Making the decision to homeschool can be one of the easiest — and most difficult — decisions ever! It’s the only job where people judge the totality of your results by one child’s behavior on any given day. I often say it’s the toughest job you’ll ever love. Today I want to speak a little bit about finding support, because support is as essential as oxygen in a homeschooler’s life.
No matter what camp your family falls into, you, as the primary instructor, need to find a circle of encouragement, whether it’s your best friend, your spouse, or your homeschool group. For each of us, encouragement is different.
I remember the friend who called one day when it was NOT going well, and I was trying valiantly to remain patient, keep my wits about me, and manage to get a semblance of instruction done in a day that included both a vomiting newborn and dog, two fighting siblings, a broken washer and burned pancakes for breakfast. By 10 AM, I was d.o.n.e.
Within 30 minutes of my phone call, there was a pointed bing-bong, bing-bong, on my door. I confess to thinking I was going to break the neck of the person who rang that bell! I went to the door, opened it, and there, in the wreath on my door, were three candy bars and a note that said, “One for now, because you need it, one for later, because you WILL need it, and one for the future, because you need to know it will be there for you.” Yes, that dear friend was amazing, and in that small gesture, gave me the encouragement I needed to stay in the fight that day.
But where do you go to find information if you have not yet constructed a circle of support? There is plenty of support in the online world. Facebook groups and forums are tremendous. A Google search for local homeschool groups may find you someone right next door, as it did for a North Carolina friend of mine.
In the years I was homeschooling I enjoyed a particular podcast called The Sociable Homeschooler. My friend, Vivienne McNeny, is no longer producing live episodes, but I know you can still find archived editions of the show. Look for a podcast that speaks to you, because there are many.
I have a wealth of young homeschool moms who tell me that Instagram and Pinterest have given them great encouragement and wonderful ideas. Depending on how intrepid, or crazy you want to be, there are close to 800,000 references to homeschooling on YouTube.
Is everything you find good, or correct? Yes and no – the true answer lies in what YOU want for your family. While seeking those pieces of encouragement, I would ask myself several questions: Why am I going to homeschool? What are my goals for homeschooling my children? Where do I see them – and myself – in a year, in five years? What kinds of character attributes do I want to create for my children? What do you see our lives looking like. As crazy as it sounds, setting some goals on paper for your family’s homeschooling experiences will benefit you in so many ways. You can refer to them on the tough days, and celebrate them as you accomplish them.
This, I believe, is the best time to homeschool ever! There are so many resources wait at the end of your fingertips on your smartphone, tablet, or computer! Find support today – because you need it, if not today, sometime in the near future. You may not yet know where to turn, so we’ve created a list that may help. These are going to be the candy bars in your pocket when you need them.
With increasing frequency I now speak with families who have children who they believe have dyslexia. I want to take the bull by the horns here and say that if I were the parent, and I am that parent, I would be very careful about ruling out all the other possible causes of reading challenges before assuming dyslexia.
What might those challenges be you ask? There are a whole host of causes, from fluid on the ears, to developmental challenges to visual processing issues; more on that in a minute. Dyslexia should be your last stop.
I have a dyslexic child – now a young man. The road to his adulthood was a long and winding one – and he did ultimately HAVE dyslexia, but there were many other mitigating factors in his diagnosis. If wisdom is someone else’s experience, then this blog post will be full of that. To the parents of a diagnosed dyslexic child, I understand your frustration and your struggle, and let me say it is worth it. My son graduated high school, with honors, in June.
What is Dyslexia?
Dyslexia refers to a specific developmental disability that alters the way the brain processes written material. It is a neurologically based language disorder that manifests itself in the way children hear individual sounds in words.
Please read what I am about to say – very carefully and thoroughly – a child who is flipping letters when writing or reading is far more likely to have a visual alignment challenge (eye-tracking) with their eyes – which must be resolved successfully before a child can become a successful reader. Even if your child’s diagnosis is ultimately dyslexia, unless you resolve the eye-tracking issues, you will still have a challenge learning to read!
Think of it this way. What if I took you and dropped you into a foreign environment where everything looked weirdly out of sync? Suppose that everything in that place had a slight wiggle or tremble to it. You were the only one who saw the wiggle or tremble. You don’t understand that it is out of sync – you don’t even know what kind of questions to ask about things not “looking right”. If everyone around you is still saying all is “normal”, then you begin to doubt yourself. Kids with eye-tracking issues get frustrated, angry and sometimes just shut down.
Right now, before you go any further into this blog post, if you suspect your child has dyslexia, go to this website and read their diagnostic checklist: www.covd.org. This checklist has the questions you need to ask first, before you suspect a diagnosis of dyslexia. I do not have enough emphasis to put into words how important it is to rule vision out as a causal factor.
Spelling You See and Dyslexia
If your child does indeed have a dyslexic’s challenge, then Spelling You See can be of tremendous help. Dyslexics have a greater challenge in development of a visual memory. Using the design of Spelling You See, with its emphasis on fluency (doing the same thing repeatedly), copywork and word-by-word dictation can help a dyslexic student develop the visual cues necessary to be a successful speller. The clean organization of the pages, with only two lines of guidance for copywork, further reduces the visual “noise” with which dyslexics struggle. In the younger years, the letter-box component of Spelling You See helps to isolate those individual letter sounds and gives a child a chance to focus on that sound-to-letter correspondence that is so critical to launching their reading experiences well.
Dyslexia is a diagnosis, not a sentence. You can help your child feel successful, despite the limitations it appears to present. However, please know that it is essential that you not make assumptions about their abilities. Spend the time and money to assure yourself that your diagnosis is accurate. The investment you make now, in your child’s future, will yield dividends for generations to come. Don’t discount your child. Rather, educate yourself and help your child succeed!
Spelling You See Sample Lessons
Are you interested in learning more about how Spelling You See can help your student?
The Math-U-See program provides videos for instruction. For whom are they created? It may not be who you think; parents often mistake the videos as simply instruction for their children and sometimes make a critical mistake of just sitting their children in front of the videos and not gaining the full benefit of using them for themselves.
When Steve Demme developed Math-U-See, his intent was to make video instruction for the parents. He teaches in front of a class of students and has an amazing ability to speak to children without speaking down to them. He chose this format so that he could model for parents how to instruct with Math-U-See.
I will always be indebted to him for being the coach for my children. “Mr. Steve said” is a frequent refrain in my house. He has been the favored prophet in “Mathland” for my children when they no longer wanted me. I have always kept in mind that his videos were designed for ME – to know how to use the manipulatives to teach my children.
Steve’s original intent was to create video instruction so that parents would have an understanding of how to teach mathematics to their children. He is modeling for YOU how to teach mathematics. He has taken his instruction and written it in such a way to give you an “edible portion” of instruction for you to understand. The video instruction are there so that you have a full understanding of what your child is learning. This means that once they have practiced with a concept and internalized it, they can show you what they know.
Do you need the video instruction? If you are making the investment of a Math-U-See experience, then the videos are essential. The videos create understanding and model for you, the parent, where each lesson will take you.
Math-U-See is an investment in the future of your child. Make that investment work to its fullest by using the program as it is designed. If you have been guilty of just having your child watch the instruction and not participating alongside him, I want you not to feel guilty. Make a new decision to use the videos to gain a deeper understanding of what your child is learning. You will both benefit tremendously.
Who is a “math expert?” Certainly not me. At best, I have an adversarial relationship with math. At worst, I have been known to cry – the ugly cry; the snotty, tearful, “I HATE THIS STUFF” cry that comes from the soul. How on earth does someone who feels the way I do about math teach their child successfully?
I became a homeschool parent specifically because I had this love-hate relationship with math – I loved hating it. If there is one universal truth that defines parenthood, I think it is the desire to want more for your children than you had yourself. I did not want my children to have to make life or career choices based on their lack of understanding about math.
The first time I saw Math-U-See, I looked at the clean black and white pages and the “short” (25 problems or fewer lessons) and judged it to be “not rigorous enough.” In the intervening 15 years, I have come to realize that we make a huge, mistaken assumption that “rigor” means more – more problems equals a more rigorous curriculum. Thankfully, my exposure to Math-U-See has expunged that mistaken belief from me, and I now understand that more is just that. Math-U-See’s lessons are developmentally appropriate in length, and teach a skill set that I find lacking in other materials.
I am the antithesis of a “math expert,” but Math-U-See has given me the confidence to instruct my children and the ability to learn right beside them. I knew being weak in computational facts made my mathematical experiences more difficult. In short, I knew that having to skip count a multiplication answer, or count on my fingers to get to an addition answer, made everything else more difficult. Math-U-See, with its emphasis on mastery and computational fact understanding as the solid foundation to mathematical learning, helped me see that the root of my math phobia lay in not knowing those facts. The good news is that age is not a factor in learning the basic facts; and Math-U-See, with its integer blocks as the central point of instruction, gives any learner an ability to commit those facts to memory.
As my math knowledge grew, I understood how important understanding operations with fractions was to upper-level math understanding. Twenty years after my sweaty-palms experience of high school algebra, I realized that algebra was difficult because I did not understand fractions thoroughly. Math-U-See’s fraction overlay manipulatives were the key to changing my understanding, and I realize in retrospect that had I had Math-U-See as a middle school student, high school math would not have been the scary proposition it was! I would have been able to make different choices in college. My math phobia would not have stalked me into adulthood!
Math-U-See empowers parents. It gives them the ability to learn alongside their children. It helps them gain greater understanding of how math works; it is no longer a mystical puzzle. You do not have to be a confident mathematician to be a successfully teach math to your children. You CAN be a changed parent who no longer dreads teaching mathematics by using Math-U-See’s tried and true principles. This is a very different way to teach mathematics. It will be as much an encouragement to a math-phobic parent as it is to a student. I will be forever grateful to the family friend who heard of our pre-algebra struggles and brought Math-U-See to my house and plopped it on my kitchen table. I had told her I could not help my daughter, who was having daily meltdowns. She said “Math-U-See is the answer.” How very right she was! I will never put the words “math” and “fun” in the same sentence. The understanding I have gained, and the abilities I have been able to see in my children, have been enormous. Math-U-See makes teaching math to your children possible; experts need not apply.
When I was asked to write a blog post on how to switch to Spelling You See, my first thought was “as fast as possible, and don’t look back!” Laughingly, I realize that my impulse to make that statement might lead you astray. Let me give you a more thorough answer about HOW, in the context of WHY.
I am a veteran homeschool mom, with four children who graduated high school under my supervision. Those children all have degrees of one sort or another and have done well for themselves. Two of them are stellar spellers, and two are still hesitant to spell without assistance from a good proofreader. (Note I said proofreader, because spell check is not all it is cracked up to be. It does not check for context, for homonyms, or for syntax errors. It only looks for proper letter patterns, so spell check will not catch your mistake of writing to when you meant two.) I have asked myself for years how I managed to instruct four children the same way and have two entirely different outcomes.
With the advent of Spelling You See, I finally learned that the differences between my children were borne of the fact that half of them had cultivated a visual memory for commonly spelled words and half of them did not. I did not realize that I had a visual memory for spelling until I understood the research that underlies Spelling You See.
Now to the point of my blog post – how do you transition from another program to Spelling You See? First and foremost – READ THE HANDBOOK. I cannot stress this enough, especially if you are a veteran homeschool parent. You will think you know how to implement the Spelling You See process, but I assure you that you will NOT get the best advantage out of the program unless you do it as it has been designed.
And a further word on that design – do not add to the program or shortcut the program. Don’t add a “challenge word test in the middle of the week”. That introduces stress and negates the process of building visual memory. Don’t assume you don’t have to read the passages out loud to your child – daily – because that reading, exactly as they are written, is a vital component in success. In short, don’t start the program unless you are willing to set aside your preconceptions about how to teach spelling and embrace a new way of spelling instruction.
I would encourage you to promote the fact that you will no longer have spelling tests and that you will no longer be putting the emphasis of the misspellings. What you are going to be doing instead is setting out on a program that has instruction in positive context – you are going to find what your child is doing right and encourage him or her to do more of it.
Once you have carefully read the handbook associated with the level you have selected, then I encourage you to make a celebration of the fact that you will no longer be “testing on spelling”. Believe me, that attitudinal change alone will encourage your child tremendously. Know that once you truly understand how the Spelling You See program is organized and implemented, there will be no further preparation on your part except to implement the steps of the program daily with your student. That attitudinal change on YOUR part will be a bonus. I promise it will be a win-win for you both!
Are you switching to homeschooling from a public school? Having a plan and knowing what you want are crucial.
You‘ve decided to homeschool. Perhaps this is a decision you have struggled with for years, or perhaps it is based on a “last straw” event in your family’s current academic situation. Truthfully, how you got here doesn’t really matter. The question you need to ask is “Now what?” Where do you go to find resources, answers, encouragement?
That path is different for every homeschool parent. There is a tremendous spirit of collaboration in the homeschool community. We ARE the rising tide that raises all ships. We want our peers to succeed because, when we succeed, we create community and success for us all.
The laws are different for each state. Googling “how to homeschool in ___ state” gives you a wealth of resources. You can also Google local homeschool groups and cooperatives. Most organizations have someone who serves in the capacity of helping newbies get off the ground. I have found great resources with the Homeschool Legal Defense Association. Their wisdom and encouragement has been tremendous in our two decades of home education. Most importantly, do comply with your state’s laws regarding your homeschool launch.
Take a dispassionate look at what you want out of homeschooling. This is different for each one of us, but, as a homeschool mentor of mine used to quote, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” I hear new families say they know solidly what they DON’T want, but have not thought about what they DO want. Have a conversation, as a couple, as a family, about what you want school to be like and what your goals are. You may not have all the answers, and they’ll change over time, but, above all, get in the habit of having the discussion. Remember, this is YOUR homeschool – not your mother’s, not your neighbor’s, so decide what you want.
Recognize that your parental role is going to change; it will take time for your children to understand and acknowledge that. I have often said, “I am speaking as your instructor here, NOT your mother,” and vice versa. What is important is to know that you have habits from public school, and you will have to shed those habits and form new ones. It may take as long as a year before you have established those new habits. Be kind to yourself and your kids in the transition.
Use a calendar and plan the remainder of your academic year. Set a date by which you intend to complete your academics. You may miss it by a week or two, but I assure you, NOT setting it will prolong your school year indefinitely. For more on that subject, I encourage you to read this post on homeschool basics.
Find yourself a cheerleader. This is not always a family member. For several years I had encouraging friends who helped me stay encouraged. It took a long time for my family to understand that what we were doing had merit AND was worthwhile. Keep your expectations of your extended family low. They will come around, but it may take some time.
After 20+ years of home educating, I can honestly say many of the things we did were not wholly necessary, yet I have successfully graduated four homeschoolers who have gone on to college. What is necessary, you ask? In my opinion, math, spelling, writing, and reading. Everything else is an outgrowth of those subjects.
This year we have sixth- and twelfth-grade sons who are in public schools. Life is about change.
Homeschooling is as much a mindset as anything else. You have chosen a different path, and the final goal should be to raise a competent, independent adult. Your path will not be the same as your neighbor’s or your friend’s. It will be YOUR path, and I wish you the joy of the journey.
What is the difference between helping your child in their studies and enabling that same child?
Sometimes, however, we do things inadvertently that have far-reaching effects on our children. I know and understand a mother’s heart. We want to protect, love, and nurture our children, but what happens when that desire to protect becomes a hindrance in their progress toward adulthood? Today I would like to talk about a specific instance where the best of intentions can yield the worst of results.
I think the hardest thing for a mother to do is to set an obligation (in the adult world, we call this a deadline) and then force a child to stick to it. Even more difficult is to have consequences that are negative if the obligation is missed. My children have complained, loudly and enthusiastically at times, when they have endured the consequences of missing a deadline. It has not been pretty.
Let me put forth a scenario with which perhaps you will identify. I have made a request of my 11-year-old son to write a three-page essay on a historical figure. First, I am careful to think about the parameters of the essay before assigning him the task. As a colleague of mine says, I want to “set him up for success”. This means I have thought about what is age-appropriate—in this case, he has experience with writing a three-page paper. I am careful to provide coaching in the process, being available to answer questions, guide him in the process, and, most importantly, encourage him. What I do not do is do it for him.
What would that careful coaching look like? We’d talk about the paper topic, and I would ask him to put some ideas down on paper. At first they would just be rough notes. Then I would ask him to think through what he would like to say. I would even have him record his thoughts so that he can just think about what he wants to say, instead of having to think of the mechanics of writing, grammar, spelling, and punctuation. I may even go so far as to let him dictate his thoughts to me so that we could get them on paper. The writing, however, will be his, and the construction of the draft will be his. Most importantly, the final product will be his.
I have also found it beneficial for us to talk about “how long do you think this task will take you?” Learning how long a task takes and managing the time in that task is a very adult skill. I don’t want to throw him into the deep end of the pond, so I am willing to negotiate on the time investment. However, once we have settled on the time frame, then the task completion is his. I am not going to chase him and remind him, nor will I extend the deadline. There will be consequences if the deadline is missed.
If I help him finish the assignment, or if I change the deadline because he has not stuck to the task, I have taught him a lesson – the lesson is that there are no consequences. That is enabling him, which is the opposite of setting him up for success.
What happens if he misses the deadline? At one time or another all of my children have missed out – on a fun outing, a sporting event, even once a birthday party of their own design. I wanted them to know that their actions would have consequences, and I sincerely believed that learning to manage the tasks set before them was part of teaching them to be responsible for themselves. Is it fun? Not by a long shot.
I apply these same kinds of consequences to daily lessons. For instance, when I ask my 11-year-old to complete a math lesson, I have that same conversation about how long does HE think it will take him to complete it. Once we have discussed that, then we will write the starting time on his paper (just so we both remain accountable to the time). I know that his math lessons are developmentally appropriate in terms of how long they should take. Once he has begun a lesson, I will check with him periodically. I too must be accountable to him in that I cannot wander off or become so engaged in another pursuit that I don’t check in with him. The ubiquitous presence of technology today makes this task for me even hard. (No phones during the school day for me!) Does that mean I will sit with him for every step of the lesson? Not at eleven years old – but also bear in mind I have modeled my expectations for him from the very beginning of our time together. Also, I have the expectation that at the age of eleven he can be responsible for himself for a math lesson – as long as he knows I am still present if he needs me. What if he doesn’t complete the assignment in the agreed-upon amount of time? Then we will move on to something else, and he will have to complete it in his free time.
I talk to moms all the time who say their school days last 8, 9, even 10 hours. That sounds awful to me. I want to be here for my children, but if all we do is school, then school becomes miserable.
This is not an easy path to walk. I have to model setting and completing deadlines in my life so that my children see I am accountable, too. Is it worth it? It is a delicate balance of sorting between what is helping and what is enabling. You will find that you will ask yourself often where the line is in a given situation. It will be worth it.
I had the pleasure of spending some time with my 24-year-old daughter this past week. She was one of the most experienced “receivers” of my hard line when it comes to deadlines. This is HER perspective of what that was like:
“I thought you were the worst! It made me SO angry when you would hold me accountable for assignment deadlines. I missed a lot of them – and always found a way to blame you.
I asked her if she had any advice from the perspective of being a child who endured a parent’s hard line, and she smiled and said, “Your kids are going to hate you for it when they are young, but there WILL come a point in time when they say, sincerely, ‘Thank you’. You just have to be willing to patiently wait for it.”
How should we teach our kids handwriting in the digital age?
It becomes ever more difficult to make a case for good handwriting because there are many more ways we can communicate in the digital age.
In fact, many more educational institutions, with few exceptions, are asking the question, “Is legible handwriting even necessary?” (Source; page 2) Why should responsible homeschooling parents endeavor to wrestle with the beast of handwriting when institutions are saying, “Just keyboard”?
What are the issues concerning good handwriting instruction, what kinds of concerns should parents consider when addressing handwriting with their children, and most importantly, what is a plan of good handwriting instruction?
Dr. Karen Holinga
I am indebted to Dr. Karen Holinga for the information I am going to share with you today. Dr. Holinga is a reading specialist with a doctorate from The Ohio State University in Developmental Reading, Curriculum, and Professional Development. She is Reading Recovery trained and is currently in practice as The Reading Doctor, Inc. where she works full-time tutoring children with reading problems and counseling homeschool families in curriculum options; Dr. Holinga does hundreds of student assessments each year. Given that she homeschooled her own children, she has a thorough understanding of what it means to be a homeschool mom in the trenches, trying to create competencies in our children.
in 2014, I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Holinga speak on the subject of handwriting at the Florida Parent Educators’ Association Special Needs Conference, and the room was packed; I am not alone in wondering why this can be such a complex and difficult issue to address with our children. According to Dr. Holinga, “Labored handwriting creates a drain on mental resources. Without automatic handwriting, the system for learning shuts down.”
Handwriting: Why Do We Teach It?
According to Dr. Holinga, research shows that incorporating ten minutes a day of handwriting copywork can double the increases in reading levels. And the research further indicates that 10-30% of children will struggle with handwriting at some point in their development.
Why would it make a difference to write, as opposed to using a keyboard? In the October issue of Reader’s Digest, Fred Barbash wrote of a study investigating whether taking notes by hand was more valuable than taking notes on a computer, saying:
All students received the same lectures, but some used laptops, and others took notes by hand. When it came to learning the concepts, the handwriters won. When it came to retrieving facts, the groups were comparable, except when given time to go home and look at their notes, at which point the handwriters did even better.” (Barbash, Fred. “Want to Learn? Lose the laptop.” Reader’s Digest October, 2014: pgs. 44-45)
According to Dr. Holinga, the act of handwriting serves us in a variety of ways, to include enhancing our comprehension and memory, “lighting up” memory centers of our brain, and is a predictor of academic success.
We can misunderstand legitimate handwriting struggles and think they show laziness or carelessness. We can unknowingly create more of an issue by making handwriting a daily struggle. There are strategies to help our children create those competencies, without enabling them.
3 Ways to Help Struggling Writers
1. Giving them permission to speak their composition assignments into a recording device. This removes the pressure of having to remember the idea while attempting to put that idea on paper.
2. Allow them to keyboard their thoughts, with the intention that their final product will be produced by hand. The keyboard draft is exactly that – no emphasis on capitalization or punctuation – the goal is only to capture their thoughts.
3. You be their scribe – allow them to dictate to you. The difficult part in this enterprise is not to engage in editing while they are thinking. Let them talk through their ideas. Editing is for later.
Their final draft should be their own, in their own handwriting.
Neurologically, Dr. Holinga reminds us that handwriting orders the brain and thinking processes. It helps our children focus their thoughts. This is a discipline that has to be practiced to be gained. In fact, in the process of creating muscle memory for the written word, a child may need to engage in literally hours of practice.
My Taekwondo instructor used to say that we would have to practice a single move up to 2,500 times to make it part of our “muscle memory.” As a parent, don’t do your children an injustice by giving in too soon. Winning the war may just be over the next hill.
But how do I know this is a mountain worth trying to win? What is enough struggle and what is too much? There are things you can do to ameliorate the struggle.
8 Ways to Help Develop Good Writing Skills
If your children have not chosen a hand by school age, assist them in choosing one. This may mean observing them carefully and watching things like, which hand do they choose to throw a ball with, or hit with a bat, or which eye do they cover in the bright sun – the hand they use most, when they are not thinking about it, is the hand that is likely dominant.
Find pencil grips that work for you; there are many out there. A pencil grip is designed to help foster a proper pencil grasp, and is a little piece of rubber or plastic that slides onto the pencil. This is trial and error, but worth the effort.
Help them create consistent formation of letters – Dr. Holinga says that letters constructed from the top down are less neurological work than bottom up, but some children are “builders” and may tend to form letters from the bottom to the top. Help your children create handwriting with as much single-stroke letter formation as possible. The research tells us that consistent letter formation is the key – don’t fret if you have a “bottom to top” kind of kid. As long as they do it consistently, you are on the right track.
Teach similar letters together (r,m,b,h). These should be single-stroke letters.
Separate reversible letters like b and d – teaching them at the same time can cause letter “confusion.”
When you write the letter b, say the “buh” sound. Any time you can incorporate a multi-sensory approach to handwriting, you increase the ability for the child to master it.
Use Whole Arm Movements
Practice letter writing with whole arm movements – the smaller letter formation will evolve. Use dry erase boards for practice. They can write as large as they want, and eventually the letters will become consistently smaller and more uniform.
Encourage good posture and good tripod pencil grip.
Remember, doing just ten minutes a day of copywork has been proven to improve handwriting significantly. But bear this important principle in mind – copywork must be done in PRINT, because we read in print. If you want to work on cursive handwriting, use the previous week’s copywork. This way the passage is familiar and children can focus on letter formation. ALWAYS start with print. Cursive is important and faster and easier for note taking and study, but if you have to choose one, choose print. And remember, spelling words should ALWAYS be studied in PRINT.
Do not engage in a handwriting enterprise while a child is in the process of forming their thoughts, as in the draft of a composition. Neurologically, it is too difficult for a child to focus successfully on both the act of letter formation AND the creativity required for composing their thoughts.
Above all, remember to PRAISE THE EFFORT. You might not be seeing progress, but praise and encouragement build emotional confidence in your child, and eventually you will see successful output from them.
It can be a long road to the successful creation of a confident, penmanship-praiseworthy student. We all have to start somewhere. As parents, the biggest struggle for us may be remembering to be encouraging and affirmative as we see our children grow and change. Remember, the days can be long indeed, but the years pass swiftly. Celebrate your child’s small handwriting victories, and when you look back, the struggle will fade over time. Not long after one of my struggling handwriters graduated from college, he said, “Mom, thanks for not giving up on me, or giving in to me. You showed me I could do it. It just took me a long time to believe that for myself.” I pray it will be the same for you.
Visit any homeschool household and look for the “tools of our trade” as homeschool moms, and you are going to find math flash cards. They are probably the single most used tool in a homeschool mom’s tool belt, and I am about to tell you that you’re misusing them.
How I Used Flash Cards the Wrong Way
Yes, I am poster child for how to use flash cards the wrong way.
Allow me to paint a picture for you: I sit down with my child – usually across a table (already putting a physical barrier between us…) – and I hold up a flash card that shows 6 + 4. I say to my child, “Six plus four is…?” and expectantly grin.
My child dutifully says, “Six plus four equals ten.” I enthusiastically say, “Excellent!” And then I hold up a flash card that show 5 + 9, and my student hesitates; in a wink of an eye I say, in likely what sounds like a whiny voice, “Aw, come on! You knew this yesterday!!” and waggle the flash card at them.
In a flash I have inadvertently and completely derailed the process I’m trying to accomplish. Has this ever happened in your home? Flash card learning is going along swimmingly, until you encounter one fact that your student stumbles on, and then, from that point forward, the whole thing descends into a rough deal.
The Problem With Flash Cards
What? What happened here? Quite by accident, I derailed my child’s learning train by introducing stress into the learning equation. Specifically, what happened to my child is that their learning was literally hijacked.
There’s nothing we can do to combat it because it is a physiological response to the perceived stress. Dr. Holinga calls it an amygdala hijack, which means that learning is temporarily interrupted until the stress dissipates. This biological cascade cannot be prevented. In the presence of stress, the amygdala, a small part of the brain, actually shuts learning down.
I was an ardent flash card proponent and used them in conjunction with other methods to help teach facts to my children. However, I must confess that my fictional scenario was not very fictional in my household. It happened – a lot. The minute my child perceived that I was less than happy with their performance and stress entered the equation, their learning stopped.
How to Use Flash Cards Better
So what would be an effective way to teach math facts without creating a stressful environment?
Remember, memorizing math facts is like reading without sounding out words. It makes the whole process of mathematics more doable. My colleagues and I share all sorts of ways to internalize those facts without the stress of flash cards.
Today I want to share with you two of my favorites:
With a younger child, purchase a beach ball; it needs to be at least 18 inches in diameter. Then take a permanent marker and write numbers all over the ball so that, as the ball is thrown and then caught with two hands, the child’s hands will be on two numbers. The game “number catch” goes something like this: toss the ball to your child, and where their two hands land, have them use those numbers in the corresponding math fact (example: “Six plus six equals twelve”) Then have them toss the ball back to you, and you do the same. This incorporates more than one sense, and keeps the learning fun.
With an older child, you can use a deck of cards to play “Fact War”. Split the deck in half equally between the two of you. You throw down a 6 and your child throws down a 7; 6 x 7 = 42. The first one to answer correctly wins that pile. You may need to grant grace in the beginning, but it won’t be long before they are really playing in earnest. Star with the face cards as ‘10’ – you can become more creative as their proficiency increases. Then Jacks can become 11, Kings can become 12, and so on.
Did I burn all of the flash cards at my house? Nope. In fact, they are all over the place. But I never ask more than three facts in a row and usually do it as my children are on the way to do something else. For example, my youngest says he is on his way out to the trampoline; I may say, “Ok, but answer me three first,” and ask him three random facts. He will laugh, answer, and then move on out the door!
The rest of the story?
All six of my children are proficient with their math facts, but, interestingly enough, my youngest, with whom I used the fewest flash cards, learned his facts the most quickly and seemed to be the most cheerful in the process. I don’t think it was a coincidence. I wish you a stress-free and joyful learning experience with your children, and I earnestly hope you don’t hijack the process with those flash cards!
Ideally, I would like to start this blog by having you listen to the theme song from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in the background as I tell you about grading. The task of assigning grades to your children’s work does fall into all three categories (good, bad, and ugly). Taking the position of “wisdom is someone else’s experience” and interpreting that phrase as “don’t make the mistakes I have made”, then you will indeed hear lots of “wisdom” from what I say today.
I often hear something like this from parents at conventions: “My son understands what he is doing in math, but he doesn’t like to write, so he doesn’t want to show his work,” or “My daughter rushes through her problems and makes careless mistakes”. I know the frustration a parent has when these kinds of situations occur because I have BEEN that parent at one time or another.
In my experience, assigning grades and using those grades to encourage good study habits benefits both of you. I don’t want to go into a discourse about protecting their self-esteem by not grading them. I would prefer to look at this as preparing them for the real world – the adult world. As adults, we are “graded” frequently, in the form of job compensation, promotion, and even recognition. How do we teach our children that learning to perform at their best (note, I did not say at an A level) is character-building and a necessary skill to cultivate as they move into adulthood?
I always required my children to show their work. Why? Because I want them to have every advantage of showing me they understand what they are doing. If they arrive at a wrong answer and there is no work associated with that answer to show me why, then it is a much longer process for us to know if they understand what they are doing. Without that work, I cannot sort carelessness from misunderstanding.
I will reward a child for showing their work, and I have used everything from tokens to stickers to screen time to money. I know that some parents argue that they don’t want to incentivize their students for doing what they should do anyway, but, to me, if I am rewarded as an adult for good performance, why would I not encourage that behavior in my children?
What happens when you have someone who refuses to cooperate with your request that they show their work? If you have determined that there is no underlying issue – vision problems, muscle-coordination, et cetera, it’s time to get creative. I am not going to punish myself by making my homeschool day longer. I have said to a child that they will have to do an assignment over on their own time because they did not honor my request to show me what they are doing. And in our world, everything fun happens after you complete your schoolwork. That includes extracurricular activities, like team sports, and fun. Yes, my children have missed fun events – movies, trips, social activities. Missing a team event is the worst because I have also insisted that my children be truthful as to why they were absent. They were NOT happy with me at the time. However, if my intention is to spare them pain now, I am actually creating pain for them in the future. Our goal has always been to raise our children to be functional adults, and all four of my children now function well in the adult world.
What kind of “grades” do you want to assign to your child’s math work? There are a million ways to do this. My personal preference is to show the number of correct problems over the number of problems completed. This also allows us to see if they are being careless. Ideally, I should see that ratio remaining high. If not, then we need to figure out why.
I still have two kids who are in the crucible of experimentation here at home, and both of them understand that showing me what they are doing as they work out a problem helps us “diagnose” their understanding. It ALSO means that ultimately there is LESS work involved because they can clearly show me the reasoning that underlies their understanding.
I did not say anywhere that this would be an easy task. Keep in mind the long-term goal of raising a competent, functional adult, and that will give you a better understanding of how to make this methodology work in the day-to-day experience. You may not be popular in the moment, but you WILL be the hero in the long run because the transition to college and adult life will be much less painful.