When I was a highschool teacher, I noticed that many teachers would burn out by February. Being a highschool teacher was challenging but it was not nearly as difficult (or rewarding) as homeschooling. In my experience, homeschool burn-out was not something that only happened in the month of February. When my kids were really little, I was often burnt out even by the end of the day!
Granted I no longer have any toddlers or nursing babies. I can actually sleep at night, and that makes a world of difference. But over the years, I have also learned that avoiding burn-out really begins at the start of the school year. Here are some tips about managing the school part of homeschooling:
Treat your homeschool with professionalism. When your kids are really young, the distinction between school and play is usually not very clear. Learning though play and playing to learn is a beautiful approach to education. As your children mature, however, they will naturally distinguish between work and play, and that’s a good thing if you want your children to develop a strong work ethic.
When your kids begin to distinguish between work and play, it’s a good time to introduce a sense of professionalism to your homeschool. You can do this by treating your homeschool as a real job. For example, have a firm start time and be fully present to your kids during school hours. Don’t text, email, or answer the phone while you are teaching. (You’d never do that if you were teaching a class in a school, would you?) If you’re not paying attention to the lesson, neither will your kids. And then, put a cap on how long you will teach. Don’t let your teaching day drag on indefinitely. At a certain time each day, you should be done. (Whether or not your kids are done could be an enirely different matter, especially if they are older.)
Also, get your kids into the habit of doing their school work fully dressed, not in their pajamas. And, as a general rule, don’t let them eat unless it’s snack or mealtime. Just because the toddler is munching away at Cheerios, it doesn’t mean your ten-year-old has to eat, too. The more professional you are with your homeschool, the more your children will take you and their work seriously.
Avoid trips outside the home during your school hours. Some people assume that just because you are homeschooling, you are available to do whatever whenever. Let them know otherwise. In my experience, even running one small errand when the kids are supposed to be studying can be a big disruption or distraction. As much as possible, try to save errands such as dentist appointments and trips to the store for Friday afternoons or the weekend.
Teach your kids to work independently and to take ownership of their work. In our home, I dedicate the morning to teaching the younger ones while the older ones work independently. The benefit to this is two-fold: First, I can really focus on teaching the younger kids and not get frazzled trying to teach five kids five different things at once. Second, this compels my older children to figure things out on their own. When my older ones get stuck, for example on a math problem, they know I can’t help them until after lunch. But since they usually don’t want to wait, they struggle with the problem until they solve it. Yes, sometimes this leads to frustration. But many times it leads to a sense of confidence: I figured this out on my own!
To teach your children to work independently, start off by giving them easy work to do on their own every morning. For preschoolers, it can be a coloring page. For kindergarteners and 1st graders, copy work (such as a printing book or copying out a few sentences) makes great independent work. Many Kumon work books are also very conducive to independent work. The idea is to get our children into the habit of doing really easy work on their own, and as they gain confidence, slowly encouraging them to be more and more independant.
Depending on their maturity, 3rd or 4th grade is a good time to give your kids their own work list. Some parents do not like a check-list approach to school, but I have found it very liberating for my kids and I. First, my children don’t need to be told what to do each day. They can and do get started on their work without me because they know exactly what is expected of them. If they need help, my kids can work on something else on the list until I can help them. When they complete their work list, they enjoy a sense of accomplishment. Perhaps best of all is that over the years they develop a sense of ownership and responsibility for their work.
Avoid multitasking as much as possible. I wish I could remove the “as much as possible” phrase, but the reality is the younger your kids are and the more kids you have, the more you may end up multi-tasking. I remember one day several years ago when I was teaching my daughter piano while nursing the baby, calling out instructions to my son as he did his math lesson, and keeping an eye out for the toddler. Phew! Looking back, I think that was too much of an ambitious tiger-mom thing to do. No wonder I was so stressed out!
Besides being stressful, the problem with multi-tasking is that in trying to accomplish too much at once, we usually don’t accomplish anything well. This is especially true when it comes to teaching. When we teach, we want to be able to focus on our children, listening attentively to one child at a time, one lesson at a time. Nor do we want to feel rushed or give our kids the impression that we are hurrying them along just so they can check off one more thing on their work list.
So try your best to minimize the multi-tasking. The keys to not multi-tasking while teaching are to live in the moment, to focus on each lesson and each child with love, and to not cram too much into each day. It means letting go of your to-do list when you’re having a rough day or when unexpected interruptions occur, trusting in God’s providence and plans.
Teach your kids to work hard and cheerfully. Don’t let your kids get away with whining, complaining, or disrespect. Perhaps the most emotionally exhausting part of homeschooling is dealing with behavior problems. We all know that a whiny, argumentative child is disruptive and causes a lot of stress. Avoid engaging in long arguments over their assignments. Cholerics, especially, will argue all day long if you let them. If a child wants to argue and whine over a task, firmly tell him that the conversation is closed and you can discuss it AFTER the assignment is completed or revised. If he insists on arguing about it, prompt action, not argument is the way to go. Don’t be afraid to levy consequences for bad behavior, even if they do retaliate by taking a fit.
None of us, I am sure, enjoys being the “mean mom”. Few things dishearten me as much as having to punish my kids. But if we repeatedly let our children get away with disrespect and disobedience, we ultimately do our kids and ourselves more harm. Bad attitude not only gets in the way of learning, it also causes a lot of homeschool drama and stress. On the other hand, if you teach your kids to be respectful and to work hard with a good, cheerful attitude, you create a peaceful learning environment and, more importantly, you train their wills to do what is right.
Now, at the beginning of the school year, is the time to clarify your expectations of their behavior and work habits and to be firm about them. If this is an area you really struggle with (and we all do, more or less), Setting Limits: How to Raise Responsible, Independent Children is one of the most helpful books I’ve read on parenting.
Finally, spend more time teaching what you love to teach. I have observed that many different curricula are based on different subjects. The Well Trained Mind is history based, and so is, to a certain extent, Mother of Divine Grace School. Some curricula are based on the Great Books, such as Angelicum Academy’s. There are probably curricula that are science and technology based. I think what matters more than the curriculum you use (provided it reflects your values) is your enthusiasm for what you are teaching. Enthusiasm is infectious and motivating. So, if you are a history buff and that is what makes you tick, then let your curriculum center on history. If science makes you excited, let science cross into several other subjects, such as writing and art. If reading aloud is your favorite time of the day, stretch it out and enjoy it. God gave you special interests for a reason, and it just might be that He wants your kids to grow up with a special love and aptitude for those subjects you really enjoy. Of course you’re not trying to make clones of yourself; your kids will develop their own interests, too. But use your special interests to enrich your homeschool. Many subjects can be tools for learning other subjects – it just takes a little creativity.
Similarly, if your child is especially interested in a subject or topic, let him run with it. Yes, we want to give our kids a well-rounded and thorough education, but we’ve got plenty of time for that. You kids may not love everything that they’re studying (mine don’t), but you should capitalize on the subjects that you both really enjoy. If you love what you’re teaching and your kids like what they’re learning, it makes for a much more pleasant and memorable school year.
So in a nutshell, to avoid homeschool burnout:
- Treat your homeschool with professionalism.
- Avoid trips outside the home during your school hours.
- Teach your kids to work independently and to take ownership of their work.
- Avoid multitasking as much as possible.
- Teach your kids to work hard without complaining.
- Finally, spend more time teaching what you love to teach.