Homeschooling one child

Let’s face it, homeschooling can be a challenge any time, but what about when you aren’t just teaching one child? When I first started homeschooling my eldest daughter, I was pregnant with my second. We had about six months of just the two of us, happily sitting down every morning to journal, count and play with math manipulative, and take nature walks. That let us talk about where animals live, how they find food, how they went about making a nest or sheltering, and what they fed their babies. It gave us time to wander through museums and go to park dates with friends. Snuggling on the couch reading stories was an everyday event, and I could admire her artwork endlessly.

The first few months with the new baby weren’t too much different. She slept a lot, and since I nursed her, I could be a captive audience for hours a day. There were times I had to change the baby, times she was fussy, and times I needed to do something like make dinner right now while she slept. Slowly my eldest came to the realization that the world didn’t revolve around her, and she had to share the spotlight…but it was still fine. Infants are often pretty easy, and I was lucky that I never had a colicky baby to deal with, at least.

Well, eventually I had four kids. My eldest was almost 9 years old when her youngest sister was born, so my homeschooling journey definitely had times of total chaos. Toddlers aren’t patient or quiet. My first two daughters were over four years apart, but somehow the child-spacing got shorter, and when our youngest was born, I had three kids under five years old! That coincided with the start of homeschooling two kids for the first time, and things just got more intense from there. By the time my youngest reached school age, I was homeschooling kindergarten, 2nd, 4th and 8th grade. That was a lot! Even though used to homeschooling by then, that year was nuts. I got through it, though – and so can you, with a few tips about homeschooling various ages at once.

What to do with babies during school time

Newborns are pretty easy while homeschooling unless you’re dealing with colic. When they get a bit older, things can get dicey. It’s best to be flexible, with bonus points for getting the baby on some sort of consistent schedule. Try to remember that if your older kids are under 3rd grade, schoolwork doesn’t have to take long. Cut yourself some slack! There’s no rule about fitting a school day’s worth of hours every day – in fact, that’s generally the fast track to burnout and everyone getting cranky. Remember that you can do schoolwork at any time that works, day or evening. Work more on days when the baby is happy. When the baby naps or when your partner is around to help, do some schoolwork. If things just aren’t working out, skip a day! Your family, your rules. Flexibility is your friend.

Don’t forget, kids can learn even when they aren’t sitting with a workbook or being lectured about science. If your baby likes riding in a stroller, take walks and talk with your older child. When your baby needs all your attention, set the older one up with a puzzle, Play-Doh or Legos. The older kids can play imaginative games, draw or read when you’re with the baby, and they’re going to learn things. Use educational videos, computer games, websites, and apps to keep older kids learning even when you can’t sit right there. Please note: this is not me telling you to use screen time to teach. Just be aware that there are ways for kids to learn all day long if your baby’s needs make book work impossible that day.

And now, the baby is a toddler

Remember that sweet little infant that actually slept a lot more than you thought he did? Now what are you going to do? Again, flexibility is key. Naps are the obvious time to work. Once babies become toddlers, they aren’t taking cat naps all the time anymore, and lucky parents can count on a stretch of time where they’ll sleep every day. (See my point about getting baby on some sort of a schedule?) If you can rely on your toddler zonking out after lunch every day, school time is easy. The drawback is, you don’t get the break you’d otherwise look forward to. Unfortunately, it’s just a fact of homeschooling life…one of your jobs is teaching your kids. Just remember, they do grow up all too soon, so make good homeschooling memories now.

Another trick I loved involved special toys or activities. These only came out when mama was doing schoolwork with older ones. They were also hinged on the toddler’s behavior, so tantrums, disastrous messes, or chasing the cat around to grab her tail made the prized toy disappear. One such favorite was water play. Put old towels on the floor, a sturdy chair against the sink, and fill with water. Bubbles are fun, too. Give her cups, spoons, and some animals, dolls, or plastic figures, and my toddler was amused for an hour or more, an eternity for toddlers. We sat at the kitchen table to do work, just to ensure safety.

My son absolutely loved the plastic jar we kept dog biscuits in! He would sit on the floor with that jar and a plastic bowl, transferring them back and forth. I know, that’s a little weird. But it was something I knew entertained him, so I never let him do it unless I was doing school with the girls. It got so that he would shout, “School time!” and point to the jar on the shelf he couldn’t reach! When he got a bit bigger, I gave him a pair of tongs. That kept him really busy, trying to figure out how to pick up the biscuits with the tongs to move them between bowl and jar. He also loved that our dog, Sophie, always sat with him, gazing hopefully at the biscuits while he played. If you don’t have a dog, you can do this with any object or snack food, as long as it doesn’t pose a choking risk. Again, I had him on the floor right next to me.

Use any toy your child is obsessed with or any activity you don’t let them do any old time. Maybe it’s a moldable sand set, finger paints, a ride-on toy they can use inside. Whatever makes that little one’s eyes light up will work. The important thing is that it’s something that is only taken out while doing school and that it is put firmly away when school time ends or if there’s a big behavior issue.

What happens when you’re trying to teach three grades at once?

There are a few things you can do when all your kids reach school age. As with everything involving homeschooling, what works for your family is what you should do. Don’t compare yourself to friends, and if something isn’t working, you can change it. Look at the big picture, think about everything your kids are learning rather than just focusing on traditional schoolwork, and don’t be afraid to go with your instincts.

The first thing I tried when homeschooling two was splitting my time. Because my girls were four grades apart, my older daughter could do a lot on her own. When the younger ones came up, the age span was closer and things got trickier. My basic plan was rotating between kids to give one-on-one attention. In that time, we tackled math or other subjects hat needed a lot of explanation. The other kids did something they could confidently do alone, read a book, or even took a break. Don’t be afraid of breaks. Kids need to get up and move! They are more focused and willing to work when they aren’t pinned down all day, and when they have breaks to look forward to. Journals were a great way for my kids to work independently. We used special drawing pads that had blank space up top, while the bottom half had writing lines for penmanship practice. From kindergarten on, my kids would write and draw in their journals when I needed to help another child. Journalling gave them practice in handwriting, spelling, and composition, as well a lot of art time.

As my eldest grew, I was able to enlist her help. She loved being in charge and playing the role of teacher, and I took advantage of that. When one child needed one-on-one, I could count on her to assist the others with questions, get them set up on an assignment, or take them outside for a break, where she acted as the gym teacher. I should note that these approaches made school lessons take pretty much the entire day for me. It didn’t make the kids sit and do work for that long, but spreading myself out did increase the time I spent teaching. Then again, I did have four kids, and since homeschooling was my full-time job, I did what I had to do. It’s what parents do all the time, and though it was crazy, I look back now and see how many good memories we had. It was worth it.

Yes, everyone’s family is different, Not every homeschooling parent has the entire day to focus on school subjects. If your day has to be split between homeschooling and other things, like an outside job, caring for aging parents, or another child that’s in school and whose schedule you have to pay close attention to, you might find the next tip useful. It’s group lessons, or the one-room schoolhouse. You can teach all your children at once, with the exception of math. Since math competency goes in very definite stages, and you really can’t gloss over topics, I resigned myself to four separate math curricula. For everything else, I decided to teach as a group.

Are you kidding? How do I do that?

This may sound impossible, but hear me out. This worked for my family in history, language arts, science, gym, art, and even foreign language. It involved largely designing my own lesson plans, which is not a small thing, but I think it saved me time and headaches during the actual school day. I put it in practice when my eldest was about 10, and never stopped doing it completely for the following 11 years we homeschooled. It didn’t always involve all the children, because as my kids reached middle school age they worked more independently, but it works whether you have two or ten kids.

All you have to do is scale assignments to the age of the children. For any subject that used texts or literature, we took turns reading aloud. We discussed it as a group, the older kids offering more explanation or answering the younger kids’ questions. If there was writing or a project involved, the older the child, the more was required. The youngest might just have to sum up what we read with one sentence and draw a picture, while the older one would write several paragraphs or an entire essay. The amount of analytic work varied with their ages; my eldest might write about the metaphors in a given novel, while her younger sister might write about characters and settings, but my youngest would tell me what the story was about and why she liked it.  We used documentaries and even films to put historical events into perspective and to study animals and science subjects. Spelling assignments scaled to the age of the child. When we studied the Civil war, I read an excerpt from “Gone With the Wind,” just for the historical and social background of the time period and about the battles…the kids begged to hear the whole story! So we spent nearly five months reading it aloud….and yes, a lot of it went over the little ones’ heads, but they understood a surprising amount and they still remember it as a great time we had as a family.

You can do it!

One thing homeschooled kids benefit from is freedom of limited imposed by the school system. School is, by design, adamant on teaching to the middle of the pack. With homeschooling, your children can learn anything at any level they’re ready for, and by teaching them as a group, they will pick up so much more than you might think they’re capable of. Don’t underestimate kids’ desire to be just like their older siblings, either. They might sit far longer and do more work when they’re learning like the big kids than they would with just you at the table.

Homeschooling more than one child can be overwhelming at times, but if you focus on what works best for your family, stay flexible and creative, and remember that someday you’ll miss those little faces and voices clamoring for your help, you can absolutely do it.

jennifer eager headshot JENNIFER EAGER is a freelance writer living on the eastern end of Long Island. After homeschooling her four kids for over 20 years, she’s pretty happy with the way they turned out and is excited to see what the next chapter brings. She’s been married to her best friend for nearly three decades and loves music, reading, cooking and collecting pets. Her most beloved hobby is performing in community theater productions, and she is known for dragging her husband into every show in some capacity. Right now she’s writing from home, but hopes someday to lead the life of a writing nomad, traveling the world and writing in Parisian cafés, tropical beaches and medieval castles.