusable plastic tabs like Post-its or more reasonable versions that work the same way which can be purchased at Office Warehouse or National Bookstore.
10. Finally, make a child accountable to God and to do his/her best for His glory. When I encounter learning issues with my kids because they aren’t motivated or focused, I have to spend time addressing their hearts. At the end of the day, their ability to learn and their drive to do so isn’t for me or Edric, or even for themselves. They are accountable to their creator, God, and they need to remember that the choice to do their best is a reflection of their relationship with Him.
Furthermore, because they have a relationship with Him, He will enable them, equip them, and faithfully fulfill His plan for their lives. When I’m tempted to panic and lose sight of this, I have to re-orient my own reasons for homeschooling, relax, and pray. My job is to create a learning environment that gives my children the best opportunity to build foundational skills that will allow them to seek after and know God, and glorify Him. Even though it’s valuable for them to be excellent at the academics, the more important question is, “What’s the point of it all?” And I still go back to Deuteronomy 6:5-7, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.”
A MOTIVATED LEARNER is someone who…
…takes the initiative to get his/her responsibilities done.
…is eager to learn and enjoys the process of discovery.
…steps up to take on difficult challenges.
…perseveres through failures and mistakes.
…knows where to go to get the information he or she needs.
…can process content and information critically.
…contextualizes what he or she has learned and makes it practical and applicable.
…can effectively communicate what he or she has learned to others.
…internalizes the conviction to do his/her best for the Lord.