Temporary Homeschooling Tips, Part Two: Schedules

Yesterday I published a post with some general advice for those who may be temporarily homeschooling children due to the coronavirus outbreak. The most frequent question I have gotten since then is about our schedule – how do we organize our day?

First, a disclaimer – we are homeschoolers, but by no means does that mean that we usually spend the entirety of our days at home. All four of our kids usually swim two to three times a week. The big kids and I usually ride horses at least a few times a month. We take “field trips” – we go to the zoo, we go to art shows, we go to the pumpkin farm, we go to parks. FangFang usually has weekly PT, and it feels like we always have a pediatrician or dentist or eye doctor or specialist appointment coming up for someone for some reason! All four kids participate in a homeschool enrichment group 3 mornings a month. Spending more time at home is a change for us, too.

That said, we do have a general routine to our days. Note that a routine is different than a schedule. To me, a schedule is based on specific times, and one of the things I appreciate about homeschooling is that it allows for flexibility and freedom to spend more time than planned on an area that is particularly difficult or especially interesting. Plus, I’m a control freak, and I get stressed out about schedules. Routines work well for us, though!

We divide our academic work into two different categories, loosely called “table school” and “couch school.” Table school is for subjects the kids do at the dining room table but also includes, for the older kids, any subjects on which they do their work independently. Couch school is for subjects we do together on the couch. For the older kids (4th grade and 3rd grade), table school is math, independent reading, and sometimes Language Arts. For the younger kids (kindergarten and pre-k), table school is math and Language Arts.

Each night before I go to bed, I write out assignments for table school for the older two kids for the next morning.

If I’m on top of things, I might get out school books for everyone the night before, as well, but that’s not super frequent 😉 The older kids are quite capable of getting their own materials.

The older kids’ job is to come downstairs when they wake up, get themselves breakfast (or ask for help getting breakfast), and get started on their table school work. I’ve found that they find table school more challenging than couch school – perhaps because they are expected to do more independently – and so it goes better if we start with that. There is no specific wake-up or start time – my kids all usually wake up once they’ve gotten enough sleep, and they just start once they are awake (usually by 8:00 or 8:30, sometimes earlier or later).

After I have breakfast, I start table school with the younger kids.

Everyone gets a break after table school. I would say, on average, we’re all finishing up table school between 10:00 and 10:30, but it can vary pretty widely. What that break looks like depends on the day and whether everyone is ready for a break at the same time or whether the big kids and little kids are finishing up their work at very different times. Regardless, each kiddo definitely gets a break, though I may stay busy working with one group and then the next. Sometimes that break is just free play time. Sometimes we all go for a walk. Now that we’ll no longer have swimming as part of our regular weekly activities, we will need to be sure we’re getting enough physical activity, so I’m hoping we can go for walks more frequently. Otherwise, we might play outside or do some Cosmic Kids Yoga, or I may put together some more active work-out type activities to do with everyone.

What we do next depends on the time. Often times we can move on to couch school, but sometimes we need to break for lunch at that point.

Couch school subjects are always History, Science, and Bible. For the little kids, we also do Literature and Reading as couch school subjects; for the older kids, Language Arts is sometimes a couch school subject, depending on what we need to do that day. Whether the big kids or little kids do their couch school subjects first depends on who finished table school first that day. Usually I sit together with each group on the couch, and we read each of our books and discuss them. Often times the big kids will join us for the little kids’ books – I’m reading the same books with the little kids that I read with the big kids 5 years ago, so those stories feel like old friends to them!

After we’ve finished lunch and our couch school subjects, we do some clean-up. In particular, the common areas of the house (the living room and dining room) need to be picked up. Sometimes I’ll also have kids work on cleaning their own rooms or doing their family teamwork jobs (things like sweeping, unloading the dishwasher, vacuuming, cleaning the bathrooms, etc).

Then we have our afternoon downtime. Sometimes we’ll all have independent quiet time in separate rooms. Sometimes we’ll all sit in the living room for half an hour and read our own books. After that, almost every day, the kids are allowed to watch 1-2 hours of tv while I work. I have a very flexible part-time job, and I try to get in at least an hour of work each afternoon.

What happens after that really depends on the timing. Sometimes we’ll transition straight from that downtime into dinner prep. Sometimes there will be time for a fun activity together. This is another window into which I’m hoping to fit some free play and time outdoors and exercise.

We all have dinner together as a family, during which we go around the table, and each person shares their high of the day, their low of the day, their buffalo (something strange or interesting), something kind they did that day, and something they’re looking forward to.

After dinner we might do a family activity, or the kids might all play independently. Every child also needs to finish any family teamwork jobs that they did not do earlier in the day. Atticus really likes to play Wii or Xbox, and this is the only window of the day in which we allow that, and sometimes MeiMei or FangFang will play with him.

Around 8:00 Matt puts the little kids to bed, and between 8:30 and 8:45, the big kids and I head upstairs for their bedtime routine. After they’re ready for bed, they snuggle with me in my bed, and that’s when I do Literature with them, reading to them as bedtime stories.

The routine is subject to adjustment, as needed, but it’s the general structure we follow for each of our days! As always, feel free to ask questions and let us know if I can help in any way 🙂

The Little Things are the Big Things are the Little Things

This year – 2019 – has been rough for a number of reasons; there hasn’t been room for anything except the essentials. I expect I’ll share more about some of that later. But I do enjoy blogging, and I want to get back to it. This is an important space for me, and I hope I can serve my family and others with it, too. Today I have some parenting reflections to share.

One recent afternoon, I was working my way through a substantial “to do” list. Yet one of my kiddos had been struggling, and I’ve found that when my kids struggle, they need me to ramp up my efforts toward connection with them. To that end, I asked her if she wanted to play a round of Solitaire, which we often play as a cooperative game, working together to strategize and try to win.

I thought it would be a low investment, high payoff situation – it would take 5 minutes, I’d have that moment of connection with her, and then I’d be able to go work on my list. It didn’t quite work like that! We played one game – and lost. We played a second – and lost. We played a third – and lost. We were having a stretch of bad luck.

I could feel my anxiety rising. I needed to get moving on my list. This was taking much longer than I thought it would. I was tempted to tell her that I needed to be done, and whatever happened in the next game, I had to stop, but I knew that would be frustrating for her, not to end on a triumphant, successful note.

And so I started talking to myself. “Connection with your kids is the most important thing you do as a mom. The to do list can wait.” Persistence is important. I needed to stick with this and play until we got a win. That was true in Solitaire, and it’s true in parenting. So much of the time, my parenting work takes longer than I expect, is not as productive as I hope, and is more frustrating than I think it will be. Sticking with it until I am successful is important.

We lost a fourth game. She said, “We should switch from this blue deck to the red deck. The red deck is better for us.” Sometimes we need to change our strategies. Our goal remained the same. We remained committed to working toward it. But we tried something different. And sometimes those different strategies make all the difference.

Did I really think the red deck was objectively better than the blue deck? No. But what was important was listening to my daughter, letting her know that I was willing to hear her, that I would make a change when she wanted us to make a change. It matters to my kids to know that they have a voice with me.

And the fifth game? We won! She was delighted.

It was a brief moment of connection and teamwork in the middle of my day, and it was absolutely worth it to take the time away from my attempts at productivity in order to have that time to connect with her. It ended up being a highlight of my day – I need those moments of connection, too.

My child is not giving me a hard time. They are having a hard time.

Sometimes we all need reminders in parenting – glimpses of the reality that we know to be true but can so easily forget in the moment. I’m firmly committed to connected parenting, and I believe in giving my kids the benefit of the doubt and being gentle with them – but even so, I still have moments of frustration and feeling like my kiddos must be working against me.

Yesterday morning Matt made a Lego truck for Atticus, who was thrilled. But the truck broke just as Matt was pulling out of the driveway on his way to work, and Atticus was inconsolable. He firmly believed that Matt, and only Matt, had the power to fix his truck, and he was devastated by the idea that it would be hours before Matt was home again. A full-blown meltdown ensued.

I already had a “to do” list a mile long, and my interest in spending 30 minutes working through a tantrum was so low. I engaged halfheartedly, though, and just as I was starting to feel defeated, that nothing I was saying or trying was helpful, he curled up on the chair and said, very sadly, “Mommy, I’m going crazy.”

Immediately I stopped. And I remembered the quote I have seen so many times before and wholeheartedly believe to be true: My child is not giving me a hard time. They are having a hard time.

My little guy’s meltdown wasn’t a manipulative attempt to ruin my day; it was an expression of the overwhelming emotions he was feeling. At four years old, he doesn’t have the self-regulation skills to know how to calm himself. He knew his feelings were big, too big for him to handle alone, and his meltdown was a reflection of that, and he needed help to work through it and through his feelings.

I went and sat down on the floor near him. “Oh, buddy, you’re not going crazy,” I told him. “But I know you’re feeing a lot of feelings, and they can be big and overwhelming, can’t they?”

“Mommy, I AM going crazy!” he insisted.

“You feel like you’re going crazy?” I asked. He nodded. “You need Mommy to help you with those feelings?” Another nod.

“Let me get some flowers. We’ll smell them together,” I suggested.

“Will that help with the crazy feelings?” he asked.

“Yes, yes, it will,” I told him.

We leaned in together, breathing deeply in the smell of our flowers, then slowly letting out those deep breaths.

A few minutes passed, and he said, “Mommy, also I would like some chocolate milk.” I refilled his cup for him and asked if he wanted me to hold his hand while he drank it.

“No, Mommy, I want you to sit with me,” he said. He curled up on my lap and drank his chocolate milk.

And then, calm, he told me, “Mommy, I love you.” And he was able to strategize with me about what we should do about his Lego truck. We texted Matt a picture and asked where to put the pieces that had fallen off, and he texted back a response. I replaced those pieces, and Atticus was good to go.

Note his truck on the windowsill behind him!

This is what parenting is. This is the mom I – far too often – am not but the mom I always want to be.

Fall Family Fun

Life has been full these past few months, and I’ve gotten behind on blogging. This blog serves several purposes, one of which is a record of sorts for our family. I love to look back and see where we’ve been, what we’ve done, and where we are now, and I hope that my kids will one day enjoy these records, as well.

And to that end, there are some fun memories I’d like to make sure I document this year for us!

Naturally, I am an introverted, intellectual homebody. My idea of a perfect day would have to include some time curled up on the couch with a blanket and a mug of tea and a good book. But I’m trying to grow in being more of a fun mom, creating memories for my kids and having special outings and adventures, and this fall we had several.

We took a morning and went with some friends from church to Hickory Ridge Orchard and took a tour and visited some animals. The chickens were a bit over-enthusiastic in their pursuit of the food Atticus was carrying, and he was not pleased!

The girls took it more in stride 😊

And then we enjoyed what was definitely a highlight for us – apple picking!

Having 5 apple-pickers, we’re able to get quite a few pretty quickly, and we came home with a respectable haul, to be used to make apple pie, applesauce, apple butter, and other assorted apple items!

Another Saturday this fall, Matt had to work, so the kids and I made the drive out to Longmeadow Rescue Ranch, where our friend Courtney works training horses, to enjoy one of their Wagon Days. We saw Twister paint…

…we enjoyed some of the biggest slices of pizza we’d ever seen from a food truck there for the afternoon…

…each kiddo got to enjoy a pony ride!

The littles, in particular, were thrilled with that experience. They’ve watched their older sisters taking horseback riding lessons, and they loved getting to participate in something similar. Atticus talked all day long about how was now a horse rider, too, and FangFang now refers to the pony she rode, Pal, as her best friend.

We also enjoyed some snow cones…

…and a wagon ride…

…though Miranda was not thrilled about having to wait for the wagon ride, and her expression shows it!

We walked around and visited many of the animals at the ranch, and the chickens were a particular favorite.

Miranda made this drawing of her favorite chicken on the way home!

The next week, we took an even longer trip, this time venturing up to Wisconsin to see the China Lights. In recent years, each fall a group of artists from China have decorated Boerner Botanical Gardens with lanterns, and this year the theme was pandas. FangFang is obsessed with pandas, and we knew she would be beside herself with excitement to see the exhibit, and it was taking place around her birthday. We’d looked at our calendar to see if we could fit in a quick trip to Wisconsin to make it work, but Matt just didn’t have any free blocks of time to do it. Courtney agreed to go with us, and plans were made! The trip was almost de-railed last minute, as three of our kids came down with strep throat (everyone but Madeleine CaiQun), but we were able to get everyone on antibiotics before we left so that they wouldn’t be contagious, and though we had a bit of anxiety about it, we went ahead with the trip, and we were really glad we went. There were some hard parts – sleep wasn’t great for kids who had sore throats (or their mama) – but it was neat to see this exhibit, and I always love giving our family the opportunity to experience different aspects of Chinese culture – and we got to see my mom a bit!

The next weekend, my dad and his boyfriend and my brothers and sister-in-law all came to Columbia for a visit, and we crammed in several fun fall activities! We all went out to Peach Tree Farm, went on a hayride, saw animals, and looked at some gigantic pumpkins.

That afternoon we had some fun at home, with Atticus using my brother Danny as a jungle gym and FangFang practicing her independent standing with my sister-in-law, Sharon!

Matt led the kids in their pumpkin carving endeavors, and the results were much more impressive than if I had been involved with the process 😉

We also enjoyed some outside time – David raked leaves with the big kids, and Danny taught Miranda how to ride her bike without training wheels – a big milestone for her!

We also took in a visit to the big tree.

Close on the heels of that visit was our Halloween fun – this year we had a dinosaur, a cat, a dragon, and a panda – pretty adorable!

I hope you had a fall full of fun activities, and I’m looking forward to seeing what our next season will hold for us!

The Blessing of Big Feelings

This girl – she feels everything BIG. That presents us with some significant challenges. She and I and Matt have spent years trying out and cultivating strategies to walk through them well. But also? We’ve held onto the hope that those big feelings were going to translate into big empathy and into big triumphs, and we’ve cast a vision for that as we’ve talked with her about how God made her and how she is wired.

And sometimes we see glimpses – or even more than glimpses – of that hope shining through.

This morning, her three younger siblings were experiencing some conflict, and Madeleine CaiQun was left in tears. She and Miranda disappeared upstairs, and when they came down, Madeleine CaiQun came to me for some hugs and comfort, and Miranda went into the living room to talk with the littles.

Miranda came to me a few minutes later, “Mom, MeiMei told me about how she was feeling when we were upstairs in the luminescence room. The luminescence room is kind of like club house we made on the bottom bunk in our room where we can talk about feelings. We were petting the cats up there for a few minutes. And when we came downstairs, I talked to FangFang and Atticus. They didn’t want MeiMei to play with them, because their building wasn’t big enough, so I helped them make it bigger, and they said she could play now.”

And a bit later, as our all-three-year-old-boy child was attempting to destroy all the buildings, she took the initiative to create a “scrapyard” for him, full of creations for him to knock down.

Kindness, empathy, initiative, problem-solving, creativity, peace-making, and helpfulness – all things I hope and pray for as I parent my kids, as we walk through squabble after squabble, as we talk about how we can work as a team to solve problem after problem. It’s so encouraging to me as a mother to have these moments in which I see glimpses of the fruit of that. We’ll keep pressing on, working together to grow, and hoping for more and more of these moments.