In the almost 4 years we’ve been homeschooling, there has always been a baby or a toddler in the house. Without a doubt the biggest challenge for me has been figuring out what to do with the youngest during school time. I can’t even count the times our school day was cut short because of a younger sibling whining or getting into mischief or having a potty training accident, and after dealing with the situation I was often too frustrated to get things back on track. I realized that most of my frustration was coming from trying to fit our lives into a picture of what I thought homeschooling should look like, and it simply wasn’t working.
I realized we are never going to be the kind of family that starts school at 9 am and works until lunch. We are not going to finish every lesson with no interruptions. My toddler is not always going to sit quietly and sort blocks by color until we finish our history lesson. At the end of each week, there will be things left undone. There will be gaps in my children’s education. And that’s okay.
So, instead of squeezing my family into the neat but miserable little box of perfect homeschooling, we set out on the journey of happy homeschooling. Here are some of the things that have helped make our days a little smoother with a little one in the house:
Happy Homeschooling–Even with a Toddler
- Adjust your expectations. If you don’t do anything else, this one thing will put you well on your way to happy homeschooling. Go into each day knowing that there will be interruptions so that you’re mentally prepared when they happen. Expect to have things left undone at the end of the day. We mostly use Fridays for catching up on things that we didn’t finish throughout the week. This takes some of the pressure off, and if you happen to get through everything on time, you could do a fun experiment or art project that wouldn’t normally fit in the schedule. (Or take the day off!) Don’t expect your days to look like someone else’s. Do what works for your family. Try to see your toddler as a valuable member of your home school and not an obstacle to it. And don’t stress over the things that don’t get done. Your kids will still be learning plenty, plus they’ll have the benefit of a mom who can let go and simply enjoy being with them!
- Play first. This goes against the old “work before play” adage, but it can really make things run more smoothly. My 2-year-old wants someone (me) to play with her every minute of the day. She truly needs lots of interaction. She’s just wired that way. So, this year I’ve started giving her my full attention for at least 20 minutes after breakfast while my older two finish their morning routine. Most of the time, this fills her attention-tank long enough for me to work with the others for a while before she’s ready to cling to me like a baby koala again. Sometimes it means the kitchen is still a mess at lunchtime, and that’s not easy for a neat-freak like me, but it’s worth it.
- Choose curriculum carefully. Before you settle on a curriculum, picture doing one of the lessons on a typical day in your family. Will it require lots of prep work from you? Are the lessons long or labor-intensive? Are the activities ones that will truly enhance learning, or is there lots of busywork? Choose wisely. If you fall in love with a math curriculum that will take up lots of time, choose a phonics program that is more independent. Consider online options or video programs that do some of the teaching for you. Whatever you end up choosing, never feel like you have to complete every part of it! You know how your children learn, when they have mastered a concept, and where they need more practice, so use the time you have to focus on what they need most and don’t stress about incomplete workbooks.
- Get your toddler busy. This is probably the first thing most of us try when school time rolls around because it’s so nice when it works! Try having a box or basket of toys and books that are only allowed during school time. This makes them so much more interesting than if they were on the shelf with everything else. Quiet books and busy bags are great if you have time to make one, or do a swap with friends and end up with several! I’m in the process of making a quiet book for my cousin’s baby (tutorial coming soon!) and my 2-year-old has spent countless hours playing with each page. Another thing that’s kept her busy a lot lately is an old wallet filled with expired membership cards, empty gift cards, and photos cut to fit in the slots. And if I really need her to play by herself, I give her a dollar to play with. Seriously, try it.
- Involve her. While it would be nice if our littlest joys would always be content to entertain themselves, the reality is they often don’t. If your toddler is extra clingy or just wants to be with everyone else, find ways to include her. If one child is learning about length, let the kids take turns measuring each other’s feet, hands, height, etc. If you’re using flash cards, let the little one hold them up. Studying animal habitats? Give your toddler the important job of choosing stuffed animals for the older sibling to assign to the right habitat. Go outside and have your older child practice writing letters or spelling words in the dirt while the younger one “writes” letters of her own. Give her a workbook that looks similar to (or exactly like) the one her big brother uses and let her color in it or fill it with stickers. Anything that makes her feel useful or included will make things happier for everyone.
- Make the most of nap time. If your toddler takes a nap, use it! As soon as my youngest drifts off to sleep, I get to work with the other two. This is when we do any subjects that require more attention from me. I’ve had to discipline myself to prioritize during these 90 golden minutes. I really try not to waste this part of the day on things that can be done anytime, especially time-suckers like Facebook (a “quick check” usually turns into 30 minutes of mindless scrolling for me, so I just don’t let myself get started when the nap time countdown is on.) When I’m really disciplined, sometimes I can even sneak in a nap of my own 🙂
- Be flexible. No matter how hard you try, some days will still be rough. Siblings fight, toddlers throw tantrums, and even the most dedicated moms wake up less than cheerful sometimes. On those days, it’s ok to put down the books and take a walk or go to the park. I’m such a list-maker that flexibility can be hard for me, but that’s one of the benefits of homeschooling! Give yourself permission to tear up the list and your kids will learn by your example to take life’s curve balls in stride and make the most of them.
Once I finally let go of my idea of how things should look and decided to make homeschooling work around my family, it became a joy. Yes, I actually ENJOY it now! I hope you find what works for you and your unique family so you, too, can have a happy homeschool. Like anyone else, we still have plenty of bumps in our school days, but overall it’s become a blessing to all of us. Even my clingy koala baby.