Homeschooling for Beginners

by | Apr 22, 2015 | Homeschool, Mailbag | 17 comments

All this week, I’m sharing questions I’ve received from readers about homeschooling, and my answers to those questions. Just in case they might help you decide if homeschooling is right for your family. See the first installment here.

Today’s question is all about some ways to get started.

The Question:

Hello Kendra!

First of all (and I’m sure you get this all the time!), THANK YOU for blogging. Thank you for posting truths of the faith and for sharing your family with us. Your advice is invaluable, and I appreciate that I can “get advice” from you on parenting and sharing the faith with my kids when I can’t get it elsewhere.

Also, I ardently hope you are feeling better soon! Morning sickness is so tough and you are in my prayers.

Now to my questions. 🙂 We want to homeschool. (My background sounds a lot like yours, so this is all new to me.) I have a five year old son, and two daughters, two and a half and six months. I’m doing some phonics work with Joe and other preschool-type activities; he’s mildly interested, but not super interested. I’ll be starting kindergarten in the fall, I think. I notice you use Mother of Divine Grace – do you have advice for me starting out with this? (I’ve researched and it’s the way I want to go.) Any other thoughts to starting to homeschool with other littles around?

More specifically: Joe enjoys the activities we do, but often gives up quickly. If he doesn’t know, he says, “You tell me.” If I ask him if he wants to do some schoolwork, he will say “no” but if I just start doing an activity with him he will usually comply alright. Does this mean he’s just not ready yet, or is there some way I can help him try a little harder without giving up so quickly?

Thank you!! You are wonderful, and your sweet family is in my prayers.



The Answer:


Thanks so much. Yes, I am feeling MUCH better and catching up on the mailbag!

That all sounds totally normal to me.

I really think the most important thing I did in the early years was be consistent about a time we were “doing school” but to keep that time really, really short. Like 30-45 minutes, two or three days a week. Then, during that time, we. are. doing. school. So, there’s really no use complaining, it’s not going to do any good. (And we know what God does to complainers.) And keeping each subject REALLY short, like 3-5 minutes for most things, maybe 10 minutes for reading/phonics doesn’t really allow time for kids to get restless.

I have found what worked best in our home when my oldest was starting homeschool, was to schedule school time when the baby was taking a morning nap. I would set myself up at the dining room table with him, with all the supplies we needed and everything all ready to go. If the toddler wanted to join us, that was fine. I had a stash of special “school stuff” that she was allowed to do during school time at the table with us, if she could do it without being disruptive. It was things like coloring or sticker books, mostly. Or, she could play quietly in the playroom. But *I* need to be AT THE TABLE at all times during school time. If I ever tried to give him an assignment, then go finish up the dishes, it was always a disaster.

So, set school time, keep it short, minimize distractions, be present.

Then, we just always did what was included on the Mother of Divine Grace syllabus. There was never a question of whether we felt like doing it or not. During school time, we do our schoolwork. But really, for us, the only times I got push back from him, were the times I tried to give him an assignment and leave. My kids have all done really well with me working with them one-on-one. Of course, the more kids you have in school, the less that’s possible (more on that on Friday), but at first, it IS possible, and it always had a very high rate of success for us.

My focus throughout the elementary years, but especially, especially before third grade, is to:

  1. foster a love of learning
  2. instill personal responsibility and good study habits
  3. get them reading (at the child’s own pace, sometime between four and eight) and doing arithmetic

In that order of importance.

Once they can read, they can do school work much more independently, which is GREAT. But really, after that, learning specific information is a secondary goal. If they love learning, and can read, and have access to books or the library or the internet, they can learn anything they’d like the whole rest of their lives.

So, I follow the Mother of Divine grace syllabus, because for my kids it’s been an appropriate amount of work, and I like the material and the methods. I like the memorization, and the retelling of stories, and the little discussions about the Old Testament and famous paintings. But I don’t think my kids learning any of the specific material is as important as my kids learning to finish what they start, or to keep trying if something is hard, or sometimes, to set something aside for a bit and try again another time. All of those are good life skills to have.

Just know going in to it, that if you are anything like me, your expectations with your first will be way too high. You will mellow with each subsequent kid, and you’ll learn that the process is more important than the results. But that doesn’t mean there don’t have to be some results. It’s a balancing act. But, somehow, it all works out.



One more thing . . . as for what I do BEFORE Kindergarten? The answer is absolutely nothing structured. In fact, I’m pretty strongly against it. There is plenty of time for structured learning, and I really don’t think it’s necessary or helpful in the pre-school years. Here’s more on that:

Quit Worrying About Preschool. Seriously, Stop It.

And here are a couple other related posts:

Why I Homeschool Like That

Homeschooling: One Room Schoolhouse Meets Three Ring Circus

My Top Ten Books for Teaching Kids


Disclaimer: I am not a theologian, nor am I an official spokesperson for the Catholic Church. (You’re thinking of this guy.)
If you read anything on this blog that is contrary to Church teaching,
please consider it my error (and let me know!). I’m not a doctor or an
expert on anything in particular. I’m just one person with a lot of
experience parenting little kids and a desire to share my joy in
marriage, mothering, and my faith.

If you’ve got a question,
please send it along to catholicallyear @ gmail . com . Please let me
know if you prefer that I change your name if I use your question on the

P.S. Speaking of homeschooling . . . You may have seen news of the tragedy involving a Wisconsin homeschooling family. The husband was killed when their car was hit by a deer that had been involved in an accident with a different car, while driving his wife to the hospital to deliver their eighth child. The wife and the other seven children who were also in the car were unharmed. Since a couple of friends of the family shared their Go Fund Me page with me, the story has been picked up by national and international news outlets and there has been an amazingly generous outpouring of support for the family. I feel like this is one of those causes that really brings our community together. Perhaps you can spare a few dollars and be a part of something big to help this family. Get the details and donate here.


  1. Elizabeth

    Absolutely agree with this! I was sort of concerned about my oldest, because he didn't start reading 'til he was eight…and then he went from The BOB Books to Tom Sawyer in less than a year. Now he loves to read (he's ten), and I can hardly get him to put books down long enough to do anything else. My daughter read only marginally earlier, and also loves reading now, and my seven-year-old boy is making decent progress with his reading.
    Mostly my advice to mothers of kindergarteners is to RELAX! And teach them to enjoy learning. So, great advice! 🙂

    • Kendra

      Yes! This was definitely my experience with reading as well. I've had one who read well by first grade, but for the rest, no matter what I did, be it pressure them or neglect them (and I did both) they started reading chapter books between second and third grade.

  2. Anna

    Have you ever run it into problems with the set curriculum being too advanced or too far behind a students capabilities B and how do you address this. Do you just do the stuff anyway at the pace they recommend, do you go through it quicker or slower or do you find something else? Have you ever dropped a subject (science specifically) entirely in those early years?

    • Kendra

      Our curriculum doesn't start a science book until third grade, which works out perfectly with the reading readiness around here. Before that we do things like talk about weather and nature and the seasons and grow beans (sometimes the bean growing gets skipped, but they do love it!). I think it's better to wait on more complex science concepts until they are able to be more independent learners.

      I really try not to drop things entirely, but I spend more time on things they are interested in and less time on things they're not so interested in.

    • Lauren

      I also use MODG and wanted to also mention that if you enroll formally in the program, and I believe this is the case with most of the popular hs curricula out there, you have access to a consultant who is always at your disposal to help you adapt your coursework as needed to suit your child's needs. But they don't generally recommend speeding things up, as their curriculum is based on child development research and they really encourage you to to work at a pace that is friendly enough to remain enjoyable for the child, rather than accelerate.

    • Anna

      This is interesting to me, more in a for-fun kind of way. When I was in first grade in the early 1980's, I went to a tiny Christian school in Washington state that was situated on the bank of a lake and was a summer camp during the summer. It was designed to be a summer camp, and in the school year, the school turned the cabins into classrooms, etc. The atmosphere was kind of raw and free without being undisciplined. It was consistent academically out of strong Christian conscience but was not a competitive type of school. I was in a 1st-2nd grade split class of 13 students, and we were allowed to cruise ahead if we wanted to. This was not something suggested to us, but my friend and I started doing it, and no one stopped us. We would sometimes stay in at recess and zoom through workbook pages. Many other days we were digging clay out of the hillside to make things or playing four square or going down to the lake, so it wasn't like we were too lopsided, hopefully. I remember having a sense by second grade at a different, more formal Christian school in Oregon, of how I would be teaching the subjects. So, not just learning them but kind of taking them on as a teacher would, grasping the concepts that formed the concepts. This is how much I loved school. I played school at home with my sister (who incidentally did not like school much) or friends, and I would design worksheets for it.

      Now I am looking forward to homeschooling my kids (we have a 1.25 year old and one on the way so far).

      All this to say that some kids might find a facility with school subjects and take it upon themselves and there is no stopping them, for it is a *pleasure* to them. Maybe with a set curriculum, someone could supplement with further work if the student seems to eat it up like their favorite dinner and chocolate cake. Just an idea for how to keep with the pace of the curriculum, while letting the student zoom through learning like a fish moves through its native water.

    • Anna

      We aren't doing any complex science either, it's been mostly animal groups and habitats. The book was expensive (in that I actually needed to buy it, I didn't have one handed down to me) and my son thinks it's boring 'cause he knows all that stuff already. So we haven't really been doing it and I have been wondering if I should be substituting some other science. But at this point in the year it's too late to worry about it. I guess I could legitimately say he does 'independent study' science.

      I don't know Lauren. I understand what you're saying, but honestly, I don't trust researchers to know my children better then I do. My oldest was absolutely ready to read at 4 1/2. His preschool teacher was telling me that she thought he was ready to go. I'm a natural underachiever and was pregnant with #4 at the time, trust me no one was pushing him. Just making an effort to spend time with him and a couple books was all took to get him going. But it did rule out MODG for us (looking back I realize that it shouldn't have, and I wouldn't be surprised at all if we went there in the future) and any set curriculum that would have us doing 100 Easy Lessons, which he had already completed. Being ahead in reading has been an obstacle to us using the set curriculum approach, so that was the reason for my question.

    • Kendra

      Okay, got it. You absolutely can customize MODG. When you enroll, you get access to the daily lesson plans online and you can easily make small adjustments, like moving at a quicker or slower pace. Or you can create entirely new lesson plans for a particular subject. We usually substitute easy readers for 100 Easy Lessons after Kindergarten. My one early reader was reading Magic Treehouse books after finishing 100 Easy Lessons. And my Kindergartener this year also sits in with the rest of the kids when we do All About Spelling (another off-syllabus substitution I do). If you think you'd like the classical curriculum approach, there's absolutely no reason you couldn't very easily make MODG work for you.

    • Lauren

      Haha. I should clarify that I don't gave any experience with homeschooling little ones. We're late bloomers and only began homeschooling our oldest when she was in 7th grade. I totally agree that I know my child better than any researcher. We have found MODG to be very adaptable, both in making changes independently and in conjunction with our consultant.

    • Anna

      Thanks all. We are definitely interested in the classical style of MODG. Where we're at right now is CHC with a lot of Angelicum academy substitutions and McGuffey readers, largely because we're using hand me down textbooks. I fall in love with textbooks I can actually see, less guesswork. It's worked well for us but as I add more kids I think I want to make things up a little less and just follow directions a little more.

  3. Amanda

    Thanks. I know that since we homeschool my nearly 5 year old doesn't have to be "kindergarten ready." But he doesn't know his letters!! And I panic. Deep breaths.

    My thing is that insisting on finishing tasks they don't like, etc, feels like NOT fostering love of learning. Today when my kindergartener was melting down about handwriting (doing one page at all) it felt like pushing him away from enjoying school. But we all have to finish things we don't want to do, also. (Or as I pointed out to him, "do you think I want to sit here with you while you whine?")

    • Kendra

      I totally get that. And we've dealt with it for sure. I try to handle it the same way I handle picky eaters. Really, really small portion sizes so that hopefully we can be successful with no power struggles.

      I've had kids who LOVED handwriting, and could easily do a whole page, but for others two lines has been more manageable. I try to focus more on time spent (in the early grades) than on what's been accomplished. For my older kids they do need to complete assignments. But for the younger ones it's more about doing each thing each day and having a positive attitude, rather than exactly how many letters she wrote.

      And, really, the more kids we have and the more calm but firm I've been able to become, the less pushback there has been. My younger kids just don't have any concept of that a person could whine and therefore not have to do something. That's just not how things work around here, so they wouldn't try it. There is complaining that particular assignments are really hard, but then I just remind them that Tierneys can do hard things.

      So, yeah. I've been there, but if we were having trouble accomplishing handwriting, I'd insist that we accomplish it, but have it just be a tiny bit each day.

  4. Erica Saint

    I totally agree with your three points of focus for early elementary. Totally! 🙂

  5. Caitlin

    My oldest is three and I keep reminding myself that I don't have to do anything for preschool. I have no desire to follow a "letter of the week" curriculum but I still somehow feel guilty for not doing anything in the way of formal learning!

  6. Amanda

    I am loving these mail bags and glad you're feeling better! With a 3 and 2 year old, I find myself questioning myself and early-education often.

  7. Lauren @ Here We Geaux

    I am loving this series on Homeschooling. I wasn't homeschooled but I have been facinated by it since making good friends with several girls who were homeschooled. I would LOVE to get there someday, but I have to make some babies first! 😉


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Hi! I’m Kendra.

For twenty years now, I’ve been using food, prayer, and conversation based around the liturgical calendar to share the lives of the saints and the beautiful truths and traditions of our Catholic faith. My own ten children, our friends and neighbors, and people just like you have been on this journey with me.

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