HOW TO START HOMESCHOOLING
Overwhelmed? Freaking out? I’ve got great news! There are really only five steps you need to follow in order to homeschool effectively.
Jumping into homeschooling can feel like moving to a foreign country. You don’t always understand the language, the culture is different, and you always feel like you’re doing things wrong. But in reality, it doesn’t have to be that hard. Our goal with this article is to get you going on your homeschooling journey. You can always go deeper later, but for now, let’s just get you started, shall we?
Step #1: MAKE IT LEGAL
Every state has some level of homeschool regulation. These are your non-negotiables. You should be able to find your state’s requirements on your state’s Department of Education website (here is a list of state educational departments to find yours). Another excellent source that is often more user-friendly (and, sadly, sometimes more reliable) than state DOE websites is HSLDA’s state law page.
Most of what you find should be fairly self-explanatory. Here’s a short glossary to help you navigate any unfamiliar terms. (Every state is different, so don’t panic if you don’t see these listed in your state’s laws.)
• Letter of Intent: This is a letter sent by the parent to the local school or district their child would normally attend. Your local homeschool support organization will likely have a downloadable template you can use. We recommend keeping a copy for yourself and sending the district’s copy via certified mail so you know it was received. You can also hand-deliver it and ask them to sign and photocopy it as a “receipt of acceptance” for you to keep.
• Attendance Record: Exactly what it sounds like — a record of the days in which your child “attends school.” Some states require that you “do school” for a specific number of days each year; others leave that number up to the parent’s discretion.
• Individualized Home Instruction Plan: This is a list of the textbooks, resources, syllabi, etc. that you plan to use. Some schools or districts will provide a form for you to fill out; others will tell you what information to include and you can create the form on your own. Again, your local homeschool support group will likely have a template for you to download.
• Quarterly Reports: This is a check-in of sorts with the district, state, umbrella organization, etc. It’s a list of what you actually did during the previous quarter. Your state will tell you exactly what to report.
• Portfolio: This is a collection of your child’s work in order to show his/her knowledge and academic performance. It may take a physical form – an actual collection of tests, worksheets, projects, etc. – or a digital one (photos and document scans on a memory stick or external drive) depending on your state’s requirements.
• Assessment/Evaluation: This is typically a standardized test your child takes annually or every other year. Some states allow an alternate form of assessment, like a portfolio review and/or interview with your child conducted by a certified teacher.
Step #2: Find Your Method
At the heart of the myriad different ways to homeschool are only a handful of distinct methodologies (approaches). You could research them all one by one, but this might help narrow the list:
Want a literature-based curriculum? These programs utilize high quality literature not only for teaching English/language arts, but to teach other subjects as well. Check out the Charlotte Mason approach and boxed curriculum options from Sonlight* and BookShark*.
Want to focus on the things your child is interested in? Check out unit studies, project-based learning, Waldorf, Montessori, and unschooling.
Want lots of structure and guidance? Check out boxed-set curriculums — you can find some good all-in-one programs on this page* under “All In One Programs.” (Sonlight and Bookshark, featured above, also provide a great deal of structure and guidance that you can use if you want to.) You could also consider online school-at-home options like Easy Peasy Homeschool or Bob Jones Distance Learning Online. (We’ll soon have a downloadable chart that compares many of the most popular online programs. Join our mailing list to be notified when that becomes available!)
(What about programs like K12.com* or Connections Academy*, you might ask? These are public school programs, so you have no flexibility of schedule or customizability of lessons or materials. which means they are not actually homeschooling options. For more information on both public and private online programs, check out our online school article!)
Want an even easier way to figure out what method would fit you best? Download our methodology quiz! This quick quiz will help you determine what type of methodologies are most likely to suit your family so you aren't stuck researching ten different approaches. Yay for shortcuts!
Of course, you need to check your methodology selection against your state’s requirements — but homeschooling is inherently flexible, so you should be able to add in anything your preferred method is lacking.
Step #3: Choose Your Curriculum
Once you know the methodology you want to follow, selecting curriculum gets much easier. An internet search for “[your preferred methodology] + curriculum” should give you plenty of options.
In some cases — such as project-based, unit studies, and unschooling — there isn’t any set curriculum. But there are books and blogs written to help parents like yourself get started with those methods. And depending on your child (and your state’s requirements), you may decide to purchase curriculum anyway for one or two subjects, like math or science.
In the case of online/virtual schools, your materials will be provided by the program you select.
Curriculum can be expensive, depending on the methodology you select and your preferences regarding new vs. used materials. But thanks to the internet, it can be easy to track down gently-used and even brand new and unused curriculum at discounted prices. Here are some great places to look:
Facebook – Do a search for homeschool curriculum groups. You’ll find lots! There are even groups for specific curriculum publishers and methodologies.
HomeschoolClassifieds.com – It’s exactly what it sounds like!
HomeschoolBuyersCo-op.org – They get discounts for homeschoolers by buying in bulk and also offer a variety of other resources.
For even more guidance, be sure to check out the next article, How To Choose Homeschool Curriculum.
Step #4: Get Organized
I don’t mean deciding where all these new books and binders are going to go. (Though that’s definitely part of it!) Your time, your space, your child’s work…trust me, it’s worth it to take a little time now to think this stuff through.
First off, figure out where you think you’ll do the bulk of your instruction. It might not be the place you’d expect. Our house has the perfect second-story loft for homeschooling — except we don’t use it. Our kids like to be down “where the action is” on the first floor, preferably on the very comfy couch. Ask your child where they’d like to work — environment plays a big part in one’s mindset.
Next, think about where everything will go. A small bookcase? Stacked plastic bins or drawer units? Straight-up student lockers? Big backpacks or even small carry-on luggage type bags? (Don’t forget a place for school supplies!)
In the past, we’ve given each of our daughters a storage bin for all their personal curriculum and supplies and kept them in the corner of the rarely-used dining room. Then one year the girls begged for a “real school room,” so we got them desks and lockers. Now we do school in the living room and keep all the books on a bookshelf in the loft or in a wicker basket next to the couch. (Moral of the story – don’t invest TOO much money because you never know how things will change over time!)
Saving your child’s work may be a personal choice, or it may be something required by your state. Either way, you’re going to need to figure out where to put it all!
Most of their work will be on standard printer paper or notebook sized paper, so binders, accordion files, and file boxes are logical choices. I find filing to be faster than adding things to binders, but your space and preferences will dictate what choice you make.
For larger projects, you have a couple options as well. Artist’s portfolios come in a variety of sizes and are great for oversized pieces that can fold flat – timelines, posters, etc. For 3-dimensional projects, just take pictures! (To authenticate that your child created the object in the picture, you may also want to take photos or video of them during the construction phase.) Save these in the cloud and on a memory stick or external drive so you have backups, particularly if you have to show them to evaluators who oversee your homeschooling.
Parents often assume school will take all day — kids in “regular” school are in class from 8am to 3pm, after all! The truth is that, in most cases, homeschooling takes far less time, particularly with younger children. But even so, you need to figure out where in your day this schooling is going to happen.
For example, in our family, we expect breakfast, chores, and personal hygiene to be done by 9am, which is when we start school. We have a family lunch around noon, then pick up where we left off and work until we’re done — normally until 1:00pm.
You also need to know what you’re going to teach. A standard lesson planner is one option for listing daily lessons, but so is a list on a sticky note! If your state requires that you track the time spent on each subject, look at a lesson book, daily planner, or printable planner pages for homeschoolers to help you organize not only your lessons but the amount of time spent actually engaged in them.
Your State-Mandated Information
If your state requires that you track attendance, time spent on particular subjects, etc. then you’ll need to determine what method would work best for your personality and approach.
If you’re already using a planner to organize lessons, then it’s easy to track the time spent on them and the days that you actually did school. You might have to get creative if you follow a less structured approach, however. For example, one unschooling-leaning friend of mine has a standard planner that she uses “backwards.” Rather than writing what they’re going to do, she records what they ended up doing over the course of the day. Her attendance is naturally recorded in the process, since a day with schoolwork listed on it is obviously a day they did school!
Step #5: Find Your Tribe
It’s difficult to do anything well without support. For homeschoolers, support comes in a variety of forms.
Co-ops allow parents to share the teaching load. Think of it as a “teaching swap.” They typically meet weekly at a home or church, and parents take turns teaching one subject to the different age groups present. Other parents might assist the teachers, and still others might babysit the children who are too little to participate in classes yet. The cost is often minimal since everyone is pitching in — usually just enough to cover materials, snacks, etc.
These programs allow parents to drop off their child and take classes with other homeschooled students, often in a more traditional classroom setting. Classes may be taught by certified classroom teachers or by parents. The cost is higher than those of a co-op because the teachers get paid for their time and there are usually facility costs that need to be covered. The trade-off, however, is that you’re essentially hiring a tutor to teach that subject for you – and outsourcing your least favorite subjects to teach can mean a reduction in stress and frustration for both you and your child. Very much worth the cost!
These groups often focus on the social side of things. They provide a chance for both children and parents to make friends with other like-minded homeschoolers through their (typically) monthly meetings. They organize field trips and special activities like homeschool proms and graduation ceremonies, and they may even bring outside speakers to their monthly meetings to help parents navigate things like college preparation and working with students who have learning difficulties.
If you’re not on Facebook, it might be worth joining just to take advantage of the plethora of homeschool support groups. There’s one (and in some cases, literally hundreds) for just about every type of homeschooler out there. Some focus on a particular curriculum, others on a specific methodology. There are groups for homeschoolers in certain states, counties, and cities, and groups for homeschoolers who adhere to a particular religion.
For those who live in a state where homeschooling is more restricted and thus there are not as many homeschooling families, online groups provide the encouragement, feedback, and recommendations that can mean the difference between a great year of homeschooling and a year that makes you want to throw in the towel. Hearing “been there, done that” stories from parents who are ahead of you in the journey can provide perspective and ideas you might not have thought of otherwise. Knowing you’re not alone can make a world of difference!
Bonus Step: Breathe! (And maybe buy some chocolate.)
Despite how uncomplicated we’ve (hopefully) made it, it’s understandable if you’re feeling a touch nervous at actually doing all this. Or maybe even downright terrified. (Hence the chocolate.)
It’s your child’s education, for heaven’s sake — that’s a big deal!
But the most important thing to remember – and something that might bring you some peace – is that nothing is set in stone.
Don’t like the curriculum? Change it!
Don’t like your schedule? Change it!
Don’t like the methodology? Change it!
Mid-year, mid-semester, mid-quarter – heck, at any point you can decide to try something new. Flexibility is one of the best things about homeschooling!
And if you get to the end of the year and decide homeschooling isn’t for you — that’s okay too. Truly.
Still feeling overwhelmed? Wish there was someone to walk you through it all?
There is! We have two options for those who want more assistance on their homeschool journey. Check out our Confident Homeschooler coaching program and our VIP Program to see which one is right for you! Whether you want general guidance or a whole lot of hand-holding through the process of launching your homeschool adventure, there’s a coaching package that will suit your needs.
Happy homeschooling y’all!
*NOTE: Mentioning a curriculum or program in this post does not equal recommendation or endorsement. Resources are listed only to illustrate the type of program being described. We have no affiliate relationship with these companies, nor do we gain anything if you click on the links or purchase their materials.