Homeschooling Through Challenging Times

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Learn how homeschooling families cope when difficulties arise.

Isabel Shaw

When difficulties arise, families sometimes give up on homeschooling, believing that children will be in the way, or will be unable to cope with a challenging situation. Family illness, a new baby, moving, job loss, divorce, and other family issues are reasons why parents may think about putting their children back in school.

But are children better off when they are removed each day from the possibly intense ups and downs of family life? The answer is...yes and no. For serious parental problems, especially psychological or emotional issues, the response would almost always be yes. But my experience has been that children can benefit from weathering the storms of other problems alongside their parents. Families often emerge stronger as a result.

One mom I know told me about her husband's job relocation to Germany, which uprooted the whole family from their home in the United States. A few months after the move, the company unexpectedly went out of business and the family had to move back to the U.S. It was a very stressful time for everyone, but she believed that homeschooling was the glue that held the family together during this difficult period. The children didn't have to leave a school and enroll in a different school, and the family members supported one another through the crisis.

The second child of another mom was born seriously ill. She considered putting his older sister, who was then five, in school. She decided against it, however, and now feels that she made the right choice. Years have passed, and the two children are very close. The mother is certain that if her daughter had not been involved in the day-to-day care of the baby, she would have felt disconnected and, eventually, resentful of her brother.

Divorce is perhaps the ultimate challenge to a homeschooling family. If the divorcing parents agree that it is important to continue with homeschooling, their children will benefit by having one less disruption in their lives. Unfortunately, couples who are going through a divorce sometimes attempt to use homeschooling as a control issue, which can result in forcing their children into a school setting. The loss of a parent's presence in the home, coupled with the experience of suddenly being placed in school, can be devastating to a child. I heard from several divorced parents that putting the children first and continuing a homeschooling lifestyle ultimately benefits everyone. Maintaining a daily routine similar to the pre-divorce routine can help to keep the long-term negative effects of divorce to a minimum.

Several years ago we faced our own family crisis, and it changed the way we homeschool. It began when my 80-year-old mother suffered a bad fall that fractured her pelvis. After a few weeks of treatment, we decided that she would leave the hospital and live with the family to complete her rehabilitation. I knew that caring for her would be a personal challenge. How on earth, I asked myself, would I be able to homeschool my children, manage our household, and maintain my sanity?

I must confess that I considered putting my children in school, at least temporarily. I was worried that they would be uncomfortable seeing their grandmother so helpless each day. I thought that perhaps they should be protected from the unpleasantness involved with this type of care. I anticipated that they would get in the way. And I was concerned that we might be so distracted that we would not be able to keep up with our schoolwork.

We discussed our options as a family and decided nevertheless to give it a try. The first few weeks were especially difficult. I hoped we would eventually be able to establish a homeschooling routine, but that never happened. Homeschooling, as we knew it, fell apart. I didn't know how we would we ever get back on track and cover all of our subjects. I was beginning to despair.

Then one morning, I watched my 11-year-old daughter fix a tray of food to take to her grandmother. "Grandma and I are going to read after her snack," she announced. I realized that, as my mother recovered, both of my girls were spending a lot of time reading and playing board games with her. She taught them how to play cards, and showed them games from her youth. I felt a glimmer of hope that homeschooling just might survive.

With Grandma as a captive audience, putting on shows became a daily event. My older daughter wrote out imaginative scripts, and my younger one put together costumes from our overflowing box of "dress-up" clothes. The theme was usually something they had read the day before, or a story Grandma had told them about life in Poland.

They liked to "play hospital" and to help prepare Grandma's meals. Both girls were able to follow simple recipes, and they decorated and wrote out menus with elaborate descriptions of the dishes. When the physical therapist came each day, they asked many questions. "Why are you doing that? Do you like your job? Is Grandma the oldest patient you've ever had?"

The doctor was amazed at her progress. In a few weeks, she was out of the wheelchair, then abandoned the walker and moved on to a cane. With her granddaughters encouraging and supporting her, she stopped using the cane and started to walk by herself. Her physician told us that her progress was remarkable. Many older women never recover from this injury.

When Grandma left, almost two months later, it took us a few weeks to get our lives back in order. After an extended break, I dug out our textbooks and decided to see just how far behind my two girls had fallen. You can imagine my astonishment when I discovered that, skill-wise, not only weren't they behind, but they were actually further ahead than if we'd continued in the traditional manner!

I knew they played some games and had fun, but we hadn't "done school" for months! Then it hit me. Their reading, writing, and math activities did continue, only in a different manner. Counting the dice and determining moves in the games they played each day taught them addition and subtraction effortlessly. The card games taught strategy and math. Doubling recipes helped them grasp the concept of fractions and following directions. Reading skills increased dramatically from the long periods of listening to and reading with their grandmother. Composing scripts, menus, and greeting cards advanced their writing skills.

They were also exposed to a new career (physical therapist), and learned how to administer and monitor medication. ("No, Grandma, you take the yellow pill at night!") They learned how a positive attitude affects outcome, and saw firsthand that perseverance and hard work pay off — even when you're 80 years old.

It is possible to continue homeschooling through challenging situations. It just takes a little planning and a lot of letting go. For homeschooling families that may be facing challenging situations, it helps to remember the following points:

  1. Time is on your side.
  2. Even if your child falls a year behind, it is not difficult to bring him up to grade level in just a few weeks or months. What may be a difficult concept for a six-year-old is a piece of cake for an eight-year-old. Get through the challenging situation, catch your breath, and eventually you'll get back into a homeschooling routine.
  3. Lower your expectations.
  4. Whether it's working on schooling activities, keeping the house tidy, or making dinner, learn to let all but the most important things go. If you feel that you're falling behind, having sandwiches for dinner or putting away the workbooks is more effective in the long run than doing everything and feeling overwhelmed.
  5. Delegate.
  6. I was surprised to find that my six-year-old could fold towels and my 11-year-old was eager and willing to help with cooking. When everyone shares the load, there's less chance of feeling stressed. Make a chart, assign jobs, and take a step back.
  7. Ask for help.
  8. If extended family members aren't available, other homeschooling parents are usually supportive and willing to lend a hand, if needed. Be specific in your requests ("Can you come over for an hour on Tuesday morning?"), and use your time wisely.
  9. Challenging situations are usually temporary.
  10. Infants eventually sleep through the night, spouses find jobs, and moving boxes all get unpacked. Homeschooling gives you the freedom and time you need to meet each challenge in a way that's best for you and your family.
  11. There are resources for homeschooling families who are dealing with divorce.
  12. The Homeschool Legal Defense Association has a free divorce information packet. Take advantage of this helpful information.