Homeschool moms offer tips to embrace learning at home

"I want to let all of the parents that have found themselves quarantine schooling at home that what you're doing is hard! You didn't want to do this and it's probably not going to look like what a typical homeschoolers day looks like," posted homeschooling mother Michelle Cahoon on the "School at Home" Facebook page. "My number one piece of advice is to give yourself grace [and have fun]. Don't expect to get it all done. It doesn't have to look like public school at home. Take lots of brain breaks. Get outside. Feed them frequently. Snuggle on the couch and read to them. Watch one of the many free tour/educational videos that are being offered. Do a puzzle. Bake something. You can do this!"

As parents and teachers scramble to adjust to learning at home, local homeschooling veterans Cahoon and Missy Kesterke offer some advice to parents and guardians who now have their children at home and are expected to facilitate their learning. They both encourage parents to take the opportunity to get to know their children better and turn everyday life into learning opportunities.

Cahoon is a mother of seven. While her oldest two are grown, she is currently homeschooling five children, ages 16, 11, 9, almost 8 and 6.

While Cahoon has done a mixture of homeschool, public school and private school for more than 20 years, the past four years she has been exclusively homeschooling. She has used a variety of curriculum and styles and finally realized that if she hates teaching it, her kids wouldn't enjoy learning it. Her children each have different learning styles that she works with to help better convey the material.

Her day is structured by a routine that is not bound to the clock. She uses the unit study approach to everything but math and language arts.

"We love going down rabbit trails in learning and you can find us outside a lot, either riding the horse or looking for birds and bugs," said Cahoon.

Kesterke is a homeschooling mom of eight children. She has been homeschooling since 2002. Her oldest two children have graduated and are on their own. This year she is teaching a junior, freshman, two seventh graders, a fifth and a third grader.

Kesterke has homeschooled all the kids from the start and has tried dozens of styles, curriculums, strategies and companies. Some worked, some didn't.

"It has been years of trial and error to figure out what my teaching style is and what the kids' learning style is," wrote Kesterke in her bio on "School at Home."

Kesterke said they are active outside with hiking, raising animals, travel, camping and snowmobiling. Her favorite thing about homeschooling is seeing the "light" come on in a child's eyes when they pick up a new concept or share an idea they are so excited about.

Tips and Tricks for parents:

• Establish a schedule and be consistent. Both Cahoon and Kesterke agree that having daily structure is essential to the learning environment. This adds continuity and keeps it from quickly becoming a free-for-all.

Cahoon works better with a routine that is not bound by the clock. Once her children get up they have breakfast, do their chores, gather for devotionals and then dig into their unit studies with all five children at the table.

"You go down these wonderful little rabbit trails and it is all learning," said Cahoon. "That makes it really interesting and fun and they retain it. They aren't just sitting down to do a worksheet to check off a worksheet page, they are learning. It's really fun to see them excited and engaged."

Following their unit studies, she breaks them up to do individual work such as math and language arts while the others do something else - go outside and play, read, or work on the computer. Then they cycle through. The older students often need less help so they can work independently relying on Cahoon for just questions.

"In a perfect world we are done in about three hours," said Cahoon.

Kesterke enjoys adding in specific fun things like a movie night or game night as a reward when chores are complete or as just a fun family activity.

Take frequent breaks. Kesterke said with four teenage boys it is really important for them to get outside as much as possible and using up extra energy. Otherwise they get naughty.

Cahoon cautions parents against sitting down with their child and trying to get everything done at once. Do things in little increments, 10 minutes here and there, especially for the younger students.

She recommends giving children brain breaks to run outside for 15 minutes, play with their toys or grab a snack. Kids eat often so having snacks readily available is key.

Regulate computer time. While parents may be dealing with an increased demand for their children to use the computer to complete assignments, Cahoon said the key is to stagger their work to avoid fights. While computer time has its place, she recommends parents place limits and incorporate play time and time outside. Too much screen time leads to breakdowns by the end of the day.

"The greatest gift you have been given is time with your kids," said Cahoon. "The greatest thing living in Seeley is we have the option to get outside, we can play, we can walk, we can hike."

While Kesterke agrees that limiting computer time is necessary, she also recognizes that kids that attend public school are used to social interaction with their peers that is not available right now. Allowing older children social time with their friends online after their schoolwork and chores is complete should not be viewed negatively.

"Social freedoms have changed and we need to find different way to fulfill those needs," said Kesterke.

Resolve conflicts through constructively working together. Both Cahoon and Kesterke agree that with two or more children at home there is going to be tension, especially since everyone is adjusting to this new normal.

When there is a conflict, Kesterke gives the two fighting a chore to complete together. They can't return to the group until they have worked it out.

"When they are working together there is something about needing to cooperate to work things out," said Kesterke. "When they are done, they come in friends."

Be gentle with yourself and your children. Kesterke said it's not complicated but there are hiccups. Everyday is an opportunity to do it differently and it is a continual work in progress.

Cahoon reminds parents that they know themselves and their children best. They need to find what works best for their family, allowing their situation to be different than others.

If work is sent home from school, work with the teacher to accomplish it. Cahoon advises parents to look through the material so they understand it before trying to teach it.

"If parents don't know what they are doing, their child will feed off that and be frustrated too," said Cahoon.

Kesterke agrees that parents should use what is issued by the school as a framework. She encourages parents to add to areas they or their children are excited about.

"If the kids are excited about it or if the parent is excited about it, they are going to learn it and retain it," said Kesterke.

Take advantage of teachable moments. Cahoon and Kesterke agree that life offers countless opportunities to engage children in learning. By recognizing that opportunity and spurring creativity, parents can instill a lifelong love of learning.

Cahoon recommends turning normal, everyday experiences into a learning experience by asking questions, reading and writing stories, researching something you don't know or understand and get outside. Right now they have bird feeders where they identify the birds by sight, call and song, learn about their migration patterns, what they eat and where they nest. She feels her children retain the information much better when it is hands-on compared to completing a worksheet.

Kesterke offered ideas to have younger students tell a story to their parent who writes it down and reads it back to them. This develops the child's ability to articulate their thoughts and makes them feel heard.

For teenagers, ask them to write an essay on what is the most pressing social issue to them.

"It is surprising how well developed their ideas are and you get to know teenagers as a young adult," said Kesterke.

Both agree chores are teaching moments. It helps children learn how to cook, clean, take care of pets and their siblings so when they are out of the house, they know how to live.

There is always the opportunity to read a book. It creates discussion at all age levels and opens up opportunities to discuss aspects of language, generate jumping off points for other questions to research and can add to formal instruction.

"Even if parents don't feel like they are capable of teaching their kids, they can. There are just a bazillion resources out there to help you along the way," said Cahoon. "So often they don't even know they are learning. They just think they are having fun."

Collaborate with other parents. Using a friend or other parents can be a helpful to share struggles, solutions, and bounce ideas around. However, Cahoon said don't cave to the pressure to do it the same – give yourself permission to do what works best for you and your family.

"That was a big stumbling block for me for a long time. Their way didn't [always] work for me," said Cahoon. "It took me a little while to be like this is my personality, this is my family's personality and this is what works for us. Once you give yourself permission to do that it just makes everyone happy instead of stressed out."

Utilize available resources. While teachers will be providing work for students to complete, there are countless other free resources available for parents to engage their children.

Cahoon said if someone has a computer and printer they can find free resources in every subject online to give additional practice in areas their child is struggling or enrich areas they already have an interest.

Kesterke and Cahoon also started a new Facebook group entitled "School at Home." The group's intent is to be a resource for people who are 'schooling at home' to gather, share tips, express struggles, get advice and connect with others. They have posted schedule suggestions, tips on home management and other educational resources.

"The rewards [of homeschooling] are having a closer connection with their kids," said Kesterke. "I think this is an amazing opportunity to connect with their kids that otherwise might not be there."


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