This post is part of a four-part series: Milestones, Gaps and Falling Behind.   Find links to the rest of the series at the bottom of this post. 

Milestones, gaps and falling behind! Those are the things that strike panic into the heart of every homeschooling mother.

In this series we’re going to break down these concepts and by the end of this post, I can promise you’ll be feeling calm and confident and ready to homeschool.

Our Mental Model of School

First, notice how each of these terms  (milestones, gaps, falling behind) denotes a linear path forward.  This tells us everything we need to know about our mental model for school.  We get this mental model of “linear path” from the grade-leveled system that we all grew up with.

Our school system is meant to be a collective experience that equalizes learning across the board. So it’s purposely arranged in a specific linear order requiring a certain amount of mastery before a child can move on to the next level.  This system is necessary for regulation across large groups.  Academics standards in education are devised for the same purpose; to serve a big system.

This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just not always something that serves your child when you’re homeschooling.

It’s very difficult for us to separate ourselves from the cultural idea that all children should learn the same things at the same time.  For all of our lives, age has been tied to a “grade level,” so much that we hardly know how to introduce our kids with out stating their “grade.”

But quality learning doesn’t have to be parceled out into perfectly paced portions within set time frames!  In fact, you can often go deeper and do more when you don’t have these constructs in your way.

Starting Age

One of the most common questions about homeschool is “When should I start?”  There is no one starting age for homeschoolers.  In fact, in the legal sense, it varies from state to state.  Why does it vary so much?  Because it’s doesn’t matter as much as we think.  Developmentally, a good range is anywhere from six to eight years.  When children are developmentally ready to learn, they pick up material much faster.  In Finland, kids wait until they are seven.

Some research points to age eight as the optimal age when auditory and visual senses are developed and the logical area of the brain is functioning.  There isn’t a singular age because we know that development varies from child to child.  We also know that starting age doesn’t make that big of a difference.  (If you need proof, you can go read homeschool law in all 50 states and look at the variance between starting ages!)

Eight is a scary thought because it’s so out of the cultural norm, however research found that students who started later were able to catch up with their peers in a short amount of time. You can read about that in the book Better Late than Early  by Dr. Raymond Moore.  So even though there’s a three-year age range, when you start doesn’t have any bearing on whether or not your child will be able to go to college and lead a full life.

More studies have been done that show when children are in the older end of their cohorts in school, they have an easier time in school and go on to be more successful.  The advantage of an early start fades away over time.  Here’s an article you can read about it.

Conventional school can’t take all of these factors into consideration; they have to pick a set age when serving such large groups of children.  It takes time to make changes to big systems, so even though the research tells us later is better, schools don’t operate by that data.

Knowledge Acquisition vs School

The next important thing to understand is that acquiring the knowledge you need to be successful isn’t the same thing as going to school!  In our culture school is so central to childhood that it’s estimated we spend about 15,000 hours of our lives in K-12 learning. (Naturally this makes us think that it takes 15,000 hours to learn all K-12 material, but we’ll get to that later!)

Faced with this this mental model of a linear path that takes many  hours to complete, it’s no wonder we find ourselves consumed with fears about whether or not our homeschooled children will be able to keep up with and compete with their conventionally schooled peers.

Not only does this collective, conventional school paradigm translate poorly into homeschool but you don’t need to translate it at all.

You can acquire the same knowledge set outside of the system and it does not need to take on the same framework.  Any time we create a very large collective experience around something, time efficiency will be lost.  Don’t think of homeschooling as filling in the same time sheet as conventionally schooled kids.  What you are doing is more efficient!

Conventional School Children Fall Behind Too

Timelines are a big part of the conventional school system. The problem is, you can’t force someone to master something within a certain time, and if you do it’s likely to be a negative experience.  That, or the child really isn’t truly going to master the material.  I know the idea of “falling behind” terrifies us, but not even regular school can guarantee that our kids will master something in a set period of time! 

A student can fudge it through, making it to the next grade level without “getting” entire groups of concepts.  This is made possible by the fact that a child doesn’t need to have 100% marks on every subject to pass into the next grade.  Passing grade level doesn’t require 100% mastery. 

Alternatively, they can fail grade level and have the experience of being “held back” with a peer group of a younger age while their peers move on.  Or, he or she can be given an IEP (an individualized education plan), but only if you can prove they deserve it by certain markers–which is a lot of administration.

So, are conventionally school kids mastering material across the board by exact times and dates?

No. But we still think that having kids in the conventional school system magically does that, even when that’s not the case.  Thankfully, there is so much repetition between grade levels, that it often works itself out even when students forget the material or missed chunks of it.

My guess is that you started homeschooling (or thinking about homeschooling) with the idea that your child will have 100% mastery of everything you teach within a pre-determined time frame.  Like any regular school kid, they probably won’t, so don’t put that on yourself.

When mastery is one of your goals (let’s say learning to read), understand that your timeline will be vary from kid to kid. Mastery timelines are specific to the person. You will camp out in certain areas of learning for a longer period of time while zooming past others.  This is a gift you get to give your child.

If your child hasn’t mastered something, you’re not behind anything.  You are just where you are, just like every other kid in public school.  The great thing about homeschooling  is that we can meet our children where they are, and focus on making progress from there!

Now What?

To start homeschooling, you simply start where your child is at and move forward from there. When I start, I begin at six (this is when Charlotte Mason always started).  My start is always experimental because I have to find out whether my child is ready or not.  If my child isn’t ready for bookwork like phonics and math, I put the curriculum away in a drawer and continue reading aloud to them, teaching them the topical subjects and letting them free play.  The exact time you start is up to you and your intuition as a mom (or might be mandated by your state.)

Once you decide when your child is ready, then you start the curriculum.  All you need to do is start at the base level of whatever curriculum you are picking and move upward at your child’s pace.  Some curriculum websites have test that allow you to analyze your child’s level.  I usually just start with the lowest level and let my child zoom through the easy things and enjoy the mastery.  This creates a more positive atmosphere around learning!  Working at your child’s pace simply means you’ll move quickly or skip lessons when you encounter things you already know, and take more time on the things you don’t.  Your goal should be to meet your child where they are and focus on making progress!

When we choose not to kill the love of learning by trying to force our kids to perform on a timeline, we are already succeeding!

In this series we’ll be looking at each type of school subject and breaking down why you don’t need to worry so much about milestones, gaps and falling behind.

Go here for the post about topical subjects (history, literature, science and geography)

Go here for the post about math.

Go here for the post about phonics and reading comprehension.

For further reading like this, you can get my free curated book list for homeschool mamas here, with over sixty titles to encourage you on your journey.  If you’re just starting, go here to read my collection of “Getting Started” blog posts.