Introducing Adventures in Homeschooling

Today I’m going to introduce a new topic to this blog: homeschooling.

I’m a dad, and my son is elementary-aged. Together, we’ve had a bit of an unusual educational path, and people keep asking me to write and share what we’ve been up to. In addition to my software work, I am also my son’s learning coach. We use a blend of structured and unstructured learning, with some adult direction, some formal school interactions, and a lot of time and opportunity for self-directed learning.

To keep up with a kid who is an active learning machine requires that I keep learning too. I need to feed his learning appetite, to encourage and cheer him on, help set goals and milestones,remove impediments and protect him from politics. In short, it sounds a lot like what I do as a product manager working with software development teams, even if the implementation is different.

In March 2020, we–like everyone else–were suddenly pulled out of our routine and needed to find a way to help a four year-old (almost five year-old) learn at home. He had been in daycare and preschool, and was well prepared for kindergarten in the fall. While we weren’t worried about him falling behind, we needed him to keep learning and stay occupied while one of us worked from home. Since my health prevents me from full-time work, I took on the learning coach role, while my wife transitioned to full-time work from home and needed space and time to focus on her work.

We are fortunate because our kid has an insatiable desire to learn and is extremely driven. Since both his parents are techies, he sees devices as learning aids, as well as entertainment. He has a lot of patience when he wants to learn, and can focus on pouring his energy into a task when he puts his mind to it. At the time, he was frustrated because he couldn’t read, and he wanted to improve his music skills by working with me. We felt we would build on what he had been learning already, and branch out as he needed.

To start our home school, I researched and bought prep-free lesson plans for a month of kindergarten level activities. I read about how to get buy-in from your child by having them take an active role in homeschooling. We worked together on naming our school, we made a logo for it and I printed a poster for him. We talked about what he liked and didn’t like in school. We talked about learning goals, and setting up stations for learning in the house. I worked through the weekly overview of the lesson plans, and shared them with him. The first day we started by playing a learning song he chose to help us start the day. Then, we looked at the calendar and talked about today’s date, and shared our feelings.

At first, things went reasonably well. I found that 30 minutes of time in a lesson plan designed for a kindergarten class could take about five minutes for the two of us. Other times, if he was really into a topic, we might run long, throwing off our whole schedule. I didn’t want to fall behind, but I also felt that since we were essentially starting kindergarten materials early in the year (March instead of September), we could spread out the work. The hope was that in the fall he would return to in-person learning, and that anything we did at home would be preparation for that. However, I like plans and schedules, and it bothered me that we weren’t able to follow the plan. When a lesson ran short, kiddo suggested that we just take a break for the remainder of the time, then move to the next topic at the time in the plan. I decided to try, but quickly realized transitioning back to learning mode from break mode was tricky. It could be fraught with conflict.

On the other hand, if we stayed in learning mode for most of the morning, we were happier and felt more productive. Instead of breaks, I decided to revamp the lessons. We settled on a 15 minute format for lessons, rather than the 30-60 minutes in the lesson plan. It looked something like this:

  • Introduce the topic
  • Explain and teach the topic with a working example
  • Turn the topic over to the student
  • Once they are comfortable with the exercise and are finished with it, summarize and move on

One-on-one, this could take anywhere from five to fifteen minutes. It also seemed to work extremely well. Instead of free breaks in between topics, I could adjust the schedule, front-loading it for the morning, which matches kiddo’s energy. In the afternoons, I would catch up on software work, and, due to my health, I would also need to rest. Instead of leaving him to his own devices (which would often be non-stop YouTube kids, or working on a play project), I downloaded some educational apps for him to use. As his energy levels for learning waned, usually mid-afternoon, I left him completely unsupervised to do what he wanted. Surprisingly, he would obsess over YouTube kids for days on end, watching what parents would call “junk,” but then he would come up with learning goals and projects and all kinds of creative things to do on his own.

He would find an interest, ask to learn about it, and we would search out resources for him to consume, or help him set up art projects or experiments. Nice! We dialed it in, and figured out what worked for us. I used a modified schedule with a no-prep lesson plan that covered all the major topics, and we spent time bringing toys and books into his math and literacy work. When it seemed like he was just going to wile away the hours on something unproductive, he would get an idea and work to learn something new on his own.

Then one day, he literally flipped the table.

When it was time for learning, he refuses. We would argue, we would lash out at each other, and one day while working on some math exercises he had previously enjoyed, he tipped his craft table over. After that, each morning, and at every subject change in the schedule, instead of participating, he refused. He would sit and refuse to talk, participate or do anything.

After a few days of trying everything I could possibly think of, and consulting parenting books, online resources and chatting with other parents, I left him to his own devices for two weeks. In the meantime, I started to retool.

Feelings Matter for Learning

I knew I needed to approach things differently and get him to feel safe and comfortable learning again. The trouble is, a five year-old can rarely tell you what’s wrong with your approach or why they have big feelings. Furthermore, I am Gen X, and our learning approach was about being left to our own devices, lots of memorization in school, strict discipline and tough love. School was school, it wasn’t necessarily fun, but you did it to get where you needed to go. We rarely talked about feelings, and when we did, we often treated it as a big joke.

To figure out what would work for my son required a radical departure from what I thought learning should look like, and I didn’t have the option of buying and implementing zero-prep lesson plans anymore. I also had to spend a lot of time working on emotional regulation. First of all, I had to examine myself and my emotions, and I read a lot of Big Life Journal and Growth Mindset materials. I bought some packages with activities for kiddos, and instead of starting our typical schedule, I started with dealing with our emotions.

The first thing I changed was to start the day differently. We focused on emotional regulation first and got ourselves in the right mindset for learning. I found a couple of simple picture books about emotions, and we would start by reading them, then pointing to the color or the picture that best described the emotion we were feeling. If the emotion was negative, we would go outside and be active for 15 minutes. He’d blow off some steam, and nine times out of ten, start to feel positive. Linking his movement to his positive thoughts was an important observation that I return to, over and over.

When his emotions were positive, I would introduce some of the exercises from our lesson plan. But instead of trying to cover materials and make sure we got all the work done, I started to watch my son very closely. At what point would a positive emotion change, and what were we doing that caused that change? The first thing I noticed that could flip him from feeling good to starting to withdraw or feeling frustrated and angry was Math. He could go from smiling and chatting to quiet and withdrawn in an instant. If I could get him out of the situation and get him moving, we got back on track.

What was the trigger to go from positive to negative? At first, I thought it was just resistance to any sort of formal learning with a parent, which is normal. However, the negative reactions didn’t fit a pattern. They could come out of nowhere, and I realized that the feelings might have been brewing for minutes or hours before they would emerge. I needed to be much more aware and observe, and do “feelings temperature checks” often.

I noticed that once we went from theory to working through an example, any of the “school math” activities we worked on were affecting him negatively. For example, we were working on counting Hot Wheels cars, and then doing very simple arithmetic on a worksheet. He would start out happy, but while doing the math on the worksheet, his entire body would tense up. He’d go quiet and would be full of tension. Conversely, when he watched Jack Carson YouTube videos with math songs, he would move and dance and have fun. Clearly, I needed more of the latter, and less of the former in his learning. He would watch Numberblocks on TV and binge watch for hours, loving every minute of it. Then, when I tried to apply what he was learning from watching to a traditional math exercise, I wrecked it.

He was learning and really enjoying math, but not the way I was trying to teach it. I was taught math with memorization and figuring out equations and formulas, so I wasn’t sure how to approach it with my son.

Learning how to teach mathematics in a way that fit his energy and emotions was my next challenge.

(To be continued…)

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