How do you teach multiple ages simultaneously?
Our family visits a couple of specialty physicians on an annual or semi-annual basis for checkups. I usually have all of my children in tow—after all, we are a homeschooling family and wouldn’t want to miss a great learning opportunity! The doctors and their staffs have gotten to know my children by name. They often ask my kids what they’re learning at home and what field trip we might be taking after our appointment, since we’ve driven to a large metro area full of museums and a zoo. Usually, these kind doctors then turn to me and say something along the lines of, “You have such great children. How do you teach them all?”
As you are beginning your homeschooling journey, maybe you find yourself in a similar position: trying to teach several children, all of varied ages. Maybe you’ve been asked the same question—“How can you possibly teach them all?”—by a concerned friend or family member. Or perhaps you are struggling with this issue yourself in your heart of hearts. It’s the old one-room schoolhouse dilemma: one teacher, yet many children of varied ages and abilities, all wanting your time and attention simultaneously.
Let me assure you that you are not alone. Many homeschool moms, including myself, are in your shoes. This year, my children span the learning spectrum all the way from pre-reading to Shakespeare. And our homeschool is about to get more crowded, since we are expecting another baby in just a few months!
Can you possibly teach them all? Can you accomplish the basics—and maybe even some of the extra things you’d love to teach them too? If I didn’t think it was possible, I would have given up trying to teach my own children a long time ago. But I am convinced that God chose my husband and me as their parents and our home as their place to learn, so it can be done.
I’ll share with you some of the ways that work in our home, multilevel strategies I’ve gleaned from wise friends, and methods the Lord has impressed upon my heart as His best for our family.
Equipping the Youngest Ones
If the babies, toddlers, and preschoolers in my home need my constant attention, I am not available to give myself to our school-age children for assistance with their subjects. Therefore, I place a high priority on training my youngest children. Though babies are a wonderful gift from God, they are not the new center of my universe. I gradually want to steer them toward our family’s routine. Training involves a daily commitment on my part to move my wee ones toward my long-term goals.
For instance, I want my children to learn to play independently. Daily playtime begins when each of my babies is about 6 months old or mobile (rolling or crawling)—whichever comes first. I place my baby in his playpen for a very short period of time, with safe toys and board books in each corner. I try to watch the clock and end the playtime while my baby is still content; I want this to be a happy place for him to be by himself. Then, together, we clean up the toys—more training for the future. With each month, the amount of time the baby plays happily will lengthen.
Months later, when I announce, “It’s playtime,” my now-toddler will begin to gather up his own toys and happily move to his playpen. I eventually transfer his playtime to his bedroom, with trains and cars, puzzles, and Duplo blocks, for the length of an entire music CD or audio book. In our large family, I think my children enjoy, almost crave, their playtime, because it may be their only opportunity to be alone. For my part, I know my toddler is safe, developing the ability to play independently and creatively. In turn, he is giving me focused time to teach my older children.
I also train my toddlers in basic housework. Even the youngest child can learn to put away clean silverware, pair up socks, gather trashcans, and most importantly, put away the toys which he got out. I’m not only training the child to do the task, but to do it with a Christlike attitude: cheerfully, promptly, and with excellence, as unto the Lord. As my children help me around the house, it lightens my load and creates more time for me to read with my children and help them learn.
Setting Daily Priorities
No matter how much I plan, life happens in the midst of homeschooling! Interruptions, illnesses, infant needs, and invitations to a friend’s house mean not many days go according to my plans. Realizing that my time is limited and that I will face interruptions, my husband and I discussed our priorities for our children. Who do we want our children to become? What do we want them to know? With established priorities, I’ll have a better chance to answer the “How can I teach them all?” question. (Thanks to Jonathan Lindvall for his instruction in this area.)
For years now, I have written our top priorities inside my school calendar. Each morning, my top objective is to accomplish Priority 1. If we also meet Goal 2, wonderful. And if we make it to Priority 3, hallelujah! Don’t think I’m talking about state-mandated learning outcomes here: rather, we strive for our children to (1) love God and their neighbors, (2) be able to read, especially so they can read the Bible, (3) develop a personal love for learning, (4) grow in life skills, including managing a household, writing and keyboarding, and defending their Christian faith, and lastly, (5) accumulate knowledge in traditional subjects like history, science, and math.
This focus on what’s really important helps me accept interruptions throughout the day. For example, when two of my children have an argument during school time, I know that helping them work through their issue in a Christlike manner is my top priority. If we get to nothing else that day, I’ve still met my teaching goal.
Helping One Another
Around our house during the school day, I often hear, “Mom, I need help!” from several children at once! I can’t help them all simultaneously, but they can help each other. When you’re already helping one child, ask an older child to coach a sibling through his math problems. Sometimes I even put “Read to your sister” on a child’s schedule as a regular assignment.
In your homeschooling family, how many grade-level hats do you wear? Get rid of some of those hats, Mom! Teach your children together whenever possible. To do so, you’ll have to abandon most textbooks written with a one-age classroom in mind. I look for unit studies, curriculums which emphasize reading good books aloud, and studies written for multi-age learners. Because they are learning together, my children discuss their schoolwork as well as role-play historic scenes when they play. I love when that happens!
Subjects like math, reading, and handwriting must be individualized to suit each child’s abilities. I can customize these subjects, a tutoring benefit of homeschooling. On the other hand, I try not to reinvent the wheel for each child. All of them may copy the same passage from scripture or another famous quotation—one in his best printing, another in her emerging cursive, and still another on the computer for his keyboarding lesson. When one writes a letter to grandparents, I ask them all to do so. Anything that keeps it simple for me is a boost to our homeschool.
When during the school day are your children already together and quiet? Mealtime, of course! A friend encouraged me to use meals as key learning times, and I’ve found this valuable, especially for auditory learners. At breakfast, we read the Bible aloud and then pray for needs. At lunchtime, we listen to a variety of CDs: “Jonathan Park” creation adventures or other books on tape, symphonies and other music, or foreign language lessons. We don’t make every meal a structured lesson, but with a little planning, it can be a useful time. Dinners are often our chance to tell my husband what we’ve done or read during the day. (Charlotte Mason might call this “narration.”) When one of the kids tells Dad about our studies in great detail, I think, “Ah, he really was listening after all!”
Ultimately, I loosen the reins and let my children take over the responsibility for their own learning. I ask my preteens to be in charge of one of their subjects—setting a schedule before the school year begins, managing their own time, reading the books themselves, studying, and taking quizzes and tests on their own. I’m always available to provide help, but they are increasingly able to learn independently. My 15-year-old daughter still joins us for Bible reading and history, but all the rest of her work she does with excellence on her own. She is preparing for a lifetime of learning!
Mom, don’t let the challenge of multi-age children overwhelm you. Ask the Lord and your husband to help you find ways to simplify your school day and maximize the learning time you do have. God will help you teach the children He has entrusted to you.
Melanie Hexter and her husband homeschool six children: one graduate, two in high school, and three coming up through the grades. They consider the discipleship that can occur while homeschooling high school one of the greatest blessings of all their years of parenting. Contact Melanie at info@LEMILOEpublishing.com.
This article was originally published in the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine. Learn more at www.HomeSchoolEnrichment.com
“District 34 Schoolhouse,” © 2012 Lane Pearman, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/.
“Schoolhouse in Four Mile Old West Town,” © 2010 Matthew Paulson, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/.