by Sarah Baughman
Meeting the Varied Needs of Homeschooled Siblings
What’s it like to educate siblings at home? I caught up with three Vermont mothers who do just that. They have children ranging from babies to teens and are homeschooling multiple grade levels. Meghan has six children, aged 11, 9, 7, 6, and eight month old twins. Michaeline’s children are 7 and 5, and she cares part-time for two additional children aged 2 and 1. Pam runs an in-home daycare for three children aged 4, 3, and 1 while homeschooling her own children, aged 13, 7, and 5.
What first comes to mind when I think of homeschooling siblings is the difficulty of juggling different needs, so let’s start with something else: the positives. What do you see as the benefits of homeschooling children of a wide variety of ages?
Michaeline: Because my kids are so different, it helps the one who isn’t so open-minded to be more open-minded and be willing to try things because the other is making it look fun. For example, if my son who doesn’t generally enjoy crafts sees his brother doing them, he’ll be more likely to try them himself.
Pamela: Two benefits pop to mind. First, the kids can work together, which can make it more fun. Second, you hear a lot of criticism that older kids get stuck teaching younger ones and that isn’t fair. However, when kids have to teach something to a younger sibling, it really helps solidify the knowledge in their minds. They really need to understand it in order to teach it.
Meghan: My two older children motivate each other to get better at the opposite subject that they’re not as strong at—they want to keep up with the other. And the younger ones don’t want to be left behind, so from the beginning when we were doing any school, they wanted to do it. They wanted to do what the big kids were doing. My oldest son has been reading to his baby brothers lately, which helps them all; it’s a great, low-pressure way to practice. The babies don’t care if he makes a mistake, and of course they benefit from it as well.
When can homeschooling multiple grade levels become difficult?
Pam: It’s hard to find enough time sometimes to meet everyone’s needs, especially if you have a lot of kids you’re juggling.
Michaeline: My children both learn differently and are at different levels, so I have to do different activities for each of them. It’s not like it’s unmanageable, but it is a challenge. I think it would be more challenging if they were in school though, because it would cause me more anxiety. I’m able to individualize my teaching in the ways I know they need.
Meg: Since my children are so close in age, I often combine curriculum for each pair. So, the sense of competition can be a con because they feel like their sibling is doing better [at certain subjects].
What strategies have you found to help mitigate the difficulties of homeschooling siblings?
Meg: I know I can’t have my oldest two do math at the same time. If my daughter starts feeling self conscious she shuts down and says she can’t do it. But she can do it on her own, so I schedule it at a different time for her.
Pam: Meg’s response really shows you how individualized [homeschooling] is, because my girls do everything together. They work at their own level, but they’re doing the same thing. For now it works, but that may change.
Michaeline: Because my children are so high-energy, I have to do things at the same time too. If I’m not paying attention to one, things get out of hand.
Pam: It’s good to remember that you have years to get it done, not just today. It’s easy to forget that when you’re caught up in the moment of the bad day.
What words of advice or encouragement would you offer to other parents who are homeschooling siblings?
Michaeline: The rewards of homeschooling are really great and outweigh the frustrations. You know your children best!
Meghan: Life-based learning is the term I’m using now. You have to figure out what works for you. Some large families probably do really strict homeschooling; we don’t. It’s taken me this long to stop feeling guilty about what I’m not doing and to feel good about what I am doing. I used to literally not be able to sleep because of what I wasn’t doing and what they weren’t getting. I’m over that.
Pam: Focus on being flexible. Life isn’t unchanging and neither can your school routine, schedule, or curriculum be. We have some subjects that are more traditionally school-like but everything else is life-based. The homeschooling message, whether you have siblings involved or not, is: “do what works.”
Sarah Baughman teaches English for Oak Meadow School. Her creative writing and essays have been published in several literary journals. She lives in Vermont with her husband and two children.