How do you homeschool when it’s CRAZY? (Homeschooling with babies and toddlers)

Are you homeschooling with little ones in the mix— underfoot, climbing on the table, needing snack every 4 minutes, causing general havoc?

I have lived this life for quite a few years. Somehow we all survived and now my two oldest are homeschool grads and in college, so apparently they must have learned something along the way, in spite of shrieking toddlers and their mom being on her last nerve much of the time.

Starting around 2011 when Toby (our fifth) was born, things got crazier and more difficult every school year. Just this year, I am starting to come down the other side of this particular rugged mountain experience. The peak of the mountain was probably in 2017, when I had five in school, 1st grade to 12th grade, and three too young for school, ages four, two and nine months. 

Amanda recently sent me the question below. I have heard at least three other moms voice a similar question in the past few weeks. Amanda has Annie who is 10 years old and in 5th grade. She also has James and Leah, twins (adorable pics throughout!) who will be two in October. This conversation is shared with Amanda’s permission.

(I also added a few more ideas at the end, that didn’t necessarily apply to Amanda’s situation, but might be helpful for others.)

Amanda: Hi! With the “virtual” school year approaching…I have a question for you!

Just how in the world do you homeschool on the HARD days? The days where the little ones are throwing fits every 3rd minute? The days where no one is listening? The days where it’s just plain hard?! We amazingly are getting to keep Annie home from school this year (one good thing I can blame on covid!) ..still enrolled in public school but it’s not going to be enough instruction, so I’ll be doing additional math and reading/language arts with her and Bible!

Even with reviewing math all spring/summer with her it’s been hard at times, but given the situation we were able to be super flexible. But with her being home full time now, I want to establish such a schedule that it’s still “school” to her..not a whole bunch of free time, etc? How do I do it?! 🤷🏼‍♀️😬😆

Annie and the twins

Me: Great question, and believe me I get it!! Homeschooling with little ones in the mix is just plain hard! Here are my thoughts and suggestions, for whatever they are worth: 😅

•Establish a routine. It does not have to be a “down to the minute” routine (babies and toddlers don’t usually allow that), but one where there is a basic ebb and flow to the day, and everyone knows what is supposed to happen and what is expected. Post the routine somewhere visible and do your best to (loosely) stick to it.

•Along with the routine, give Annie a checklist. It’s best if she has a fresh one to check off every day. I’ll send you an example of the checklist I have for Sammy this year. (See bottom of this post.) This year I’m using the most detailed checklists I’ve ever done! I’m including all the daily things that need to be completed, in the basic order that they should be done— chores, schoolwork, other activities.

•Adjust your expectations. It WILL be chaotic at times, especially with your little twins in the mix. Your house will not be as clean as you might prefer. You have to let some things go during this season. It’s all part of the sacrifice you’re making for these precious children.

•Refer to Jonathan as the “Principal” of your school, and bring him into things as much as possible. If Annie is not cooperating with the daily plan, it’s best if he can be a part of the correction and sternly let her know that she can and will do better.

•Offer Annie a small reward/incentive for a job well done– a checklist completed in a timely manner with a good attitude. This could either be something daily or weekly. A little motivation goes a long way.

•She should be able to work independently much of the time. If she is not a diligent/motivated student by nature, DO NOT put her somewhere that you cannot monitor her. Have her work where you can see her and help keep her on track. A timer can be used for motivation if needed, or loss of a privilege if work isn’t completed by a certain time. If she is of the diligent type, then give her somewhere quiet to work and check in on her and help her as needed.

•Capitalize on the twins’ nap time or happiest time of the day. Also capitalize on any time when Jonathan is available, or see if he can work with Annie on one subject.

Homeschooling with toddlers is pretty much the toughest it gets. So give yourself lots of grace and be flexible when it’s truly needed.

•Homeschooling with toddlers is pretty much the toughest it gets. So give yourself lots of grace and be flexible when it’s truly needed. There is no sense in everyone being absolutely miserable, so adjust along the way to create the most peace possible. (Ask Jonathan for his suggestions for your particular set of circumstances. Husbands can have excellent suggestions.) It’s pretty normal to go to bed every night feeling like you have battled your way through yet another day, wondering if you’re doing something terribly wrong (you’re not!) at this stage. Praise the Lord for the strength He gives along the way. Bad days will happen. It’s okay. Tomorrow morning there will be mercies anew. And you will be exceedingly grateful for the good days.

It’s pretty normal to go to bed every night feeling like you have battled your way through yet another day, wondering if you’re doing something terribly wrong (you’re not!) at this stage.

•Realize that Annie’s schoolwork may not take as much time as you’d expect. Homeschooling shouldn’t take nearly as long as a traditional public school day, especially if she buckles down and gets her work done. So if she finishes quickly, then… yay!! Don’t feel guilty about it; let her go play! And then she can also play with the twins and give you a moment’s peace.

•She should be contributing to the family chores. This helps you out and is also extremely good for her. She builds confidence and feels needed and valued as a member of the family this way.  Some of her chore time can also be playing with the twins and watching them for you. 30 – 45 minutes of “babysitting” at a time, for example. This gives you time to think, pray, breathe… whatever is needed!

I hope this helps! Let me know if you have any more questions or need more explanation. I’m so proud of you and wish I could give you a big hug! God is no doubt using you in amazing ways. Keep up the great work, minute by minute, day by day.

Amanda: Thank you so much for the email. It was extremely helpful to me. I’ve honestly lost sleep this week trying to figure out a system that will work for us. Looking for ideas online etc. I knew I wanted a checklist for her, but didn’t want “times.” So the example you sent was a perfect one to go by.

I think my biggest struggle within is knowing I might need to spend the twins’ nap time working with her without distraction. But in this toddler stage, that is also the only time I accomplish anything and everything else. Sitting down for one minute, mowing the grass to help out, planning the next day, cleaning, cooking etc! So ultimately, if school work was finished before then, that’d be great.   But I think I’ll need to selflessly not worry about those things during nap time and use that quiet, non-interrupted time for when she needs one on one help.

Annie is not much of a motivated student, so I do want her out at our table so I can monitor her. BUT, I’ve had a hard time keeping the twins from being a big distraction. I’ve tried sitting with her to help and having us all sit together at the table…giving them coloring pages etc. However, that only lasts for a short few minutes.

I also don’t want the twins’ day just to be filled with time outs and getting into trouble because they’re not getting the attention they’re needing.

Anyway! I wish I could give you big hug too! Thanks so much for your tips and advice! Oh and by the way…this week in just doing some very last minute (because of the school system being last minute..corona🙄) preparations…I seriously have gone to bed feeling the exact way you described. Glad to hear that’s normal! 😂

Me: I had some more thoughts… I hope you don’t mind me sending them over! We will be praying for you as you get started on this venture!

•There is a balance to having a child learn to work with some distractions (which is very good prep for life in general!) but also providing them a quiet place to work when they truly need it. They need to learn that they CAN concentrate even with other stuff going on.

•Really try to make it your goal to get her more and more independent as soon as she is able. This is a key with an older student (not with the early grades), and as long as she can read well on her own, she can move toward being more independent. Even if she can do 10 minutes of a subject on her own, that’s a start. And then 15, and then 20. With your watchful eye on her, but your bodily attention more on the twins, if that makes sense. Maybe she can read aloud to you while you play with the twins on the floor, stuff like that.

•I agree about the twins not bearing the brunt of the home education, and I know what you mean about the coloring pages. In my experience, any effort to try to “entertain” toddlers was usually more trouble than it was worth. And the more toddlers you have, the more impossible this gets. A good rule of thumb is that the younger children get priority (priority in a “timing” sense). So if the twins are miserable and Annie needs your help at that same moment, Annie will have to wait a little while. She is older and she can understand a lot more than they can. This is a great way for her to learn about sacrificing for others, and “my life for yours.” While an older child is waiting for help, they can sometimes figure it out on their own, and are able to proceed ahead anyhow. This strengthens problem solving skills and builds confidence and independence!

•Cut out any unnecessary schoolwork. She needs to keep up with her language/reading skills and her math skills are essential. Your gut will pretty much tell you when stuff is just “extra” and not necessary. It’s not worth the stress to try to do handcrafts or science experiments, etc, with busy twins underfoot who are making it nigh unto impossible. Watch the science experiment on youtube and all will be well. Or skip the experiment altogether and go outside instead, and all will still be well. (That’s just one example.) There is so much great material available online or on DVD for history and for science. Don’t feel bad at all about using those things as your “curriculum” for science and history in the elementary grades. When overwhelmed, stick to the basics.

When overwhelmed, stick to the basics.

•Consider hiring a “mother’s helper” one morning or afternoon per week, if your budget allows. A homeschooled girl who wants to earn some money can end up working out very well. It isn’t a “cure all,” but can help restore some sanity to your week. Also, a grandparent can help in this kind of capacity.

•In your current stage, a day when Annie completes her school work, everyone is fed and clothed, and the twins have been kept from endangering their lives is a *successful* day! It won’t be like this forever. Stages change. So just try to embrace the crazy as much as you can.

•Before you start on Tuesday, consider having a family meeting about all that is coming up and what you expect of her. Maybe Jonathan can lead the meeting and talk to Annie about how excited you guys are to have her at home for school, but that she will have a big role to play in being responsible and being a helper, etc. Go over your schedule together as a family and try to anticipate any roadblocks ahead of time so they can be addressed.

Ok, I think that’s all my thoughts… I know it’s more than you asked for! Thanks for letting me share my experience. Have a blessed week as you lean upon the Everlasting Arms. ❤️

For those with larger families and multiple ages of children, here are a few additional thoughts:

For years, I had my older children take shifts playing with the younger ones. If you have four older children who each take a 30 minute shift throughout the morning (for example), that will give you two hours of instructional time to work with other children. This was my lifeline to survival for a long time. The older children would get up fairly early and get started on their schoolwork so they would have plenty of time to get their schoolwork done, and some time to help out as well. Homeschooling is a family effort. Mom is the coordinator but everyone is needed to make it actually work. If you’re not at this stage yet, hang on, you will get there. Your stage can change greatly with every six months or year that goes by.

It can be extremely chaotic when multiple children need help all at the same time. I try to focus on the youngest one (or two) first, while the older ones work independently. The older ones know they are supposed to work on their own, doing all they can to complete their individual checklist, and that their turn for help is coming up. As the younger ones finish, I transition to helping the older ones.

We serve a God who can multiply the loaves and the fishes. Give Him your all and He will accomplish the task through you. He hears and answers when we cry out for wisdom, and He will carry you through.

Here is Sammy’s daily checklist. He is in 6th grade this year.

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