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How to Know When It's Time to Switch Homeschool Curriculum

The 19th-century British fairy tale “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” is a good place to start when considering homeschool curricula. The porridge Goldilocks sampled in the three bears’ home was, first too hot, then too cold and finally, just right. The bears’ chairs and beds followed a similar pattern. The key point for us is that you don’t always find the optimum situation the first, or even second, time around. Like Goldilocks, you may need to change curriculum more than once to find the right fit for your homeschool. Is your current curriculum not working? Asking the right questions can help you decide if it’s time to look for a better fit.

Is the curriculum you're using the right level for your child?

Is your curriculum so easy your student speeds through the material, bored? Or, is it so difficult he or she is anxious, overwhelmed, and has given up trying? You want to strike a good balance.

A curriculum may include some review at the start that your child finds easy, but it should offer plenty of new content that will keep them progressing academically during the school year, ideally through age-appropriate grade level content. If it’s too easy, you may need to gauge your student’s aptitude and start them further along in that curriculum, or else move them up to the next grade level. If the material is so difficult it overwhelms your student, you may need to back them up a level (or allow more time for your student to cover the material).

It’s important to pay attention to grade-level designations, but don’t be a slave to them. Most of us are strong in some areas and weak in others. If you’re using a single, full grade-level curriculum, you want to find a good balance for your child: the majority of the work is manageable, with an area that may be easy and an area that may be challenging. If, on the other hand, you use a variety of materials -- subject-specific books from different homeschool publishers -- you can fine-tune: use your student’s grade-level as a starting point, providing higher grade level material in the subjects where they excel and lower grade level material in the areas in which they struggle.

Is your current curriculum the right format for your child?

Does your child respond negatively to the way the material is presented, needing lots of help navigating the structure of the program apart from the actual content? Do they complete the daily work but struggle to retain concepts covered, scoring poorly on quizzes and tests? Today’s homeschool curricula range from workbooks to fully online offerings, with everything in between. Consider which format will best facilitate your student’s learning.

Some kids are able to succeed academically across a variety of learning formats. Others respond much better to a particular format. Is your child happy completing consumable workbooks? Do they engage more readily if there are audio or video components to the lesson? Learning styles come into play here, and finding the right platform for a struggling learner can make all the difference.

What are learning styles, also known as learning preferences? These are identifiers for how your student best absorbs, processes, and retains information. The basic three styles of learning are visual (learn by observing), auditory (learn by hearing), and kinesthetic (learn by doing). Another style often added to this list is reading/writing (those who learn best by combining these two activities). Still other learning designations include verbal (learns best with discussion), mathematical (learns best through a methodical, problem-solving approach), and social (learns best in a group setting) vs. solitary (learns best independently).

Of my three homeschooled children, the oldest was visual/verbal. He enjoyed the rigorous group discussions of co-op classes combined with quieter study on his own at home. My daughter who was two years younger was strongly auditory/kinesthetic/social. She required action and sound -- group learning experiences, hands-on activities, and curricula with a strong audio component to best learn and retain information. My youngest was visual/mathematical/solitary. She enjoyed her co-op classes but learned well on her own given her methodical bent.

My oldest and youngest were fairly balanced in their learning styles, so they did well with most curricula I used. My daughter in the middle, though -- the strong auditory/kinesthetic/social learner -- really struggled at times. Adding field trips, lesson-based activities, and discussions helped her retain content. But she retained information best through curricula like the Lyrical Life Science series and some computer-based instruction with a strong audio component, like Rosetta Stone. Using the right curriculum for her helped her to excel and feel smart, instead of struggling and growing frustrated.

A useful quiz is available through the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) that can help you identify your child’s learning preferences and, in turn, direct you toward curricula that will provide the optimum fit for how your child learns.

Is this curriculum a good fit for you as the teacher?

A curriculum may work for our children but be a poor fit for us as the parent/teacher. Do we need more detailed teaching resources, including daily lesson plans, to help our kids take full advantage of the curriculum? If they’re not available, look for a curriculum that does offer these. Is your current curriculum’s approach or structure frustrating to you as the teacher? Consider a curriculum with a different approach. Are hours of teacher preparation required -- hours you do not have due to a new baby, an upcoming move, or a serious family illness? All of these circumstances suggest a change may be helpful.

Our goal as homeschooling parents is not just to teach our children, but to teach them to love learning. If everyone’s frustrated, including us, no one’s winning. Thankfully, there’s an astonishing variety of curricula out there. You can find a curriculum where your child watches a lesson and you supervise and correct the work. Or you can try workbooks where your student learns and works independently -- you simply do the correcting. Or you can find fully online classes for your child that include all teaching and grading. Homeschooling looks different for different families, and it may even look different at different times for the same family. If the current curriculum is not working for the teaching parent, consider a change.

Can you modify your current curriculum to make it a better fit?

You’re pretty sure you need to change the curriculum you’re using. Ask yourself the following question before you take the plunge: Will our current curriculum work for us if we simply modify it? If the work is a little challenging for your student but not totally beyond them, could you allot more days for them to complete each chapter, or have your student complete every other problem in each problem set so they’re not spending half their day on that one subject? If your auditory learner is struggling to retain content, can you make up a song with them that puts the facts they need to learn to the tune of a familiar song? Could you set up an in-person or online discussion group for your child who is verbal and social so they can better process (and enjoy) the literature they’re reading?

If the teacher resources are overwhelming you the parent, can you focus on two or three activities per lesson instead of exhaustively covering every suggested step of each lesson plan? If the curriculum is good but you think it’s missing content in a specific area, can you supplement with a subject-specific student workbook? If your time is limited, can you ask your spouse if they’d be willing to cover a subject to give you a break and allow you more time to prepare for the areas you are teaching? Sometimes simple tweaks can turn a frustrating curriculum into a manageable one.

Can you guarantee content continuity in spite of a mid-year switch?

Changing your homeschool curriculum is sometimes a natural next step, particularly if that curriculum is designed to cover a limited number of grades or subjects. But if you decide a curriculum change is needed, especially if it’s mid-year, take steps to avoid gaps in subject matter. Locate the scope and sequence (a listing of the content areas covered) for each subject. Are the same exact topics covered in both curricula? Great! If something important is missing, find a way to still work through that material at an appropriate time. Compare the order of topics covered as well. Chapter 5 content in your new curriculum may be the same as Chapter 4 content in your old one, and you don’t want to frustrate your child by having them needlessly repeat material they’ve already mastered.

In addition to comparing scope and sequence by subject, see if there is a placement test for the new curriculum you’re considering. Publishers often include math diagnostic tests that will show where your child should start in their program. If it’s a non-math subject, or you simply aren’t sure where your child should start in the new curriculum, have them complete the tests for earlier chapters in the new curriculum as makeshift placement tests to show if they’ve mastered that material or need to review some topics. When they come to a chapter with mostly new information, they can pick up from there.

Maximizing continuity, and avoiding content gaps, is particularly important in language arts and mathematics, subject areas that provide specific building blocks for later learning. You don’t want your older child to struggle with reading or spelling because they missed exposure to a major phonics component. And you don’t want them to struggle in middle school math because they never learned their multiplication tables. If a change in curriculum will make life more manageable for parent and child, do it. Just make a point to identify and remedy potential gaps.

Two More Questions to Ask

Two other questions come to mind as helpful to ask yourself when considering a curriculum change. First, are you newly aware of a learning challenge your child may have? Just as learning preferences can indicate which learning format may work best for your child, newly documented learning challenges or disabilities can direct you toward curricula that will best accommodate your child. HSLDA has a series of articles on their website that give helpful checklists for potential visual, motor, and auditory processing issues as well as attention, focus, and sensory integration struggles. Acknowledging, and accommodating, these challenges can make life easier for parent and child.

A different but equally important question to ask, particularly if your child is in the middle school/junior high years, is what is his or her probable next step? A good general education is the overall goal, but if you have a budding scientist, doctor or engineer, you may want to focus on finding a curriculum with rigorous science and math components. Is your child an avid reader and writer? Find a curriculum that provides ample opportunity for them to read the classics and write in a variety of genres. If your current curriculum is working well overall, this may simply involve finding ways to supplement with additional curricula or extracurricular activities tailored to your child’s abilities and interests. Students who love writing, for example, could benefit from continuing with their current curriculum but also taking part in NaNoWriMo.

Alternate math curricula can be considered if you have a student who is struggling through algebra 1 and 2, and geometry. If higher maths are not in their future, even at the college level, consider alternate high school math curricula that bypass trigonometry and pre-calculus and instead cover business math, probability and statistics, or consumer math. Working on their high school transcript, and considering your student’s post-high school direction, often spotlights curricular needs as well as areas where alternative content, and curricula, can be pursued.

Switching Your Curriculum: A Few Final Points

Do not feel guilty. A wonderful benefit of homeschooling is that we have the freedom and flexibility to make adjustments as we go. If the curriculum we are using is just not working, we need to find a new one that will work for both our children and us. We chose that original curriculum for some reason; we will use this opportunity to reevaluate and choose another curriculum that better meets our family’s current needs.

If the cost of purchasing another curriculum is creating guilt, see if you can sell unused portions of the original curriculum. Perhaps you can recoup much of the new curriculum’s cost. Even if you can’t, keep in mind that the goal is teaching our kids effectively. Those extra dollars spent now could reap untold benefits as our kids continue through their schooling and into adulthood.

Finally, in looking for the right curriculum realize there is no perfect curriculum -- each has its pros and cons. Changes in circumstances alone can make what was once a great curriculum for your family no longer workable. Enjoy the flexibility homeschooling offers. It’s a blessing! Extend yourself and your family grace. As all-consuming as it often feels, homeschooling is an unfolding journey that will be over before you know it. With wisdom and prayer, adjust or change your curriculum to suit your current needs. Like Goldilocks, may you find your family’s “just right.”

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The Homeschool Compass is a community of experienced home educators offering encouragement and support for your homeschool journey. We love homeschooling, but we know it isn’t exactly simple. We know it can be very isolating, especially if your real-life friends and family don’t understand your desire to teach your children at home. And we get that every family is unique with its own set of challenges.

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