How to Handle When Your Homeschooled Kid Gets “Stuck”

Contributing writer Lynna Sutherland of Your Large Family Homeschool brings great insight to the problem of when your homeschooled kid gets stuck. Whether it's math or English or a more general issue, she has you covered with practical advice and a wise perspective.

When I talk with parents who are considering homeschooling, they sometimes wonder if they are equipped to home educate their children. While the academics are certainly an important consideration, one secret I share with potential homeschoolers is that in a lot of ways, homeschooling is just “parenting on steroids”.

In other words, often times the obstacles and roadblocks we run into in homeschooling aren't so much about the academics as they are about building character, emotional resilience, and executive functioning skills – the same kinds of things we'd want to work on with our kids whether they are learning at home or not!

Let's discuss some typical scenarios that may be happening when your homeschooled kid gets stuck.

When your homeschooled kid gets stuck, you need practice insight NOW. Whether it's math or English or a general issue, this will help!

The Math Meltdown and Setting Expectations

When you ask parents which subject they worry most about being able to teach, the answer is often math! Yes, it can be challenging to communicate ideas about math and help kids to understand them. But often the biggest challenge is not the content but helping kids to manage expectations and handle the emotions of frustration they experience while working on this subject.

Most math programs teach new concepts in stages. They begin with a lesson that explains the concept. Then they offer some practice problems. Kids (and sometimes parents) might expect that by the end of the lesson, the student should understand the concept and then prove that understanding through the practice problems.

So an important way to avoid the math meltdowns is to help kids manage their expectations.

Explain that for most people we learn in stages. First we learn by watching someone else do something (like watching or reading the math lesson) and then we learn by doing. So the first few times we encounter a certain type of problem, we aren't so much showing what we know as we are continuing the learning process.

That means we should expect to make mistakes. We should expect that when we do some problems on our own, we'll discover the parts of the concept that we still need help understanding. We should expect to get more input from our teacher about how to do the problem. That isn't a sign of weakness or failure – that's how learning is supposed to work!

Related: Sanity-Saving Homeschool High School Math Tips

Related: How to Learn Math Fast (really!)

Writer's Block and the Heading Off Overwhelm

Sometimes our homeschooled kid gets stuck because they are missing the comprehension or skill they need to make forward progress. But other times their progress grinds to a halt because they have trouble integrating many different skills at one time, and their feelings of overwhelm slow them down.

I've seen my kids face this struggle in many subjects, but it often comes up during writing lessons. Writing is a complex process that involves so many interrelated and overlapping skills! Here's just a sample of the multiple things our kiddos might be required to tackle when writing a paragraph or paper:

  • Coming up with new ideas
  • Putting ideas into word form
  • Choosing appropriate vocabulary
  • Spelling words correctly
  • Handwriting or typing skills
  • Appropriate grammar and punctuation
  • And usually lots more!

Even when our kids can do all of these individual things, putting them together in one activity can be overwhelming! But the solution is pretty much the same as when a kid is overwhelmed by any task, like cleaning his bedroom. You break it down into little pieces, give directions for each piece, and then you can see if there are any particular pieces that need specific attention.

Pick one specific skill you'd like to focus on. Is it the handwriting? Have the student do some copywork so that you can assess their ability in that one aspect. Is it editing for grammar and punctuation? Use something you've written with errors and have them find and correct them. Is it coming up with ideas or formulating thoughts? Let them talk out loud while you jot down their ideas so they don't have to worry about handwriting or spelling – just idea generation!

Related: What Should a High School English Curriculum Include?

Pro tip: Before you begin an activity that a child previously found frustrating, ask them to rate how difficult they think it's going to be on a scale of 1 (could do it in my sleep) to 10 (hardest thing ever). Then, after you work on it together, ask them again to rate how hard it actually felt to do that task. This can lead to a conversation about how our fear or negative anticipation of the activity can often be worse than the activity itself!

The Angry Student Under the Surface

Maybe there's a subject that you dread teaching because your child often reacts with anger when you try to initiate learning in that subject. Or maybe school itself triggers an angry reaction! One helpful thing I've learned along the way is that anger is usually just an external cover that hides something else underneath.

Think about anger like a clenched fist. The anger is the outside of that fist. But the fist surrounds (and hides) the real emotion or cause underneath. If we just say, “Stop being angry!” we haven't really gotten to the root of the problem or helped our kids to understand how to do that either!

A helpful acronym to think about when investigating anger is HALT. The letters in HALT stand for:

  • Hungry – When you're belly is empty or your blood sugar is low, it's hard to face challenges cheerfully!
  • Anxious – Kids often have a hard time sharing when they feel anxious or afraid and so this softer emotion is often covered or disguised with anger.
  • Lonely – You can be lonely even when there are other people around you. Sometimes you just need someone to see you or check in with you so that you feel connected and understood.
  • Tired – When we're low on energy and our margins are thin, it's hard to think carefully and respond well to things that we don't enjoy. Another form of tired can be boredom – when our kids' brains are having a hard time getting or staying engaged with the material.

The HALT acronym is a great concept to teach your kids outside of school time (and especially outside of a time of anger or frustration). It's also helpful if you can use examples from your own life to illustrate what it looks like to recognize anger and then to ask ourselves to HALT and check in on what might be behind that anger.

Related: How to Deal with Arrogance and Disrespect

The next skill to build is developing healthy ways to respond to and process those needs or emotions so we can be at our best and ready to meet the challenges ahead of us and we have tools ready to go when the tough moments show up.

Developmental Maturity, Skill Deficit, or Character Problem

One of the biggest challenges in each of these scenarios is understanding the true nature or cause of the problem we're facing. Is the reason my homeschooled kid gets stuck because they aren't old enough (in terms of brain development, not necessarily chronological age) to handle this? Or is it because there's a skill I need to teach or re-teach? Or is it because there's a character trait we need to emphasize or build (like diligence or cooperation)? I have three suggestions:

  1. Don't start by assuming it's a character problem. Give your kids the benefit of the doubt and investigate other ideas first. Work by process of elimination.
  2. Open up a regular channel of communication (outside of school time) where your kids know they can give you feedback about what's hard and what's helpful without judgment or criticism.
  3. Celebrate the “soft skills” milestones, too! Finishing a textbook or grade level, mastering math facts, or learning all the states are big accomplishments. But so are completing a tough math problem with a can-do attitude or recognizing when we need a snack to help us keep going strong!

Need More Help?

Homeschooling isn't just a full-time job. It's MORE than a full-time job. Our kids need us in so many different ways. It can be quite a challenge. But it's an amazing opportunity to get a close-up look at the challenges they are facing and to see where they need help early on before the problem gets too overwhelming.

If you're still looking for help with your kids' emotional challenges, you can sign up for one of the Relationship Lab Workshops for Kids we offer at Your Large Family Homeschool — or get one-on-one help with private parent coaching.

Above all, remember that you are not alone. Most of the challenges you are facing are common to all parents, even those whose kids go to traditional schools for their academic instruction. With some careful observation and listening, lots of love, and good support resources, you can find a way forward when your homeschooled kid gets stuck!

Lynna Sutherland

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