5 Steps to Multi-age Teaching in the Homeschool

With school starting again, I've been seeing lots of questions being asked about multi-age teaching. Since I've had a little experience with this, I thought I would share how we make it work. This could promise to be a fairly long and detailed post. If you are not a homeschooler, I give you permission to just skip this post and tomorrow's and come back on Wednesday. Of course, even non-homeschoolers are welcome to read along. I know this is one of those, 'I don't know how you do it!' questions.

I did the math and figured out that this is my 19th year of homeschooling. For this school year I have P., who is a high school junior; H., doing early elementary work; TM, 8th grade; D., 8th grade; R., early childhood activities; K., 2/3 grade work; Y., will be doing 3/4 grade work once she gets the English reading piece down; and G. and L., 2nd grade. (That's nine children, if you lost count.) I will admit that the crazy spread of ages and abilities made it a bit trickier this year to make a homeschool schedule work. I think I have one figured out, though we have yet to give it a trial run yet. (It's still August, people. Regardless of what every other school district in the country is saying, that's still summer in my book.)

I know the vast majority of people are not trying to juggle nine unique individuals, so I'll start out by giving a broader example of how to make multi-age teaching work. Tomorrow, I'll share my great plan for our own school this year, because based on the questions I often get, I know people are curious.

Settle in, grab a warm cup of your preferred beverage, and here we go.

5 Steps to Multi-age Teaching in the Homeschool

1. Take care of the littlest first.

Homeschooling with toddlers and preschoolers is challenging. While I could probably write an entire book on the subject (and possibly already have if you go back through old posts), I'll hit the highlights here.

The younger the child, the more they need a parent's attention. If you start your day by filling that need, they are much more likely to let you work with older siblings for a while. (Depending on the age, be aware that 'for a while' could mean anything from 15 minutes to two hours.) Read them stories, rock with them, sing songs, play a bit, spend some unrushed time together. With the emotional needs met, then pull out one of the toys or activities you have stashed away that only come out during school time. In the past I've rotated in and out Duplo, Playmobile 123, puppets, trains, plastic figures, and whatever else I know will keep their attention. These are things that only come out during school time and then go away. I usually get a different toy out each day so as to keep everything fresh. This does require having large enough bins and enough out-of-sight storage to make it work, but I find the pay-off to be worth it.

Other things that can help distract/engage young children are tactile experiences... sand, clay, water, digging in beans or rice, etc. Of course, you either have to take precautions to contain the mess or just decide the mess is worth it. I like to save these types of activities for days when it seems the little people just can't settle. Then the peace and activity it brings is well worth the mess.

When we are doing group work (more on this in a moment), I also let the little people join us as much as they can. Are the bigger people writing in notebooks? Then I make sure I have a cheap notebook for the little people to 'write' in as well. Are we doing experiments? Then let them watch and try it as well. Are we reading together? Then they can certainly listen, though they might need some toys to play with while they do. You will be amazed at what they pick-up doing this. They feel like big kids, which they desperately want to be, and because of this are usually more amenable to cooperating... or at least not being disruptive.

Of course, things don't always work as you would like and for those day, you can either wait until nap time or bag the schedule and go outside or something equally desperate. And you know what? That's OK, too. Life happens, especially life with young children. One day (or even one week or one month) of a disrupted schedule because of a fussy or clingy young child is not going to ruin your older children. Relax! Read a story together. Take a deep breath and remember that your relationship with your children is far more important than whether you made it through that page of phonics.

2. Focus on learning to read

When I'm planning my own family's schedule, I spend the most amount of concentrated one-on-one time with a child during the learning to read years. Once a child can read, the world opens up and you have more flexibility, but you have to get there first. I have found I can do just about any other subject with more than one child and they will learn, but teaching reading is the one thing that (in my opinion) has to happen individually. So that is what we do. The first step to creating a schedule is to carve out time with each child who is learning to read. (This is also what made our current year's schedule so tricky to make.) For some, this will take a year, and for others it may be a multi-year affair. Each of my children have learned to read fluently at vastly different ages and you can't really predict what timeline each child will take. Once again, paying attention to the child and the child's needs should come first and not some misplaced expectation that by age 6 everyone should be reading fluently.

(We'll pause here for a little rant. This current expectation that all children will learn to read fluently by the end of kindergarten is hogwash, in my opinion, and probably the single biggest cause for future reading problems in children. Please, do not join the craziness. Early reading is helpful for classrooms of children because teaching readers is just easier. You do not have classrooms of children and can work around reading issues for years if necessary.)

3. Encourage students to work independently

I know there is a stereotype out there that homeschooled students are incapable of working on their own and figuring things out independently because they are so used to having someone sitting next to them helping them every step of the way. I actually don't know any students like that, and I certainly do not do this for mine. (I'm not even sure I could if I wanted to, short of cloning myself.) I expect my children to work on things on their own while I'm working (usually on reading) with another child. This includes handwriting, math, other copy work, and grammar. Of course, if they have a question they can ask, but usually it is a quick explanation and they are back at work. (Usually it's a quick explanation... learning to identify and diagram direct objects and predicate nominatives can hang us up for a while. And no, until I taught it, I couldn't  have done it myself, even with my gifted education and pricey, exclusive college.)

4. Do everything that you can all together

I have my children work independently on reading, handwriting, math, and grammar. These are areas where each person learns at an unique pace and are also things that need to be covered sequentially. I think it would be nearly impossible to expect one child to move at the same pace as another. Not even my identical twins do this. But other subjects? Science, history, geography, people, literature, music, art... these we do all together. Everyone hears the same lesson, but not everyone responds to it the same way. Older people are expected to do a little more... a little more writing, a little more detail, a little more effort... while younger people are doing well to listen and help tell things back to me. I do try to find projects that are interesting at different levels, sometimes aiming higher and sometimes lower to cover all the bases (thank you Pinterest!), but ideas and map work and listening to stories is pretty much the same regardless of ones age and ability.

I will also add that we don't do all of these things everyday. I usually have two different topics that we are learning in depth in any given school year and can usually fit each of these categories into those topics over the course of a year. More on this when I explain our schedule for this year tomorrow.

5. But what about high school?! (Don't forget the panicked whine)

Once again, I could probably write a book on this. People think high school is scary. Heck, I thought high school was scary way back when, when M. was starting freshman year. But you know what? It's not really. Yes, there's science. We've done lab sciences at home with a textbook and a science supply kit, in a class with other people taught by another person, and non-traditional sciences created by ourselves... like B.'s bees. Yes, there's math. We've done video courses, textbooks on our own, and made use of tutors when needed. If I had someone who really, really like math and really, really wanted to do a lot, I would probably look into a community college class or something.

Our high schoolers work independently. They are actually the easy part of multi-grade teaching. We create a course of study together; I help them plan out their schedule for work (as much or as little as they want me to); they do their work on their own schedule (which for some is mostly done at night); and we check in together every so often. They also take outside classes and outside pursuits to a greater degree than they did when they were younger. I am more of a supervisor and acquirer of resources than an actual teacher.

There you go. It's completely doable. Appropriate expectations are really the key. Here are a few things to write on a poster to remind yourself of everyday.

  • Life will always get in the way of the schedule, and it will be OK.
  • Relationship is always more important than worksheets.
  • A happy and calm child will learn more easily than an upset and frustrated. It's OK to stop before the math book gets thrown across the room.
  • If you are feeling angry, it probably means you are scared about something. Stop and take a break, remembering that you are not failing your child. You really do have all the time you need to help your child reach his or her potential.
(Linked to the Hip Homeschool Hop)


Gretchen said…
I REALLY needed to read that last bit today. Your thoughts on reading at later ages have kept me calm in the past. Today (day 4 of our school) was just a really rough day. Between my 5th grader's reading level and the rising panic of my oldest beginning her junior year...thank you for your honesty and reminder of what is really important!

Popular posts from this blog

Why don't you adopt one of our children?

Adoption 101: Indiscriminate affection

Visiting churches