Homefires - The Journal of Homeschooling OnlineHomefires - The Journal of Homeschooling Online

15 Common Characteristics of Successful Homeschools

The Magic Is In The Child

By Diane Flynn Keith, Editor of Homefires, Author of Carschooling

If there is one thing I want you to know, that you can take with you and hold on to when the homeschool road gets bumpy it's this: the magic is in the child.

Maria Montessori knew it. Piaget knew it. John Holt figured it out. Glenn Doman demonstrated it over and over with tiny kids at his Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential in Pennsylvania. These great believers in children, understood that from the moment of birth children have a raging desire to learn, and that if you just follow their lead, provide them with a rich environment, give them the undivided time and attention of the people who care about them the most, and encourage their efforts, they will not only learn, but exceed all expectations.

We are all so much a product of our own schooling that in teaching our children we sometimes unwittingly make the same mistakes schools make. Schools arrange for kids to fail. Do you remember how your essays used to come back with big red marks all over them? The teacher caught your mistakes. She rarely, if ever, caught your successes - much less pointed them out with a big red "". And what about tests? Tests are given to reveal not how knowledgeable we are, but how ignorant we are. If that is not the case then answer this: Why, when you take a 50 question math test and you get one answer wrong - clearly marked with a big red ""- why, does it scream at you, "No, stupid, that's not the right answer. What an idiot!" The school system is set up so that no matter what you do, you lose.

Kids are born with a love of learning. And strategies like repeated testing and flaunting failure stifle a child's desire to learn. If you want a kid to hate something - be sure to point out all the ways in which he doesn't measure up or falls short of perfection.

If you want to see a kid love doing something and be motivated to do it over and over again, then be sure to tell her what a good job she does, and point out how well she is doing. Be on her side. Don't bet against her. Celebrate the victories. Arrange for your child to win honestly. Because the more frequently she feels like a winner the more successful she will be. Success produces high motivation.

Think about it. Most of us avoid doing things that we don't do well. On the other hand, when we do something well, people notice and congratulate us. Our reaction to their praise is to believe that we are good at it, and we want to do it again. "You ain't seen nothin' yet!"

I remember when my kids first learned to dive off a diving board. They kind of stood at the end of the board, their toes hanging over the edge, chins tucked to their chests, and arms lined up by their ears with hands clasped over their heads. Then, after a moment or two they allowed themselves to bend way over and sort of fall into the water. The minute their heads popped up out of the water for a breath - my husband and I would applaud and hoot and tell them what a great job they had done. They couldn't contain their smiles and their pleasure at achieving success. Then they promptly got out of the water and headed back up on the diving board for another try. This ceremony took place repeatedly over many days and weeks, and each time they gained confidence and skill.

The secret to motivating kids (or anyone for that matter) is to tell them how great you think they are, and to let them know how much you love them. They have within them the magic - the potential to achieve their heart's desire in this lifetime. It only takes encouragement, love, and trust to develop it.

In homeschooling we parents have the delight of teaching our own children. Not only do we get to see the first step, and be there for the first tooth that falls out - we get to be there for the very first brain connections, we get to see them take acquired facts and figure out the rules that govern them. We get to see them read that first novel, recite poems, learn about fractions, and cells, and music, and all of life's bounty as we expose them to a broad base of knowledge while ensuring they are literate, skilled, capable, and ultimately happy.

The most successful and lasting homeschools share many of the following characteristics in common. I hope you will use them as a guide for your homeschooling success:

  1. Teach your kids because you think it's a privilege and a good idea. Learning with your children is a way of expressing affection for them. Giving them knowledge is like giving them a big hug. When education is presented in this way, and with this understanding and attitude, you can't help but create an environment of mutual respect and good will that will serve you throughout your homeschool journey and throughout your lives together.
  2. Be enthusiastic whenever you are learning together. Let your interest in the subject show!
  3. Kids need a variety of new information. Don't keep rehashing the same subject over and over again. Believe me, the Pilgrim's landing at Plymouth Rock is only interesting the first 2 or 3 times you hear it, after that it gets old. Move on. Have a steady diet of new information and your child's knowledge will be in a constant state of expansion.
  4. Organize learning materials so that they are always readily available. Nothing is worse than suggesting a science experiment to your kids that requires baking soda and not having any in the house - or announcing its time to study math, seating the children at the table, and being unable to find their workbooks so they can get started. Don't be your own worst distraction by having to launch a search party to find a pencil. Maintain a "stand-by" arsenal of supplies, books, interesting games, and educational kits. Take the time to put things back where you found them so they will be ready when you need them.
  5. Have a distraction free environment. Homeschool households can get a little chaotic what with all the stimulation going on: the Discovery Channel on the TV, the radio turned to a classical station, electric Legoâ projects in various stages of construction, the computer screen glaring, Play Stationâ beeping, the teakettle whistling on the stove, etc. Turn everything off. Keep one small area where you work together clutter free to cut down on visual, auditory and tactile distractions. It is very difficult for anyone to concentrate amidst pandemonium, no matter how educational it is designed to be.
  6. Teach your child when she's in a good mood - rested, fed, well, and happy. You know when she's receptive or not. Always choose the best moments to learn together. For some it will be first thing in the morning, for others, eight o'clock at night. The beauty of homeschooling is that you can cater to your child's natural body clock, and to your family's rhythms and routine. Never make the mistake of insisting on studying when your child is cranky, hungry, tired, ill or in pain. You can't teach anything to anyone who is in misery. You don't' have to "teach" on a school schedule between 9am and 3pm. Learning happens at all hours. Use the good times to your advantage.
  7. Never bore your child by prolonging lessons. Once he understands the concept move along. Your kid will tell you when he gets it. Listen to him. Trust him. Don't insult his intelligence by assuming he needs to go over it "just one more time." Maybe you do, but he doesn't. Kids learn quickly - and anything that slows down the process is deadly.
  8. The time to stop a lesson is when your kid is having success. I know what you're thinking, "I thought in homeschooling my kid could study a subject for as long as she wants, without ever stopping." Yes, of course. But you also have to go to the dentist, go grocery shopping, get to piano lessons on time, and still make the 4-H meeting. The time to suggest taking a break in learning is when your child is thoroughly engaged and enjoying herself - not when she's frustrated. Leave her wanting more - and she will always come back excited and ready to take up where she left off. If your child is frustrated to tears with a project, you may need to insist on moving on to something else. If so, pick something that generates contentment and happiness - perhaps just reading together - so that all learning times are associated with pleasure.
  9. Whenever you are learning together, be relaxed. If you're tense and uptight because the dog peed on the carpet, or the washing machine is broken, or it's just too bright outside, take some time off. If you're fatigued and disorganized you cannot enjoy yourself and your kids won't have a good time either. Take a break. Take them often.
  10. Be open to alternatives. Be willing to get rid of what doesn't work (even if that darn textbook cost $60). Consider changing your approach. Flexibility is the key to success in homeschooling. Your child is changing every day. It's not just his body that's growing and developing - his needs, abilities and interests shape-shift at an astonishing rate. What worked yesterday may not be suitable at all to who your child is today. I once heard that when you kiss your children and say "good night" you should probably be saying, "good bye." They won't be the same tomorrow. Be ready to start over each day with the "new kid" who rolls out of bed and sleepily shuffles into the kitchen that morning.
  11. Give your child the correct answer, rather than harping on the fact that he gave you the wrong one. Most people like to learn, and most people hate to be tested by someone else. If your child says, "The capital of California is San Francisco." Don't say, " No, that isn't right. That's wrong." Say, "The capital of California is Sacramento, isn't it?" and move on. If he didn't know the correct answer, he'll be delighted that you filled in the missing piece of information instead of making him feel like a dunce.
  12. Keep your promises to your children. We all respect people who keep their word, and we dismiss those who don't. Knowing that, why would you make a promise to your child that you could not or would not keep? Don't use a promise as a leverage for learning unless you intend to keep it. If you don't keep it, it will make a liar out of you. Do you want your child to respect you? Then be honest, truthful, and don't make promises lightly. They are not negotiable. If you do make a promise, keep it.
  13. Trust your children to learn, and trust yourself to facilitate their learning. Your child knows the things you have taught her. Didn't you make a considerable effort to prepare the materials and explain the concepts in a supportive and loving environment? Why on earth would you think your child didn't understand? Because she doesn't regurgitate it all immediately? What, she needs to provide feedback so you can reward yourself with a pat on the back for being a good teacher? Is that what this is all about? She got it. Trust that she did. You don't give the gift of knowledge with the expectation of gratitude and thankfulness demonstrated through correct answers to your endless questions and testing. A gift like knowledge should be given freely and without strings attached. And if you do that, you will be rewarded in the most unexpected ways and at the most unimagined times. You will see your child's knowledge manifested in a conversation you overhear her having with a grandparent or a friend. Trust your children. Trust yourself. If you doubt your children's ability to learn or your ability to help them learn, you probably shouldn't be homeschooling.
  14. Always take the time to answer your children's questions with facts, clarity, and honesty. Let them know that you think it is important to answer their questions, and that you take their quest for knowledge seriously. Do you know the answer to "Why is the sky blue?" Tell them. If you don't know the answer show them how to find the answer. Empower them by demonstrating how to look things up in an encyclopedia, or at the library, or on the Internet. Show them how to make phone calls to get the information they want. If your kids are very little let them watch you find answers. If they are elementary school age allow them to make a call with your supervision - and always be ready to intervene on their behalf when some less-than-enlightened adult on the other end of the line doesn't think it's worth their while to talk to your kid and give him the answers he's searching for.
  15. By the way, if your child asks a question and you don't know the answer - and are in the car or someplace where you can't find the answer right away - write the question down and follow up on it later. One homeschool mom I know kept a "Question Book" at home and in the car. When questions were asked, to which there wasn't an immediate known answer, they wrote the question down, and looked up the answer together when it was more convenient. The message her kids got was that their questions were important and their love for learning appreciated. Give your children the facts they ask for and render your opinion - but make sure your child understands the difference between the two. Real information coupled with expressing our point of view allows our children to develop critical thinking skills and teaches them the intricacies and importance of sharing ideas and holding discussions.

  16. Above all, remember this, you are not just teaching your child, you are teaching your grandchildren's mother or father how to teach them. Humbling, isn't it? Believe in the magic in your child that will transform him or her to the vision of the adult you hope they will become. Hold that vision in your mind and heart and let it guide your words and deeds throughout your homeschooling days.

I would like to leave you with the words of Maria Montessori excerpted from her book, The Absorbant Mind, as it best describes the role of parents in bringing forth the magic within the child'.

"We used to say it was the mother who formed the child; for it is she who teaches him to walk, talk, and so on. But none of this is really done by the mother. It is an achievement of the child. What the mother brings forth is the baby, but it is the baby who produces the man. Should the mother die, the baby still grows up and completes his work of making the man. An Indian baby taken to America, and placed in the care of Americans, learns to speak English and not Hindi. So his language does not come from the mother, but it is the child who takes in the language, just as he takes in the habits and customs of the people among whom he happens to be living. There is nothing hereditary, therefore, in any of these acquisitions. It is the child who absorbs materials from the world about him; he who molds it into the man of the future.

To recognize this great work of the child does not mean to diminish the parents' authority. Once they can persuade themselves not to be themselves the builders, but merely to act as collaborators in the building process, they become much better able to carry out their real duties; and then, in the light of a wider vision, their help becomes truly valuable. The child can only build well if this help is given in a suitable way. Thus, the authority of parents does not come from a dignity standing on its own feet, but it comes from the help they are able to give their children. The truly great authority and dignity of parents rests solely upon this."

Homeschooling is a most suitable way to raise and educate children. Trust the children. Trust yourselves. Embrace the magic!

Copyright 2000-2005, Diane Flynn Keith, All Rights Reserved.