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Homeschooling a large family absolutely baffles some people. “What?” I’ve heard screeched, “How can you teach all those kids at once??” Strangers might quiz your fourth grader at the grocery store, convinced they must be deficient. Or Aunt Bertha just assumes your oldest child spends all day babysitting the younger ones instead of learning calculus. (Cue your long-suffering sigh.)
Back in ye olde days, the norm for American schools was to lump children of all ages together. This saved money on teachers while taking advantage of the buddy system. One room schoolhouses, however, have fallen out of favor. Now, the norm is to educate kids only around others of their exact age. Those who fall behind or jump ahead even a single year are seen as horribly abnormal.
But have no fear, you brave parent blessed with many children! While it might take some more organization and structure, you can homeschool your large family as well as any other parent can homeschool their one kid. Here are my best tips for getting it all done.
Homeschool your large family with group study time
This is how those one room schoolhouses used to get it done. There’s only one teacher, so everyone’s going to be learning about the solar system!
You can do this one of three ways, depending on your children’s ages and abilities. I’ve seen it done successfully each way though, so there’s no wrong answer.
1) Everyone learns the exact same thing
Generally, I think subjects like English/language arts and mathematics should be individualized. There’s so much material to cover and the difficulty can scale so much that kids do best when learning right at their level. For subjects like social studies, science, art, music, and health, however, there’s nothing wrong with having multiple children share a curriculum and learn everything together.
This method works best when children are close in age or at least ability. Once you have kids more than 5 years apart, you risk some being bored (because material is too dumbed down) or confused (because material is way over their head). If you have a cluster of kids, however, you can easily do group learning. As long as every child reaches a high school diploma level of education by the end of 12th grade, there’s no harm in this method.
2) Family unit studies
This is another option, and the one that worked the best for me in my multi-age public school classroom. You choose a unifying theme, like Outer Space, and everyone will do some schoolwork that ties to that theme. The kindergartener learns what a planet is, the fourth grader studies supernovas, and the eighth grader writes a report on Newton’s Third Law of Matter. Each child has differentiated schoolwork based on his or her age and ability. Using this method, you can take a field trip to the planetarium and each child can access knowledge at their level.
When I used unit studies as a teacher, I had the complete freedom to create my own curriculum. Parents using boxed curriculum that’s not themed this way might have a harder time utilizing the unit study method. (If you don’t feel confident writing lessons yourself, also make sure to check out our 2020 secular homeschool curriculum guide.)
3) Have family-wide subject study blocks
This method is, in some ways, the best of both worlds. If you don’t want your kids learning the EXACT same thing, but you don’t have the confidence to manage the differentiation of a unit study, try subject-structured block time.
After breakfast, for instance, is writing time. Every child, from pre-K to 12th grade, does their writing work right now. (If you need ideas, you can always check out our no prep writing prompt bundle!) This helps you, the teacher of this large homeschooling family, ensure that everyone is hitting each necessary subject. It also allows for conversations around the same general theme and can potentially offer direct instruction that benefits multiple age groups.
Utilize tutor time
Clearly, this tool should be used in moderation, and not to the exclusion of individual study time. However, when you’re educating multiple children, sometimes you as a parent need a second pair of hands.
Tutoring brings a number of benefits both to the tutor and the tutee. For the younger student, they get a chance to hear material explained from a new perspective. Tutoring also gives the child more time to work through academic blocks and form bonds with older siblings.
For the older child, tutoring encourages higher-level thinking since they’ll need to respond to unique questions. They also can get a boost in self-esteem from being able to help someone else learn. Finally, tutoring is an excellent tool for reinforcing knowledge. Let’s say your older child will be learning how to multiply and divide fractions, for example. Having them teach a younger child how to add fractions is a great way for them to brush up on the subject before diving into a more complicated branch.
Give one-on-one time when homeschooling a large family
I probably don’t even have to explain the importance of this tool. I’m sure you know, just from your parenting journey, how much children benefit from one-on-one time with mom or dad. It helps them feel known, seen, and love, plus it gives them a chance to form an identity outside their sibling group. All of the same lessons apply when homeschooling a large family.
Generally, I see this individualized attention take place at different points in the learning process for children of different ages. Younger children need a lot of direct instruction and hand-holding when learning new material. School is very new for them! Make sure you spend plenty of time with learners in pre-K through at least 2nd grade, when your kids need one-on-one attention the most.
For older children, especially those in middle through high school, individual time might be better suited to work reviews and conferences. By this point, your child probably has developed some good skills in self-directed learning. They know where to find expert answers to their questions instead of always expecting you to provide all knowledge. (This independent work ethic is a critical life skill employers look for, too!) But every advanced learner still needs time to check in and get feedback on their work’s content and quality. They should get some kind of feedback from you regularly, even if they have other teachers from online courses, college classes, etc.
If you feel like trying to find time for group study, one-on-one time, and tutoring is making your head swim, don’t forget we have a great 2020-2021 Organizer available! You can block out time for each student’s learning needs, field trips, and whatever else you’re planning. Stay super organized by using the “bird’s eye view” of the year and see your large family’s homeschool needs month-by-month, plus break it down to weekly plans and even daily ones!
Hillary is a former teacher who went rogue and became a freelance writer. When not offering support and advice to homeschooling families, she tends to her own garden, family, and cat. You can connect with her on her website, homegrownhillary.com.