Could you home-school your child?

If you've been wondering what it takes, we've done your homework for you

With three kids in public school, our family has encountered everything from falling grades to bullying. At times I’ve been annoyed, and sometimes downright angry, with “the system,” and on more than one occasion it occurred to me: Why don’t I just teach my kids at home? My one foray into home-schooling was an attempt to meet the challenge presented by a teachers’ strike several years ago. I stocked up on workbooks and flash cards, cleared off the dining room table and prepared to fulfill my childhood dreams of being a school teacher. However, my kids didn’t want to fill in workbooks and were only interested in sitting at the table if a meal was involved. I tried to liven up the lessons with a field trip to a local bird sanctuary; they complained that the birds’ honking hurt their ears and pleaded to go home.

Furthermore, trying to home-school while under the command of a six-month-old baby was something I just couldn’t seem to juggle. In short, it was a disaster, and I shelved my thoughts about home-schooling alongside the unused workbooks. It’s not uncommon for parents to flirt with the idea of home-schooling when they experience problems with some public schools. Home-schooling is a far less costly alternative than private school and gives parents a feeling of control over what their children are learning. “Home-schooling is Canada’s third educational option,” says Angie Blackman of Montreal, whose four kids have never been to a school. She’s the editor of Homeschooling Horizons Magazine, which offers encouragement and practical ideas for the home-schooling parent. Despite the growing number of Canadian children who attend school at home — estimates range from 60,000 to 80,000 — many parents still wonder what it would take. Here are answers to some key questions.

There’s one thing every home-schooler needs — the desire to make it happen. And that includes knowing why you want to do it. “Being angry and frustrated is the worst motivation to home-school,” says Deani Van Pelt, lead researcher on a 2004 home-schooling study conducted by the Canadian Centre for Home Education. Home-schooling can be very satisfying, but it does require a commitment. “You have to be prepared for a lifestyle change.” Wendy Pottle, a home-schooling mom from Quispamsis, NB, often hears from parents who are angry with a teacher or have a minor disagreement with the system and plan to home-school temporarily until the problem is resolved.

“These are often the same people who will later express negative opinions about home-schooling.” (However, Pottle makes it clear that if she had a child who was suffering because of ongoing bullying, she’d pull him out of school. “It’s our job to protect our kids.”) Take the time to make your decision. Check out the Internet (see Home-school helpers) and your local library, or visit a home-school support group (either online or in your area). There are also conferences you can attend for more information. “I was filled with doubts starting out,” says Pottle. “But if your heart is saying yes to home-schooling, then go for it.”

Once you’ve nailed down the why, you can focus on the how. Home-schooling is legal in Canada, but the laws surrounding it vary from province to province. Find them all on hslda.ca, the website of the Home School Legal Defence Association of Canada (HSLDA), which is also an excellent place to gather info. New home-schoolers often try to fill every hour with subjects or outside activities, which can quickly lead to frustration and burnout. Keep in mind home-schooling is rarely six hours a day, five days a week; it’s about blending your child’s scholastic needs into your routine; for instance, if your child is most alert for learning after lunch, mornings can be reserved for household chores.

Also, some families find creating a study area is beneficial, but that’s not always necessary. If your child is more comfortable sprawling out on the family room floor, that’s fine as long as her work is completed. “Goal setting can be very helpful,” says Van Pelt. Goals should be specific, such as “I want my child to learn long division this month.” Make sure goals are realistic for your child’s age and education level, and develop a plan to accomplish them.

First you need to explore the vast array of available materials. Provincial curricula outlines are free and their timetables may give you an idea of what your child should be learning and when. Other curricula for home-schoolers may include a religious or learning philosophy and will cost you. As home-schoolers often set their own benchmarks and timetable for academic goals, Pottle, whose four kids range in age from four to 14, recommends not buying curricula until you figure out what you can afford and what your kids really need.

“Every parent has different strengths and so does every kid,” says Van Pelt. Home-schooling can be an opportunity to focus on those strengths and interests. “My son was very interested in tigers at one point. So we lived tigers for a year.” A specific passion can be incorporated into lessons on math, science, literature, geography and so on.

Some parents may be intimidated by fears that they don’t know enough to teach their kids. For example, a 2006 study by the Canadian Council on Learning reported that two out of three parents didn’t have the knowledge needed to help children with their homework. That kind of information might reinforce the idea that parents aren’t qualified to teach their own kids. But Blackman disagrees. “Helping with homework when you weren’t in the classroom is a totally different thing,” she says. “With home- school, you are the classroom. You’re presenting work you choose, and you know exactly what they’re learning.”

Furthermore, some curriculum materials come with manuals, and there are always places to look for help. Community groups, friends and relatives, private tutoring and other home-schooling families are all avenues of assistance. “I’m not very good at math, but my husband is,” admits Julie Lybbert of Lethbridge, Alta. Lybbert’s been teaching her kids at home for five years and finds the tag-team approach has worked well for her family.

You may even find yourself being taught by your kids. “I’ve learned with them as I’m teaching them,” says Lybbert. “Plus, the older kids have started helping the younger ones, which is neat to watch.”

Home-schooling can be as expensive or as affordable as you make it. “I spent more than I needed to at first,” says Mary Ann Rampersaud from Amherstburg, Ont. During the first year of teaching her seven-year-old son, Jordan, at home, she spent about $500, which was too much in her opinion. “But I wanted every learning material I saw.”

To keep costs down, stick to just the books and learning tools you need at the time and rely on resources from libraries and community centres. Also consider sharing curriculum materials with other home-schoolers and using information found on reputable educational websites. Also, costs for extracurricular activities and field trips (many of which are provided in public schools for little money) will be offset somewhat by not having to pay for daily commuting to and from school, clothing, fees and cafeteria lunches.

Finally, there has been a movement in recent years toward some public funding for home-schooling. In Alberta, for instance, parents get funding for home-schooling, which can cover costs of materials or music and other lessons outside the home.

Home-schooling can be as expensive or as affordable as you make it. “I spent more than I needed to at first,” says Mary Ann Rampersaud from Amherstburg, Ont. During the first year of teaching her seven-year-old son, Jordan, at home, she spent about $500, which was too much in her opinion. “But I wanted every learning material I saw.”

To keep costs down, stick to just the books and learning tools you need at the time and rely on resources from libraries and community centres. Also consider sharing curriculum materials with other home-schoolers and using information found on reputable educational websites. Also, costs for extracurricular activities and field trips (many of which are provided in public schools for little money) will be offset somewhat by not having to pay for daily commuting to and from school, clothing, fees and cafeteria lunches.

Finally, there has been a movement in recent years toward some public funding for home-schooling. In Alberta, for instance, parents get funding for home-schooling, which can cover costs of materials or music and other lessons outside the home.

Parents who make the leap to home-schooling sometimes worry about how their children will respond to them as teachers. According to Van Pelt, your job will be easier than that of a classroom teacher. Parents won’t experience much of the behaviour problems teachers face, which arise from having to monitor or control 30 kids on a fixed schedule. For example, a child who finds it difficult to stay on task for more than 15 minutes at a time doesn’t have to in a home-school situation.

Still, mom’s or dad’s temperament is just as important as a child’s. Home-schooling takes patience, so you’ll need to think about how well you’ll respond to your child avoiding lessons, daydreaming or being a Chatty Cathy. You can also use the tag-team approach when discipline issues arise — if your child isn’t responding to you, he might be more receptive to the other parent.

It’s a question many parents considering home-schooling ask. “I think kids need the everyday interaction they get at school,” says Mandi McKee of Walkerton, Ont., who considered home-schooling her three children.

Home-schooled kids can actually have more opportunities for socializing. Because school doesn’t take all day, kids have more time for field trips, team sports, parks and recreation programs, and playing with other kids after school. Just because children are being schooled at home doesn’t mean they’re living in a bubble.

However, mom and dad need support too. When McKee mentioned that she was considering home-schooling, her own family offered mixed opinions. “My dad thought I was off my rocker,” says McKee. And, as Van Pelt puts it, if the necessary support is missing, you can spend a lot of time feeling like you have something to prove: “It’s definitely more difficult if the whole family isn’t on board.” Still, support doesn’t just have to come from your immediate family. Make it a priority to network with other home-schooling parents.

Many parents who home-school decide to leave it behind when the high school years approach. While home-schooling through high school is a bit more complicated, it can be done. You don’t have to be the only one who teaches your child. You can pay to have private tutors, keeping costs down by hiring high school, college or university students. Or, in Ontario, home-schooled children beyond grade nine can earn credits through the Independent Learning Centre (see “High School and Beyond,” p. 118). Provincial benchmarks, and outside testing, such as the Canadian Achievement Test (CAT), can help you measure your child’s progress.

Pottle is keeping close tabs on the progress of her 14½-year-old son. “It’s his choice whether or not he goes to regular high school, but for now, he’s enjoying the freedom of home-schooling.”

The bottom line: Home-schooling has to work for you and your family — no matter what “grade” your child is in. While McKee has decided to home-school after all, for Julie Lybbert’s family, the time has come to do things a little differently. In the last year or so, she’s had a baby and became overwhelmed with trying to stay on top of everything and still find time for herself. Five of her seven children will attend public school this September. “A change is as good as a rest,” says Lybbert. “We’re committed to trying school, at least for a year.” If it doesn’t work out, she will bring school home once again.

In Ontario, the Independent Learning Centre, funded by the Ministry of Education, offers correspondence packages and courses for home-schooled students at both the elementary and secondary levels.

Also, great strides have been made by home-schoolers to create access to universities and colleges. The Ontario Federation of Teaching Parents (OFTP) keeps a list of Canadian colleges and universities that have admitted, or are willing to admit, home-schooled students. Admission policies vary, so becoming familiar with them well in advance will make it easier for you to figure out what you need to do so your child can attend a post-secondary institution. The OFTP website, ontariohomeschool.org, also provides information about scholarships and other funding available to students who were home-schooled.

Home-school helpers

Doing the prep work for home-schooling can be overwhelming. If you simply google the term “home-schooling,” for instance, you’ll wind up with more than eight million hits. Here are the best places to start:

hslda.ca Home School Legal Defence Association of Canada
ilc.org Independent Learning Centre
homeschoolinghorizons.com Homeschooling Horizons Magazine
ontariohomeschool.org Ontario Federation of Teaching Parents

No Comments