Inside: “My child doesn’t understand something we’re learning in our homeschool!” Is there a subject that just isn’t clicking for your child? This guide will help you evaluate the situation and move forward with confidence.
Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are Amazon affiliate links. This means that if you click the link and make a purchase, I receive a small percentage of that sale at no additional cost to you.
I could see it in the way her eyes glazed over. It was in the way she would go quiet and happily let her brother answer. I could tell when she looked nervously around the room when I asked her directly instead. The answers written on her paper confirmed it. It just wasn’t clicking.
So I pulled her aside, and I broke it all down again. Maybe the way the curriculum worded it wasn’t helpful. I studied her face for the usual lightbulb moment. But it didn’t come.
Help! My Child Doesn’t Understand
If it happens for a week, it may not be a big deal. Sometimes things just take a bit to sink in. But what if this same pattern just continues for an extended length of time? You’re going through the curriculum. You’re plowing along hoping for that lightbulb. But it’s just not working. Your child isn’t responding well to the way the material is being taught. Or maybe it seems like they understand in the moment, but the next day, all of that work is gone.
You wonder, should we slow down? Does she need extra practice? Do we put it away for a while and work on other skills?
I want to help you stop and assess what’s going on so you can choose the best way you see fit to move forward and help your child.
As parents who value educating our children, we don’t want to see them “fall behind.” We don’t want them to lack certain skills. There’s such a stigma around homeschooling as it is. We don’t want to give anyone a reason to point and say, “See? Her child doesn’t even know…[fill in the blank]!”
Let’s regain confidence in our schooling choice and face this head on.
Where do we start?
1) Look at Your Child
First, as I’ve mentioned before, we’re Charlotte Mason homeschoolers. And a big part of that is realizing that children are complete persons.
They aren’t a report card on us as people. They aren’t something that you program. They’re not any less deserving of natural respect and decency just because they’re young.
What I mean by that has nothing to do with authority and obedience; our kids are expected to obey and respect us in a different way than we respect them. But I mean that when we look at them, we need to see them as beings apart from ourselves with their own wills, their own minds, their own hearts, and their own futures provided by God.
Then, when I’m looking through that lens, I’m able to better evaluate. What does this person need? What isn’t working for this fellow image-bearer of mine? How can I help this one who belongs to God?
A few questions to consider:
- What is this child’s disposition like? Are they often moody? Are they hyperactive? Is there a certain time of day when they’re more willing to learn? Do they get hangry? If they become frustrated, can they easily come out of it, or does it take a while?
- What’s the end goal for this child? What are his or her interests? Do I have a soon-to-be high schooler who really needs this certain subject? Is this essential for my child to know, or is it something that could be laid aside if it becomes too great of a problem?
- What is the maturity level of this child? Are these concepts just too lofty for them to grasp right now, but we could come back to them later?
- What is the skill level of this child? Is there too large of a gap between what they already know and what I’m trying to teach? Do I need to drop some educational “bread crumbs” to eventually lead them toward that goal?
- Is this child someone who just requires more time to process things? When I look at his or her daily life, is this normal for them? Or is it the skill/subject at hand?
- Does this child often need multiple angles of explanation to grasp something? Will more context help the situation? Could more examples be shown?
- Does he or she struggle with attention? Is something like ADHD or ADD a factor? Or maybe they just haven’t been trained in the habit of attention? Was he or she listening when we went over the information?
2) Look at Yourself
After thoroughly assessing who and where our child is, it’s necessary that we also take a look at ourselves as their primary educators.
This one may be difficult. For some, this isn’t an issue, but for me, it was. There have been times when my expectations were too high for one or more of my children in a certain subject or skill. I had to really dig deep and say, “Why is this expectation so important to me? And is it really worth it when it’s destroying this child’s love of learning?”
It can often be good and healthy to give our children a challenge. But we have to find the line. Where does it cross over into destruction?
Try to answer these questions honestly.
- Are my own expectations too high?
- Am I looking to please others or have them think highly of our homeschool?
- Is my own pride tainting my main goal of training this child in the way that’s best for them?
- Am I facing pressure (real or imagined) from outside factors, i.e. relatives, friends, etc? Do I worry that our homeschool will make or break their opinion of homeschooling in general?
- What kind of student was I? Do I expect my child to be like me? Or maybe to be better than I was?
- Why did I start homeschooling my children? What was my vision? How has it shifted positively and negatively?
3) Look at the Curriculum
Finally, we need to assess the curriculum before we make our adjustments. In the vast array of what is available, it’s true that many things on the market won’t be the right fit for your family. Or maybe what works with some of your children won’t work with others. It could even be the wrong curriculum for just one.
When we started homeschooling, all of my children used the same thing across the board. They were in different levels for things like language and math, of course. But they all used curriculum from the same company (and we used that company for almost everything!).
Over the years, that slowly began to change. We use several curriculum companies now, none of which are the one we started with. Three of my children use one company for math, and one uses another. And I supplement where its needed from a couple different sources.
It’s all part of the process.
So don’t be afraid to look your curriculum in the face and throw it overboard if need be. It’s okay to change your mind, especially for the benefit of your children.
Questions to ask:
- Is the curriculum too advanced for this particular child? Have I placed them in a level that’s too high for their abilities? Or maybe the way the material is handled isn’t simple enough.
- Does it explain things in a way that’s helpful for this child? What’s the language like? Do I often have to paraphrase an explanation?
- Do sessions with this curriculum bring my child to the point of tears often (at least once or twice a week)?
4) Look at Your Schedule
When it’s summer and i have time to think of our schedule, I often spend much time in deciding what our weekly flow for the new year should be like. However, once the school year begins, I’m not married to whatever schedule I’ve proposed.
There’s lots of tweaking along the way.
Is this working? What if I move this block up in the day? What if this child needs more time here? Can I take this subject and move it to another day?
I encourage you to be flexible with whatever your schedule is. Here are some questions to ask about your schedule when it comes to your child not understanding something in your homeschool:
- Does this child need more time weekly in this subject?
- What about daily time? Does he or she need more?
- Do they need less? Am I overloading this child with too much information every day? Should I pare down and give them smaller bits to work with each day? Or should we do this subject only three or four days a week instead of five?
5) Make Adjustments
Now we get to the fun part! We’ve gathered all of these pieces of the puzzle, and we get to look at the whole picture and tailor-make a plan for moving forward.
The first adjustment is ourselves. This is just something that’s quick and internal (though we may need to remind ourselves of it from day to day). We make sure that our expectation in this situation is just the good of this particular child. Our focus is on helping this person to gain the education that is fitting for them. If we haven’t gotten our own selves out of the way, all of the other adjustments will still be tainted with it.
Then we can move on to actionable steps.
When to stay the course
Staying the course can often be the first step if this issue hasn’t gone on long. if it takes your child some time to process things, and it’s been a week or two, keep going.
Continuing on is not for every situation. For example, if it’s a subject in which the next skills or ideas build on the current one, you can’t continue. But when that’s not the case (or you have a curriculum that stays on the same topic for a while), you can continue on for a bit and wait for the lightbulb moment.
When to slow down, but continue using the same curriculum
For some, staying the course won’t be an option. So when should you slow down?
Not all curriculums afford the option of slowing down. There’s only so much material on each topic, and when it’s done, it’s done. But if your curriculum is meaty enough, you can break it down into smaller, more manageable pieces and proceed slowly.
For example, Singapore math is a super beefy curriculum. You could work on half of the lesson one day, the other half the next. THEN you still have the workbook questions. And there are multiple lessons per chapter, all on the same topic. So if one of my children is struggling with multiplication, I can slow down and take several days for each lesson, and we’ll have weeks worth of multiplication.
Slowing down also works if you do it by tweaking the schedule. This is ideal for children who just need more processing time. You could cut the subject down from five days a week to three. Or you could break it down into smaller pieces spread over a couple weeks to leave more time for explanation and questions.
When to skill build while continuing the curriculum
Sometimes our children just need some supplementation added in alongside their normal curriculum.
A free website that is great for this is k5learning.com. It has worksheets for kindergarten through fifth grade on many different subjects. We’ve used their website for math, spelling, and grammar.
You can also find free games online that can be helpful.
In subjects like history, picking up a few books from your local library on the topic can be very helpful to give your child more exposure to the time period or historical event at hand.
When to set aside the curriculum for a while and focus solely on skill-building
There are some cases when it would be beneficial to step back from the curriculum for a while and just focus on building a certain skill before moving forward. This is usually the case when skills are building on top of one another, and it wouldn’t make sense to move on to the next skill before mastering the one at hand.
Easy Peasy All-in-One Homeschool makes some practice booklets for things like multiplication and division. While I’m writing this, each one is only $7 and some change, and they have been a huge help in our homeschool. The repetition and practice really helps build confidence in your child and gets them on track before moving forward.
When to go back a grade or level
As much as we may hate to think about this possibility, it’s true that sometimes, a child may have to go back a grade level. This usually happens when we’ve inadvertently misplaced them in the wrong level when starting a new curriculum or when we’ve continued to go forward with a previous level before they were truly ready.
For example, parents who are new to homeschooling may not realize that curriculum companies have placement tests or guides, and they may assume that their child should be placed into whatever level correlates with their grade in the public school system. For most curriculum companies, that isn’t true. Many of them (the Good and the Beautiful, AmblesideOnline, Singapore, etc.) are advanced compared to public school standards.
So if you pulled your child from public school, and they were in second grade, that doesn’t mean you should put them in Year 2 of Ambleside. Chances are, they are going to find it overwhelming. The rich literature and expansive vocabulary won’t be something they’re used to.
No matter the curriculum, don’t be afraid to go back a level in the interest of keeping your child engaged in what they’re truly ready for.
When to switch to a new curriculum
It can often be the first thought in our minds. And sometimes, it’s necessary! I’m very open about the fact that we’ve switched things up more than once. But we do have to be smart about how we go about it.
I don’t want to call this step a “last resort,” as if you have to try all of the other steps before switching. But for certain subjects, switching curriculum shouldn’t be our first choice. I switch curriculum if:
- The information is presented in a dry manner that does not spark ideas within my children or myself.
- There is such a constant peppering of facts without anything for their minds to relate to that nothing is being retained (certain science units).
- It spirals so much that they don’t have enough time to understand a math concept before moving on.
- There is an assumed worldview that is antithetical to scripture. (My children are absolutely allowed to hear about differing viewpoints. However, we choose to not use those voices as their main curriculum for any subject.)
Curriculum switches for subjects like science are usually simple since most science curriculums are more unit-based. Even English programs can be fairly simple. History transitions likely will not be seamless, and some gaps in time my be created. But thankfully, those can be filled in over time.
My main caution would be with math. This is coming from someone who has now switched math curriculum (twice for two of my children). I really recommend seeing a copy of whatever curriculum you’re thinking of switching to. With some companies, that’s easy because they’re available in full online for free (the Good and the Beautiful and Easy Peasy are two examples). You may be able to find others at your local Mardel or similar store if you have one. Some you could check for on Facebook Marketplace to see if you can find a used copy that’s cheap.
But I recommend it because expectations based on what is shown on the company’s website may be different than the actual curriculum. Search for reviews on YouTube, and check out Cathy Duffy Reviews.
When to have your child evaluated
If you suspect that there is a learning disorder, you can also choose to have your child evaluated by their doctor or other professional. Depending on where you live and the doctors in your area, it can be hard to get a diagnosis, especially as a homeschooler. So it may be helpful to ask yourself if you need the diagnosis to proceed.
For certain issues, it can helpful because it will open you up to a world of resources. In other cases, it’s just not worth it.
For example, if you suspect your child has ADHD but you don’t plan to medicate even with a diagnosis, it may not be something you have to pursue with a doctor. You can get one of the questionnaire’s from your pediatrician’s office to fill out at home. This can help you as their educator gauge where they are. If they seem to struggle with it, there are lots of books and online resources that you can read that will help you better understand how their brain works–no diagnosis needed.
As homeschoolers, we’re going to occasionally hit snags in the road. There will be times that our children don’t understand. But don’t let it shake you as their educator. Even in public school, they could struggle with concepts. And unfortunately in that environment, it could take much longer for it to be noticed.
Don’t be afraid to switch things up. There is no set formula because our children aren’t machines. They’re people. And God placed them within families to grow and thrive. They don’t belong to the government or to the public school system but to you. Have confidence that through Him, you can do this.
Until next time,
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