The #1 Key to a Successful Homeschool

My mom’s got a saying that she learned from her father: “first, first, and then first.” The refrain has become multi-generational, as our kids quote it on occasion also. It reminds us of

priorities when we enlist in any new endeavor, big or small. In homeschooling, when I think of “first, first, and then first,” I'm reminded that relationship comes before task; that before we get into the nuts and bolts of education, we get to be grounded in mutual trust and respect. When I taught in the classroom, I learned this lesson while student teaching. If there was no classroom management (which boils down to mutual trust and respect), there was no education. As a new teacher I remember experimenting with pleading: “Please behave, kids” (hands clasped in front of me feigning prayer), dictatorship: “This class will stop talking immediately” (evil eye, hands on hips, voice raised), and ignoring (pretending they were actually listening). These all had the same effect. The kids sensed I was not grounded and not in a position of respect for myself, the room, or them, and therefore could not be trusted to teach them. How does this relate to homeschooling? We don’t have a room of 30 kids we’re trying to manage, so that stuff isn’t the point, right? Actually, yes it is. The most common comment I received from people who learned we were homeschooling was, “Oh, I could never do that! I don’t have the (fill in an adjective like patience, knowledge, stamina, etc).” Believe me, I never “arrived” with any of those adjectives either. But more than any of those fill-in-the-blank qualities, homeschooling successfully required relationship. It meant my kids could trust I would love them no matter what. That I wouldn’t let their performance or their behavior determine my peace and joy. That I respected their interests, their time, and who they were. When our kids know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we love them, we are in their corner, and that we always want their best, they learn to trust our leadership. When they trust our leadership, they build respect. In any healthy relationship, this goes both ways. Of course, at age 5 or 9 or 12 or 14, our kids may not display the mature level of trust and respect that we might picture. So we get to model it for them by giving it to them and by apologizing when we mess up. What does all that look like? Here are ten ways to help build a relationship with your kids that will lead to more successful homeschooling.

1. Be interested in the “trivial” things your child wants to tell you about. Hearing details about multi-colored buttons on five of your child’s stuffed animals may seem insignificant to you, but the way you listen to her explain them to you shows her how she should behave when you’re explaining something that seems insignificant to her later (like how to “carry the one” in 3-digit addition).

2. Praise your child’s qualities (his “be”) more than his performance (his “do”). When Johnny finishes cleaning his room, say things like, “Way to be diligent with that!” “I’m so impressed that you tried something new in how you arranged your toys!” or “Look how hard you worked and it really paid off. Your bedroom looks amazing now!”

3. When your child misbehaves, use that as an opportunity to be matter-of-fact, but loving. Stay grounded. There’s no need to fly off the handle and let your emotions get the best of you. Let your child see that her behaviors do not dictate (rule over) your emotional well-being or how much you love her.

4. Engage. When your child requests your attention, stop what you are doing, face him completely, look him in the eye, and either listen to his statement/request OR tell him you will wrap up your task so you can give him your complete attention. This small act tells him he is loved, valued, and worthy of your attention.

5. Before starting school with your older kids, spend some quality time with your littles; reading to them, playing with them, and/or pretending to do “school” with them. When their bucket is filled, they will be less likely to vie for your attention constantly throughout the day. Of course, they’ll still want to connect with you throughout the day, but they may not feel the need to be naughty to get your attention if you’ve already given it to them in love.

6. If you snap at a child due to impatience or frustration, apologize for your behavior. (Hey, nobody’s perfect!) You might say something like, “I apologize, honey. I love you and that’s not how I want to treat you. I’d like to replace those words with…”

7. On days when homeschooling is just not going well (we’ve all had those days when everyone’s a bit “off!”), set the schoolwork aside and play a favorite active game, take a short roadtrip, or head to the park and then start fresh the next day. Don’t let the “task” of homeschooling drive your relationship, let the relationship drive your homeschool.

8. Play a game with your kids where you let them pretend they’re the homeschool teacher and you're the student. Ask them to use similar phrases and actions you would use during school. Let that experience be a litmus test for you to see how you’re showing up for them each day. You can even use some of their expressions and see how they react. This could prompt some great discussion afterwards.

9. Be a thermostat rather than a thermometer in your homeschool. Before doing school with the kids, be sure you’re clear of your own bad attitudes or stresses. Get grounded yourself if you want your kids to be grounded. Once we can recognize and adjust our own demeanor, we can homeschool our kids from a place of love rather than from force, fear, or frustration.

10. Remind yourself and your kids that your family is on the same team. We called ourselves “Team Dettinger” when we went on adventures, worked together on a project, or faced a

challenge as a family. Homeschooling is simply a mirror that reflects your family life. How you do anything as a family is how you do everything as a family. Do it together, not against.

So why IS relationship the #1 key to a successful homeschool? It’s similar to a school classroom: if there is no trust and respect between the teacher and the student, the likelihood of a quality education will be greatly reduced. In addition, homeschooling is so much more than “A-B-Cs and 1-2-3s.” It’s learning how to BE. And regardless of how many PhDs our children eventually earn, if they are unable to foster healthy relationships (which start at home!), they will not be living their life to the fullest.

First, first, and then first.

Sun Prairie, Wisconsin