Thursday, August 13, 2015

6 Back To Homeschool Hacks To Make Life Easier

It's almost 'Back to Homeschool' time and I wanted to share six tips to make your transition from summer life to school life easier for your family.  If you're looking for a post about how to choose curriculum, see our post here.

1) Set A Loose Schedule for your day.  

I already talked about how to make a flexible homeschool schedule here.  Setting a rigid school-like schedule has never worked out well for us.  Instead we have a routine that can flex and bend depending on what we have to do outside of the house that day (things like sports, field trips, homeschool gatherings etc).  We usually get up at eight, do Bible Study, and have breakfast as a family.  When breakfast is done I ask my 2nd grader to do her after breakfast chore list.  I printed and laminated a list that has 'after breakfast', 'before dinner', and 'after dinner' chores, and she uses a dry erase marker to check them off when she's done.  Her after breakfast list includes things like: getting dressed, brushing teeth, feeding the pets, doing 5 minutes of reading, doing 5 minutes of room cleaning, and cleaning off the kitchen table.  After her morning chore list is done (it takes her about 15 minutes), we sit down and start school.  

Sometimes the start of school is around 9:15 and sometimes around 9:30.  We don't keep a strict school schedule and we don't always do our subjects in the same order each day.  We eat lunch around noon or one and if there is still school left to complete after lunch, we finish it up.  Because we don't worry about keeping to a strict time table, it's less stressful and helps us ease back into school after summer.

2) Organize work and study areas one to two weeks before school starts.  

Some families have dedicated school rooms, some work at a desk in the dining room, and others school at the dining room table or on the couch.  Wherever you do your work, get things ready ahead of time.  I like to have dedicated spaces in our study area (a corner of the dining room with a bookshelf and desk) for different curricula and supplies.  We have plastic tubs with lids under my 2nd grader's desk for curriculum that we aren't using yet but will be using later in the year.  The bookshelf to the left of her desk has 3 shelves and each has it's own purpose.  The top shelf is level readers and novels, the middle shelf is teacher's books and supplemental books, and the bottom shelf is random art supplies and math manipulatives.  We also have containers for the student workbooks she uses on a daily basis, which sit next to her desk on the floor.  On top of her desk is a lamp, a pencil box, and three pencil cups which hold her school supplies.  

I explain to her what she's allowed to get into, and what she isn't.  She knows where everything is, and where she's supposed to put things away when she's done with them.  Having dedicated spaces for supplies and books helps children and adults know where things are and how to clean up at the end of the day.  I can tell her, "Please bring me the History Teacher's book," and she knows where it is, and "put away your colored pencils," and she knows where to put them.  Organizing all of this a few weeks ahead of the start of school will give your students time to familiarize themselves with where everything is, and give you time to figure out storage solutions for your items.

3) Plan something fun for the first day.

Let your kids know that you'll be doing something really fun (or many fun things) on the first day of school.  Whether it's a back to school tradition like a special breakfast, or a special project you know they'll enjoy, planning something fun and talking it up in the week or two leading up to the start of school will get them excited (especially if they see that you're excited).  School should be fun, and when kids are excited, it's so much easier to get them to do their work than when they have what I call 'the floppies'.  The floppies is when your child is bored, uninterested, or borderline comatose while doing their work.  Their eyes glaze over, they stare off into space, and work moves on at a snails pace no matter what you try to do to get them to work faster.  Avoid the floppies!  Get the kids excited!

Ideas for fun things to do on the first day of school:
  • A fun science experiment like elephant toothpaste or magnets.
  • A special breakfast that they don't normally get... cinnamon rolls and eggs anyone?
  • Take start of school photos.
  • Wrap up a special school supply or book for each of your kids and let them unwrap after breakfast (like Christmas).  If there was a special Spiderman pencil box your child wanted, buy it and don't let them know about it until the first day of school.
  • Take a field trip or mini field trip.
  • Play a learning game.
  • Introduce one of your topics with a fun storybook or educational cartoon.
  • Sing songs.
  • Have kids make up a 'first day of school' dance and have a dance competition before school starts.

4) Don't overwhelm the kids or yourself on the first day.

If you plan to do too much on the first day you risk frustrating yourself and your kids, and putting everyone in a bad mood.  There's no need to get to every subject on the first day (or on any given day after that).  It's easy to worry that you won't get through all of your subjects or curriculum in one school year (especially if you purchased a lot of books and curricula).  I'm a list person myself.  I avoid stress by making lists, and in this case I make a list of all of our curriculums, how many lessons are in each, and how much time it takes to do each lesson.  I also know how many days of school we're doing, and that helps me know how many lessons in a given subject we have to do each week to finish in one school year.  Read more about how to figure this out in our post about scheduling.  Having a list of how many lessons we have to get through in a week of math, English, history, etc, helps me remember that we don't have to do every subject every day, and plan our week in a non-stressful fashion.
5) If there's school rules, get help making them.

We as parents know what we want from our children.  We have expectations of them, and sometimes those expectations are different during school time than during the rest of the day.  Rules like: 'no playing with toys while you're doing school work', and 'don't stick your finger in your brother's ear while he's taking a math test'.  There's a secret to school time rules though: if the kids help you make the rules, they are more likely to abide by them, and to remind others of the rules when they're being broken.  What I like to do is use a white board or chalk board and get everyone's ideas for school rules written down.  Then I re-write them into positives instead of negatives.  Someone might say, "no hitting," and I re-write it as, "our hands are not for hurting."  If someone says, "don't say bad words," I re-write it as, "be polite and respectful with our words."  When kids look at a rule list full of 'no's' and 'don'ts' it's easy for them to get discouraged.  Once all the rules are written, I type them up and have my student color and decorate it.  Then I tape it to a wall where we can see it during our school day.  Having her help me with the rules and then decorate the rules makes it seem to her as though the rules are her own, and she's eager to live by them.

6) Put a reward system into place and explain it before school starts.  If you do it right, kids will be excited and eager to follow the rules of the system.

Using rewards that can be saved up and spent later is a great way to positively reinforce desirable behavior.  This is also known as a 'token economy' system.  The basic premise is that when your child does something you want, you give them a token and they can save the tokens up and spend them on something they want later.  This is a great way to keep them motivated and working without interrupting lessons by presenting a large prize right there.  The tokens can be anything that the kids can't replicate on their own... star stickers on a chart, red hash marks on an index card (when you have the only red pen in the house), pennies or pinto beans in a jar... the possibilities are endless.  

How it works:
  • You explain the system to the kids so they understand what's going on.  Make it simple.  Tell them how to earn tokens (star stickers on a chart for example), what they can earn tokens for, and what the tokens can be spent on and when they can be spent.  "Johnny and Jenny, you can earn a star on your chart every time you clean your desk without me asking after school is over, every time you get a B or above on a test, every time you finish a book, and for being respectful.  When you get x number of stars on your chart, you get to pick a prize from the box.  The one rule is, you can't ask for a token."
  • Every time your child does one of the desirable behaviors (lets say one of the things he can get a token for is cleaning up his desk without being asked at the end of the school day), you give him a token and let him know that you are giving it to him.  "Johnny, thank you for cleaning up your desk without being asked.  I'm putting a star sticker on your chart."  If they don't know you're giving them a token, the system won't work.  If you don't be consistent and give them tokens for what you said you would on a regular basis, it won't work.
  • When your child has enough tokens saved up, let them spend the tokens on the promised reward.  Maybe your system says that every 10 star stickers he gets, he gets half an hour of TV.  Or for every 30 star stickers he gets a dollar for his piggy bank.  Or for every 50 star stickers he gets to pick a new pencil or eraser out of your special prize box.  It's important that you have prizes your child likes, and it's also important that your child is able to earn tokens at a quick enough pace to earn those rewards often.  For this reason, make prizes available that they can earn once a day that you don't mind them having once a day, and make bigger prizes take longer to earn.  Give them choices on what to spend their tokens on, it makes it more fun for them.  Keep a list where they can see it if you have to, of what they can spend tokens on and how much each thing costs.
  • Know that in a token economy system like this, you do not take tokens away for bad behavior, you only award them for good behavior.  If your system isn't working at first, flood it with tokens so they can get excited about it (give them more tokens more often for desirable behavior), and then wean them off of the excess tokens back to a reasonable amount of tokens after a few days or a week.
Token economy systems aren't bribery.  You're not bribing your child to behave.  When we go to work and earn money, we are part of a token economy system.  When we go to the local coffee shop and buy a coffee and get a stamp on our card that allows us to redeem every 10 stamps for a free drink, that's a token economy system.  The more a person gets positive reinforcement (a token in this case that they can spend later) for a behavior, the quicker that behavior sets in place and becomes a habit.

Some behaviors you might want to reward in a system like this are: 
  • cleaning up messes they make during school time
  • cleaning up their desk
  • helping their siblings with school work
  • doing their school work in a timely manner
  • having good handwriting
  • being respectful
  • finishing a book
  • doing well on a test
  • putting a lot of effort into a project
If your child is doing something you don't want them to do, turn it around into a positive behavior with this system.  If your 1st grader argues with you every time you say it's time for reading, tell him that he'll earn a token from now on every time that he shows he's ready for reading time with a positive attitude.  Just remember that behaviors take time and consistency to change.  This system is meant to make things fun and help school time run more smoothly.

I hope I have given you some good ideas to help get back into the swing of things for the start of school this year.  If you have ideas of your own, let us know in a comment below.

Best way to homeschool.


  1. Great ideas! I've been working on new rules and a reward system for the semester. You gave me some great ideas! Thanks.

  2. I think number 3. is a great tip which most people don't think of.


  3. Tip number 4 is something I've had to learn the hard way!! It's so helpful to start small and ease into the school year.