3 Signs of Learning Challenges

If you’ve visited a homeschooling website or flipped through a curriculum catalog, you’ve seen it. Bucolic setting. Engaged children. Peaceful mother. There’s an unspoken promise that homeschool days are packed with joyful learning and family camaraderie.

So why, you wonder, is your fourth grader crying over his multiplication tables while your sixth grader sulks and your kindergartner sneaks the marshmallows you need for tomorrow’s science experiment?

There are some straightforward possibilities. For example, everyone has days where the world feels topsy-turvy, where nothing feels right. It’s also true that kids’ behavior often deteriorates when they are fighting an illness, growing, or just going through a phase. (That’s code for you’ll never know why it happened, but everything turns out alright in the end.)

Researchers at the Child Mind Institute discuss the difference in behavior kids display at home and at school. Some do better at school where the days are structured. Other kids are more stressed at school and, therefore, are more likely to misbehave.

When your home is your school, there’s a good chance you’ll experience kid meltdowns with greater frequency. How can you tell what is regular childhood angst and what behavior suggests your child has learning challenges? Here are a few signs.

It’s Always About School

Stress about school can certainly spill over into daily life, but if your child saves his worst behavior for school hours, it’s time to do a little sleuthing.

The first question is whether the behavior surrounds a particular subject. By letting your daughter choose the order of her subjects, you can get a sense of what she looks forward to and what she dreads. If she always begins with math, it might be because that’s her favorite subject. (Or at least one she doesn’t mind tackling and completing.) If she pushes handwriting until the end, it could be that she can’t bear the thought of gripping that pencil.

Pay attention to when your child’s eyes light up and when he asks for a break, a snack, or an alternate assignment. This can help you narrow down the issue. Is the behavior associated with reading? Writing? Lengthy assignments? Working independently? Multi-step projects? That information can clue you in to the real problem.

Child crying due to learning challenges

Outbursts & Tears

Little kids throw tantrums. Big kids have attitude. This is part of parenting.

Again, though, it’s helpful to look for patterns. If your child wakes up happy and chatters through breakfast but grows sullen and withdrawn as school time nears, it’s time for a heart-to-heart discussion. People generally put off what they dread (See this article and this one for more on procrastination.) And when the tears persist for weeks and months, you know something needs to be done.

If your child generally dislikes school, changing up your approach can help. Maybe she’s a kinesthetic learner but the curriculum has her sitting in a chair all day. Maybe he’s a big picture thinker who would do better with unit studies.

But it could be that your child struggles with some of the tools that are necessary for learning. There could be issues with auditory processing, reading, understanding quantities, vision, or attention. If there is an underlying problem, you must repair the foundation before you can build better homeschool days.

Won’t Work Alone

Homeschooling the K-3 crowd is generally a hands-on, intensive experience, but as kids move toward upper elementary grades, they can do some work independently. A spelling worksheet, practice math problems, or reading a history passage are all good places to begin independent work.

But what if your child won’t work alone?

Kids naturally want to master tasks. You saw this when your son started walking or your daughter began feeding herself. It’s an innate desire. If your child will not do any work without you right there, it could be a sign that something is preventing growth in this area.

For kids who struggle with handwriting, an assigned paragraph on butterflies will feel like torture. For kids who struggle with reading comprehension, that fun story about mummies will feel overwhelming. For kids who struggle with vision issues, that crossword puzzle of science terms is a nightmare.

Some parents assume a child who won’t work alone is lazy, but that starting point rarely leads to improved outcomes. The philosophy that children do well if they can, espoused by Dr. Ross Greene in his book The Explosive Child, encourages you find the stumbling blocks to your child’s success and deal with those first. This is an approach that applies in all areas from sibling bickering to chores to homeschooling.

testing for learning challenges

Getting Help: Public or Private

Homeschooling is not for the faint of heart. It requires dedication and diligence, but it shouldn’t be drudgery. If your child has no joy, no progress, no good days, then looking for learning challenges is wise.  

Most public schools are required to evaluate students in their local attendance area even if they attend a private school or are homeschooled. Heidi Borst’s article “What Parents Need to Know About Learning Disability Tests” provides a good overview of the process.

Private testing is also an option. An evaluation with a neuropsychologist is generally more nuanced and extensive. It can also be expensive and may not be covered by insurance.

No matter which path you choose, looking for answers is always better than living in homeschool misery. And, as discussed in this post, homeschooling means you’ve tasked yourself with finding a solution.

You might discover all is well, and you’ll know to address the problem from a different angle. Or you might learn your child has a silent struggle that needs attention. Either way, once you know, you’re more likely to find that homeschool happiness you’ve been seeking.

Why Summer Reading Matters

The school year is winding down, and everyone feels a sense of accomplishment as they close their books for the last time. Biology is done! History is over! No math until autumn! It’s time to swap pencils for pool noodles and online classes for family road trips.

Summer is here so it’s time to relax…with a good book.

“Wait!” you cry. “I just found the last novel under a pile of Junior’s dirty socks and squeezed it onto the bookshelf. It’s staying there until little Josephine needs it one day. We need a break from books.”

Of course, we all need a change of pace from time to time. That’s one of the great joys of summer. So take a few days to unwind, but then consider all the reasons that summer reading matters.


The beauty of summer reading is the freedom of choice. Pleasure reading means you choose the books that appeal to you and ditch them if you change your mind. Wander the stacks at your local library or browse through your Kindle and open any book that piques your interest.

Research shows that summer reading spurs student achievement. And the best part is you don’t have to wade through Tolstoy’s War and Peace to sharpen your mind or expand your social consciousness. As long as you enjoy what you’re reading, you reap the benefits.

Academic Benefits

“What kind of benefits?” you wonder. Well, you won’t be surprised to learn that reading outside of school brings rewards during the academic year, but you may not realize just how significant they are.

A report out of New Zealand found that students who enjoyed reading scored higher in math, reading, and problem solving. But the improvement goes beyond what a standardized test can measure.

Pleasure reading creates deep reservoirs of imagination and creativity that allow students to soar beyond basic educational goals. British author Neil Gaiman makes an excellent case that fiction reading in particular provides the fodder for literacy. After being lost in a fantasy world, we find ourselves better equipped to meet the challenges in our world. (Gaiman also makes a lovely case for honoring libraries as depositories of all good things.)

And if you want more ideas for developing independent readers, try these two simple steps.

Emotional/Health Benefits

You probably knew reading was good for students, but did you also know the advantages extend beyond grades? The same NZ report also showed that students who kept reading when requirements ended demonstrated above average scores for school engagement, close family ties, and strong friendships.

In addition, reading fiction has been shown to increase empathy, allowing for greater compassion and understanding between peers. Plus, researchers from the University of Sussex have learned that reading reduces stress , making it the perfect summer activity for kids and parents.

summer reading benefits everyone
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Together or Alone

If academics and extracurriculars have scattered your crew all year long, you may be ready for some memorable family time. Choosing a read aloud everyone will enjoy is easier than you think. You can ask your park day friends which tales they’ve adored, check with your local library for summer reading lists, or go online for great ideas from Simple Homeschool and Read-Aloud Revival.

Or maybe you’ve been a little too close since September and everyone needs some space. Let each family member read his or her pick by the pool and share the best parts during a weekly summer barbecue. It doesn’t matter how you go about it, as long as you do it.

When you read for pleasure, whether it’s immersive, intellectual, social, or work-related pleasure, you are building the foundation for academic and social success in school and in life.

Now, that’s not a bad way to spend the summer. 

Want Independent Readers? Use Habits and the 5-Finger Rule

The modern world is increasingly visual. (IKEA assembly directions, I’m looking at you.) Nevertheless, reading remains a fundamental part of education, work, and culture, and it’s essential for our students to become independent readers.

If you have little ones, you probably know that reading is one of the best ways to build vocabulary. In fact, research suggests a daily read-aloud habit gives some kindergartners a million word advantage over kids who were never read to at home. And reading as an adult continues to provide benefits, from tension relief and improved focus to better sleep and brighter days.

So how students do reach that lofty goal? Here are two easy steps to put into practice.

Make Daily Reading a Habit

When I taught in public school, every teacher my department participated in what we called Outside Reading. Students read books of their own choosing and discussed them in one-on-one conversations with their teacher.

We let students gorge on one author or genre if they wished. They could stop reading a book if it was too boring. And to help students reach the goal of 100 pages per week to earn an “A” in Outside Reading, we spent dedicated time to silent reading in each period.

Pages turned. Plots thickened. Peace reigned. It was pure bliss.

That bliss is available to homeschool parents, too. When silent reading is part of the schedule, benefits abound, and “fifteen minutes a day will bring better results than half an hour once a week or so,” according to the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation.

So tell everyone to grab a book, find a comfy spot, and travel to “lands away.” Not only will there be some lovely quiet time, there will also be fodder for great lunchtime conversations.

5-finger rule for independent readers
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Follow the 5-Finger Rule

Parents probably wonder if the cascade of benefits will fall out of just any old book?

The answer is, “Pretty much.”

The goal for independent readers is fluency, which leads to increased comprehension. And, fortunately, when students enjoy what they’re reading, it puts them on the fast track to fluency. (More ways to reach fluency here.)

Of course, positive results will increase with carefully chosen books. If students only read books below their proficiency level, they’re less likely to get all the vocabulary and horizon broadening benefits that come from reading. If students only read books above their proficiency level, they’re more likely to be confused, frustrated, and unhappy.

The sweet spot seems to be a book where each page has 3-5 unfamiliar words whose meaning can be determined through context. A well-written sentence (and an understanding of the book’s plot) can help students figure out what new words mean without having to search the dictionary.

In fact, I prefer that my students learn new words in context rather than from isolated lists. Without context, students miss the nuances inherent in English usage. Context prevents students from misusing prepositions and choosing improper adjectives in their writing.

So pull an interesting book off the shelf and have your student start reading. For each unfamiliar word, lift one finger. If you’ve lifted five fingers by the end of the page, it’s likely that the book will provide an appropriate challenge while still being an enjoyable read. If you’ve lifted more than five fingers, save it for another day because it will likely be too confusing. And if you’ve only lifted one or two fingers, it’s fine to read but less likely to improve vocabulary.

You Can’t Go Wrong

You can start a daily habit at any time. Morning. Evening. Fall. Winter. Spring. Summer. (For great reasons to read this summer, start here.)

The beauty of reading is that you can’t go wrong. Pick a book. Set a time. Reap the rewards.

How I Became an IEW Devotee

The ability to write clear, effective prose is a primary goal in my homeschool and in my online classes. Every approach to writing has its defenders and detractors, so how does a homeschool parent pick the best one? This is how I became an IEW devotee.

My Story

In the summer of 1997, I was sitting in a classroom, lights dimmed against the blazing summer sun, one link in a circle of English teachers studying for our master’s degrees. The professor was condemning the use of the formulaic essay.

It stifled creativity, he claimed. We weren’t trusting our students when we forced them into prescribed patterns. My peers enthusiastically agreed with him. But I, having been mentored by a pioneer of the step-by-step approach, held back.

Did I want to wade in against the rising tide?

“Just because we ask a student to write a certain type of sentence, it doesn’t automatically follow that the sentence will be a poor one,” I added eventually.

The professor paused. It was a logical comment. He reluctantly agreed.

Later, while reviewing my capstone proposal, he remarked on my strong writing skills. He wanted to know who had taught me. When I named the woman whose formulaic essay approach was dominating our county, his consternation was evident.

I admit I felt a twinge of smug satisfaction.

My Freak Out

When I became a homeschooling mom, I knew I’d teach my kids to write the same way I had been taught. No curriculum needed. This was my field.

But then the catalogs arrived. And the forum posts filled my screen. And the comments from other moms rang in my ears. Soon doubt followed.

Over the years I’ve used copywork, dabbled in the progymnasmata, instituted creative writing times, and even employed story starter dice.

The path that was so clear at the outset had instead meandered all over the English landscape.

I wandered before I became an IEW devotee
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Coming Home

When I began teaching online, I found many teachers using the Style and Structure method from the Institute for Excellence in Writing. I was hesitant. I knew some homeschool parents frowned upon IEW’s strict requirements. In an ironic twist, I too was uncertain about teaching the patterns IEW dictated.

Nevertheless, I bought my first themed writing book and knew immediately my wandering was over.

Students in my Middle School English classes learn to take notes from texts and recreate those ideas on their own. They push themselves to write more complex sentences. They have help getting their ideas on the page.

The incremental approach offers profound depth in a deceptively simple package. It wasn’t a formula; it was structure. It wasn’t a prescription; it was instruction.

Is IEW for everyone? No. Do I think it’s the only way? No. But it provides a framework that allows all students to find their voice.

It feels good to be home.

3 Reasons Not to Homeschool

As a homeschooling mom of five who’s been at this gig since 2006, I have a lot of reasons to homeschool. I would never pretend, though, that there are no drawbacks. Here are some reasons not to homeschool.

Drawback #1: Your Time or Your Money

Raising five kids on ten paychecks a year (my husband is a public school math teacher) means we have to make every penny count.

I learned early on that paying someone else would save me time but would also cost me money. (Piano lessons! Packaged curriculum! Pre-shredded cheese!) If I couldn’t fit it into the budget, then I needed to do it myself.

Time is also a limited resource, so I had to look honestly at my calendar and determine how much I could realistically do and do well. Over the years, I honed my tightrope walking skills, but it was often exhausting, and there were definitely moments when I didn’t know if I’d make it to the other side.

Frequently I see new homeschoolers who want programs that are rigorous, independent, individualized, and free. They are bound to be disappointed. One program may meet some of those criteria, but nothing does it all.

Drawback #2: It’s All on You

Being responsible for my kids’ education means I have to be…well…responsible. When a kid wakes up on the wrong side of the bed, I still have to get them through their spelling lesson. When adolescent hormones strike, I bear the brunt of their unhappiness. And when my kids reach high school, I add the role of guidance counselor to my already-full plate.  

It also means continually monitoring progress. I remember relatives asking, “How do you know when they’re ready for the next grade?” The answer is there are many ways, such as looking at state standards, following a grade-level curriculum, or doing end-of-year testing. But whatever guideline I choose, it falls on me to implement it.

That constant evaluation sent me to specialists on more than one occasion: neuropsychologists, occupational therapists, and speech therapists. Sometimes that professional assessment led to interventions. Sometimes it led to reassurance that all was well. Either way they all provided useful information, but I had to seek out.

relationship strain may be a reason not to homeschool
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Drawback #3: Relationship Strain

When a parent takes on the role of home educator, it means there are few breaks. I have outsourced some classes, and my kids have extracurricular activities, but mostly we are together.

All. The. Time.

Homeschooling allows families to cultivate deep relationships, but it also adds friction when other issues bubble to the surface. (I found the strategies for conflict resolution in this book helpful.)

Sometimes it’s better to pass the educational baton to someone else and just be the parent, cheering from the sidelines rather than calling all the plays. I always believed it was okay to change paths if homeschooling stopped working for me or my kids.

Although we’ve offered each child the option of attending high school, none of them have taken us up on it, which means I’m in this for the long haul. But this only works because, in our case, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.  

3 Reasons To Homeschool

As a young public school teacher, I had no intention of homeschooling my future children. I’d had previously homeschooled students in my high school English classes and, honestly, they seemed a little dazed by life outside the home.

I would never do that to my kid. (Singular. I was only going to have one.)

Fast forward a couple decades, and here I am, a homeschooling mom of five kids. (Life’s funny, isn’t it?)

After fourteen years, I’m still discovering new benefits. The basic ones, however, remain the same. Here are three reasons to homeschool that keep me committed.  

Benefit #1: Customization

An individual approach that pursues strengths and shores up weaknesses is our homeschooling foundation. It meant one child took extra science courses while another went deep in the humanities. Some worked ahead in math, and others struggled with handwriting. One had multiple extracurriculars and another spent 20 hours a week on a single activity.

But no one followed a lockstep curriculum designed for someone else.

It was a homeschool catalog that stopped me in my anti-homeschool tracks. In addition to standard courses, there were subjects generally overlooked in public schools. (It wasn’t this one, but just look at all the options!) I realized then that I could sculpt an education to fit my unique child.

I was hooked.

balance is one of many reasons to homeschool
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Benefit #2: Balance

Customizing each child’s education also helped create a work-life balance. School was the primary focus of our days, but efficiency meant we were done early.

I ruthlessly weeded out time wasters. Already know your multiplication tables? Skip that drill. Already memorized those grammar definitions? Move to Lesson 25.

In addition, my kids never lost time to roll taking, mass evacuation drills, or distracting students who stuck safety pins through their lips (true story from my classroom days). There was plenty of time for unstructured play, joining a sports team, starting a rock band, performing with the local ballet, or just relaxing.

They also slept in during growth spurts. They learned to rearrange schedules to accommodate appointments. And they never stayed up all night to finish a project. It simply wasn’t necessary.

Benefit #3: Dedication

I cared deeply about my students when I taught at my alma mater. But when I saw 165 students each day, I couldn’t really know them.

Homeschooling means I don’t waste time every year figuring out how my students learn best. I never move midyear and leave them with a long-term substitute. I don’t let them get lost in the shuffle.

Many of us had a teacher who impacted our lives, encouraged us to try something new, or inspired us to be extraordinary. But no teacher is as dedicated to a child’s success as her parent, and that constant support is invaluable.

Of course, nothing is perfect and homeschooling is no exception. When it comes to a child’s education, it’s important to carefully weigh all the reasons to homeschool along with reasons not to homeschool. In our case, homeschooling allowed me to focus on my kids’ needs and help them become exactly who they want to be.