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Dealing with Burnout

By Carol Naigon

Question: I’ve been homeschooling for 10 years now. I have five children ages 3-18 years. My question is, how do I effectively homeschool when I no longer have the heart for it? I am burnt out, tired and just plain bored of it. Yet, my conscience won’t allow me to imprison my precious children in the typical school setting.

Burnout is a common concern among homeschoolers who try to do school at home. In fact, the only homeschoolers I’ve heard complain of burnout are those who are using a “school in a box” curriculum along with a strict daily schedule. It’s probably time to climb out of the box.

Some people recommend staving off burnout by doing “school” for six weeks, then taking a week off. Others pray for the discipline to work even harder at what isn’t working. Some see burnout as a gift, a challenge to their character. I don’t see any of these as a solution. In your situation, I think the answer is in the last sentence. If you don’t want to imprison your children in a school, why are you imprisoning all of you in your own home?

Probably you were burnt out from school long before you had children. Maybe that “prison” where you spent 12 years of your childhood left you crispy fried to the depths of your soul, but at the same time ingrained in you the belief that learning takes discipline and rigid adherence to a curriculum or first you, and now your children, will never be happy, successful, productive adults. Maybe you learned quite well, as many of us did, that education=boredom and important learning has to come from someone else – a textbook or a teacher’s greater wisdom. Well, that was a lie and it’s time to set yourself free!

Learning happens when people are excited and interested. If botany makes your child’s heart beat a little faster, she’ll find out all she can about botany, until her interest is satiated. But what happens if your expensive curriculum says kids need to study astronomy at her grade level and botany in two years? What if your science textbook says it’s time to memorize the names and relative positions of all the planets in our solar system, but she really wants to explore that abandoned farm down the road and see if she can find edible weeds there with which to make a salad for dinner? And what if that exploration leads her to planting her own medicinal herb garden? And what if her little brother picks apart a flower in the yard and she runs to get the encyclopedia so they can identify the parts of the flower together…

Stop daydreaming! That’s not the way school works. You paid for the curriculum and they’re the experts, right? Better get cracking on that model of the solar system. If she spends two weeks identifying weeds, she might miss something she’ll need to know when she’s an adult, like how many moons orbit Jupiter. Why wouldn’t you feel tired if you’re trying to force learning in this way day in and day out?

There are so many ways strict obedience to a curriculum can cause burnout. Obviously if you try to go through the same one with five children, you’ll be doing the same thing year after year. Who wouldn’t get bored with that? I’m bored just thinking about it! I can just imagine what must run through a mum’s mind. Oh, dear. Tommy is doing fifth grade next year and we’ll have to do poetry again. Has it really been only three years since we did that grade? He’ll hate it. He hates to write. He’d really rather work on programming the computer, but if we don’t force him to do the work now, he’ll never have discipline. Now what was a cinquain again? Poor Tommy. Poor Mum.

The curriculum sets up expectations in you that your children will be able to perform at grade level if only you push them hard enough. If only you spend enough time preparing lessons and grading and scheduling and making them sit there until it’s done. The curriculum sets up the expectation that other homeschoolers are doing it successfully and so you should be able to do it too. All those expectations lead to a lot of stress on you and your children to perform. And stress is what causes burnout.

My advice is to lose the curriculum. If you feel you need to keep part of it for now, ask your kids what they enjoy most and would be willing to continue doing. Or if you feel you need to use those science texts, look through them at the end of the year and see how much was covered through field trips, day-to-day learning and your children’s natural interest in the world around them.

Once you’re already bored and burnt out, it’s time to take a look at your life overall and see what else is tipping the balance to the bleak side. Are you and your children over scheduled with classes and activities? Are they fun or are they obligations you’d rather not do? Consider dropping some of them and keeping only the ones you and your children really like.

Maybe you’re under-scheduled and need to get out more and do things with other home schoolers – things like field trips, roller-skating, play dates and potlucks. Are you staying home with your curriculum when you could be out in the world having fun learning? Did the homeschool group go to the science museum, but you stayed home because you needed to keep up in your science textbook? Did you all miss the potluck at the park because Tommy didn’t write his haiku?

Burnout is a symptom of unrelieved stress. You need to make sure you take care of yourself, or stress can force decisions you don’t really want to make, like sending your kids to school. Or it can damage your relationships with your children, the very antithesis of our reason for homeschooling.

Here are some of the things you need to remember to do for yourself to avoid burnout:

Exercise regularly. If it’s nothing more than a daily 15-minute walk, get out and do it.

Eat well. Eat whole healthy foods and take a multivitamin every day.

Keep a reasonable schedule. Don’t schedule too much so you’re constantly on the run. At the same time, don’t spend all your time at home cracking the books.

Talk with your friends. Or if your homeschool friends provide more expectations and pressure that contribute to your low feelings, find new friends! Some homeschoolers put a tremendous amount of pressure on others to perform in certain ways. Run from friends who pressure instead of supporting.

Delegate. Delegate. Delegate. Don’t try to do it all yourself. If your older teen can drive the younger kids to piano lessons, let him. If you run out of milk, call your husband and ask him to pick some up on his way home from work. Don’t do it all.

Are you trying to keep a spotless house? Stop it! Some families spend less that four hours a day awake in their homes. Let them invite House Beautiful in for a photo shoot. We homeschoolers use our homes and you’ve got to expect your home to look lived in. A few times a week, call everybody for a half-hour cleanup. If you all clean madly for just 30 minutes, it’s amazing what you can accomplish. For a reward, bake cookies together, go to a movie or pile on the bed and read a good novel.

Let go and trust. Don’t try to control every aspect of learning for your children. They were born with the desire to learn and explore their world. Once you get into that cycle of trying to control more at the same time you’re feeling your emotions go out of control, it’s time to stop and look at healthier options. Relaxed homeschooling and unschooling aren’t about raising feral children. They’re about nourishing a love for learning in your children. Do some research into these alternatives to school-at-home.

There can be many reasons why homeschooling might not work in a family, but in most cases a few conscious changes can make a big difference. If your method of homeschooling doesn’t look much different from a bad alternative (prison school), you need to seriously consider throwing away that useless paradigm and looking at alternatives that are working well for other homeschoolers without causing burnout.

Homeschooling should be an enjoyable, fulfilling experience (most days) for your whole family, including and especially Mom. We can’t pass on the love of learning needed to raise independent thinkers if we are bored and unhappy. Obviously you can take or leave my advice, but why not give it a try for a year? That curriculum will always be there if you want to go back to it.

Reprinted with permission from Home Education Magazine, PO Box 1083, Tonkasket, Wa.

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  1. Selby Harper says:

    I really appreciated Carol’s article.

    Just as we all educate our children in particular ways for particular reasons at particular times, we also receive other people’s input in particular ways depending on what is going on with our families and our own thought lives.

    I’m not experiencing home school burn out just now, but there have been times when I have. A birthday spent in a scout hall springs to mind as the start of a burn out season for myself and various friends.

    I found this article to be encouraging, and I guess that’s a reflection of where my head and heart are just now. Thanks for posting the article – I’m sure it’s one I’ll be relieved to re-read when a period of burn out hits.

  2. falkfamily10 says:

    My experience is that after 10 years of schooling my 9 children aged 16-1 with baby no 10 due in 3 weeks. Burn out and loss of joy is SOOOOO common. My advice is to take each day as it comes and plan fun activities and also reward yourself in many different ways.

    I stopped feeling that everything with their schooling was my responsibility and that sometimes things just happen naturally. This year I’m focusing on getting work done but also building relationships with my children.

    I do structured learning through a distance education school and really the curriculum or structure aren’t the problem for me. It is purely that life got me down.

  3. Wighthouse says:

    Thanks for your input Terry.
    We all have our favourite home ed method, but choice and respect are important tenets of home education. Your response is a timely reminder of that.
    Regardless of the method chosen, each home educator makes a conscious choice to do things differently. HEN supports the right of families to choose the form of home education that works best for them. Carol’s advice (indeed any home education advice) is valid for some, not for all.
    Although John Peacock favoured a less structured model himself, his research led him to the conclusion that home education works regardless of the method chosen – he told me once that he believed it was the relationships home education empowered that were the secret to success.

  4. Terry Harding says:

    Hi all,
    Carol Naigon, the writer of this article, makes an enormous assumption, that using a structured format in home schooling causes burnout. It makes me wonder how much she really knows about using a structured format, which she calls disparagingly “school in a box” or how many people she has interviewed who use structured curriculum, before making such remarks.

    I would like to make the following points, with the hope that we see less of home educators who use one method, criticising other home educators who use a different mode of home education. To my mind this needless criticism, does not assist our wonderful home education movement to which we all belong. It is a movement which is characterised by parent/child-choice, freedom of association and independent thinking.
    I guess my plea is “Please stop criticising formal learning.” So … on with my brief points:

    1. Over the past 25 years that I have assisted families with their structured formats. I have seen tens of thousands of families use this method, quite happily. Some have journeyed for short periods and others have journeyed throughout the K-12 years.
    2. My wife and I happily used this format with our five children, now adults.
    3. Critics of those of us who use some structure often either state explicitly or imply implicitly that all we do is “school” “at home” or “in a box” or other pejorative descriptors. This implies the untenable assumption that the structured home educators only use formal methods. These home educators use BOTH formal and informal pedagogies. They DO talk with their children, follow interest pathways, have enormous flexibilities, have wonderful relationships etc. The truth is that they have the best of both worlds – both the formal AND the informal.
    4. Many of you are aware of our friend, the late Dr. John Peacock. During his doctoral research he accessed a significant group of our families (who used ACE formal curriculum and their own informal approaches). John stated to me that he felt that these families were less stressed than many others in his study. He put this down to the fact that the formal part of their home schooling relieved them of many pressures. Now I am not suggesting that formal home educating is stress-free, however, to say that it causes stress in and of itself demonstrates ignorance of the facts. There are stressed parents associated with all pedagogical approaches.
    5. There is nothing inherently wrong with formal learning. Throughout the millennia past, from before Plato, to the present day, formal learning has had and still has a very important place in the field of epistemology. In similar vein, just to state the obvious, there is nothing wrong with informal learning. Informal learning is happening in our homes all the time. No pedagogical approach has a mortgage on informal learning.
    6. To state that formal learning in home education is anything like traditional schooling, is either incredibly short-sighted, simplistic, convenient “spin” or just plain ignorance. I have been the principal of 4 schools in 3 different states and as a committed home educator, a strong advocate for home education and a long-time researcher into home education, I find the statement which equates home education with traditional schooling to be outrageously inaccurate.

    I will stop there. There is much more anecdotal and research-based evidence around this issue. I just hope that home educators, who wish to speak publicly about home education, are sufficiently secure in themselves and in their chosen pedagogical approaches, that they enjoy their chosen approach and conversely, that they do not belittle others who choose a different approach to their own, nor disparage a pedagogical approach which differs to their chosen one.

    I will close with a comment from my old college principal who had a saying that I think is relevant to this issue. He used to say, “People are generally right in what they affirm but often wrong in what they deny.”

  5. Susie de Graaf says:

    I love to hear the advice that people have from their years of experience,it is genuinely helpful however perhaps it is also worth bearing in mind that for some of us, curriculum for certain subjects is helpful, while for other areas of life/ academic disciplines we have enough enjoyment of those areas ourselves to facilitate for our children and to help them have pleasure in those areas. I really struggled when I tried to adhere to strict curricula but when I started using it to help us achieve what we needed – i.e. when I started using the cool resources as my assistants to be tweaked and used on our terms I found them incredibly helpful and time saving.

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