Flexibility – How to Teach Multiple Ages at a Time

This post originally posted on  An Intentional Life

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As a homeschooling mom, one of the questions am often asked (after the obligatory “Oh, I could never do that” comment) is, “How do you teach so many different ages/grades at the same time?” In a five minute conversation it’s difficult to convey what homeschooling even IS, let alone how I manage to juggle the educational needs of each of my five children and myself. More often than not I give them my rehearsed answer of how I do A, B, and C; and while I’m sure they can sort of understand what I’m saying, they don’treally get it. I’m assuming though, that if you are reading this you are interested in more than the 10 second sound byte. So here it goes…

Educating several children with varying ages/grades/abilities in addition to running a home and having a new baby or toddler (which seems to be a never ending stage of life) requires just two things thing.

  1. The Right Environment
  2. Flexibility

That’s it. You don’t need fancy planners, timers, detailed schedules, expensive curriculum, or exciting new gadgets. Sure, those things can be helpful if they work for you, but they are secondary, not necessary.

Today I’m going to focus on Flexibility. For or more information on creating the right environment, take a look at my article on creating A House Of Learning on my blog.

Flexibility

After your first child is born you learn very quickly that things aren’t going to turn out exactly like you had planned. As a veteran parent you now know that perfect children don’t exist, patience comes in limited quantities, and it doesn’t matter how often you brush your 3 year old daughter’s hair and how carefully you pick out her outfit, she will always look homeless the minute you walk out in public.

Homeschooling is no different. You have to be able to roll with the punches. New babies, sleepless nights, potty training, vomit, doctor’s appointments, power outages (I survived Hurricane Sandy), moving… expect the unexpected. Being in a perpetual state of “pregnant, newborn and/or toddler” means that I almost never have my “perfect generic day from heaven” Fortunately if you have set up a house of learning then rolling with the punches doesn’t have to mean that school has to come to a screeching halt.

Pregnancy/Newborn

Whenever I find out that I am pregnant I always reevaluate my school year. I can usually count on about 12 weeks of morning sickness followed by “I can be super-mom as long as you don’t ask me to lift anything”. Regardless of the time of year, we use my morning sickness time as a kind of “summer vacation”. We cut way back on the formal schooling. Family learning during that time is basically limited to reading out loud, the 3 R’s, Home Ec. (aka, how to keep a house clean and “Lucy, how would you like to learn how to make dinner?”… FYI, my kids generally fail on keeping the house clean once they realize they need to clean up multiple times in the same day.), and we also throw in some embryology because there is just no better time to teach that then when Mom is pregnant :) We follow the same formula after the baby is born. Once I’m ready to start adding more subjects I start by simply reading a book to them, then I just let The Spirit guide.

Babies aren’t easy. People talk about “easy” babies and “hard” babies, but you know what? All babies are HARD, some are just slightly less difficult than others! In fact, all kids are hard! And that’s ok. Homeschooling with an infant is not easy! For me, the best thing is to just accept that it is hard and deal with it. I read out loud while I nurse and I let my older children entertain the baby while I help the younger ones with their lessons. We are finally seeing a light now that Henry is seven months old and is taking predictable naps. But, before that I used swings, bouncers, binkies, slings, playpens… dude! I do whatever works and I don’t care what people think!

**Ok, another confession time… I know I said that we use the 3 R’s, but really I only use two. Reading and Arithmetic. I have always made paper and pencil available to my kids whenever they want. This means for a lot of stray pencil marks on furniture and a lot of wasted paper but it also means that when I’m cleaning up my house I find countless essays, poems, newspaper articles, letters, and stories written by my children. I don’t know if they love to write because I allow them unfettered access to those things or the other way around, but when I find those papers all over my floor I gather them up, put a name and a date at the top and file it away. Writing… done.**

Toddlers/Preschoolers

I believe that most toddlers and preschoolers don’t need anything beyond whatever is needed to keep them happy and whatever they need to feel included. At that age they are learning obedience, how to talk, reason, think, right from wrong, how to use the potty, and how things work in your family. That’s PLENTY for now. Just by being an active member of the family they will learn their colors, shapes, etc. You don’t need to push it. The only reason why I do any formal schooling with Jack (currently 3 years old) is because he has a speech delay, even then it’s only five minutes or so a couple times a week.

I like to keep coloring books, puzzles, pattern blocks, legos, and other “educational” toys around but that is only so that he can play quietly with the “special” toys during school. He wants to feel included so we have these things for when he needs five or so minutes of extra attention.

Ages 5ish to 8ish

Spencer is five and for his kindergarten year he had two subjects: Reading and Math. I started him on a phonics program and a kindergarten math program. I don’t try and finish all of the lessons in one year and I only go as fast as he can handle. At five years old a ten minute lesson is long enough. If he doesn’t grasp the concept by then, I take a break for a few days and then come back to it. Usually the second or third time around he will get it.

At this age, reading out loud very best thing you can do. Read books about animals or scientists. Read books about artists and musicians. Go and visit farms, child friendly museums and zoos. Unless you need documentation for your state’s or country’s regulations, then I wouldn’t even bother writing anything down. Take pictures of their lego creations and keep their drawings and letters. Keep it simple. Keep it fun. It’s ok to take it slow at this age. They are still so little.

Ages 8ish to 11ish

Just before Lucy turned eight years old it was like someone flipped a switch in her. One day she was whiny and needy, the next she was pleasant and helpful. I could not believe the difference. Seemingly overnight she had matured and all of a sudden she was “ready”. She was ready for her schooling to go into more depth. You will know when your child is ready and when they are you can start to teach them how to study things on their own. It’s been three years since then and I am absolutely amazed at how she loves to learn! Lucy started her fifth grade math last week because she “just love[s] fractions!” and she practices piano for several hours a day. I know that her self-motivated and proactive character is just part of her little spirit and all I need to do is point her in the right direction.

Emma is another story. She’s not very self-motivated and would rather spend the day playing with toys than reading a book. That’s why I said 8-ish. She’ll do it and she may even do it happily but she won’t do it on her own. It’s taking her a little bit longer to find the spark that will light her fire but she will. Until then I just have to keep encouraging her and showing her how exciting learning can be.

12ish and up

The beauty of it all is that if you have created a home where education is a way of life, by the time your children reach high school they are ready to take control over their own education! Some kids may need a bit more guidance and encouragement than others, but you won’t need to hold their hand. At that point you are simply there to provide support and guidance (and to make sure they get to the SAT in time).

Putting It All Together

You know what your children’s individual educational needs are, but it’s not always easy to put it all together. So how do I teach five kids from ages 1 year to 10 years old? Every subject is a little bit different but I have found that most can be taught to everyone at the same time (the glaring exceptions are phonics and math). I almost always start with a story. If I’m lucky I can get a picture book and a few other age appropriate books about the subject at the library (if not I just use another good picture book with a good moral and story). The picture book gets everyone’s attention and once I finish it the younger boys usually drop off the couch to play with legos on the floor. Next there is usually another story, a more detailed explanation, an experiment, or a related movie.

The boys (ages 3 and 5) are always allowed participate as much or as little as they want but I try to at least keep them in the room. If it’s an especially good lesson and we take longer than what we can expect a 3 or 5 year old to stay quiet for (about an hour) then sometimes I will pull out a forgotten toy for them to play with in another part of the house. All this time Henry (the baby) is either nursing, sleeping, playing quietly on the floor, or being held. My goal is to keep him happy, quiet and safe.

When I see Emma’s eyes start to glaze over I usually hand her whatever book she is reading on her own (she’s working through The Magic Tree House series) and send her off to read. At that point I focus on just Lucy. We keep going we start to get bored with the subject, my voice starts to hurt or it’s time for a meal. When appropriate and available I may give Lucy and Emma some worksheets (crossword puzzles or word searches are favorites) or writing assignments like letters to Grandma (which I check for spelling and grammar mistakes before sending it off). Math would usually be done about this time as well.

We aim for one extra subject a day and I keep flexible lesson plans. This doesn’t sound like much, but the reality is that all subjects are related to each other. If you are teaching with passion and allow yourself to be led by the stories and your children’s questions you will end up teaching so much more than just one subject. I have started with history and a story about Napoleon in the morning, then been able to cover geography, science, strategy, and math… all without leaving the topic of Napoleon’s life. Tangents in a homeschool aren’t a waste of time. They are what make learning fun and interesting.

Teaching several different grades at once is not a new concept but the one-room schoolhouse phased out existence during the first half of the 20th century (though rumor has it there are a few are still scattered here and there). A homeschool isn’t a one-room schoolhouse, but as parents we can take heart in knowing that the dynamic of teaching multiple ages at a time worked then and it still works now.

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Comments

  1. You sound like such a pro! Great article!

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