What do you DO when you do School? Part 2 – The Deskwork

Deskwork is what we do after we finish reading together each morning. Simple.

It seems this should be a very short post, because in theory the key to success with deskwork is captured quite eloquently in the three words of the old Nike slogan, “Just do it.” It really is that simple. I’ve been telling my boys this for the entire ten years that they’ve spent testing alternative approaches. Thankfully the pace of investigating other methods has slowed in recent years, and the Nike hypothesis has actually taken on the quality of a plausible theory in their minds, but what a struggle! Somehow written work still stimulates them to let their thoughts soar beyond the bounds of the curriculum… to things like what’s outside the window, or in the pantry, or on the calendar for next week…anything but the work at hand. Apparently the problem with “just do it” is that “it” is work, and most humans, including moms, don’t embrace work without a struggle.

However, I’ve come to believe that dealing the attitude toward school work is more important than dealing with the work itself, especially if you want to keep your sanity through years of educating your children at home. As moms we shouldn’t shrink from insisting that children learn to work and work heartily. Sending them into the world with a sense that work is optional or that everything has to be fun is setting them up for failure…and it’s just plain wrong. The ability to knuckle down and study independently is a gift beyond measure, but cultivating it requires firm resolution, wise planning, and diligent training of the mind and heart…which is hard work for moms.

Of course, all of this work must begin with some organization. I try to plan assignments for the entire school year down to at least the weekly level during the summer. I do this because my own biggest struggle is follow-through, and if I don’t have a plan, we don’t get far into October before good intentions slither into oblivion and students disappear to play quietly out of earshot while I’m distracted. I start by figuring out when we’re going to start and end our year, and when we’re going to take breaks. Then I simply take the days that are designated for school and divide the work between them as evenly as possible. For example, if our math curriculum has 140 lessons and we have about 180 days, I schedule four lessons per week until the lessons run out. If the grammar book has 300 pages then I schedule two pages per day until we reach the end. Some subjects like science, don’t divide quite as neatly, but I usually find that someone more detail-oriented than myself has kindly posted a 36-week plan on the internet that I can copy. When and how you put the plan on paper isn’t important – but it should be in writing as a means of two-way accountability. If you and your children both know what needs to be done when you all leave the living room, you’ve passed the first point at which your day can implode. You’re on to making it happen, which has plenty of potential for prayer opportunities.

Everything sounds wonderful while I troll through curriculum reviews and try to decide how to squeeze all of the “must-dos” into our schedule. Unfortunately, when the year begins we often run into very real limitations regarding our capacity to follow through. In the thick of daily struggles, it can be difficult to tell whether the problem is laziness, distaste for the subject, or a genuine lack of ability. Because it’s hard to tell in the heat of the moment, my policy is that if I have said that it will be done today – it will be. I wade in and help, and I may adjust tomorrow’s or next week’s work if I feel we really have a problem with ability to complete the scheduled tasks, but I’ve learned that ditching an assignment in the middle – however grateful my children may seem – only fuels their ambition to squirm out of assignments on another day and tanks my whole planning process. Standing firm is worth it for the day …although it may be a very long day. I’ve been down both forks in this road too many times…and I’ve tried all kinds of stop gap solutions. I’m slowly but surely coming to grips with the fact that it’s better to start with a practical plan than to shoot for the moon and set the precedent of leaving work undone because everyone is overwhelmed. When children are wondering, “Does this really have to be done?” we as moms need to make sure that our “yes is a yes.” For me this has often meant choosing a different curriculum than what I consider ideal, or skipping a subject that I think all the really cool homeschoolers do – like Latin. As I plan what we will try to accomplish for the year, I now try consider how much time each subject should take my child, and how much of my time will be required each day for all of my children combined. If either total is too high something has to give, no matter how much it makes me feel like they’re missing out on something fabulous.

Not only is it critical to make sure the work is done, but most of it also needs to be corrected in a timely manner. This becomes an even bigger factor when your children finally gain the independence to just head to their desks and knock out their assignment sheet – which does eventually happen. My husband often quotes the wise Army mantra that “what gets checked gets done,” but checking work is the bane of my homeschooling journey. Correcting assignments and holding my children to a reasonable standard of excellence rather than mediocrity in their work is mind-numbing. I don’t ever feel like doing it, and too often through the years I haven’t. Unfortunately, when I indulge my laziness my children do likewise, which means that I’m training them to be lazy. Lazy is not good. I have to repeat to myself, “Six days you shall labor and do all of your work…”

If you’re still reading you probably agree that getting the work done and corrected is important, but you’re thinking: “HOW? HOW do you pin down a tornado, a hurricane, a thunderstorm or even a fluffy white cloud drifting over the trees and get it in a chair? HOW do you ACTUALLY make kids SIT DOWN and DO their work – never mind the attitude?”

Well…here’s what it looked like on a good day when my son who is now closing on 6’3″ was in kindergarten…does that help?

I know…trust me; I understand the struggle far too well! Some children escape into daydreams, some can’t seem to stay seated, some rush through carelessly, some freeze in concern over perfection, and at some point almost all of them decide to fight the perceived oppression with whining, manipulation, and tantrums. The first challenge is discerning whether the issue you’re dealing with is innocent immaturity or laziness and rebellion against the work that needs to be done.

In my experience, maturity issues seem to resolve through training with controlled options…and of course…time. Innocent daydreamers may simply need gentle reminders to come back to the real world as their minds are being trained to focus, but if you can’t sit down and patiently keep pointing to the next problem; then present them with an option that helps them cope while still enforcing good work habits. For example you might say, “I can see that you’re intent on thinking about other things right now, so I’m going to take away your math book and set the timer for five minutes because we don’t want to build the habit of daydreaming while you should be working. You are free to think about whatever you’d like, but you may not get up from your chair, talk to anyone, or have your math back until the timer goes off.” Likewise, children who can’t sit still may actually need the option to move for a while, but that doesn’t mean that they should be allowed to run off and do whatever they want, because they should still be training to focus on work. I had one son so fidgety that I gave him the standing option to go jump on a mini-trampoline in the other room until he could come back to his work. Sometimes he got in 30-40 minutes of serious cardio before he was able to sit down and focus, but when the jumping stopped he had to be back at his work. As he matured, he needed the trampoline less and less and has turned out to be a student with incredible focus. If you feel you might be dealing with a developmental barrier regarding deskwork, my advice is to pray for wisdom regarding whether you need to back off and/or offer a controlled alterative. With gentleness and patience you will likely be astounded at how quickly they make up “lost” ground when they’re ready.

This is what my trampoline champ looked like a decade ago in a rare pre-school moment of concentration while sitting still.

Maturity issues are cute in hindsight. However, if a bad attitude seems to be the root of the problem, different measures are in order. The biblical standards that we seem to apply most during our homeschooling days include: children honoring and obeying their parents, telling the truth, doing all things without grumbling or complaining, and working heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men. By this standard whining, complaining, tantrums, and lying are not to be tolerated even in subtle forms. If these sins are allowed to take root in a homeschool they choke the joy out of daily interaction with a vengeance. In my observation, most homeschoolers who give up do so as victims of whining and complaining. By God’s grace a wise older mom coached me to stay on top of weeding out these issues and I think it’s made all the difference in the tone of our journey.

When whining and griping start, I find that the first challenge is to control my own frustration and not get dragged into the mud. It’s too easy to get bogged down in the details of a complaint and forget that griping shouldn’t be happening in the first place. Once I get a clue, I try to calmly call the problem what it is. I might say something like, “You are complaining, which is not allowed, and your voice has a whining tone. I’m telling you to stop talking that way. If you don’t, you will be knowingly and directly disobeying me, and you will face the consequence for that.” If the child is losing emotional control, I try to assure them that I understand their frustration, but they needed to choose a different response. I allow them a timed break in their room to regroup. If they choose to continue the behavior, then I follow through with the consequence for disobedience.

Another common issue involves statements like, “this is too hard,” or “I can’t do this,” or “I don’t have time,” or “this question does not make any sense!” Generally this kind of talk is not actually true and is intended to manipulate me into easing the load somehow, because a challenging workload is meeting with laziness, disinterest, or resentment. When this kind of complaining accompanies a request for help I usually say something like, “I am happy to help you if you are having trouble, but you need to ask without lying and complaining. You are a bright child, and this is not ‘too hard’ for you. If you tell me again that you cannot do it, you will be telling me a lie, and you will face the consequence for lying.”

“Who me? Lie? Never! I’m too cute, Mommy. Remember that!”

Last but not least, we have to deal with laziness and apathy from time to time. In my opinion laziness is the slipperiest and most exasperating issue of all. It can be hard to pin down and isolate from other issues, but it’s important to call it what it is. Unfortunately, combatting laziness always means more work for us as moms, but if we love our children, we have to rise to the challenge. In our house, we have a solution called blue-collar school, which is not in any way intended to disparage the hard workers who do physically intensive jobs. Quite the opposite – we mean to instill an appreciation for hard work in all of its forms and an awareness of alternatives. As I mentioned before, my policy is that the school work will still be done, but if it is done carelessly and with a lazy attitude then the child obviously needs extra training regarding work ethic, and the fact is that manual labor is easier to supervise and takes the battle out of the school arena. I try to keep a few odd jobs in the back of my mind that I can assign on the spot for a child who is being lazy. When they were younger, they got up and did the chore immediately and then returned to their work. Now that they are older, they do any extra chores after the school day ends. I know it sounds harsh, but laziness is sinful and it leads to lousy consequences in life and usually even more work, so I’m just doling out a dose of reality. If they don’t want to do studious work they can start preparing for an alternative….which is not sitting on mom and dad’s sofa and playing video games for the rest of their lives.

I’m reading back through all of this and feeling like I sound pretty hard-nosed, and to some extent I am, but I prefer to think of it as lovingly firm. Every day brings challenges, but I refuse to allow patterns of behavior that make our mutual experience miserable and train my children to be miserable people to live with. I hope to see these guys married someday and I want to know that I did my best to prepare them to be good husbands – in Godliness, personality, and perseverance. School work is just part of a much bigger picture.

In conclusion, the daily nuts-and-bolts issues are numerous in homeschooling, but God promises wisdom for the asking, and He is certainly more concerned about our hearts than answers to math problems. He always has, and always will, give the inspiration that we need in any given moment if we take a deep breath and ask for His help. So, here’s my bottom-line advice, which is truly the source of anything that is wise in what you see above: memorize James 1:2-8; count it all joy; and pray for wisdom – daily if not hourly.

And…I know that a few of you reading this have some good ideas of your own. Feel free to share in the comments!

Now….for some bonus material! This picture has no real relevance to this post, but I found it when I was looking for the others, and it’s one of my all-time favorites…and that is a school book so I couldn’t resist!

That’s all for now…

Cherish the Challenges!


2 thoughts on “What do you DO when you do School? Part 2 – The Deskwork

  1. Reading back over these posts as I prepare for our first week of the school year. Thank you for taking the time to fulfill Titus 2 and mentor younger homeschooling moms. You have no idea how the Lord can use your words to strengthen and encourage those of us just beginning this journey. I resonate with you because I tend to be hard-nosed and I pray that it will always come across as lovingly firm. We will miss you this year!

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