By Guest Blogger Laura Simon

So you’ve decided to homeschool? That’s awesome! If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent a lot of time pondering the pros and cons of taking this step. It’s a lot of work just to make the decision.

Of course, once you decide that homeschooling makes sense for your family, the real work begins. It’s not unlike starting a college term paper: lots of options and tons of empty space. When I started researching, I quickly reached the conclusion that there are approximately ten trillion ways to homeschool. So where on earth do you begin? I mean, it’s only your child’s future hanging in the balance, right?

I’ve been reflecting on my own family’s transition from public school to home school, and I put together a list of steps that helped me navigate these tough decisions; I hope they’ll help you find your own way. These things take time; try not to begrudge yourself the hours spent analyzing, thinking, considering, talking to other moms, and watching other families. You aren’t wasting time. These early steps are an investment in your children’s education, and they matter. Try not to rush them.

Craft a Vision

Start by taking the time to analyze why your family decided to homeschool in the first place. Those reasons are probably fresh in your mind, so go ahead and write them down. Rank them in order of importance if you want. You are creating a vision – a focus – that will guide you through the decisions that follow.

For example, if you’ve decided to homeschool because the actual physical school situation doesn’t work for your children, but you still want them to be learning the same things as their peers at the same time, your vision might lead you to virtual schools where content is delivered online and a licensed teacher handles the teaching and grading. However, if you have strong feelings about what is taught and when, and if you want your child to have a very different school experience, you’ll need to choose a basic curriculum that reflects your goals. As a former teacher with strong opinions about curriculum and learning styles, I quickly realized the latter was the best choice for me.

Ask Tons of Questions

Your next step, if possible, should be talking to actual people who homeschool. So your husband’s third-cousin’s sister-in-law happens to be your Facebook friend and seems to enjoy homeschooling? Send her a private message. That family at church? Ask if you can chat sometime. The next door neighbors? Knock on their door. I am fortunate to be surrounded by family and friends who are homeschoolers, and every single one I reached out to was more than willing to write me a book on what they do, what they use, what they love, what they don’t, and why. I started to notice some common themes in the responses I got: some curriculum options were clearly more popular than others and some teaching and organization styles were working really well for a lot of people. When I started the process of setting up our own school, I started with the things that came highly recommended. It narrowed my focus and saved me a ton of time and stress.

Attend a Conference

You should also consider attending a homeschooling conference, if possible. There are several in North Carolina throughout the school year, and they feature speakers as well as a wide variety of vendors. This is a great chance to see curriculum in person, instead of researching online. Of course, a conference can easily become overwhelming because, like I mentioned above, there are so many choices. If you have done your research with homeschooling families beforehand, you can focus on the curriculum you already think you want to use, instead of trying to look at everything.

Shadow Homeschooling Families

I was homeschooled myself for a number of years, so I had a good idea what a homeschooling day would look like. If you don’t, or even if you are looking for inspiration, shadowing a homeschool family can be a great way to begin crafting your own vision. Yes, this pretty much involves inviting yourself over to their house. Disregard social norms and do it anyway. Every family does things differently: some are very, very structured to the point of imitating traditional school, and others have a schedule that ebbs and flows by the day. Some families get up to an alarm and start work by 7; others let their kids sleep as long as they wish, take some time to play, and then buckle down to work. My personal schedule depends on how needy my two-year-old is that particular day. If she is exceedingly clingy, sometimes we put off our school work until her naptime. If she is willing to play independently, then we knock the school work out early. Flexibility is my friend.

The more families you can shadow, the more realistic you’ll be when you make your own plans. (Trust me, your initial expectations for homeschooling are probably not very realistic. In retrospect, mine were laughable. Especially the part where I pictured the house being clean.) If the family you’re shadowing is using curriculum that interests you, take this opportunity to try it out with your own kid. Find a printer with a photocopy function; it will be your best friend. I’ve saved myself a fortune by copying a few pages of someone else’s book and letting my kids try them.

Consider a Co-Op

Homeschooling is very popular in North Carolina, which means there are plenty of co-op options available. You do not have to join a co-op; in fact, our state is relatively lenient in that there’s not a whole lot that you have to do. However, I’ve found that our co-op is not only good for my kids, it’s a great source of support and encouragement for me. Homeschooling is best done in community, however you decide to create it.

Co-ops are like curriculum: you’ll find wide variety in terms of purpose and price. Some co-ops are aligned to a specific curriculum, meaning strict standards apply to instructor training, scheduling, and general operation. There’s less risk in choosing a co-op like this, but often the price-point is higher. The other option is an independent co-op, formed by like-minded parents who want to leverage the collective strengths of the moms within the co-op. These co-ops tend to be much more affordable, but they require you to put more trust in the parents running them. When you talk to other homeschooling families, ask them about their co-op, if they have one. If possible, arrange to visit. Homeschooling Facebook pages can be a great way to find smaller, lesser-known co-ops. If you are looking for a co-op, I’d suggest joining one (or several) of these pages and asking for recommendations.

Don’t Overdo It

The more research you do, the more amazing opportunities you’ll find. If you aren’t careful, you’ll wind up with three extra-curricular activities per kid, per day…and no actual time to teach! Especially if your kids are little, give yourself a few months to see how much spare time you have – and how much you are willing to give up – before you register for anything. Just because something is good doesn’t mean it’s good for your family. Choose carefully.

Give Yourself Freedom to Change Your Mind

When you begin to make final decisions, remember that you aren’t marrying the choices you make. If you aren’t happy with your co-op after a year, you can always try a new one. The same goes for curriculum choices. In fact, you might find that what works for one of your children doesn’t work at all for another. One of the tremendous benefits of homeschooling is that you can constantly make adjustments based on your child’s needs. Take a breath and make the best decision you can with the knowledge that you can always change your mind.

Our family loves the choices we’ve made. Homeschooling isn’t for everyone, but our kids are learning and thriving. Good luck, and enjoy the journey!