One thing I have learned from teaching my young children: You can only learn as long as you can pay attention, and you can only pay attention as long as you can keep a cool head.

Time and again, I find the biggest hill for my kids to get over in learning something new is just to handle the stress of it all without dissolving into a fit. The clearest sign that stress is getting in the way is when they suddenly can’t do something they could do before: solve a math problem, or read a word, or play a song.

This can be very annoying, but it points to a major advantage of homeschooling, which has everything to do with tailoring our teaching for each kid. I don’t know if I could do it with a room full of students, but with just my four kids, I can pull it off at least often enough to keep them moving forward.

Teaching = Leading

My starting point for helping manage my kids’ workload is a theory of leadership from a book I read in seminary called Leadership Without Easy Answers, by Ronald Heifetz. It says that one key to leadership is to “give the work back to the people” by helping to focus everyone’s attention on the problems needing work, and then keeping just the right amount of pressure on them to solve their own problems: not so little pressure that they can coast through things without having to grow, and not so much pressure that the stress overwhelms them and you face a backlash against the task at hand.

This is a great approach to teaching kids. First, they need to feel pressure to work hard. I do look for ways to make learning fun, but if it all feels effortless to the kids, we’re probably wasting the opportunity to learn more. Even if they’re making fine progress anyway, education is not just about learning subject matter, but about building the character to do hard things. I say this from personal experience: if a bright kid breezes through school, they may have a rude awakening if they move on to something that pushes them to their limits, like doing a Ph.D. program, starting a business from scratch, or the like.

On the other hand, if schoolwork is too stressful, the day can dissolve into crying or fighting, or even just into hard-core procrastination. This is a very bad habit to get into because it can teach the kid, even if only subconsciously, that throwing fits gets them out of doing work. On the other hand, if I can find a workable balance of stress for each kid with each subject, and for the total work-load for the day, we can learn and have a pleasant day at the same time.

In homeschooling, this means for example that a kid who is ready to read at age four can jump ahead of grade level as long as the work doesn’t stress them out too much, and the kid who finds it too stressful can take a slower pace and pick it up when they are ready. Neither situation requires formal decisions about holding back or jumping forward grades, and it is seamless to let a kid race forward in one subject while moving slowly in another.

Stress for Five

One other key: I have to find this balance of stress load for all five of us, so that I don’t become too complacent on the one hand, or dissolve into a fit myself on the other. After all, the work of putting the right balance of pressure on my kids does and should put stress on me too. But, to borrow a bit of family therapy language, if the kids do start to act out because of the work load, they will be only too happy if I absorb their stress onto myself and start acting out, because then they can feel some relief in leaving it to be my problem to solve rather than theirs. That’s not healthy for a student or for a family.

Incidentally, looking at stress load management is a good test for whether homeschooling is the right choice for a family. Is the stress created by the whole process the right amount to help the family grow, or does it overwhelm the family and cause more harm than good?

As a classical homeschooler, my challenging (but hopefully not too challenging) job is to be firm but calm when my kids start to react to the stress of their schoolwork. Sometimes I insist they keep going, or sometimes I might cut their work short to let off some pressure. But in both cases my goal is to keep calm so that I “give back to the kids” the hard work of managing their own emotions, and handling their own stress. If we do it right, the same work will help them grow in both mind and character.

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