A Start-Here Plan for New Homeschoolers

We just started homeschooling, and honestly, I’m feeling overwhelmed. I don’t know where to start. Is there some kind of start-here strategy for new homeschoolers?

Well, a lot of people will tell you to research, research, research to find the curriculum that’s right for you — and you can find discussions all over the internet with people doing just that, obsessing over the details in this program versus that program and discussing how they’ve adapted or used a particular curriculum. There’s a lot of good information out there when you’re ready to start shopping, but I think it can feel intimidating to someone who’s just getting started homeschooling. 

That’s why I’d actually recommend avoiding the whole curriculum buying process for at least the first six months of your homeschool life. It’s so easy to get bogged down in curriculum and methods and to miss out on one of the most important pieces of getting your homeschool up and running: the process of figuring out how your particular homeschool works best. Honestly, I think most people shouldn’t buy any curriculum that costs more than $50 during their first year of homeschooling. Really — how are you going to know what curriculum is right for your homeschool when you haven’t even had a chance to see your homeschool in action yet? It takes a few months just to find your homeschool’s rhythm and get comfortable with your new routine. It takes a few months to get to know your child as your student and yourself as your child’s learning facilitator. So instead of committing to a curriculum plan right away, I suggest skipping the big decisions and making it simple for yourself by opting to get your homeschool started with a unit study.

A unit study, you probably know, is basically just picking a topic that interests you and focusing on it. (When we started homeschooling back when my daughter was in 2nd grade, we started with a unit study on the constellations.) Depending on your child’s age and interests, you might choose any number of topics to explore: Minecraft, Jane Austen, evolution, bugs, westward expansion in the United States, baking, and art history are among the wild mishmash of possibilities we’ve explored through unit studies, but the possibilities really are endless. Start with one book, and see where it takes you — a unit study can be as big or as brief as your interest and can scale up or down to meet your child at her interest and ability level. (You can check out some unit study inspiration from the HSL archives here.)

There are a few advantages to the unit study approach for new homeschoolers. For starters, you can do it for free — or mostly free — with a little help from online resources and your library. For another, you can choose any topic that you and your child are both interested in, which will make the project more pleasant for both of you. With a unit study, you’ve got a narrow, clear focus that’s easy to build around, so you won’t have the burden of that “How will I ever learn everything I need to teach her?” stress. And best of all, a unit study gives you the opportunity to see how your child learns and works. Maybe she’s a terrific writer. Maybe she learns best when she’s making charts and graphs. Maybe she likes to take notes. You’ll also see where you’re a good facilitator: Maybe you’ll find that you’re looking forward to reading aloud, or you can’t wait for nature study every day. It’s fun to do something you’re both interested in every day, which will help both of you feel like your homeschool is off to a great start.

If you’re just starting homeschooling for the first time, the information you gain from engaging in this first unit study will be invaluable when you decide you’re ready to move on to curriculum shopping: If your daughter hates working on the computer, you’re not going to want to buy an online math curriculum. If she’s passionate about reading, you may want to look for a history plan that focuses on living books. Those are things you might not know if you jumped right into experimenting with curricula. Giving yourself a little breathing space before you dive in full-force can help you avoid making the kinds of mistakes that frustrate you, your student, and your homeschooling budget.

This Q&A was originally published in the fall 2015 issue of HSL.

Need help getting started? You can download our free New Homeschooler Cheat Sheet for a step-by-step guide to figuring out your happiest homeschool.