Maybe in your home school, children start school back up, after lots of summer breaks and trips and fun, with excitement and delight. Maybe they say things like, “Oh, Mom, I’m so glad we’re finally hitting the books again!” or “Why has it been so long since we’ve been able to do English?”, and wake up early on the first morning back of official school, trembling with inspired enthusiasm, to sit down, pencils and books at hand, just awaiting your instructive wisdom, with eyes bright and hearts merry.
If that’s the case, I don’t want to meet you. Because I might just come tear down your perfectly-organized-book shelves out of spite.
Let’s just say that back-to-school doesn’t look anything like that for us. In our household, even though technically we “do school” throughout the summer to some degree, our August/Septemberish get-down-to-serious-business homeschool re-start is a bit bumpy, to say the least. There is always whining and complaining. Frequently a bunch of “I don’t KNOWs”, even over concepts we’ve gone over many times. Very little patience. Sometimes downright fits.
It’s not a pretty sight.
I’ve learned that the stop-and-start schooling of summer, punctuated by myriad moments of pleasure and excitement over work and discipline, does a number on my kids. It’s like the summer gets them drunk on fun, so that they begin to expect that fun should be the default of their lives, and that responsibility is an annoying barrier to the fun-and-free experiences they should be having. Doing school work every day, and having to take care of the regular responsibilities of, well, existing, is just unbearable torture that Mama Killjoy is inflicting upon everyone.
Can you hear my evil laugh? Can you feel the pain of my victims?
Suffice it to say, we are now on a campaign to right this mess. I think of it as my Back-to-Homeschool Campaign; a campaign to slough off the bad summer habits and get minds and attitudes back on track. My Back-to-Homeschool Campaign has three major tactics:
- Re-establishing a consistent routine
- Reviewing pertinent character qualities
- Re-setting responsibility as the foundation
It is hard to overstate the impact of routine on my kids. The summer blows our routine out of the water, as camps, Bible school, vacations, weekend trips, and all sorts of other activities take precedence over academics. Sure, we continue to hit the books in between those things, but every day I get the question, “Are we doing school today?”. When they have to ask the question, because there is the possibility that something better might be on the agenda, it automatically means that they will be disappointed if the answer is “yes”. And disappointment usually means -- for most human children I know – complaining.
In contrast, during the school year, my kids never have to ask that question. It’s just a given – Monday through Friday, we do school. They wake up in the morning with a relatively good idea of what that day will be like, with academics in the morning and early afternoon, and extra-curricular activities in the afternoon. This routine is tremendously beneficial for them, and for their attitudes about doing school, because they have no expectation that anything “better” might occur. The complaining vanishes, because it becomes just a given that “we do school” – no other options exist.
So for our back-to-school start-up, I make it my goal to establish a consistent school routine, for at least the first 3-4 weeks. No special field trips or extra-long weekends with Gram. Whereas we love the flexibility homeschooling provides, and we definitely utilize that flexibility from time to time to do fun, creative learning activities – when we’re starting back up, flexibility takes a backseat to consistency. We get our minds and attitudes focused on our work, like an athlete getting back to his training regimen. A few weeks of a consistent school routine, and both attitudes toward and excellence in academics begin to improve.
But routine by itself doesn’t fix our back-to-school problems.
For us, “doing school” is not simply an issue of gaining knowledge – it is a matter of developing personhood. Not only do I care about the quality of work my children do, but I care about how they do it. Attitude and effort are even more important, for us, than accuracy and mastery (and those are important, too!).
So we start off our back-to-school reviewing and focusing on character qualities: things like perseverance and responsibility and diligence and cheerfulness and gratitude and patience and self-control. Programs like Character First and Kids of Character help us remember that education is not just about our minds, but about our hearts, as well.
We study the character qualities, but we also talk about them as we do our academics. I make efforts to address the specific qualities my children are or are not displaying, so when my youngest reads through a new section of Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, without throwing her hands up in frustration or getting that annoyed tone in her voice, I tell her she did a great job with perseverance. Or when my oldest is able to stay on task with an assignment and not get distracted while I work with her younger sister, I let her know she showed excellent diligence. Conversely, when the whining ensues, we relate that behavior to not demonstrating responsibility, or cheerfulness, or gratitude.
Learning about and incorporating character into our home school helps to get at the heart of the problems my kids are displaying. It shows them that the education we are doing with this home school thing is not just about information, but about who they become. And the more they understand and accept that the way they conduct themselves is just as important as (or more so than) what they know, the more they demonstrate the behaviors during school time that make it a pleasant learning environment for all of us.
When it comes down to it, summer somehow gives my kids the impression that the foundation for life is fun. The overabundance of excitement and activity and stimulation has the interesting effect of making them feel entitled to pleasure, as if indulging oneself is the baseline of life, and work simply gets in the way of the good life that they are owed.
Wait. You mean summer fun is not how life really is?
So, yeah, my kids, at least, need their summer-induced view of life realigned just a bit. And I’ve found the best way to do that is by re-establishing responsibility as the baseline.
Not only do we talk about responsibility as a character quality, but we get back on the responsibility bandwagon. We revisit each family members’ chore responsibilities, and resume our pre-summer level of intentionality about getting them accomplished. We do some intentional service projects, to get our “responsibility” juices flowing and our focus on others rather than ourselves.
But the most effective part of re-establishing responsibility as the baseline over fun is that each time a child complains about school work, they have to do a task of responsibility. The child must still come back and complete their school work when that task is done. Responsibility tasks can be household cleaning, pulling weeds in the garden, taking out the trash, organizing shelves, or anything else that needs to be done. Each and every complaint garners a new responsibility task – until the complaining ceases. But schoolwork still has to be done after the responsibility tasks are completed, so it is playtime or personal time that gets sacrificed for the whining.
We focus on the fact that fun is a privilege, not a right. Responsibility comes first, and fun happens only when our responsibilities are complete, and done with a cheerful spirit.
It generally only takes a few responsibility tasks over the first week of back-to-school, accompanied with a regular routine and character quality emphasis, to get everybody back on track. Once the kids remember that responsibility is the baseline of life, not fun, then when we do interject special activities or unexpected trips, the kids appreciate them and are thankful for them, instead of expecting that they are entitled to them.
Reclaiming the Battleground
So if back-to-homeschool isn’t a bed of roses for your household, try my Back-to-Homeschool Campaign. It’s amazing how, after just a couple of weeks of my 3-pronged strategy, and our homeschool transforms from a battleground back to a classroom. A little routine, character training and practice of responsibility and you, too, can go from being Mrs. Killjoy…
To Mrs. Cares-About-Her-Kids.