The Importance of Routine
There’s a certain danger in educating your children at home. Given that they don’t have to catch a bus in the morning, the temptation might be to just sleep in. Given that they don’t go to a school with hundreds of other kids, they might be tempted to just wear their pajamas all day. Given that at home the distractions are manifold, such as mom preparing the food, dad working on the car, or the exciting book the child was reading yesterday and desperately wants to finish. Actual school work might not get done till later in the day.
Modern school systems thrive on routine. Class starts at this time, lunch at that time, breaks here and there are usually only a few short minutes, if they exist at all. While it is appealing to let your home student break free from those constricting routines, and there are countless benefits to freedom, too much freedom has its dangers.
The benefits of routine go beyond the typical “keep those kids in line!” In fact, routine shouldn’t be on the same list as other disciplinary points such as chores and house rules. Rather, routine should be integrated into lifestyle.
Flexibility and Routine Don’t Contradict
Many problems can be avoided by having a routine that structures your day. I grew up in Germany, and as Germans we like it when things are organized, preferably running like clockwork, with absolute precision. However, this is not what we’re talking about with respect to a homeschooling routine. Homeschooling routines demand flexibility, and fortunately, flexibility is a massive aid in education. As a matter of fact, this is precisely one of the reasons to educate at home. You can give your students the attention they need.
When math class ends at an out-of-home school, you’re left hanging if you couldn’t grasp some concept or formula. The class is over, and if you’re lucky enough, maybe you’re instructor will help you outside of class time… If there is much time outside of class time. On the other hand, if you’re smarter than average, you’re bored for the rest of the class once you’ve understood the content. That can add up to a half hour or more of doodling, daydreaming, and time wasted. This is one of the major problems with regulated classroom learning. Students are grouped together without any regard to skill level or interest in the subject. Students who struggle hold those who quickly advance in a strangle hold of boredom. A student who might have the potential to become an incredible mathematician might end up disliking the subject only because it was such a miserable experience in school.
For homeschoolers, this problem doesn’t exist. You can spend more time on the subjects your students struggle with, and move faster through the rest. Thus far, there’s no difference to schedules commonly used by schools and in many homeschooling settings. That’s a problem, since in real-world families, in real-life situations, the very idea of keeping a school-day schedule with all its punctuality and strictness is insane. This problem is one of the major reasons why home education fails, or is abandoned.
Routines Do Battle with Laziness
Home education has a lot to do with character formation and the building of habits. It is pointless to teach certain habits to your children if you send them off to school, where they’re exposed to something opposed to what you’re teaching. This is most prominently the case in regard to the virtues. You can talk about chastity all you want, but if your child is witnessing questionable behavior for hours every day, you’ve got a problem. No matter how hard you try, or how “special” you think your student is, if they’re surrounded by the typical school mates and teachers and curriculums found in every school out there (even the best ones) you can forget about virtue.
A routine builds a habit, too, namely that of doing what is your duty. As Catholics, we have certain duties, depending on our state of life. Only with difficulty will we be able to do adequately what God is demanding from us later on, if we don’t start young. And if we can’t do the little things, we shouldn’t even bother with trying the bigger things. How are your children going to fight temptations to impurity, if they can’t even get out of bed at a fixed time? It doesn’t have to be five in the morning, but there should be a set time when the day starts, everyday. Avoid “sleep-in saturdays” too. Breaking a habit even for one cheat day is a recipe for failure. If you’ve ever tried to quit smoking, eat a weight loss diet, or the like, then you know that cheat days make it harder, not easier.
Saint Josemaría Escrivá says, “Conquer yourself each day from the very first moment, getting up on the dot, at a fixed time, without yielding a single minute to laziness. If, with God’s help, you conquer yourself, you will be well ahead for the rest of the day. … The heroic minute. It is the time fixed for getting up. Without hesitation: a supernatural reflection and … up! The heroic minute: here you have a mortification that strengthens your will and does no harm to your body.”
Elements of a Routine
Beyond the fixed time for getting up, other things should be incorporated into a routine. Prayer is obviously the most important aspect. Before anything else, you should pray with your children. The older kids can pray by themselves, but the younger ones need to be led and encouraged by their parents. Even when they do start praying on their own, keep family prayer going. Daily Mass is a valuable part of the day, and should be done by all families. However, this is not a perfect world, and some families can’t make daily Mass a reality. Even so, family prayer, every day, all together, is immeasurably valuable.
Certain hours of the homeschooling day are set aside for the actual school work. If your students want to do more, for instance finishing up a little history project, they can do that, but everybody has to study for a set amount of hours. On occasion, this number might change, or be moved to another part of the day, or canceled altogether, because of unforeseen or unavoidable circumstances. You will be able to judge when that’s the case. Also, keep in mind that the younger the student, the fewer the hours.
Food is another aspect. There’s a time for meals, usually breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and many families have a time for snacks in the morning, as well as in the afternoon. Having set times for major meals makes it much easier to eat as a family. Family meals, dinner especially, has massive benefits in everything from child development to family bonding and parental discipline. Eating is a communal activity, and having set times for it discourages solo-eating, which can cause bad eating habits, appetite issues, mindless munching, and early-onset obesity. Children should be allowed healthy snacks, growing bodies need fuel, but only while at the table, not at their desk, tv, bed, playground, etc. I’d say one exception to this is salted popcorn (which is light and healthier than most other snack foods) while watching a movie as a family or listening to a book read aloud. Having something to munch on can help younger students stay more focused during reading, and is a good idea if you’re having a lot of trouble getting them to sit and listen while you read. However, try non-edible methods first, such as coloring, puzzles, and the like. Aim for activities that can be done mindlessly, are perhaps repetitive, and of course, silent. Snacking should be a last resort.
It might take some effort to find a routine that suits the needs of your family. However, since a routine gives you the freedom to do what needs to be done, without being distracted by other things, that effort will pay off. Your children will thank you. Not now, perhaps, but they will when they’re all grown up and ready to face the world.