How I wish we homeschooling parents could hit on the magic formula that works for our children and find that it works forever. We’d simply do what engages them to whatever extent we possibly can, and then we would be all set.
However, engagement changes over time. This is why homeschooling based on engagement isn’t “just leaving the kids alone” to discover or create or study on their own.
As you detect what interests, activities, and methods of learning engage your children, you will be delighted with what works for them. However, you’ll also recognize that over time, what they are engaged in and how engaged they are can vary considerably.
What causes changes in levels of engagement?
- Developmental changes. Yes, kids have birthdays. Sometimes we parents forget that birthdays mean changes in how kids want to spend their time and how deeply they want to delve into certain subjects. We can feel “all set” that our child has found what we think will be a lifelong interest or approach to things, only to find that a new stage of life means that the previous interest no longer compels the child. I remember one of my children quite suddenly slid an entire shelf of childhood toys, puzzles, games, books, and projects from a bedroom into the hall — pronouncing himself “finished” with everything on the shelf at once. I was a little heart broken, but he had complete clarity.
- Self-awareness and comparison. Related to developmental changes, changing self-awareness may affect how children are engaged in learning. A child who has been fully engaged in learning basic arithmetic and science experientially or through game-playing may suddenly want workbooks or a text book because she realizes that this is how many other children learn. A child who was reluctant to learn to keyboard and do internet research may hit a new phase when she sees that other kids her age are regularly using online resources. Kids can also get to the “other side” of these new ways of wanting to learn and sometimes want to return to their former approaches, once they’ve proven to themselves that they can “do it.” Conversely, they will also adopt some new approaches to learning and stick with them because they work.
- Increased skills or mastery. Some kids work hard on a challenging skill, but naturally drop interest when they have mastered it at a level that satisfies a personal goal or standard of achievement.
- Burnout. Sometimes very engaged kids take an interest or activity to a high level of competence. Achievement-oriented kids may feel a lot of pressure to continue to improve or move up the ranks, both for personal reasons or because of outside pressure from parents, teachers, mentors, or coaches. Sometimes it is difficult for them to figure out how to “back off” from something that has fully engaged them for a long time — they still enjoy the activity but struggle with figuring out how to participate without a constant emphasis on further mastery.
- Change in mentors. Some activities and approaches to learning are highly correlated to the specific mentor your child has. The child is strongly attracted and positively affected by this particular person. When the mentor is not available — even for presumably positive reasons — the child’s level of engagement may drop.
- Social reasons. Social needs change for children over time. Sometimes they need interests and activities they can work on solo; other times they want to do things in a group. Sometimes they will pick up an interest because a specific friend is or might be involved. Relationships are an important part of engagement, and we shouldn’t be surprised if interest wanes when the social aspect changes.
- Health — the child’s or the parent’s. Changes in a child’s physical, mental, or emotional health — or the health of someone in the family — will often change the level of engagement or how a child is able to engage. Illnesses, substance abuse, or the development of mental health problems will certainly cause kids to react differently to learning opportunities — whether Mom is drinking or the child has a chronic illness. It’s unrealistic to think a child will just “carry on” education-wise with the same ol’ same ol’. Also keep in mind — it can be useful to see significant new lack of engagement not only as a result, but also as a symptom, especially in the case of a child’s possible struggles with mental health issues. Follow up!
- Discovery. One thing leads to another! Sometimes children simply find new things that engage them. This is why “content” is so important to Engaged Homeschooling. Children don’t come into the world with ability to access lots of different content independently. Through our role as homeschooling parents, we can introduce them to so many interesting things — and they will undoubtedly discover new passions to explore. This means we can expect what they are engaged in to change over time.
- Change in quality of opportunity. Sometimes a situation changes, and the new version simply does not have the same qualities as the old version. A dance studio may close, a co-op may be outgrown, a family may re-locate, an engaging history tutor may change careers.As parents, we may want our kids to continue to be engaged with an interest even when a situation changes; however, our kids certainly know the difference if their interests are affected by these kinds of changes.
- Desire to differentiate. Often, homeschooling families do a lot of things together. We even use “unit studies” as an effective way to approach academics with multiple ages of children. And then we get a child who at some point wants to have his or her own thing. The child may have been fully engaged in the family activities and studies up to this point, so it can take us by surprise when there is a sudden lack of interest in what we thought we’d be doing all together for the next years — and a sudden pronounced interest in something entirely different. Some families seem to have kids with lots of similar interests; others have kids breaking out with individual interests all over. Again, this is why managing Engaged Homeschooling is not always easy — making a kind of cruel joke of the casual “just let them do what they want to do” throw-away phrase. If only it were that easy!
- Experiences in the world. As our kids have more experiences in the world — in classes, on teams, through activities, with friends — they will have their eyes opened to many possibilities. An interest in environmental science comes from kayaking with Scouts; an interest in playing guitar comes after camping with a musical family; a desire to make desserts from scratch comes as a result of a cooking class; a dedication to mathematics comes after a friend’s brother describes its link to computer science. Experience in the world is likely to influence what engages your child.
One reason that schools find it difficult to engage children is because engagement is not static. There’s not a single formula that engages all children all the time, which makes engagement difficult to create on a large scale with children of many different backgrounds.
Homeschooling is more nimble, especially if parents realize that what engages children over time may change.
In fact, one of the advantages of homeschooling is the “short feedback loop.” There aren’t many layers of time, space, bureaucracy, or other people between the parent and child — so parents often get a comparatively early signal that engagement may be shifting.
Does this mean that parents should be slaves to their kids’ constantly revolving interests or approaches to learning? No, as always, homeschooling has to work for parents and children, and balance is a part of the picture.
However, parents can help their children recognize that there are reasons for changing levels of engagement, and that it’s usually okay. Then they can do their best to address the troubles that are blocking engagement, or to find and support ways for their children to enjoy learning that creates as much engagement as possible.