As homeschool moves from the margins to the mainstream, more families are asking how to start homeschooling. After helping hundreds of kids embark on a new, unconventional educational chapter, we’ve learned that homeschool experiences are as unique as the families that embark on them. There’s no one-size-fits-all; it's more of a choose your own adventure.
If you’re homeschool-curious, no doubt you’ve put out feelers to find out what other families do. There will definitely be a time for that. But we recommend you start by spending time self-reflecting as a family, in order to understand which parts of someone else’s experience to draw on. The ultimate blank slate, homeschooling becomes most meaningful when you fill it with the values, experiences and approaches that align with your family.
That’s why we look at the process of how to homeschool your child in three phases: laying the foundation, gathering the resources and diving in.
No one rolls out of bed and says, “Maybe I’ll homeschool,” without strong motivations. Unique and personal, the decision often stems from a confluence of factors – elements of public school or private school to avoid or improve, combined with opportunities only afforded by a completely customized educational setting.
Common reasons families want to homeschool include:
More likely than not, you’ll have a variety of reasons – core motivations along with nice-to-haves. Get clear on your deal breakers and your points of flexibility, especially if there are multiple adults weighing in. If one parent wants to have more control over curriculum while the other wants to foster child-directed learning, you’ll want to brainstorm how those ideals might play out and what compromises might be necessary.
Once you’ve established why, it’ll give you the clearest possible indication of how you should homeschool.
To leave the traditional path and forge a new one, you need to have the whole family on board – and in alignment. With the increased responsibility homeschooling brings for parents and kids, everyone needs to start on the same page. Parents should be clear about their respective roles and commitments. If one parent is taking the lead, what support can they expect from the other parent (or other family members, such as older siblings, grandparents, etc.)?
Kids should be an integral part in this planning stage. Ask them their feelings on everything from what they want to study to how they want to interact with other kids. What are their biggest hopes and fears? What would an ideal day look like? What would a successful school year look like to them?
In the United States, education is regulated at the state level. Varying from state to state, homeschooling requirements include things like submitting a letter of intent, covering certain subjects, conducting student assessments and meeting minimums for instructional time. This resource from the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), gives detailed information on state laws, from the most regulated to the most flexible.
Once you have an idea of your family ideals, expand your horizons by looking to experts. Popular books include a traditional take on homeschooling, The Well Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home and a nature-focused approach, Call of the Wild & Free. Other books, like Plan Your Year: Homeschool Planning for Purpose and Peace, get more granular with details on how to start homeschooling.
Regardless of how resonant their philosophies or how applicable their tips, consider these homeschooling books as an introduction to the diverse approaches available. Don’t worry about finding your perfect match; take what you like about each one, and leave the rest.
Beyond formal publications, there are countless local resources at your fingertips, findable with a quick Google search, from content workbooks to tools for record-keeping. In larger areas there are multiple options for homeschoolers - from park days, to homeschool programs organized by museums and libraries.
If you don’t know any homeschool families, local Facebook groups are a great place to start. They’ll be packed with information about homeschool co-ops, support groups, and activities happening in your area. They’re also a place where you can ask questions like “How do you encourage independent study for a third-grader?” or “How do you cover high school social studies?” or “What are the best books for a 5-year-old reluctant reader?”'
People love talking about themselves, so as you start to participate in local homeschool activities, take advantage of the connections you make to learn more about different families’ experiences. Pick 3-5 families with whom you resonate and ask them if they’d be willing to give you 30 minutes of their time to share the ups and downs of homeschooling. (They’ll probably wind up happily talking for more!) A free-flowing chat often works best, but jot down any burning questions to make sure you cover topics that are keeping you up at night.
Some questions we recommend asking: What do you wish you knew before you started homeschooling? How did you determine your homeschool curriculum? What has been your biggest challenge and reward? What unexpected outcomes have you had? What does a typical day look like for your family? What are your favorite curriculum resources?
Once you start gathering resources, you’ll realize that there’s no shortage. From Facebook groups brimming with advice on how to start homeschooling to Pinterest boards packed with innovative learning experiences, the biggest challenge will be to sift out only the most meaningful ideas, approaches and opportunities. That’s why it’s so important to start this process with a clear mission statement. Otherwise, it’s easy to turn into over-scheduled tourists, sprinting from activity to activity, with no time to make meaningful connections.
Take a step back and look at the big picture: Do your available resources match your goals? If not, pinpoint what you’re missing (i.e. opportunities to socialize, diverse adult mentorship, interdisciplinary curriculum, community engagement), and head into a second round of resource-gathering with a more targeted approach, while making sure to note any enrollment deadlines for potential programs. But remember, it’s not about checking off items on a to-do list: Curating a dynamic educational experience for each unique child is an ongoing, iterative process that’s part science and part art that takes into consideration their learning styles and interests.
Tip: Create a calendar to stay on top of info sessions, registration deadlines and more.
Considering the flexibility of homeschooling, don’t force yourself to plan for a school year. Take a manageable chunk of time and establish your big-picture objectives and how you plan to measure them. (At Prisma, we use six-week blocks to hit the sweet spot between being long enough to do meaningful work and short enough to offer variety.)
From there, you can fill in your daily and weekly homeschool schedule — and don’t forget to take advantage of your newfound flexibility by including field trips that support whatever learning is getting them excited. One of the benefits of a flexible homeschooling style is that you can adapt as you go along; if you get a great idea, you can implement it right away, without having to wait for next year.
A successful homeschool experience takes a team. No matter how involved you plan to be, you’ll benefit from the support of other adults who can teach, mentor, and coach your child. Whether it’s a subject matter expert who can lead your kid through calculus, a debate coach who can inspire them to conquer their fear of public speaking, or a neighbor who hires them to water plants, other adults should be part of your homeschool journey. Not only do parents need time to recharge, kids need to interact with all kinds of people to be best prepared to get out into the world.
“It’s a work in progress.” Homeschool families will often remark that the constant evolution of their expectations, habits and activities is part of what they’ve come to love about the experience. That means that planning will only get you so far; at a certain point, you’ve got to dive in and test things out. Pick a start date, put it on your calendar, and get to work. You’ll be able to make adjustments on the fly to respond to the evolving needs of your child. Just make sure to schedule regular check-ins to gather everyone’s input and feedback. While you’re at it, don’t forget to include regular celebrations of your child’s achievements.
For anyone who has ever spent time in traditional school, it takes time to unlearn the rule-following mindset. The first year of homeschooling can be disconcerting as you and your kids adapt to life in which the fixed schedule has been replaced with infinite choices about what and how they learn. As new homeschoolers struggle to navigate this newfound freedom for the first time, their productivity may decline: Parents may see them jump from one activity to another or freeze from the overwhelm. This is perfectly natural: Many homeschooling parents describe a period of “unschooling” or ”deschooling” (that might take weeks or months or longer) that needs to take place before they get into the new groove.
We see this exact pattern at Prisma. For the first few weeks, Prisma learners and parents alike feel like they are drinking from the firehose, but usually sometime between week three and six, kids have an 'aha' moment where things really start to fall into place. Give yourself and your child room to adjust to their newfound freedom, and you’ll likely see them experience enormous growth in terms of their independence, self-motivation and engagement.