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How does Homeschooling Work in the Modern Era?

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June 9, 2022

The pandemic brought so many marginal words into mainstream vocabulary, like quarantine, PPE and sourdough. But for parents of school-age kids, one word had the biggest impact on every-day life: homeschooling.

As physical classrooms closed their doors, families woke up to find this once-distant concept sitting at their dining room table (and asking for snacks).

But homeschooling is not literally attending traditional school from home. Instead, during the shutdown most families experienced remote schooling, as curriculum and instruction continued to come from the school their child once attended in-person.

So, how does homeschooling work?

There are so many forms of home education, as long as you follow the homeschooling laws in your state. (For information about homeschool requirements, check out this resource.) Some families take a parent-driven approach while others are child-directed, allowing kids to manage their own education, a philosophy known as ”unschooling.” Others choose a full-service option that provides curriculum, assessment, teacher support and community. Another popular approach is to form a small homeschool group, often structured as a co-op, where several families team up to create a mini-school of their own.

Because it’s personal by definition, there’s no singular roadmap to a successful homeschool experience. But here are the top ten tips we’ve gathered from conversations with over 100 homeschool families.

Ten Tips for a Successful Homeschool Experience

1. Break down the silos

When stepping away from the traditional classroom, a natural instinct can be to recreate the learning environment we all know: separate periods for math, science, reading, social studies and arts. But for more than 100 years, the traditional school model has kept individual subjects penned up – to the detriment of students.

While reforming the entire public education system could well take another 100 years, your homeschool experience can center the kind of interdisciplinary learning designed to meet real-world challenges. At Prisma, we believe in teaching kids for a future that will require them to access knowledge and skills from across a spectrum of subjects by fostering their interdisciplinary fluency with hands-on projects. Combine science and English Language arts by having your child write a science fiction story based on scientific research. Or, combine social studies and technology by having your child code an animation about a historical event - then take a field trip to the places they researched.

2. Guide, don’t prescribe

Whether you’ve got a budding naturalist, a programmer-in-training or a future poet laureate, homeschooling offers the gift to tailor learning around your child’s interests. A rigid teaching style often backfires, making kids resistant not just to that subject – but to learning in general. Self-directed children take ownership of their work, kick-starting a virtuous cycle that unlocks a love of learning. Not to mention, their experience with independent study means they develop comfort tackling problems on their own, rather than letting a grownup dictate their next step. Prisma learners have written their own novels, created popular public art installations, and become professional water skiers, before even starting high school.

3. Meet them where they are

There’s no “advanced” or “behind” in homeschool, no test scores governing the resources they can access. There’s just where your kid is today. Don’t constrain them to a grade level. If you don’t know your child’s level in a given subject area, start the school year with an assessment tool to get a baseline. (We like this one, from nonprofit NWEA.)

Once you have a starting point, let them move their own pace, the speed dictated by their learning style. Compared to a traditional classroom where focused learning is a mere fraction of the six-hour public school day, a homeschool schedule can be incredibly efficient. That means your child can zoom through the easy parts of their coursework until they get somewhere exciting – and linger on the subjects that don’t come as quickly, without the anxiety of being “delayed” or the pressure to get “ahead.”

4. Think outside the box

One of the fastest ways to start traditional homeschooling is to buy a prepackaged curriculum. But if you want to customize your child’s learning to their interests and abilities, take advantage of the innovative learning resources that are freely available on the web. Youtube offers expert how-tos, and Pinterest is chock full of creative inspiration for projects. Curating a homeschool curriculum takes work, and that’s one of the benefits we offer at Prisma: a professionally developed learning framework enriched with cutting-edge resources, vetted by experienced educators.

5. Make learning hands-on and community-based

In a public school, organizing a field trip is a massive bureaucratic undertaking, bogged down with logistics, permission slips and chaperones. Few school districts have the resources to do the extensive hands-on projects that make kids more likely to enjoy, internalize and retain learning. But when you go to school at home, your child’s education isn’t constrained to the formal school setting: everything from the kitchen to the tool shed to the garden, can be a classroom – but so too can your local museums, watersheds and recycling centers.

Fostering connections within the community also provides another potential benefit for homeschooled kids: allowing them the opportunity to relate to other adult mentors. In public school, private school and charter schools, kids have interactions with a diversity of grownups, each of whom not only provide different subject expertise, but also perspectives, life experiences and problem-solving approaches. Look to your community for adults who can help your homeschooled children access different facets of their developing identity.

6. Create space for play

Recess – most kids’ favorite part of school – is often considered a break from “serious” learning. But studies have shown that play – running in nature, building forts, cooking – is essential for well-being. (It’s even been recognized by the United Nations as a fundamental right of every child). Since homeschoolers can be efficient in tackling their schoolwork, that leaves plenty of time for extracurricular activities as we as free, unstructured time – alone or with others – during which your child can tend to the serious work of fostering emotional wellness, executive functioning and social skills through play.

7. Seek opportunities to help kids learn together

Socialization is more than just chatting in the cafeteria and picking teams for kickball. There’s a real value that comes from kids learning together, side by side:  workshopping ideas, problem-solving and discovering their intellectual personality amongst peers. When kids have the opportunity to share feedback and debate perspectives, they do more than sharpen their ideas: They learn about compromise, collaboration and respect.

In addition to web-based resources such as writing workshops or debate groups, your community may offer homeschool programs, like a math club, outdoor learning, or rock band. You could also consider joining a co-op, where a group of homeschooled students pool resources and support one another’s learning.

8. Make room for failure

No parent wants to see their child struggle. It can take a biological override to sit on your hands while they flail in search of a solution. But the grit, stamina and resilience that comes as a result of that search is by far the greater gift, says Dr. Carol Dweck, the preeminent psychologist who popularized the concept of the growth mindset.

The growth mindset should be a centerpiece in any homeschool framework: If you teach your kids that they aren’t limited by their inborn skills, you’ll have laid the foundation for a life where “failure” is the feedback that leads to even greater successes. If you’re looking for resources, activities and further reading on fostering a growth mindset, check these out.

9. Technology can be your friend

Screen time has become everyone’s favorite boogeyman, with some educators and physicians issuing blanket warnings against the evils of excess technology. However, recent studies have challenged these assumptions, showing the potential benefits associated with technology usage, including the development of stronger friendships.

More to the point, not all screen time is created equally. There’s a difference between passive consumption of low-quality content and active engagement with well-designed educational technology. Today’s leading apps, like the reading coach Ello, use artificial intelligence to adapt to the ability of the child, allowing them to progress at a steady pace – without heavy parental involvement.

10. Consider a service (like Prisma)

With so many moving parts, homeschooling can be a heavy lift on parents. It’s labor intensive to curate curriculum, vet online resources, cultivate social networks, and connect to the community. Once these resources are in place, homeschooling parents still need to adapt them so that they meet a child’s ever-changing social, emotional and intellectual needs. Add to that the challenges of teaching your own children. Without a strong support network, healthy boundaries and a well defined plan, it’s easy for the stresses of homeschooling to lead to caregiver burnout.

For families that want the benefits of homeschooling without many of the downsides, enrollment in a home-based service like Prisma provides the interdisciplinary hands-on framework, coaching, built-in community and record keeping. That saves parents the work of becoming overnight experts – and lets kids get to the “hard fun” of learning.

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