How to Homeschool When You Just Don’t Want To

We are all going to have difficult days, and we need to be kind and forgiving with ourselves.

I began my homeschool journey 13 years ago, when my oldest daughter was only 3. Those were amazing days of reading books, coloring, and long walks to the park. My husband and I would go on to add three more kids to the equation, and while there were still wonderful days of math breakthroughs, messy science experiments, and snuggling my kids for read-alouds, there was also burnout, fatigue, depression, and chronic illness. I found myself an exhausted homeschool mom of four children, ages 0-11, struggling to get out of bed in the morning and to get through even the most basic schooling with my children. 

I reached out to other homeschool moms for suggestions on how to do school when it was hard, when I was sad, when it was the last thing I wanted to do. I invariably received the same answers from everyone I talked to:

Take the day off.

Take a reading day.

Go on a field trip.

Relax and do something fun.

This sounded like a good plan to me, in the beginning. I mean, who wouldn’t rather go to the zoo than teach an 8-year-old fractions? However, it soon became clear to me that this was not a sustainable method. Our “break days” would stretch into break weeks, with no progress being made in our educational goals, and as much as I would like to go on a field trip every day, I really couldn’t afford that option. What I really needed was some solid suggestions on how to do our school work when it was the last thing I wanted to do.

Well, my cute little 3-year-old is now a beautiful 16-year-old, applying for jobs and preparing for the ACT. Here are some of the tried-and-true methods that have worked for my family over the last 13 years.

When you have a hard time getting started with school

This is the main problem I have had over the years. My house produces an inertia that whispers to me, “Wait and start school after lunch, do some laundry first, or take a bath! Doesn’t a bath sound nice?” “You haven’t made a grocery list for the week yet.” Or, “The next episode of that baking show just hit Netflix.” Maybe some of you have heard a similar voice. Before I know it, it’s 3 PM, and somehow that feels too late to start school. Here are some strategies to quiet that voice:

  • Set a reasonable start time for your school day and stick to it. Read that sentence again with an emphasis on “reasonable.” For years I tried to start our school at 7:30 AM because I wanted to finish everything before lunchtime. Trouble is I am not a morning person; my brain does not even kick in until 9. Eventually I accepted my reality and moved our start time to 9 AM. Now we all get showers, breakfast, and morning chores out of the way before our school day starts. My kids know that school WILL start at 9, and they don’t fight it because it’s part of our routine. Maybe your reasonable time is 8 AM, 1 PM, or 7 PM! The important thing is to be consistent.
  • Start the day with your favorite subject OR the easiest subject. If you dread starting school each morning, start with your favorite subject to teach. Maybe you love the experiments in science, or you look forward each day to your family read-aloud book. Start with the subject you are the most excited about. Or, if you aren’t really excited about any subject, choose the one that is the easiest to teach—the one your child doesn’t fight you on, the one that takes the least out of you. Sometimes just getting started with anything at all will keep the ball rolling down the hill.

When you have a hard time finishing school

There have been times when weeks will go by and I’ll realize that we’ve completed language arts every day, but haven’t managed to do any other subjects. My motivation will fizzle out after about an hour of school. Here are some suggestions to prevent mid-day burnout.

  • Start with your least favorite subject. For me this has always been math. I will teach language arts any day, every day. Pronouns, adjectives, diagramming sentences, or essay writing are no problem at all, but teaching division has been known to make me cry. I discovered if I started with math and got it out of the way, the rest of the day feels more manageable, and I’m more likely to continue on to subjects I enjoy teaching.
  • Build in breaks during the day. I try to structure my children’s schedules to give me some breathing time. We do math together, and then they work on individual subjects (typing, reading, handwriting, etc.) This gives me time to grab a snack if needed, or prep the history lesson or take a quick shower. So our day may look something like this:
    • Math (Maylee and then Zoe)
    • Handwriting and Coloring 
    • Language Arts (Maylee and then Zoe)
    • Typing and Free Reading
    • History & Read Aloud (everyone)
    • Lunch
    • Check-in with my teens and grade work 

The built-in breaks make my day less stressful and give me time for household chores, one-on-one time, or work responsibilities.

When you have a hard time getting out of bed (or off the couch)

Like many, many others, I have struggled with depression and anxiety since I was a teenager. My husband and I also struggled with miscarriages and infertility for years. These experiences, and thousands of others, can make homeschooling feel impossible. We all have days when it feels like feeding the kids is the sum total of our ability for the day. I still remember a day, after my first miscarriage, when my oldest children were two and four and my daughter came to me to let me know they had eaten all the cereal off the floor (from the day before) and would I please get them the box out of the cupboard? (True story!) Here are some ideas for those hard days.

  • Do school on the couch (or in bed). Have the kids bring their school work to you! The kids will love these “snuggle lessons” as a break from working at the table or in the school room. Let them wear their pajamas so you match!
  • Find applicable videos or documentaries. Don’t have the energy to teach? Take the opportunity to expand on recent science or history lessons by finding great videos to watch on giant squids or the Civil War. Have everyone settle in with blankets and snacks (cereal straight from the box, anyone?) to learn together.
  • Delegate. If possible, let someone else be the teacher. Have your spouse handle the math lessons, allow your older children to read to the younger ones, or ask your child to teach you their language arts lesson, instead of the other way around.

When your child doesn’t want to do school

Let’s face it. Sometimes our children can be the hardest (and best) part of homeschooling! In my experience if a child does not want to do school, there is usually a deeper issue to discover. However, in the meantime, here are some things to try to smooth the way.

  • Allow your child to choose their schedule. Get the day off to a good start by allowing your child to choose what they want to do first, even if that’s play outside time. I will give my child a list of the things we need to get done for the day and allow her to put them in any order she wants to. This small thing can make a huge difference for children who put up a fuss about starting school each morning.
  • Make any day a theme day. Our local schools will do these fun theme days where the kids get to dress up. When we get into a homeschooling rut, I like to borrow this idea. Before we start school in the morning, I will announce the theme and give everyone 15 minutes to get ready. Some fun ideas are: crazy hair day, pajama day, super hero day, animal day, backwards day, or what I want to be when I grow up day. Somehow school is way more fun dressed up as Batman, or with cat whiskers drawn on your face. 
  • Change up the scenery. One of the best things about homeschool—it’s portable! Shake things up by taking your lessons to the park, the fast-food play place, the forest, or even just the backyard. Fresh air, exercise, or sunshine may be just the thing you need to get through that math lesson. Maybe you need a change of scenery just as much, if only so you don’t have to stare at the dirty dishes all day.

Homeschooling has been an amazing blessing in my life, bringing daily joys and surprises as I spend time with my children, learning and growing together. It has also been the hardest thing I have done. We are all going to have difficult days, and we need to be kind and forgiving with ourselves. We are all trying to do the best we can for our children and families. Although there are many things that can help on those hard days, be sure you always turn to prayer. Like it says in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”

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  • Monica M.

    I definitely had some days like this with our most recent homeschooling year. Great tips and advice, so both student and teacher avoid feeling overwhelmed!

  • Ellie

    Thank you for the awesome ideas and encouragement! I’m also inspired to add some of these things into the mix even before burnout or bad days!

  • Ellen

    Thank you so much for this! Definitely bookmarking this post for the future! Love it!

  • Your vulnerability in sharing about your children eating the cereal off the floor… I have to thank you for that because as a momma who also struggles with depression, I have been in that exact place before and I have never felt more seen! (For my kids it was wheat thins… and I’m grateful my 4 year old could get him and his 2 year old sister water from the fridge while I nursed my newborn and struggled with PPD with a deployed husband – what a year that was!!!) Your post has brought me to tears and at the same time has completely encouraged me to keep going! Thank you!

  • Azalea

    Thank God for placing in your heart to share this ❤️