In the first week of homeschooling, I nearly quit.
I was so, so close to throwing in the towel.
I was trying to teach reading to my 1st grader, but I could barely be heard above my 4-year-old singing Disney Princess songs at the top of her lungs, and my 2-year-old constantly interrupting me for any number of reasons.
I wanted to scream!
Homeschooling with toddlers is a serious challenge!
All I could think about was the sterile environment my oldest must have been in last year in her public school Kindergarten. No one was running through the room screaming at the top of their lungs when Ms. Hamilton was at the board discussing the day’s math lesson.
How in the world was my daughter going to learn anything with this constant parade of noise and distraction??
Spoiler Alert! I didn’t quit the first week and my daughter loved her 1st-grade year so much that she wanted to immediately start 2nd grade. How did I manage that with the littles?
I sent them to their grandmother’s house for the rest of the year.
Just kidding! Ha! Okay here are my tips for real:
How to Homeschool with Toddlers
1. Do not waste money on distraction toys
I was continually told to pull out special “school time” toys for my 2 younger children. They could only play with them during school hours and it would provide a nice distraction.
Have you ever seen a toy that held a child’s attention for 2-3 hours (the average time to homeschool an early elementary school child)?? If such a unicorn did exist…how do you plan to take it away once school is completed? And keep it from them the rest of the day without dealing with a ton of whining? The implication to me is that you are regularly providing new shiny toys to buy their silence while you are trying to teach.
Who has the time or budget for that?
2. Do not try to separate the kids
Special toys are an example of trying to move the littles away from the classroom. Kids are really smart and pick up on that right away. They notice you backing away and immediately wonder where you’re going after handing them this nifty new item.
I was given some great advice by a veteran homeschooler that I needed to keep everyone in the same space. Trying anything to keep the younger kids away would only cause more problems and distractions. She was right! Kids can always sense when they are being left out and they hate it.
3. Do welcome all the kids to your homeschool
I bought 2 more chairs for our folding table “desk” and invited the 4 and 2-year-old to join us if they wanted to.
Sometimes they would sit at the table and scribble on paper, color a picture, build with the math blocks, or draw pictures on my whiteboard. There were a number of things they enjoyed – listening to a history story, answering Bible questions, or joining in on a craft. I tried to include them in every way I could.
They seemed much quieter as they were welcomed into the homeschool. I have taught a number of lessons at the whiteboard with Youngest on my hip – it actually turned out to be less distracting to have her right there!
Being allowed to be so close eventually made it a little less exciting for them to be there and they would at times naturally gravitate to do other things around the house.
As a side note, bringing all the students together is also important because it will not be long until those littles are big and they will be doing a lot more in the classroom. It is important that they have positive feelings about schoolwork and mommy as a teacher. You want them to be excited to join in with the work when their time comes. Middle has already picked up so much from sitting in on lessons!
4. Do Not Use Screen Time as a Quick Fix
One of my first attempts to handle the younger sibling issue was to park them in front of the TV while Oldest and I knocked out our school work. I do not recommend this method at all.
The first and most obvious problem was that Oldest had a really hard time focusing on her school work with her sisters enjoying Dora the Explorer in the background. “How come they get to watch TV and I don’t??” “Are we done yet?? I want to watch TV too!” This seemed to be a big distraction that was not worth it.
Not to mention, hours of screen time for the littles has a direct impact on their behavior and just caused other issues during later parts of the day. I started to see my visions of a productive homeschool wasting away to nothing but my kids vegging out on the couch.
In a later post, I will tell you how I fixed the screen issue, but for right now – I would say if you plan to go the screen time route – proceed with caution.
When I took away the TV, their ability to entertain themselves, play, imagine, create, and have fun by themselves grew and grew. I now count this as one of the huge unexpected benefits of homeschooling. A quick google search of the benefits of self-directed play will show you how crucial this time is. Give your kids a chance and see what they come up with on their own.
5. Encourage Individual Play
Maybe I should say – let individual play happen. While we were figuring out how to balance all of this new homeschooling stuff with managing the littles – I frankly left them to self-play.
Our classroom is right next to our living room, which is where the majority of our toys and book are stored. I would teach and still keep an eye on the littles as the came and went from the classroom to the play areas. I began to notice that they were playing quietly with their toys. Playing pretend games with their dolls. And flipping through library books (we go weekly and get stacks of them – which are of course free – woot woot!) for good chunks of time.
Maybe throw a good old cardboard box in the mix too just for fun!
6. Do Carve out Intentional Time with the Littles
This may seem obvious to you, but can be a challenge to put in consistent practice in your homeschool. It was recommended to me to shower the littles with attention in the morning before school started.
Get on the floor and play with them. Build towers, play barbies, race cars, read their favorite books. The idea is that their “love bucket” is filled up and you can break away and start schoolwork.
I know. If you’re like me, you’re thinking that in the morning I have a hard time speaking politely to my husband, much less getting on the floor and building a block tower with a smile on my face.
7. Do Take Regular Breaks and Use Independent Work Time
If you can’t deal in the morning, then plan to use your breaks (it is recommended to take a 10-15 minute break every 45 minutes of school work) to engage your little ones. There is also time that your student will be working independently – reading time, handwriting practice, finishing a worksheet after a lesson, etc.
This tip was hands down the best help to our family.
It is tempting (and sometimes necessary) to use those breaks for yourself to make phone calls, start a load of laundry, answer an email, or other chore. But, when my littles were sitting up to the classroom table and started interrupting me and asking for snacks, wanting me to read them a book, or trying to start a Disney Princess dance party – I would tell them that during a break or while Oldest was finishing up her work, I would take care of whatever their need was.
They learned that the breaks did come regularly and they could trust me to keep my word. Interruptions came less and when they did, I found that they were more willing to wait for what they wanted.
8. Do complicated work during nap times…maybe
If I was writing this post a year ago, I would say this was our most helpful tip, but some things have changed. I used to save math, Oldest’s biggest challenge, till after lunch so she could focus on it while the littles were resting or napping in their rooms.
Great idea right?
After months of doing this, I realized that one of the reasons math was so challenging…was because she was doing it after lunch! She was tired by that point in the day and not up for drilling math facts.
Now, I do the exact opposite. Her hardest subjects have shifted to morning work – when she is fresh. She still does some work during the afternoon (in order to leave time in the morning for the park, library, errands, playing, co-op, etc.), but it is the subjects that come easily to her and she thinks are fun – read aloud books, history, and science usually.
So take the time to read your student. When do they have the most energy? When are they most able to grasp a new concept? Arrange your morning/afternoon schedule and time with the littles around that.
9. Discipline as a last resort
I want my kids to enjoy homeschool and love learning, but discipline for a tantrum or continual interruptions is sometimes what I have to turn to. Let me give you an example scenario.
Youngest: Mommy, I want a snack
Me: Okay, We’re going to have a break soon, and I’ll whip up something yummy.
30 seconds go by
Youngest: Mommy, I want a snack!
Me: I know, you had breakfast an hour ago. Break time is very soon and I’ll make everybody a snack.
Youngest: [Insert ridiculous tantrum, whining, unwilling to wait for snack]
Me: I have given you an answer. If you continue to act this way, you will have to go to your room (or time out) till break time.
A good number of times, I have sent one of the littles to their room until they can calm down. It is has been very effective in communicating that they need to be patient and cannot demand things.
It is important to remember this is no different than disciplining your child for acting this way when you are on the phone, at a store, or trying to enjoy a meal with your spouse. They can’t always get what they want when they want it.
As you are consistent with a schedule and homeschool longer – your kids will all fall into a routine. They will start to understand and expect what happens every day.
I began to realize that we had “crossed to the other side” without me having noticed it happening! What was once going to be the problem that would take down my homeschool, had gradually disappeared as we settled into our new normal.
A note about infants
Infants offer a very different dynamic than what I have already addressed. They can actually be easier! It is encouraged to keep a baby in arms, in a swing, or in a pack n play – whatever keeps baby content. Their needs of feeding, rocking, burping, and diaper changing can often be taken care of without much distraction to the student.
Your student will actually be learning a lot from you as you model multi-tasking and care for your little one.
Recap + More Homeschool Tips & Encouragement!
I hope this has given you some insight into how to balance your littles with your homeschool. If you are just starting out – it can be done! And you won’t go insane – I’m proof!
Please feel free to share your own ideas, experiences, or questions in the comments. I would love to hear from you!
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