At Seton we are often asked how many hours the actual schoolwork should take. The home school literature is brimming with advice on this very subject. I read once that no home schooler should spend more than three hours a day, three days a week, three weeks each month on formal schoolwork. With the possible exception of a super smart and self-motivated child in the early primary grades, that is simply not enough. On the other hand, some parents tell me that they start right after breakfast and work all the way through to suppertime. That is just too much. Like Goldilocks, we home schooling parents want to find the amount of time that is not too much, nor too little, but “just right.” Experience and common sense will show us just what that is for each child.
I’ve been laid up recently with a bad back. As I was more or less good for nothing, I decided to put the flat-on-my-aching-back time to good use and teach my four-year-old grandson to read. A typical boy, his small motor coordination is pretty undeveloped, so I did not use a workbook. We learned letter sounds, starting with consonants and short vowels, and as I write this, he has mastered two long vowel sounds.
At the end of six weeks, he can read sentences like, “Mom can see a big rat on the rug. Dad is mad at the rat.” We practice writing on a whiteboard with dry erase markers, so he can write very big. We started with tracing, but now he can write some letters on his own. This morning he wrote “tot lot” on the board by himself, sounding out the spelling with no help from grandma. At the end of each reading lesson, we practice writing numerals from 1 to 9, and doing some simple addition and subtraction. His parents have already taught him his prayers, but I am teaching the first answers from the Baltimore Catechism. Our daily lessons average 20 to 30 minutes. That is all he needs, and all that is appropriate for his age. He is doing just fine.
My high school daughter, on the other hand, needs to spend a minimum of six hours or more every day on her work. No student can expect to finish high school level work in less than one hour per day, per subject, with maybe another hour or two of reading each night. Parents who insist that the really important thing is that the children are reading good books miss the point. Of course they need to read good books, but they also need to analyze important elements of the books and be able to write intelligently about them. It is not enough to read primary sources in history. Students also need to understand the events and movements surrounding the document to be able to place it in context. In-depth study of history, especially the history of Europe and the Americas, is an essential of responsible citizenship.
Learning upper level math, despite protestation of “I’ll never use it again!” is important for several reasons. For starters, colleges require it. Additionally, math inculcates logical thinking skills—think of geometry proofs—and allows the student to gain self-confidence by mastering something really difficult. Science must be included as well. Even if your child never enters a science-related field, our newspapers are filled with the moral implications of modern science. A responsible adult needs to be able to understand complex issues like stem cell research, in-vitro fertilization, abortion, euthanasia, resource conservation, and climate change. Finally, it is crucial that before they set off to college or enter the work world, our children need to deeply understand their Catholic Faith and practice it with an unwavering commitment.
What is a “just right” amount of home schooling? Children in the primary grades are so different in their learning levels and attention span, it is difficult to have a suggested amount of time. Most moms and dads can sense when it is time to have a timeout, and when they can go back to the schoolwork. More active children will not stay still very long, and you will need to teach in spurts. Those younger ones anxious to read may carry a book around with them and amazingly, start learning on their own.
Middle school and junior high school students will need to add some time after lunch and perhaps catch up on reading after dinner. High school students top out with six to eight hours a day, including evening reading.
Of course, these times are based on average students. Some children are able to focus on their schoolwork from the earliest grades, and enjoy the challenge of finishing their work in a timely fashion. Other children, often very intelligent, will bog down in the details and take longer to complete assignments. Some students are perfectionists and won’t quit until the work is “perfect.” Some students simply lack the ability to grasp new concepts quickly, and need more time to develop necessary skills. Some children lack self-discipline, or are disobedient, and will work only when mom stands guard over them. All of these factors will affect the length of the school day.
The typical American school schedule of nine o’clock until three o’clock from September to June originated in a different era when children’s labor was needed on the family farm. We home schoolers are not tied to that schedule. If your 2nd grade son cannot sit still and concentrate for three hours in the morning, break the day up into one-hour sessions. If your kindergarten daughter finds practicing her letters too laborious for her limited small motor skills, slow down and take an extra six months, or even a year, to finish kindergarten. What’s the hurry? If you just had a baby and simply cannot find the time during the day to help your struggling fourth grader, add an hour of schoolwork on Saturday and Sunday when Dad is home to help. If your high school student fell through the cracks because you were helping younger children, let him finish over the summer.
The amount of time that is “just right” for Catholic homeschoolers is whatever we need to raise Catholic adults who are solid in the Faith, clear thinkers, hard workers, and academically prepared to take on the challenges of the modern secular American society.