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Setting academic expectations in early years

>>As a new homeschooler of young children, I am struggling with how to set the tone and expectation of “school time”.  As we travel down the homeschool road, I am having a difficult time teaching my oldest daughter (age 5) the expectation of when its time to learn. That is, what I expect from her when we sit down to learn etc.  How have you taught your children what is expected of them during “school time” and the like?

I understand that a little girl can’t sit for hours and learn. We don’t do anything like that. Rather, interspersed with her play, we have a few times a day that we learn together, be it parsha, Hebrew reading etc.  Some days, she is right on target and I have no issues. Other days, she just breaks down.  How much control should I let her have over “school time”? If she gives me signs that she doesn’t want to do it, do I let her have her way and let her take a pass or should I be in control of when she does “school work”?  What is appropriate for this age? How much should I worry about total accomplishment?<<


I take a very relaxed approach to homeschooling young children (and am pretty relaxed with the older kids, too) so that’s what you’re going to hear from me.  🙂  My strong feeling is to follow a child’s lead in what they are ready to learn, and to follow their cues as to what they want to do.  I really believe that a child (or adult) doesn’t truly learn anything unless they are interested and engaged, and want to learn.  We can make our kids of whatever age spit back facts of all sorts, but we can’t make them assimilate it.  And assimilation is where true learning is at.

A young child’s play is his learning.  There really isn’t anything that a five year old needs to learn that he can’t easily learn in his playtime.  If you want her to do something like parsha, then tell her stories – and you don’t have to be sitting side by side while you do this.  You can talk as she helps you in the kitchen, before bed, when you’re driving somewhere.  We found pasha story cassettes wonderful and used them a lot over the years. 
If she’s resisting even the casual introduction of a topic (for example, parsha), then I’m guessing that she’s picking up on your anxiety about what she’s learning or not learning and doesn’t want any of that pressure attached to the activities you do together.  Years ago, my oldest dd (then about 10) just couldn’t learn chumash with me; I realized that I was making her nervous, not by what I said, but because it was clear to her that I expected her to do more/better than she was.  So I totally backed off for over a year because I didn’t want learning Torah to become something she had negative associations with.   She came to enjoy learning, but it wasn’t because of me; it was because I left her alone long enough for her to want to learn it and for it to be meaningful to her. 
Think about what skills you really want your daughter to learn, and then figure out how to integrate it into games or her playtime.   Some parents find it helpful to learn to translate for the value of their childrens’ activities into ‘educationese’ to reassure themselves that even though it doesn’t resemble traditional classroom schooling, learning is going on!
When one of my boys was 5 years old, he expressed an interest in learning to read, but certainly wouldn’t have had any desire for phonics drills (and neither would I).  I decided to play with ABC cards with him, and he learned to sound out easy words after just a couple of times without any formal teaching at all. I only did this for maybe ten minutes each time because I wanedt it to be fun and low pressure.  The same thing with math – I played with manipulatives with him from time to time (I do this with my ds4 and ds3 now, too).  He wanted a math book so I gave him one but I didn’t attach any importance to him doing it.  I really didn’t mind if he never looked at it after the first time he used it (though he ended up zooming through the workbook), because I was confident that he’d learn math when he was ready for it.  And I also know how many concepts can be learned through hands on play, particularly if the parent is a good facilitator.
Don’t worry about total accomplishments, just watch how much she’s learning as she plays.  It might help to find out what kids actually are expected to learn in kindergarten – not how they learn – but what they learn.  Keeping in mind that kindergarten has become overkill and high pressure nowadays, and therefore not developmentally appropriate or healthy, I think you’ll see that if a child learns to count and the sounds of the letters, they’re on track and will have the foundational understanding to progress to reading and math.
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