What is homeschooling?

Homeschooling is a highly flexible, family-based form of education where children learn under the direction of their parents outside a traditional school setting. In other words, homeschooling is simply a way of opting out of our society’s mainstream educational system. Homeschoolers are a diverse group. Some follow a structured model where students learn the same subjects as their public school counterparts, while others use a student-led approach with a curriculum adapted to the child’s own interests. Most homeschoolers fall somewhere in the middle with some structured learning and some interest-led activities. Every homeschool family is unique.

Why do parents choose homeschooling for their family?

Reasons for homeschooling are as varied as the families that choose this path. What homeschool families have in common is the belief that parents have the right to educate their children as they see fit and a desire to play an active, hands-on role in facilitating that education. Here are just a few of the more common reasons parents choose to take their child out of the mainstream school system:

  • A desire to provide individual attention or to devote time to a special passion or subject interest that isn’t prioritized in the local school
  • Frustration with standardized testing pressures, over-sized classes or a school culture that emphasizes popularity over academic development
  • An academically gifted child who is not being challenged
  • Learning difficulties or special needs that aren’t being adequately addressed by the school system
  • A desire to educate in a way that reflects the family’s moral and religious values
  • Disagreement with the philosophy of education advocated by the local school
  • Negative peer pressure or bullying
  • Family work schedules that make it difficult for parents to spend time with their children except during school hours

Whatever your reasons for homeschooling, know that you are not alone.

Is homeschooling legal?

Homeschooling is legal in all 50 states and Canada. Each state or province regulates homeschooling in its own way, and some are more homeschool-friendly than others. Some states don’t ask parents to initiate any communication with their local school system; others require parents to send notification of their intent to homeschool, submit detailed records, take standardized tests or even meet with a professional evaluator. Before you get started in homeschooling, it’s important to understand the existing laws in your area. The Homeschool Legal Defense Association is a great resource for you.

Can I withdraw my child in the middle of the school year, or do I need to wait until the end?

If you make the decision to homeschool a child who is already attending public school, you don’t need to wait for the school year’s end to begin your homeschooling program. You will want to start by officially withdrawing your child from their school. State requirements vary regarding the withdrawal process. It’s important to familiarize yourself with your state’s regulations and make sure you comply with them.

When withdrawing your child from an educational setting you were unhappy with, it’s often tempting to plan an ambitious academic program that will correct all the shortcomings of the old school. Be careful not to go overboard. A period of de-schooling will be necessary – a time where you work together to establish new routines as a family. If the previous school setting brought out the worst in your student, you may even need to take an extended break from formal academics and reconnect your child to their passion for learning through field trips, read alouds, unstructured free play or time in nature. Make sure you take this season to observe your child, get to know their strengths and passions, and identify strategies for helping them learn in a way that is meaningful to them before delving into an academic program.

Do I need a teacher’s license or an education degree to teach my kids at home?

Education officials often claim instructors must have advanced degrees and special qualifications in order to teach effectively, but research has repeatedly shown that more highly qualified teachers don’t necessarily produce better student outcomes whether those students are taught in a public school setting or by their parents at home. For this reason, homeschool parents are not required to possess a teaching license or formal training in education. Some states do require a homeschooling parent to posses a high school diploma, but in most states the only qualifications needed are a desire to home educate and an interest in learning. If you wish to homeschool, don’t let a lack of training intimidate you. It’s your hard work and dedication to seeing your children reach their potential that will produce strong academic results, not a fancy degree.

What curriculum should I use?

Every homeschool family is different. What works for one family might not work for another. It’s important to keep your expectations realistic – there is no perfect curriculum. No matter which curriculum you choose, you will have good days and bad days. That being said, there are some questions you can ask yourself to narrow down your options.

  • Does this curriculum fit with my family’s values? Will it help us reach our long-term goals? What worldview is it written from? Does this program mesh with my overall homeschool philosophy?
  • Is it teacher friendly? Does the layout appeal to me as a teacher?
  • Does it fit the learning style, personality or special needs of my student?
  • Does this program fit our budget? Will I be able to use this for more than one child? Do I need to buy extra books or materials?
  • How much time will this curriculum take?  Will this be a good fit for my family’s schedule?
  • How much prep work will it require of me as the parent? Will this curriculum work well for the season of life we are in?

How much does homeschooling cost?

Homeschooling is certainly a significant financial investment, although the cost of homeschooling varies widely from family to family. Depending on the choices you make, costs can range from a few hundred dollars all the way up to a few thousand dollars per student per year. If you’ve been paying for private school tuition, that probably sounds like a bargain, but if you’re a single-income family, that may feel daunting. You will want to factor in costs for curriculum, parent resources like books, conventions, or memberships, school supplies, and extracurricular activities.  Remember you can give your child an excellent education no matter how much you spend. Here are some great ways resourceful parents have found to keep their costs low:

  • Borrow or rent used curriculum from a friend or support group
  • Buy curriculum that can be re-used with several children
  • Use your local library for books, audio books, educational videos, museum passes, and online educational subscriptions
  • Make your own teaching supplements (homemade flashcards, beans, popsicle sticks and spare change as math manipulatives, etc.)
  • Take advantage of the wealth of free online downloads and printables covering virtually every subject

How can I connect with other homeschoolers?

Homeschooling can be a lonely endeavor for both you and your children if you haven’t found the right community to walk alongside you. It’s not always easy to locate other homeschoolers who share your values and mesh well with your children, but it’s worth the effort to find your homeschool tribe. Once you do, you will access an invaluable wealth of advice, ideas, emotional support, and plain old friendship. There are many ways to find community as a homeschooler:

  • Visit your state homeschool organization’s website.  You can find a list of organizations by state here.  They may be able to help you connect with co-ops or meet-ups in your area.
  • Check out a homeschool convention in your area. For a list of conventions by state, click here.
  • Look for like-minded homeschoolers online. Facebook groups, blogs, and Instagram can all be sources of encouragement and inspiration.
  • Go to the library or the playground when typical schools are in session. You may meet other families with kids the same age as yours who are also homeschooling.
  • Check local museums, state parks, theaters, zoos, or aquariums for special homeschool programs. These can be a great place to meet other homeschool families who share your interests.

How do homeschoolers get graded?

In the early years there’s little reason to assign your child a formal grade, but as your student approaches high school, evaluating their work becomes more critical. If you participate in an online educational platform or a co-op, instructors may grade your child for you. But if you supervise their course work at home, there will come a point when you as a parent must give grades for courses completed. Keep in mind that all grading is subjective; even in a public or private school setting, there is no universal agreement on how grades should be awarded.

Some subjects lend themselves more easily to grading. In math, science or foreign language courses, you can easily convert your child’s percentage scores on assignments, quizzes and tests into a letter grade. Other subjects like English and history may require more thought. You will want to establish ahead of time what components will make up the final grade and communicate this to your student. Decide how you will weight written work like essays or papers, test scores from weekly quizzes, unit tests, mid-terms, and final exams, and character qualities like effort or neatness. In general, award an A for excellent work and effort, a B for an above average performance that could be improved, a C for just acceptable work, and a D for work that is significantly less than what your child is capable of doing.

Do I have to participate in standardized tests?

Many states require that you periodically demonstrate your child’s academic progress. Some of these states require yearly standardized testing, while others allow different forms of evaluation. Regardless of your state legislation, if your child would like to attend college one day, you will want to give them practice in developing test-taking skills during middle school and high school. For the homeschool family, test-taking need not be a stressful, high-stakes endeavor as it often is for public school students. Test-taking is a skill like any other that develops through practice. Try to maintain a light-hearted attitude around standardized tests, and remember that a test score is only one small snapshot of your child’s progress and their unique abilities.

How will my children get into college if I homeschool?

You may feel insecure in this area as you start down the homeschooling road, but the truth is many homeschool families have navigated this territory before you.  In fact, homeschoolers are accepted and even sought out by some of the country’s finest universities because of the unique strengths they’ve gained through homeschooling. A strong academic foundation, creative problem solving and independent thinking skills, and emotional maturity are just a few of the assets college admissions officers frequently ascribe to homeschoolers. Furthermore, homeschool students often place higher on ACT and SAT tests than their private and public school peers. These strong test scores combined with active communication with the admissions team of your student’s college(s) of choice, a persuasive portfolio, and personal letters of recommendation from tutors, coaches, or co-op instructors should give your student access to a college experience if they choose to pursue it.

Do homeschoolers follow a traditional school schedule? Do we have to follow the public school calendar?

As a homeschooler you are under no obligation to follow the traditional school calendar. Many families school all year round, while others follow the local school system more closely, starting in August or September and ending in May or June. A typical school year includes 180 days of instruction or around 36 weeks, but you can break up these days and weeks however you wish. Some homeschoolers follow the traditional school calendar. Others do a 6 weeks on, 1 week off rhythm with some extended breaks over Christmas and summer. Some take a complete break for certain months like November or February when more than a few homeschool families have been known to get stir-crazy or experience burn out. Take your family’s unique needs and priorities into account as you lay out the schedule that will work best for you. Here are some factors that may influence your scheduling decisions:

  • Special events like the birth of a new baby, a family wedding or special church event like VBS may warrant extended time off. Block out your days off accordingly.
  • Climate can play a role in determining when you want to focus on schoolwork. If you’re in an area with brutal summer heat, you may want to get a jump on school during the summer months so that you can take longer breaks during the beautiful weather of fall and spring. Conversely, if you live in a cold-weather climate, you may want to knock out as much of your schoolwork as possible during the winter months so that you can relax when the weather turns more pleasant.
  • You may have a specific end date when you’d like to be done with school for the year. If so, be sure to take this into account when calculating your start date and the number of days you will take off during the year.
  • Travel plans can factor into your school schedule. Many homeschoolers plan to vacation during off-seasons when the rest of the world is at work and school in order to avoid crowds and score better travel deals.

Can I homeschool my special needs child?

All parents have the legal right to home educate their children, including children with special needs. In fact, homeschooling can give children of varying abilities an advantage because they are taught by those who are intimately familiar with their strengths and weaknesses. As a homeschool parent, you have a unique opportunity to provide your child with a learning environment where they are truly loved and accepted.

Despite these advantages, teaching a child with special needs at home is extremely demanding. It will require an extra measure of patience, creativity, and dedication, especially if there are other children in the home whose needs must be balanced. There are some steps you can take to ensure that you are well-resourced for this endeavor.

  • Gather a strong support system for yourself whether through family, friends, therapists, church community, or a local homeschool support group (preferably all of the above!).  You will need others to lean on as you navigate the 24/7 demands of both teacher and parent.
  • Develop daily, weekly, monthly and seasonal rhythms that give you time and space to recharge. This is critical for all homeschoolers, but all the more so for those who are raising a child with special needs.
  • Keep  in mind that while some school authorities are supportive and even accommodating of your student, sometimes homeschool students with special needs may draw extra scrutiny from school officials. Joining the Homeschool Legal Defense Association is an important source of encouragement and support if you are teaching a child with special needs.

What if life is complicated? What if I care for an ailing parent, or get sick, or suffer from mental illness, or my husband loses his job, or I become a single parent, or we have to move, and so on?

If you homeschool for any length of time, you will undoubtedly experience a family crisis of one sort or another.  No one is exempt from the storms of life. When a tumultuous season arises, it doesn’t mean you need to give up on homeschooling, but you will need to get creative. Here are some strategies that seasoned homeschoolers have employed to keep their family afloat when the waves come crashing down on their families.

  • Re-evaluate your expectations as to how much you can accomplish. Zero in on what is truly essential, and pare back your schedule accordingly. Maybe this is not the season to pursue that ambitious foreign language program or the messy art projects you no longer have energy for. Keep your long-range goals in mind, and prioritize the subjects and activities that most directly contribute to that vision.
  • Take the ‘Nibbled to Death by Ducks’ approach, tiny bite-sized lessons every day over a long period of time. If you work in a given subject area for just 15 minutes a day, 5 or 6 days a week, you may not see much progress in the short term, but if you are able to sustain these brief, focused lessons consistently, you will see great results over the course of several months.
  • Change the location. Homeschool doesn’t have to happen at the kitchen table or at a desk. It doesn’t even have to take place at home. Trapped for long hours in the car while driving a sick relative to medical appointments? Listen to audio books, educational podcasts or even classical music on the radio. Stuck on bed rest for the rest of your pregnancy? Put instructional materials in a basket nearby, and let your children climb into bed next to you so you can read to them or go over lessons.
  • Enlist the help of others. If you are in crisis, take this as an opportunity to learn to receive help graciously. Many of us hard-working, homeschool moms struggle with this, but it is an important character quality to develop. Start voicing needs to trusted friends and family members and see what resources emerge. It’s important to be specific. You probably have loved ones who would like to offer a helping hand but aren’t sure how.
  • Above all, be honest about what is going on with the safe people in your life. No matter how unusual your circumstance, there are homeschoolers who have faced similar challenges before you and can offer tremendous perspective and encouragement. But no one will be able to help if you keep your struggles to yourself and wear yourself out presenting a facade of self-sufficiency to the rest of the world. You were not made to handle everything life throws at you without needing anyone else. You cannot do everything on your own, and that’s ok.

Aimee grew up among the cornfields of rural Michigan, where she was captivated by Jesus as a teenager and married her high school sweetheart. Together they moved to New England, chasing dreams of ministry, and landed in a city by the beach where they homeschool their two children together. Aimee has a Master's degree in Biblical Languages from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. She enjoys exploring new places, reading great stories, and enjoying the outdoors with her family.