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We decided to follow a Feb-Nov school year instead of the local school system’s Aug-May calendar. It works best for our family, especially since it gives us a large break during the busy holiday season. So, last month, all glory to God, our oldest completed Kindergarten! This is my third year homeschooling, if I count preschool (which I do!); every year that I have worked with my oldest, I have also had 3 younger siblings to take care of as well.
So, how do you balance the need to learn skills with the need to take care of young babies?
*take a deep breath* *exhale* Know that it can be done. My oldest is learning to read and do math, at home, with a learning disability and in the midst of competition from his three younger siblings who also want his mother’s attention. By the grace of God, he is learning at home, and we are able to use a Catholic curriculum, Catholic Heritage Curricula.
Okay, now that I have gotten that out, I will share a few life-saving tips.
1. Take it easy in preschool
I mean it. Go for simple. Very, very simple. Go easy on the child and let him or her play! Oh, the temptation is there – there are so many good books (I am looking at you, 26 Letters to Heaven) and blogs out there with a TON of free preschool printable packs – more activities than you will ever have time to use. Plus, if you have friends with kids enrolled in a preschool program, there is a fear that your child is missing out intellectually by staying at home with you, so you feel like you should do more so your kids can keep up. That fear is a big one, and it created a lot of unnecessary stress in our household. However, if you also have younger children, you just can’t do everything hands-on that you would like to with your 3 and 4 year old preschoolers.
So, for me, I make things really, really simple for preschool and split it into two years: about 20 weeks’ worth of activities for preschool/age 3, and 26 weeks for preschool/K-4. That first year is nothing more than learning to cut with scissors, finger painting, coloring with crayons and markers, and doing things like sorting by color or shape. With one specific tray activity or craft a day, four times a week, it’s a very simple school year. The second year, K-4, is when we focus on one letter of the alphabet a week; we read 4-5 picture books from the library for that week (mostly about animals), assemble letter-of-the week trays (filled with pictures or toys that match the week’s letter), print off various printable print packs for my kids to learn how to follow directions, work on fine motor skills, and teach letter and number recognition. This second year of preschool takes more planning on my part, but it is still a low-expectation year for my kids.
2. Invest in what our kids call “school buckets”
This is a life-saver. Last summer, I attended a Bible study for homeschooling mothers, and with 4 kids age 4 and under, I was struggling with our decision to home school. I was in the middle of my oldest son’s K-4 year, and my thirst-for-learning 3 year old wanted to participate in everything his older brother was doing, too. So, I would work on school with the boys at the kitchen table after breakfast, busily going back and forth to help them, but my younger daughters, age 1, also needed me. I was at a complete loss as to how to keep the girls from destroying what their brothers were working on, and how to keep everyone happy. A mother at the Bible study said she has toys that only appear in her house during school time, such as dress-up outfits.
I took that idea and separated out a bunch of toys for school time; many of them learning-related, but not all. I purchased a set of six bins online, and numbered them. The toys and puzzles were then divvied into the bins; one bin comes out each school day, and those toys are only available until lunch. This system really works!! It really helps keep the younger kids occupied while I work with one or both of the older kids, and it often provides a bit of motivation for the older kids to finish a task so that they can go play with the school bucket.
3. Keep Kindergarten simple
I could have put my own curriculum together for kindergarten as I had for preschool, but I was just too exhausted last year to even try that. My husband agreed it would be best to buy a prepackaged curriculum so that I could save a lot of time and stress. I then began researching available curricula, and thank God we live in a time when there are a LOT of options for homeschooling, even among Catholic distributors!
However, some of the programs I looked at really seemed to be too much: I do not believe that a Kindergartner needs seven subjects each day, especially if he or she lives in a house with siblings. At this age, I truly do think letters, numbers, and faith are all they need to learn. I found the Catholic Heritage Curricula, which is limited to those three subjects for Kindergarten, and I loved the low-key, low-stress approach they take. This program could not have been more perfect for us this year, and I still get choked up thinking about how my son, who has ASD, is in the early stages of READING!!! Praise God. Yes, again, that temptation to compare to friends’ kids who are enrolled in amazing kindergarten programs is still there. I just have to remind myself that my son is happy, and he was not as overwhelmed as he would have been had he had to worry about more subjects this past year.
Finally, four days a week is plenty!!!
4. Involve the younger kids, whenever possible
Our school day begins with morning stretches: after breakfast, all kids use the restroom, then all kids gather in a circle to do a stretching routine with me. After group stretches, the school bucket appears and I sit down with the oldest to begin school. After he is done with the hands-on stuff and only has copy work remaining, the next oldest joins me for his lessons. After all the schooling is done, all four kids are brought together in the living room, and they all sit to hear that day’s picture book from the library that I had picked out for the preschooler. Yes, the material is over the youngest’s heads, but they love to be included and to look at the pictures.
I try to do one craft a week for my preschooler, and I make four copies and have all four kids do the craft at the same time. When there is a science activity to be done, such as freezing a water-filled balloon to ice, then melting it with salt and adding food color, well, all kids are encouraged to participate. Next year, when my oldest will be in first grade, I plan to do incorporate some literature suggestions from a Charlotte Mason curriculum; these will be read aloud to all of my kids, together.
Basically, any time there is something school-related that I can do with all four kids, they do it together. This makes the younger kids feel important enough to enjoy the special book or activity, and it makes it easier for me because it lessens the amount of time I have to keep my kids segregated into those doing school and those playing.
These are the few tips I have to share; may God bless you and your family!