Toddler Training Grounds: Managing Expectations While Homeschooling Many

This post is part of our how to homeschool lots of kids with babies and toddlers series. Be sure to read the rest of the series.

It’s a typical day.

I’m sitting at the table with the 10-year-old, supervising the solving of an equation while the 8-year-old is completing some work nearby. The 5-year-old is on the piano, “practicing.”

The 3-year-old also has a math page, and claims to need help even though I really don’t care if he does the math page or not. The baby has just learned to walk, but she’s taking a nap in her crib.

Who am I kidding? That’s not a typical day. That’s an ideal day. That’s the day I kept trying to make happen. It seemed possible. It seemed not unreasonable. And it never happened.

Actual reality homeschooling with many

Actual reality:

I’m helping the 8-year-old solve a multi-digit subtraction problem, and there are tears involved. The 10-year-old is staring out the window instead of reading his history, and I don’t know whether to just let him to keep the peace or to reprimand him.

The 5-year-old is pestering for her time with mom, but I just really don’t think it’s going to happen today. Phonics is low on the priority list right now. Where is the 3-year-old? Oh. He’s calling for assistance from the bathroom – loudly enough that the baby just woke up and will be hungry.

Everyone needs me, all day long, all at the same time.

What am I doing wrong?

 I try rearranging lessons, changing up how we do things, putting the 3-year-old in a play pen, putting the 1-year-old in a play pen. Some things help, many things don’t, and nothing makes it easy and smooth every day.

But I keep trying. I search the internet for ideas. I ask friends. I buy new toys, new tools, new planners.

Some days I’m pretty sure homeschooling is actually impossible.

Finally, we started gaining traction, emerged from the fog, and found solutions that worked.

The solution to homeschooling with toddlers and preschoolers

Yes, these are memories, not our current reality. Now I’m teaching phonics three times per week, we hit our content read aloud time as scheduled, and some days two of my students are part of Morning Time and other than that don’t ask for my help until it’s time for me to verify they’re done.

More is happening in our days, but we get our homeschooling done more consistently.

You know what happened?

Time.

Don’t hate me.

It turns out that what I was searching for in those demanding days of diapers and discipline was developing even though I couldn’t see it.

Time isn’t a panacea that will automatically cure all ills. Once the last toddler is reading all the issues don’t magically go away.

You, busy mom of many, are currently putting in the man-hours required to come out the other end with the homeschool you want. It won’t come tomorrow or next week or next year. But it will come. Your efforts will pay off, but it is a long game – the more the toddlers, the longer the game (but the bigger the payoff – amiright?).

I remember being annoyed by the older moms with older kids who seemed so unhelpful by telling me “this too shall pass.” And now here I am. I don’t like to think I’m older, but I can’t deny that I have older kids.

Turns out, that older mom advice was true, even if I didn’t like it.

Here is what I wish I could go back and tell my own annoyed, tired, scattered self:

You aren’t functioning at peak performance, so stop pretending you are.

When you’re in the middle of sleep deprivation and chronic distraction due to many little needs, it’s easy to forget how that affects you.

We call it our “new normal” and expect ourselves to function fully in that place – and that’s unreasonable. Or, we recognize we aren’t functioning like we used to and we give up.

We believe this lesser, tired, cranky self is just the way we are now.

I remember the first time in over a year I had 3 nights of sleeping through the night. I felt like a completely different person.

I could actually finish a sentence in my own head! I could listen to someone and follow what they were saying and make an appropriate response! It was amazing.

Likewise, one year I had a friend with a few little ones come over twice a week. I’d review phonics and read with her oldest and my middle ones while she read to and played with the toddlers.

I couldn’t believe how quickly we made it through material and how calm and collected I felt. It was not the typical phonics-lesson-on-the-couch experience.

At first I attributed it to having another child there. Then I realized that it was because we were uninterrupted.

I wasn’t distracted by where the toddler was and what she was up to. I wasn’t wrestling cuddles, being a human jungle gym while also trying to keep an eye on the letters being sounded out.

This isn’t to say you should arrange lessons without toddlers, and I know we often have no control over how much sleep we get.

What I want you to know is that you’re not operating from a place of peak health and competency and you should adjust your expectations of yourself accordingly. You will not be able to do it all, even if it all needs to be done.

You are an endurance athlete in a rigorous training program.

You’re not merely surviving, however. You’re not just waiting it out, biding your time until you can “be yourself” again.

You’re training.

Muscles build only after being torn down. The most effective athletic training is to push your body beyond its endurance point and go all out, then to rest.

When the training program is over, you’re so much stronger than if you only did a standard, stable cardio workout.

This is the benefit we have. We’re in a training program ourselves at the same time we’re training our kids.

Others might look at the sweat and tears and wonder why we’re doing this to ourselves, but we will emerge stronger, more capable, more competent, and more vibrant.

We can be broken without the rest periods. Take naps. Go to bed rather than folding more laundry. Drink lots of water.

Don’t forsake church or reading your Bible, for that is the spiritual rest our spiritual and emotional exertion needs.

But also do not forsake the race you’re running. Recognize it as a race and run to win the prize – not by trying to bring the finish line to now, but by training so you have the endurance to reach it where God’s placed it.

No solution will make it feel like we’ve reached the end when we’re only halfway through. That’s often what we want – we want to find the smooth and easy path.

But God gives us training, and it’s through accepting the challenges He gives us, day by day, that we grow in wisdom, endurance, and virtue.

We can be grateful for the hard days, the tired times, the crazy hours, when we recognize them as being custom-designed workouts.

Our coach is Jesus. He’s been through worse. He’s given you good work to do, and he enables us to do it.

We all feel like giving up halfway through a workout. It’s normal. It is the hard part. We are tired. We are being pushed beyond our ability. But when we set our eyes on the end and keep going, we receive the benefits.

The solution we actually need in the middle of the baby and toddler homeschooling years is not to long for the days without toddlers or to wait around doing nothing until then, but to embrace the training for what it is: sanctification.

Sanctification is God’s will for us, after all, not success by our standards.

So if you are working despite your weaknesses and failures, leaning on God’s grace, moving forward against all odds, practicing the fruit of the Spirit more than you practice even those pesky phonograms, you’ll emerge from this season stronger and more stable and steadfast than you thought possible – not because the season is over, but because you seized the season for sanctification.

The best advice for homeschool moms

The relative peace and consistency we now enjoy in our homeschool is the fruit of those strenuous, distraction-filled years.

It’s not merely being older – or having older kids – that makes things better. It’s maturity and sanctification that makes things better.

So do not grow weary in doing good, for in due season we will reap if we do not give up.

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  • Catie N says:

    I popped over here to look at Morning Time plans and Lo! and Behold! here you are! 🙂
    This is so encouraging. I’m *in it* right now but I’m trying to remember that this season of littles won’t last forever and I’m doing my best to enjoy it! My “baby” is almost 1 1/2! ACK! These kinds of posts are SO helpful. It really does feel like we’ll never be out of this season (not that I’m wishing it away! I’m not! But on the hard days..) so words like this coming from mom’s with older children means SO MUCH.
    Always love your stuff. 🙂

    • Catie N says:

      moms NOT mom’s. Grrr. #grammarnerd

  • Stephany says:

    Ooooh, this is beautiful!! I have 4 littles ages 7, 5, 3 and 5 mos. And THIS SERIES is the encouragement I need. I will be reading this post over and over. Thank you for your time to write this out. God Bless You!!

    • Jennifer says:

      My kids are exactly the same ages! And I agree 🙂

  • Kim says:

    I needed this encouragement as I’m trying to plan our fall semester and fighting that urge to give up before we even begin. Thanks Mystie!

  • Erica says:

    My girls are 8,6,2, and 3. We are homeschooling with potty training and puberty started early (confirmed with our doctor) at the same time. It just got harder! I so needed this today! I don’t know how people do it without Jesus. He is all I have keeping me going every day. 🙂

  • Ha! I was reading the beginning part of your essay and thinking, “the only things that have really worked for me is time and stubbornness” (or perhaps I could frame that more positively as “tenacity to my ideals”) and as I should have known, that’s the conclusion you reached too.

    I’m still – 16 years into this mothering gig – not sleeping through the night, but when I survey where we are at I am thankful for sticking to it all and continuing to press forward even amongst the muddle of it all. And really, all this effort over the years has paid off and I’ve gotten stronger and more competent. I don’t think I could do all that I do with this amount of sleep back when my oldest was 10 months old! And of course the kids are (generally!) a huge help in keeping things moving along too – because I’ve spent so much time working with them to make it that way.

    Yes, things aren’t perfect – the 10 year old, who has been doing morning time his ENTIRE LIFE!! – still needs frequent reminders and consequences to get some sort of semblance of decent behavior, people are grumpy with each other far more than I’d like, I wish two of my kids could spell better… but still, I see the progress. And when I look at what their affections are ordered toward, I am very thankful indeed that we have continued plod along, one day, one moment at a time.

  • Sarah deVries says:

    Oh my, so thankful for this series! I’ve got 6yr, 4yr, 3yr, 1yr and baby coming soon. It certainly is both cultivating endurance and sanctifying me! Thanks for the encouragement!!

  • Toni says:

    Cried as I read this. Your acknowledgement that moms of many littles are not at optimal functioning levels feels like much-needed permission to just take a deep breath. Thank you for that and for the encouragement to press on!

  • Christine says:

    I’m struggling with having had years of “easier” homeschooling, sleeping and “normalcy.” (I have an almost 16 year old, almost 13 year old, almost 9 year old.) God sent us a surprise baby (now 2.5), who is by far, the most demanding and challenging child of the bunch. Going back into the weeds and readjusting ALL my expectations/plans for every one of us has been super challenging. I know HE has a plan for me, but every day I have to remind myself that He gives me what I need, which may not always be what I want. Learning to love what comes from His hands and see the joy in it is my greatest challenge right now. It’s easy to romanticize the days when “things were easier,” so this is a great reminder that this is part of His sanctification of me.

    • Elizabeth says:

      We have a similar situation… 15, 14, 12, then 5 and baby. The 14yo and 12yo work quietly. The 5yo is just nuts, and has developmental delays, and I’m basically gearing up to start all over again. (Homeschool is so much easier when every one can read well!) When I look back though at when my 3 boys were toddlers all at the same time (including one special needs), I think, “Wow, I used to get so much done! I can’t believe I did all that stuff.”

  • Amber says:

    Oh my gosh YES!! I have an older student & then 4 kids in under 4 years….. that was just hard. No way around it, most days were utterly brutal.
    Fast forward a few years: the twins (the youngest of lower 4 kids) hit 2.5 years old & suddenly the fog & chaos has lifted. I didn’t realize how overwhelmed and tired I was until then. Our days now are fairly peaceful, mostly cheerful, and enjoyable.
    I’m not sure what that says about the fact that 2 year old twins feel like a breeze other than the sheer misery the last few years were….. but high school, AO1, and 3 youngers is already getting easier than it was.

    Thanks for reminding me the days and years will just continue to get sweeter as we go along!!!

  • Anna says:

    Needed this today!

  • Thank you for writing this, which made me tearful. Mine are 11, 9, 7, 5, 3, and almost 1. Many days I declare, “Homeschooling is impossible!” Yet, I can’t count how many times my children’s godmother (who homeschooled 7 children) not to grow weary in welldoing.

  • Jessica says:

    Thank you for this. I “only” have 2 kids but they are 5 1/2 years apart. I almost gave up after our first year. I am going to print this and read it every week! And/or as needed!

  • Kelty says:

    Thank you so much for this encouragement. We had baby #4 3 months ago and most days I feel like I can hardly remember my own name through the postpartum brain fog. BUT…

    “Our coach is Jesus. He’s been through worse. He’s given you good work to do, and he enables us to do it.” Amen.

  • Kari says:

    Thank you for this post. It actually helps just to hear that, yes, this is hard work, and sometimes in homeschooling (and life) there are not quick fixes. My children are 8, 5 and 2. This past school year with a toddler was beautiful but tough. When I would share my challenges with friends I would get a lot of practical advice (like using busy bins, etc) but this kind of perspective is even more helpful.

  • Hannah says:

    Yesterday was our “first” day of school for this year. we have done things here and there but I told the kids yesterday was our first day back. ? My 1 year old was literally rolling in the floor saying (very loudly), “No, no. No. No. No…” while I read to my two older kids. They said, “mom, we don’t have to do this right now.”
    To which I replied, “but she has to learn that throwing a fit won’t make us stop reading to focus on her.”

    It was rough. I know she has 3 teeth she’s working on and she busted her lip on Sunday when she fell, but I kept thinking, “surely it isn’t going to be like this alll the time! What am I going to do?”

    I tried placing her on the couch with us with a similar book for her to hold. She threw it, then cried because I wouldn’t give it back. This behavior is definitely more… intense… than her normal behavior.

    So i’m Here, looking for suggestions. Do I discipline her for throwing a fit or do I just ignore it and go on? My poor older kids are the ones paying the price either way.

    • Mystie says:

      That’s hard! We had a saying, “Fussy babies go to bed.” If they got disruptive, off they went to their crib. Usually rest is what they need even though they don’t want it. If she can get out of her bed and would, though, I wouldn’t start a battle for staying in bed – only if it’s an easy deposit that shows her she can’t be a part of the group while acting that way. It sounds like it’s probably because she’s not feeling well and not because she’s trying to be controlling. But you’re right that if you gave her what she wanted, she’d learn to do so more and more. It definitely won’t be like that all the time, though. First days back, in my experience, are always the hardest with little ones. A change is routine is hard on them, I think, and they resist it.

  • Susy says:

    Phew. I feel like someone understands. Mine are 8,6,4, and 1.5, and just last week I almost quit the whole thing because oh. My. How do we get any math done when the baby is chunking the blocks, the toddler needs toilet help, and they want to eat again…just after devouring second breakfast??!!

  • Jessica says:

    Funny how this popped up on my FB I swear there is someone listening. I was wondering if this is the permanent new me. Cranky and exhausted, stretched thin with everyone’s needs. My husband is gone ALL day so I’m here with all 5 and we are supposed to start kindergarten this year but I feel like I’m kidding myself and I should just send him to school so he’s not illiterate. He is eager to learn but also a rambunctious boy. I have had multiple breakdowns these past few days. I struggle just to get food on the table. I wish I could just send him but I’m too stubborn and I want to watch him learn new things and sometimes I feel guilty for having so many kids. They are ages 5, 3, 2, 1 and 2 months old. It’s exhausting just writing that lol

    • Sarah says:

      This may not be especially helpful, but in WA state, school is not compulsory until age 8. Your 5 yo is not going to be illiterate if he doesn’t learn to read in Kindergarten. PLAY with your children. There is so much more “learning” and “development” going on in those little heads than what can be spit back up on a test. They are learning people skills and compassion and life skills and eye/hand coordination, etc… Please, please don’t sweat these early years in making home school look like public-school-at-home. I made that mistake with my eldest. It nearly killed my ability to homeschool and enjoy my kids.

  • Megan says:

    Thank you so much for taking the time to give encouragement and wisdom to moms. Moms that are in the early days of homeschooling with multiple little ones. Your blog had blessed my soul? God Bless, Your Sister in Christ, Megan

  • Veronica says:

    “Classically educated”, that’s the best term ever! I am stealing it! Thank you for your encouragement! Littles can be hard to navigate with!

  • Crystal says:

    Thank you for the perfect words.

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