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Should I consider homeschooling my child?

Thanks to online education, homeschooling is growing in popularity and becoming an attractive alternative for many families. But is it right for you?

By Christina Tynan-Wood

Homeschooled kids do better in college.

Homeschool families are all religious.

Homeschooled kids are more creative.

Homeschooled kids lack social skills.

When it comes to homeschooling, there are no lack of strong opinions — as well as misconceptions and prejudices. The truth is that homeschooling has changed dramatically over the past few years. Long considered a radical alternative to traditional schools, homeschooling is rapidly becoming more accepted into the mainstream.

Though homeschools involving strong religion and obsessive spelling bees get a lot of attention, there are plenty of students — about 2.04 million total in the U.S. — being home educated for a variety of reasons. Fewer than half of families offer religion as the most important reason. (There appears to be no statistics on how many do it for the spelling bees.) Many do it because they want to offer their children the best possible education and are dissatisfied with their school options. 

Online programs: bringing learning home

Much of homeschooling's growing popularity is thanks to online programs like K12 or e-tutor that offer both tools and curriculum. Parents can elect to be hands-on teachers (or hire tutors for specific subjects), sitting down and teaching math and science, working from a printed curriculum. Others might elect to combine homeschooling with some traditional schooling so the student still takes a few courses at a nearby school. Some parents organize groups of homeschool kids to create their own small schools, even turning them into their own charter schools.

Some homeschool parents are less hands-on, believing that — once video games and television are removed — a kid’s natural curiosity will take over and lead her to seek answers thereby getting an excellent, organic education.

What you might find in a home school

  • Curiosity, not boredom: With only one or a few students, you have the freedom to approach a subject from the angle that most appeals to those students. Once interested in a topic, students often find their own way to get more information on it. With access to the Internet and a library, a homeschooled student given time to pursue his own interests can easily exceed the knowledge of the average school teacher in a subject he enjoys.
  • The entire world: There's no limit to where — or from whom — your child can learn. Instruction from local artisans or experts, the grocery store, the pool at the YMCA, a patch of garden outside, your kitchen. If you look for them, there are classrooms everywhere.
  • Independent kids: Students who learn from a coach who helps them find information rather than a teacher who doles out information in small, testable bundles quickly learn how to learn for the sake of learning — rather than to prove what they know on a test.
  • Freedom: Want to teach by doing? You don’t have to secure transportation, permission slips, and space for 30 rowdy students. You can simply get in the car to take a field trip to teach history by touring a museum or city, math by using money or building robots, even earth science and biology through gardening and caring for animals.
  • No threat of failure: A child who doesn’t thrive in a traditional classroom can often feel like a failure through no fault of her own. That same child might learn more effectively at a faster or slower pace, with more control over the topics, or in a less chaotic environment.

But how do I homeschool my child?

Plenty of parents might think about homeschooling, but be intimidated by how to go about it: What would I teach? How do I create a curriculum? How do I make sure my child still has friends to play with?

Parents who have successfully homeschooled say that the resources and support system exist in most any town or city to make homeschooling possible for most any family. It's a matter of knowing what steps to take.

First find out what your state’s rules are. You might have to register your school and detail the curriculum you have chosen. You might also have to provide proof that you have enough education to take this on. You may need to issue end-of-grade tests as well. The rules on this vary from state to state, though homeschooling is legal in all 50 states.

Next, turn to your child. What are her interests? What style of learner is she? Take your time buying an expensive curriculum until you’re sure it suits what she wants to learn and the way you want to teach. You might want to work from a printed-page curriculum and do all the teaching yourself. Or you might opt to be a teacher/coach while your student takes her classes online.

If your child is in middle or high school, you might opt to sign up for a virtual school. Next, find a local support group so you and your child can connect with other homeschoolers in your area. (Find more information about homeschooling, including ideas on finding a support group.) If you work, have small children, and are wondering if you can make homeschooling happen, the answer may be “no” unless you are willing to hire a babysitter or nanny. But if you have a responsible high schooler, you might find a virtual school — complete with teachers — might make it work even if you do have to go to work.

Christina Tynan-Wood has written for Better Homes and Gardens, Popular Science, PC World, PC Magazine, InfoWorld, and many others. She currently writes the "Family Tech" column in Family Circle and blogs at GeekGirlfriends.com.

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