Choosing a Homeschool Curriculum

So you want to homeschool, but aren’t sure where to start. You want to make sure your kids learn what they need to learn and enjoy their experience, but there are so many different styles and options out there, it’s overwhelming! Fortunately, I’m a fully homeschooled graduate and the oldest of 7 children. My family was active in several homeschool organizations, and I went to a college with a high percentage of homeschooled students. That means I’ve seen a wide variety of different approaches with their advantages and disadvantages, and I’m going to give you a clear outline for choosing the curriculum that best suits you and your child.

Step 1: Know the laws

This might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s really the best place to start. State regulations are put in place to ensure that all children are given the basic education they need and to keep them safe. Here are the basics for NYC (found at schools.nyc.gov/StudentSupport/GuidanceandCounseling/HomeSchooling/default.htm)

First, you must submit a letter of intent to the Office of Homeschooling by July 1, or within 14 days following the commencement of home instruction within the school district. By August 15 (or within four weeks of the receipt of the Individualize Home Instruction Plan form), you must submit an Individualized Home Instruction Plan (IHIP). This IHIP “must include for each of the required courses either a list of syllabi, curriculum materials and textbooks to be used or a plan of instruction to be followed” [www.p12.nysed.gov/sss/homeinstruction/homeschoolingqanda, accessed 1/20/16]. Thereafter, you are required to submit 4 quarterly reports (indicating the total time of instruction in each subject) and provide an annual assessment including one of the following standardized tests: the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, the California Achievement Test, the Stanford Achievement Test, the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, the Metropolitan Achievement Test, a State Education Department test, or another test approved by the State Education Department [www.p12.nysed.gov/sss/homeinstruction/homeschoolingqanda].

In forming the IHIP, you will provide the Office of Homeschooling with evidence that the child will be instructed in the appropriate subjects for his or her grade range. The complete listing of subjects can be found in Section 100.10 of the Regulations of the Commissioner of Education, part E, paragraphs 1 and 2 [www.p12.nysed.gov/part100/pages/10010].

Now that you know the basic legal requirements, let’s move on the choosing the means of achieving them.

Step 2: Assess your family’s goals

People homeschool for many different reasons. What are your reasons? Ranking them in order of importance will help make your decisions easier. Figure out at least three broad goals and their level of priority. My family was motivated primarily by religion; they wanted to raise their children in a very strongly religious environment. Other major reasons people often choose homeschooling are things like academic excellence, allowing the child to develop at their own pace, allowing for a more flexible family schedule for travel or other activities such as arts or athletics, the physical or emotional safety of the child…the list is varied, and most people have more than one reason. However, if you have stated your goals and prioritized them, it provides you with a roadmap for all your curriculum decisions.

Step 3: Assess your child (and yourself)

Now that you have your broader goals in place, take a look at your child. There are a number of factors in the individual child that can affect your choice of curriculum or even your whole approach to learning. Here are some factors you’ll want to consider:

  1. Age – younger children usually tend to do better with a lighter workload, lots of patience, and lots of individual attention. Older children generally require more specialized subject knowledge.
  2. Previous education – Has your child always been taught in a more traditional setting, and how do they feel about it? What things have been helpful to them? What would they miss about being in a traditional school, and what are the options for replacing or retaining that feature?
  3. Special needs – Does your child have any learning or mental disorders? How severe are they? How well do you understand their impact on your child’s behavior and learning ability? You may very well want to find a tutor who specializes in special needs children, particularly for more severe cases.
  4. Learning style – Is your child auditory, visual, kinesthetic, or a mix? How do they feel about learning and school? (And is your learning style different or similar? People who have a very different style from their student often find it difficult to explain things in terms the student can understand; using a more structured curriculum with outside support sources, or tutoring, might be helpful in such a case).
  5. Ability to self-motivate – This is one that often gets overlooked, but it’s vital for homeschool success. If your child is good at this already, most curricula will work well. If not, however, you’ll want to factor that in; many parents choose a curriculum that provides some kind of external motivation, enroll their child in a co-op, or engage a tutor to help keep their student on track.
  6. Temperament – is your child naturally more outgoing, or more shy? Do they enjoy being around others, or would they rather be alone? Don’t choose a style that is directly counter to your child’s character, but also don’t choose one that allows a more introverted child to withdraw from human interaction.
  7. Interests – Is your child fascinated by math and science, or do you have a history bookworm on your hands? Is your child pursuing an athletic or musical talent? Play to their strengths and you’ll find you also strengthen their weaknesses.

Step 4: Review types of curriculum available

Unfortunately we simply don’t have space to review every curriculum out there, but here are some basic types, with advantages and disadvantages.

First, there’s religious vs. secular. This may not be as obvious a choice as you might think, even if you consider yourself as falling strongly on one side or the other. Religiously-oriented homeschool resources (usually Christian, in the U.S.) have the advantage of being extremely plentiful, and often academically rigorous. They may tend to focus more attention on skills such as handwriting and mental arithmetic than is usual in public school curriculum. However, particularly in the scientific realm, their particular viewpoint may receive more attention than basic facts and scientific method. Secular homeschool resources are growing in popularity as more people choose to homeschool for academic reasons, but many are new and relatively untested.

Second, there is the difference between pre-packaged curriculum and the “build-your-own” approach. Pre-packaged advantages can include accreditation (making high school and college applications, in particular, much easier to navigate), support staff to answer questions beyond the educator’s expertise level (again, very helpful in the higher grades), and a clear program of study (your IHIP essentially comes pre-packaged!). On the other hand, some parents feel that too much structure is detrimental, particularly for the earlier grades, or find the workload overwhelming. If you’re the spontaneous type, you may have to be prepared to “nip and tuck.”

The more informal, “build-your-own” approach can take different forms. Most commonly, the educator uses a mixture of public, private, or homeschool textbooks and writes a more loosely-based “lesson plan” that might include things like “Do one math lesson, two pages of English, and read five pages of this history book.” Obviously this approach adapts itself well to a family looking for a more flexible, hands-on approach. It can be difficult to stay on track, however, and necessitates careful record-keeping to satisfy legal requirements. Another even more free-form approach is the “unit study” idea, which involves using a child’s current interest as a springboard for learning – for example, if your child is fascinated with horses, you might teach them horse-centered biology, history, and mathematics. This approach works well if the student is particularly resistant to book-based learning, or is on the Spectrum; its unstructured approach can make record-keeping very difficult, however, and does not work well on an unmotivated student. It can also be difficult to ensure that the child is receiving a well-rounded education.

Two other resources that have become more common in recent years are homeschool co-ops and private tutors. Co-ops are not legally valid as a sole learning method, but can provide the child with socialization, new teaching approaches, and resources that might not be available to the individual family (choir, debate, etc.). On the other hand, it is completely legal to have a tutor as a homeschool child’s sole educator. They can be engaged for as much of the education process as the family wants, and can be particularly wonderful for a family dealing with a special needs child, lack of time or desire to be the sole educator, or simply the desire for a different perspective for their child.

There you have it – some ideas about the different types of homeschool curricula available, and how to choose one for your situation!

Have you or your kids struggled with this? If so, we'd love to hear about it and strategies you took to overcome it in the comments below!

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