Homeschool is a mindset.

We’ve never been homeschool purists.

Over the last three years, we’ve homeschooled, we’ve after-schooled, and we’ve used traditional school full-time.

All of those options have served us at various times in our family’s educational journey so far.

As a result, we’ve learned that homeschool is a mindset as much as a physical location.

Homeschool is a Mindset: Using Traditional School to Meet Educational Goals

Here’s how we’re combining traditional and homeschool resources to meet our family’s educational goals.

Choosing to Homeschool

Our homeschooling journey is perhaps an unusual one.  It did not stem from a deep-seated philosophy about education.  We’re not religious, we’re not hippies, and we’re not teachers.  We’re an average, middle-class American family who has always been on the “conventional” path – traditional school, college, a mortgage, a regular day job. 

Our first forays into homeschooling were based on financial realities — we simply couldn’t afford the cost of local preschool outside of Boston, MA.  I’m a nurse and my husband is a government employee, and even with two incomes, private pre-k was more than we could manage when we also had student loans, a car payment, and a mortgage. 

So I switched to weekend shifts only, and we signed up for a monthly preschool subscription box, mainly to have something to fill those dark winter days when we couldn’t go outside.

After a few months, we stumbled onto a sweet little Reggio center that also happened to be bilingual.  It was shockingly affordable, and the staff was incredible.  So we started sending our girl there part-time to give me a bit of a break – by now, I was also pregnant with baby #2.

Since our homeschool preschool curriculum was play-based, it was a no-brainer to continue with those activities in the afternoons and on days off. 

It gave me a way to connect with my daughter and provided an answer to the question “what the heck do we do after we’ve watched all the Peppa Pigs on DVR?”

Shortly after that, we moved overseas for my husband’s job.  We promptly enrolled our daughter in a local preschool.  We weren’t real homeschoolers, after all – that had been temporary, a factor of necessity….right?

Combining Traditional and Homeschool Resources

Once our daughter was in full-time school, I realized I missed the connection that homeschooling had provided.

I missed seeing her face light up when she discovered a new idea or mastered a new concept. 

I missed the opportunity to provide educational resources that were tailor-made for our family and our values.

So I started “homeschooling” after preschool, using a mix of resources.  We did science experiences, art projects, and a bajillion read-alouds. 

I thought it was a perfect balance – I had a break, she had Spanish immersion and friends, we had time together in the afternoons, and we were using resources that fit our family values.

When Traditional School Stopped Working

A year into this arrangement, our daughter started struggling. 

Out of the blue, she started throwing up

Like, a lot.

First, it was every week. Then, every day.  Then, multiple times a day.  I was picking her up from school multiple times a week because she couldn’t stop vomiting.

It took months of tests and medication trials and even minor surgery before we were handed a blanket diagnosis of “anxiety,” specifically something called Rumination Syndrome

We met with child psychologists who validated this diagnosis and suggested that there seemed to be a link to school.

I was shocked.  How could my four-year-old feel anxious at the Montessori preschool that was a three-minute walk from our house?  There were bunnies and ducks roaming around the playground, for goodness sakes.

But there was also a little part of me that said, “Yes. This sounds right.” 

And I did what I should have done months earlier – I asked my daughter what she wanted. 

And oh boy, she did not hold back:

“School has too many rules – sit down, raise your hand, don’t talk, stand in line.  I just want to go to school where I can learn how to make things.  Where I can do art without any directions and create inventions.  I just want to learn what l want to learn.”

Fair enough. 

Full-Time Homeschooling

So we went back to full-time homeschooling. 

And she’s thriving — she’s happier, she’s calmer, and most importantly, the vomiting has dropped off to (almost) nil.  And she’s learning!  In the four months since we pulled her out, she’s started to read and has mastered the first half of a kindergarten math curriculum, all on her own initiative. 

But continued sessions with a trusted therapist helped us realize an important fact: our daughter was improving because we had removed the anxiety trigger.  And this wasn’t necessarily a good thing, or at least, not entirely.

While I firmly believe that pre-k should not be stressful, I also worried that we were doing our daughter a disservice by removing the opportunity to face and (hopefully) overcome this stressor. 

Our therapist was fairly sure that her vomiting, which had likely started due to a particularly stressful event (in retrospect, we realized it all began right after her grandma died) had now become habitual, associated with the environment as well as general states of heightened emotion, rather than a specific flaw in the school.

Since by now our daughter had generalized her vomiting to times when she was also excited, such as happily running around the playground with friends, I thought the therapist was on to something.

Seeking Balance

I know I’m not the first parent who wonders about balance.  On the one hand, we want to create a school and home environment where our kids can thrive. 

On the other, we want to gently challenge our kids to address their fears, to develop coping mechanisms, to feel a sense of pride when they overcome a difficult situation.

Should pre-k be difficult?  Should a child vomit continuously because they’re overwhelmed at age four? 

Absolutely not. 

But my mom-gut was telling me that although our daughter was doing well at home, we were denying her a growth opportunity.

Experimenting with Both Traditional and Homeschool Resources

So, with the work of a therapist and the school, we started gently easing our daughter back into school part-time.

It started with a playdate, just twenty minutes during recess.  She was happy to play with her friends, as long as I was there, but my daughter told me firmly afterward that a visit was plenty, thank you very much.

The next week, the director invited our daughter back (free of charge!) for their farm day, complete with a petting zoo.  I asked our daughter if she’d like to go, and after much consideration, she decided that just one visit – purely to see the animals – would be fun.  She had three small vomiting episodes shortly after arrival but overall reported that she had a fantastic time.

Two weeks later, we tried another day at school, this time without the hoopla of a special event.  She resisted and complained on the way to school, but was happy and calm at pick-up.  No vomiting.

And so we’ve eased her back into attending school one day a week.  In another month, we plan to bump that up to twice a week.

We flex the day, making sure that we’re there for the field trips and the birthday parties.  We want this experience to be positive, to show her that school, under the right circumstances, can be fun. 

She hasn’t thrown up once.  And I know we are so lucky to have a local school that is willing to work with us and be so flexible. 

Making Peace With The Decision

As we experiment with traditional school, we also practice yoga and deep breathing exercises. We role-play how to manage anxious feelings. We play, we cuddle, and we rest.

Using school part-time allows us the best of both worlds.  Our daughter has more friends to play with and she is exposed to experiences that I can’t provide at home.  She has more Spanish language exposure.  And – this is not to be minimized – I get a break.

Our daughter continues to thrive at home.  She loves the unstructured days and the freedom to experiment and to play at her leisure.  As we’ve gotten into a routine, she’s even come to value our “table lessons” because it means one-on-one time with mom (always a win with a toddler in the house and another baby on the way). 

But my mom instincts are telling me that traditional school can provide something that I can’t do at home.

My instincts are telling me that my daughter needs the opportunity to cope with uncomfortable feelings – safely, with support, and with love – and learn how to manage those feelings in a healthy way. 

And I worry that if we shelter her from those feelings for too long, she’ll learn to simply avoid uncomfortable situations.

The Freedom To Choose

It’s a balance, right?  As adults, if we’re in a job that makes us miserable and we have the option of finding new work – we leave. 

If we’re in a social situation that makes us uncomfortable, we go home. 

That’s our right and our choice.  I want my daughter to learn to recognize to listen to those feelings and to make a change when needed.

At the same time, part of life is encountering new and uncomfortable situations.  If we learn to run from those feelings, we can miss out on incredible opportunities. 

As expats who have lived in four different countries in the last ten years, we would have missed out on so many amazing experiences if we had run home every time things got hard.  And let me tell you, I have cried and railed and lost my mind more times than I can count during these overseas travels. 

But with time and perspective and persistence, I’ve also learned to sit with those unpleasant feelings until I get to the good stuff – the connection with new friends, the cultural discoveries, and the sense of personal mastery that comes from finally figuring out which unlabeled container in the grocery store holds yogurt, and not sour cream or kefir or something else entirely.

I’ve also learned to recognize when things really aren’t working and I need to adjust. 

For example, a few weeks ago, we were on a “perfect” travel opportunity, where I took the kids to a worldschooling pop-up to meet other like-minded families and explore a new city.  It just wasn’t working for our family, and I cut the trip short. 

With maturity, I’ve learned to differentiate between “hard-in-the-moment” and “unnecessarily-hard-and-requires-a-change.”  I want my kids to have the opportunity to develop that same intuition.

The Freedom To Change Our Minds

We plan to live overseas one more year before returning to the United States for a short assignment, probably just two years. 

For our remaining time abroad, my daughter has the opportunity to attend a full-day kindergarten with on-staff behavioral support and full language immersion.  It’s our last chance for language immersion before returning to the US.  And with a baby on the way and my growing online business, it feels like the right choice for this season.

Will we homeschool when we get back to the US? 

Maybe.  

I don’t know what the local school will look like.  I don’t know what our local homeschool options will look like.  I don’t know what my other children – who will be ages 3 and 1 on arrival – will need. 

I don’t know what *I* will need.

Because as much as we want to provide the perfect educational experience for each child, the reality is that our kids exist within a family system.  And sometimes that means we rely on tools and resources to get us through a tough period while we find our footing.

Finding the Magic

One thing is for sure: I am so grateful that we were pushed into (mostly) full-time homeschooling this year simply because it showed me that we can do this. 

It’s hard, sure.  And it’s also made me realize that homeschooling isn’t necessarily some idealized life where my children happily partake of the art projects I provide and sweetly thank me for cutting my work hours in order to nurture their unique educational needs.

The reality is that we watch more TV than I’d like when she’s home. I can’t earn as much money when I’m tending to an extra child at home.  We’ve had to cut back on discretionary spending, including travel opportunities and extracurriculars. And since we live in a homeschooling desert, we’re limited in our daytime social and community opportunities.

But watching my child read her first book – I have no words for that experience.  Watching her decide to do a deep-dive in servals and their habitats, including painting her entire body to look like a serval every day for a week – that was magical. 

I know I don’t want to lose the opportunity to watch her learn and grow.

Homeschool is a Mindset

Mostly, I am grateful for this time because it’s allowed me to see that homeschooling is more of a mentality than a physical location. 

Homeschooling is the freedom to say, “This isn’t working for us. Let’s try something different.” 

Homeschooling is about prioritizing mental health over an arbitrary list of learning objectives. 

Homeschooling, at least for our family, is about connection and family time and curiosity.

As any homeschooling family knows, learning doesn’t just happen at home over the kitchen table when we do book lessons. 

The real learning happens during nature hikes and museum visits and long stretches of unstructured time where kids direct their own learning.

We can still prioritize nature and books and art and unstructured time, even if we use traditional school in some way.

We don’t have to abandon that mentality if we rely on traditional school part-time or even full-time, for a short period or the rest of our kids’ educational journeys.

Homeschool is a mindset.

Defying Labels

So are we a “real” homeschooling family? 

Honestly, I don’t know.  I know that the traditional school friends in our community look at us askance when they see my nearly-five-year-old running around the park when all the other kids are at school.  I’ve been told that “school isn’t always fun” and “sometimes they just have to suck it up.”  (At age four? Really?!)

Within our circle of homeschool friends (mainly online, since we know so few in person), I’ve been quiet about our decision to use traditional school as part of our educational journey.  I worry they’ll think we gave up or that we couldn’t hack it. I’m not sure I could bear judgment from both sides of the spectrum.

But, regardless, we’ll just keep doing what works for our kids as individuals.  Just as we tried different homeschool curriculums until we found one that fit our family, we’ll keep trying different educational tools as our needs change. 

Homeschooling Means Bravery

Our kids are young, and we’re new to this path.  But I think about families with older kids who use experiences like internships, part-time jobs, college courses, online classes, summer camps, and family travel to round out their kids’ educations.

I think we’re doing the same thing for our young children.  We’re using horseback riding classes to develop her confidence and swim classes to provide social opportunities with Spanish-speaking kids. 

We’re using a religious reading curriculum, even though we’re a secular family because it’s beautiful, affordable, and well-suited to our daughter’s learning style.

And we’re using part-time traditional school to give her an opportunity to address – and overcome — her school-related anxieties.

So far, it’s working.  That might change next month, and if so, we’ll adjust again. 

Homeschooling families are brave.  They’re willing to take an unconventional path to meet their family’s individual needs and goals. 

And if “bravery” is the main definition of “homeschooling” – well, then I give us an A+.

About Elizabeth Morrill

Elizabeth provides inspiration to families who want to make parenting simpler, more joyful, and more connected. She is a former ER nurse who now blogs about homeschooling, intentional living, parenting, and life overseas on her website, www.SimpleTenderJoyful.com. Elizabeth is a "trailing spouse" who currently lives in Guatemala City with her Foreign-Service husband and her soon-to-be-three children. In her free time, Elizabeth enjoys reading sci-fi novels until the wee hours of the night and going on potentially ill-advised road trips with her kids.

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