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How to make homeschooling work, even if you hate homeschooling

What I’ve learned from 3 years as a (reluctant) homeschooler

“The first year of homeschooling is always a shit show.”

A fellow homeschooler passed along these words of wisdom about six months into our first year of homeschooling, and boy, do I wish someone had told me that before we started! Because the first year of homeschooling was a disaster for my son and our whole family — so much that we actually returned to conventional schooling for another three years.

Now that we are in the third year of our second round of homeschooling, I finally feel like I have some vague idea of how to make it work. And after passing along the shit-show wisdom to another prospective homeschooling parent, I realize I might actually have some wisdom of my own that’s worth sharing.

From my adventures in homeschooling, it now seems clear that there are three very different types of homeschooling families:

  1. Religious homeschoolers, who have opted to homeschool as part of their commitment to faith-based education or practice,
  2. Alternative homeschoolers (often “unschoolers”), who are critical or skeptical of the conventional school system and want to take a different approach to their children’s learning, and
  3. Reluctant homeschoolers, who have landed on homeschooling because they can’t find or afford a public or private school option that works for their particular child or family.

We definitely fall into the third camp: I never had any interest in homeschooling, but the school system was a totally disaster for my younger child from day one. Eventually we learned that he is both highly gifted (99.99% IQ — which I mention because it helps explain why our challenges were and are so extreme) and also autistic (which makes school both overwhelming and anxiety-provoking).

Even though our son’s combination of brains and behavioral challenges made school a very poor fit, we kept trying: He went to three different schools between ages 5 and 11 (and to two different daycares before that.) While I have no doubt that those early school experiences have greatly contributed to many of his subsequent difficulties (among other things, he has such negative associations with school that any kind of structured learning remains a huge anxiety trigger), I can’t really regret trying so many ways to make it work. As a reluctant homeschooler, I was only able to really commit to homeschooling once I was absolutely convinced I had no other alternatives.

A lot of what I say below may be specific to families who have children with special needs, learning disabilities and/or giftedness. I don’t know! That’s exactly why it’s so crucial to figure out what kind of homeschooler you are. There are all kinds of Facebook groups, distance learning programs, curriculum resources etc. that are specific to each type of homeschooler (as well as some that bridge these communities), so once you figure out which camp you fall into, it’s a lot easier to find the people and resources you need.

The biggest mistake I made during our first round of homeschooling, when our son was 8, was to try to replicate the benefits of school. I was really worried that he’d become socially isolated or fall behind academically; I also needed time to get my own work done. So I enrolled him in several different activities, ensuring we had something for him to do every day: nature school, art classes, library school, parkour.

It seemed great in theory — and honestly, every single one of those programs impressed me with the quality and sincerity of the teaching — but in practice, all those classes and activities turned out to be the worst of both worlds. For an autistic kid who’s overwhelmed by noise, stimuli and structured expectations, all those activities had the same downsides as school. But unlike regular school, each day brought a different setting, a different teacher and a different set of kids — so it was even more difficult than going to a regular classroom every day! Whoops.

If I could do it over again, I’d recommend trying drop-in classes, or maybe just one or or two short courses, before committing to a full schedule. If your kid loves structured group settings, great! There are loads of choices. But if they find that kind of setting stressful, you won’t waste hundreds or thousands of dollars on classes they refuse to attend — or worse, contribute to learning and behavioral challenges by pressuring them into settings that aren’t a fit.

While you are figuring all of this out — and even once you’re in a groove — you will really benefit from the wisdom and resources of other people who are further along in the journey. Some people can make those connections face-to-face, with the parents they meet at homeschooling meetups or classes, but if you have a kid who’s reluctant to attend group activities (or if location and logistics make it hard to meet up in-person), online homeschooling communities can be incredibly helpful.

I have joined dozens of Facebook groups and several email lists, and I rely on them to answer my questions, provide inspiration and get day-to-day support. No one community can cover all the bases, so think about finding the following:

  • Local homeschooling groups are useful for finding out about activities or classes for homeschoolers in your area, or for finding playdates/co-learners for your kid. They’re also helpful for getting the scoop on the different options for registering your kid as a homeschooler in your state or province.
  • Interest-based homeschooling groups help you find learning activities, supports and social connections that will work for your particular family. I belong to groups for videogaming and Minecrafting and another for secular homeschooling.
  • Special needs homeschooling groups help you find resources specific to your child’s learning needs, and introduce you to learning and support strategies that can work for your kid. I belong to several homeschooling groups for families with autistic kids, and several for families with gifted kids.
  • Regional special needs groups can help you navigate the funding and bureaucracy related to your kid’s needs. Since most funding operates at the local or regional level, people outside your state or province (or possibly even outside your city) probably won’t be too helpful in helping you figure out what kinds of resources you’re eligible for or which assessments you need.
  • Learning resource groups organize things like bulk purchases of learning materials, resale of text books and learning tools, or discounts on curricular materials.
  • General-interest homeschooling groups are great if you feel like your main problem in life is that you are too calm and have tons of extra emotional energy. (Said no homeschooling parent ever.) You can be pretty sure that any homeschooling group that draws from multiple communities will have regular internal battles over (a) vaccination and (b) evolution. And that’s just for starters. I am going to (barely) resist stating my own firmly held views on both of these issues, and simply say that if you (like every other homeschooling parent on the planet) have strong views on the above, general-interest homeschooling groups are going to drive you bananas. Even if you stick to niche groups, these battles are going to crop up, so just save your energy for breathing through the debates in the online groups you just can’t live without.

Depending on where you live and what funding you are eligible for, you may need or want to register with a formal homeschooling program. It is worth taking the time to understand the different types of programs or registration options that are available.

Where I live, in the province of British Columbia, the province distinguishes between “homeschooling” (which is totally DIY, with very limited requirements but also no funding) and “distributed learning” (which can still be very flexible, but comes with some oversight, requirements and funding). (See explanation here.) Which option is right for you will depend on what kinds of supports or resources you need, and how much reporting and hoop-jumping you’re prepared to take on.

For us, the big benefit of registering as an official “distributed learner” is that that our son is eligible for the same kind of special needs funding he would get in a public- or private-school classroom. Since he’s autistic, that amounts to a little over $20k a year, all of which runs through the distance learning program he’s enrolled in, and about $12k of which gets applied to specific costs (tutoring, therapy) that we build into his IEP (independent learning plan). The other $8–9k stays with the distance learning school where we’re registered, and helps to cover the costs of running the school and its special education program.

But even without that funding, a distance learning program is worthwhile for many, many kids and families. Enrolling in a formal distance learning program can give you access to curricular materials, a wide range of online learning subscriptions, guidance from a certified teacher, evaluation of your kid’s work, and connections to other homeschooling families. The only real downside is that it will almost certainly come with some oversight or reporting requirements — more on that below.

Once you’ve figured out what kind of homeschooling registration you need or want, you may find yourself looking for a distance, distributed or home learning “school”. If you’re in a region that requires you to register your child in a specific home- or distance learning program, this will be your home base. It’s where your kid gets their funding, their grades (if applicable) and their diploma. This is not the same as the online learning programs you may choose to enroll in (like Outschool, Athena’s Advanced Academy or Khan Academy) for enrichment purposes.

Your kid’s official school might be local (our own school board registers homeschoolers and offers various kinds of classes) or online. Depending on your region and means, it could also be public or private: In BC, there are a number of public schools for distance learners, and a number of “independent” schools (most of which are religious). The province offers a directory of all the options, and none of the schools I’ve looked at require parents to pay. (The province provides funding for distance learners.)

But there are huge differences in the focus, approach and requirements of these different schools — and many of them have a wait list of a year or two before you can get a spot. So you may need to apply to a few different schools before you can find one that will register your kid, and you may have to register somewhere you’re not crazy about before you get a spot at the school that’s the best fit for your family. One of the many ways your homeschooling communities can be helpful is in getting the scoop on the different schools available in your region, so you can find out who is accepting new students and what the pros and cons are of each individual school.

In our years of homeschooling, we’ve been registered at three different schools — one public, and two private (independent). Our current school is by far the best fit in terms of its teaching approach, reporting requirements and administrative process. I’ll say more about the teaching approach and reporting below, so let me just say this about the administrative piece: There can be so much paperwork involved in homeschooling, so do look for a well-run school. Schools that are an administrative mess can be a huge headache for parents, so messy application and registration processes or emails that go unaddressed are a big warning sign that a given school may not have its act together.

There are two main dimensions that affect whether a given homeschool or distance learning program is a good fit for you and your kid: the teaching approach, and the reporting approach. But the reporting ends up shaping the teaching, so let’s start there.

Depending on the regulatory requirements in your state or province, and on the philosophy of your particular school, you may have significant reporting requirements — but those requirements can take different forms. Here in BC, distributed learning programs are funded by the provincial Ministry of Education, so they need a paper trail to show that they are actually providing educational supports to your kid, and also, that your kid is doing something other than lying on the sofa all day watching TV.

Each of the distributed learning programs we’ve been part of has taken a very different approach to this reporting requirement — and the main reason our current program is such a good fit is because its reporting structure really works with the way we learn and communicate. To give you a feel for how dramatic these differences can be, let me describe how it’s worked at each school:

  • School #1: Public school distance learning. The first program we were enrolled at required us to assemble a portfolio once per term, with at least 2–5 pages of demonstrable output in each of the “subjects” our son was enrolled in. That meant finding physical evidence of learning in eight different subjects — not easy for a kid with a written output disorder! I felt like I spent a lot of time scrambling around trying to produce some kind of evidence, and it didn’t really have a whole lot to do with what he was actually learning; because we only submitted once a term, the feedback wasn’t really useful to our ongoing schooling. And our reporting requirements were actually relatively lean, because our son was in elementary school and also had an IEP. My understanding is that mainstream students have much more significant reporting requirements at this school, particularly once they enter high school.
  • School #2: Hippie independent school. The independent school where we registered for the first 7 months of our return to homeschooling was not our top choice; since we returned to homeschooling mid-school year, we were lucky to find anyone with the capacity to register a special needs student. The people running this distance program were perfectly nice, but their reporting system involved filling in periodic reflections on learning activities that were totally irrelevant to our son, and also, sending in photos of him doing things that acted as proof of educational goodness. It was easy but it was also utterly pointless. And again, I think our reporting requirements were very low because of our son’s IEP.
  • School #3: Slightly less hippie independent school. The independent school where we have been registered for the past 1.5 years is an excellent fit — kind of the Goldilocks spot of not too much, not too little as far as reporting is concerned. There is an online platform where we submit a weekly report about what our son has been working on, as well as a check-in at the end of each term where we compare what he’s been working on with what we set out in his IEP, and assess whether he’s been making progress towards our goals. The weekly report is very flexible in terms of its structure, so it’s not a burden, and it ensures we pay ongoing attention to what our son is working on and learning. Since he is on an IEP, a lot of that learning is related to emotional and social development as well as academic outcomes, and I really appreciate the opportunity to focus on that side of the equation — because that is actually what is most crucial to our son’s growth right now.

These differences in reporting are closely tied to differences in the teaching and learning approach at each school. As with our previous two DL (distance learning) schools, this school has assigned a teacher to work with us; she checks in with us by emails once a week, as part of the reporting process. She is a terrific fit for our family, because she’s a homeschooling mom herself (as well as a trained teacher), and has an autistic son just a little older than our own; more importantly, her perspective on autism and on autistic learners is very close to ours. (It would be a nightmare for us to be assigned to a teacher who pushed us to “train” our son by feeding him candy in return for homework completion.)

The weekly reporting cycle drives our engagement with the teacher, who sends us feedback on each of our reports, often with suggestions of activities or curricular resources we might want to try. It’s the perfect amount of guidance and feedback for our family: Just enough to keep us focused and accountable, but not so much that we spend all our time on reporting and bureaucracy instead of actually engaging with our kid.

A narrow but crucial issue that I wish someone had flagged for us when we started homeschooling: If you’re registering as a distance learner, think carefully about how to protect your child’s privacy — particularly if you have a special needs kid. Each of the distance learning programs we’ve enrolled in has required us to share our son’s complete educational and medical records in order to establish his funding eligibility, which means that each of these schools has a (digital) file full of psychiatrist reports, psychological assessments, doctors’ letters, et cetera.

At one of these schools, all the teachers shared a single email address — which means that dozens of people potentially ended up with digital copies of my son’s complete medical records. (I’ve subsequently learned that this violates multiple privacy regulations, which are particularly stringent when it comes to children’s information and medical records in particular.) But because it’s so hard to register as a special needs homeschooler midyear, I felt like I just had to go along with what seemed like a real risk to my son’s long-term medical privacy. I regret sharing that information, and if I had to do it over again, I think I’d insist on finding a way of sharing these files that kept me in control of who could view and retain these records.

When I talk with people about homeschooling, I often hear that the biggest obstacle to homeschooling — or the biggest challenge for people who are homeschooling — is that amount of time it takes to teach a kid and keep them engaged and active. Say what you will about the school system, but I still remember how excited I was when our kids started kindergarten, because it meant that someone was going to take them off my hands for six hours every day — for free!! Compared to the $750/month I was spending on a daycare spot, it felt like a miracle.

Now I look back on that and laugh, because our current homeschooling game plan costs about two or times what I was paying in daycare. (But still, way less than I spent on support workers, therapy, marijuana and lost wages when I was trying to survive the school years!) I know that we are unusual in spending as much money as we do on homeschooling supports — but I’m going to share our approach and experience, because I suspect that there are pieces of it that are still relevant to those who can’t spend $1500+/month on tutoring and enrichment.

By far the easiest way to get help with the job of home learning is to enroll your kid in the many classes and programs available for home learners. Here in Vancouver, we could probably find two or three different programs a day for our son to attend, and there are many more options if you’re open to afterschool programs or if you live in the suburbs, where there seems to be a lot more action for homeschoolers. These activities can add up, however, particularly if you have specialized needs that require small-group or one-to-one support.

There are also learning centers that cater to home learners, including places that will assemble a full- or part-time schedule of classes, activities and/or tutoring for your kid. That is even more expensive than rolling your own schedule, however; the most popular tutoring center near our house is just as expensive as full-time private school if you want to have something close to a full-time schedule.

The other challenge we’ve found, with this center and with other home learning programs, is that they often cater to kids like our son: kids who are home learners because school didn’t work for them, typically because they have behavioral or learning challenges. Since our son is easily triggered (as well as very triggering for others), the activities and programs that are willing to accommodate him are also the ones that are full of kids who drive him bonkers. So the learning center approach has not been a good fit for our needs.

Instead, we’ve taken a DIY approach to getting support for our home learner. Every year or so, we’ve hired a new tutor/support worker to help our son with his learning; in fact, that’s been the case for the past 8 years. We hired someone to take over when we pulled our son out of kindergarten a couple of months before the end of the school year; then we hired someone to work with him part-time in grade one, so he wouldn’t have to do full days; and then we hired a support worker to accompany him to private school every day. All that hiring means I’ve become so skilled at writing targeted job ads and screening tutors, I wrote a whole article about my hiring system.

What I’ve learned from all that hiring is that it is really worth thinking carefully about what kind of person will be effective in working with your kid, and which pieces of the home learning puzzle you want them to take on. Here in Vancouver, it is not hard to find very smart, skilled people who are willing to work as tutor/support workers for $18–25 (CAD) per hour; in fact, you can hire a fully certified teacher for $20/hr if you want to. The trade-off you face is between price, skill and longevity: You can hire someone who is basically a nanny, and they may stay with you for years, but you can’t expect a lot of subject matter expertise or tutoring skill from that scenario.

The other two options are (1) hire someone who is a professional tutor, and who you can book for a few hours a week, but who may cost $40–75/hr or more (I just got a quote for $150/hr for a programming tutor!!) or (2) hire a bright young person who is then going to go onto bigger and better things. We’ve always opted for door #2, because we need someone who can keep up with our little brainiac, and we need more than a few hours a week of support. The people we’ve hired have gone onto medical school, speech pathology, psychology, and behavioral intervention: We always look for people with special needs experience, because it’s hard to get our son to do much of anything if you don’t know how to work effectively with challenging kids.

Our current tutor works with our son 15 hours a week; she’s a full-time university student (a first for us) who shares our son’s passion for math and physics. He absolutely adores her, and the two of them spend the day talking about quantum theory, coming up with math games and going on long walks. Just as crucial, the rest of the family loves her: When you hire someone to work with your home learner, you’re bound to spend a lot of time with them, so it helps if you can find someone you actually like yourself. Here is the ad that brought her to us:

Do you love math, Minecraft, and gaming? Then this tutoring role could be your dream job.

A Vancouver family seeks a part-time tutor for our homeschooled son. We are looking for the energetic, smart person who shares our son’s interests and can make learning fun. You might spend one afternoon playing D&D (with lots of math problems thrown into the game), and the next building historical replicas in Minecraft.

Our son is highly gifted and mildly autistic, so you’ll need patience and experience dealing with challenging kids. This is a great job for someone looking for work experience in health or education: Our former tutors have gone onto med school, speech pathology, psychology, teaching and other caring professions.

The specific hours are flexible, but you should be available at least 3 hours a day, four or five days a week (M-F). If you need full-time work, please let us know, because there are a few ways we could turn this into a full-time role.

To apply, please send us a résumé and email telling us about your previous experience teaching or working with kids — especially your experiences working with kids who have autism, ADHD or other challenges.

I posted that ad on Craiglist, as well as on a couple of university job boards. But Craigslist is how she found us — and I have to say, it’s been the source of many amazing tutors and support workers over the years. Just be sure you take the time to write an ad that is really specific, in a tone that reflects your family’s vibe, so that you attract the people who will be a good fit for you and your kid.

One more crucial truth about homeschooling: It will require you to change your life, and probably your work. This was the reason I resisted homeschooling for a long time, and also, something I avoided really addressing in my first round of homeschooling. That first round, I simply asked my boss if I could work from home for a term — and then discovered that it’s pretty hard to organize a conventional workday around a rotating schedule of homeschooling activities. And that’s before we talk about the energy drain that comes from dealing with a complicated kid who’s resisting his work or activities!

If you’re serious about homeschooling, at least one parent will need to organize their work around homeschooling — even if you also hire tutors or other supports. For most families, that probably means that one parent will either need to stop working, or shift to self-employment/contract work. In fact, one of the great advantages of moving to contract work (as opposed to a salary) is that hourly billing makes it easier to budget for that extra help: If five hours of a tutor’s support creates even one more billable hour in my own work week, then it’s a no-brainer to add more tutoring hours!

Obviously, this math is a lot trickier if you’re a single parent, or if your hourly wage is close to what you’d have to pay a tutor. Conversely, it gets even easier if you have two well-paid parents who both have flexible work: Now that my husband and I both work from home, we take responsibility for our son on different days, stepping in if his tutor is sick or if there is an emergency that requires our intervention. This term, each of us is also on deck with our son one full day a week (when his tutor is in class). But because there are two of us sharing that schedule, each of us still has a couple of uninterrupted work days each week.

But don’t stop at rethinking your work structure and schedule. One of the trickiest things about homeschooling is that it can be very isolating — especially if it means giving up that office job. I’m a very social person, so I’ve had to make a point of organizing regular interactions with other adults, in part by finding a regular co-working buddy, in part by having a 2x/week morning swim date with a friend, and also by making dates to go out at night with friends, after my day of work/homeschooling.

Another weird lifestyle change is that homeschooling requires two separate wardrobes. I have my Homeschooling Mom clothes (leggings, tunics, sports bras, running shoes) and my Working Woman clothes (pants, dresses, jackets, Rent the Runway). I even have different eating patterns on homeschool days (cold cuts for lunch) and work days (salad). Homeschooling seeps into your life in all kinds of unpredictable ways — but in almost every case, I am (eventually) grateful for these changes.

I am gobsmacked to realize that I had almost 5,000 words of wisdom (or at least opinion) about homeschooling, because I think of myself as a half-assed homeschooler who still doesn’t really know what I’m doing. But gosh, I guess I’ve been at this long enough to pick up a few things, and I hope that by sharing it, I make the path easier for others.

But it’s a constant learning process for me, just as much as for our son. Every year (or frankly, every six months) I find I have to re-invent our work schedule, our tutoring arrangement, our domestic setup and/or the learning priorities for our son. My plans often fail, or they work for a while and then they fall apart because someone is going back to school or gets a new job or daylight saving time or — well, there is always some fresh challenge to address.

Homeschooling has become so much easier, more satisfying and less stressful now that I accept that constant re-invention is just part of the process. There is no one “right way” to do this, and indeed, the more loosely I hold my grand plans, the easier it is for us all to adapt as things shift.

Most of all, accepting that home learning is a constant evolution is what has made this round of homeschooling so successful for our son. My first time at bat, I was so keen to do it in a specific way that it was just as anxiety-provoking for him as school was — more so, even, plus a lot more stressful for the rest of us!

Now that we’ve relaxed into home learning as a more fluid process, our son is thriving. Some weeks he hardly does anything you’d consider “academics”: Instead, his great accomplishment is getting outside every day, or making a new friend at the playground. Other weeks, he might get obsessed by a particular book series or a particular kind of math puzzle, and that is all he does until he gets bored and moves onto the next thing. At some point, I hope he’ll learn to set specific goals and work towards them in a consistent way; Indeed, that is by far our most important learning goal, and the beauty of homeschooling is that we can organize ourselves around that vision, instead of around abstract, official academic “subjects”.

I have no idea what homeschooling holds for us in the years ahead, but I have a feeling we’re going to be at it for a while. So as you start (or continue) your own homeschooling journey, I hope you’ll share your lessons and insights with me — because I need to keep learning, too. Just don’t forget the very first rule of homeschooling…

Author, Remote Inc: How To Thrive at Work…Wherever You Are. Tech speaker. Writer & data journalist for Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review & more.

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