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In the Zone

Originally published in Home Education Magazine

 January-February 2010

Why is it that some homeschooling days are a Norman Rockwell idyll? Mother smiles over the shoulder of her son working through a challenging math problem. Baby and big sister sort Cheerios. Another daughter’s melodious piano practice envelops the scene of familial bliss. And freshly baked bread is just coming out of the oven.

And then there are the other days. The days when baby pulls at mother’s legs, causing her to drop the clean laundry on the muddy floor. Sister plays one note on the piano again and again for 20 minutes. Son whines that the math is too hard – what is the point of dividing without a calculator? And frozen pizza is all there is for breakfast.

We all have days that are like each of these. I don’t always know when I get out of bed in the morning which kind of day we’ll have, but I have learned there are a few things I can do to help make the Norman Rockwell day happen more often. It’s what I think of as staying “in the zone.”

Get Up Early to Make a Game Plan
I find the biggest obstacle to being “in the zone” is the feeling that I have 137 other things I need to do, right now – emails to write, appointments to make, bills to pay, errands to run. With an amorphous cloud of stuff to do hanging over my head, I cannot focus on my children and their schooling. So, as much as I hate to do it, sometimes I get up an hour (or even 90 minutes) before my kids usually do. I can’t do everything then, but I can tackle email, pay bills, make a grocery list, start some laundry, clear off the kitchen island, pluck my eyebrows, and fold laundry. I can also use this time to plan the day, whether it will be running errands or getting to story time at the library or organizing what we will cover for schoolwork. When the kids come downstairs, I have already accomplished several things and have a game plan for the day.  If you can’t handle getting up an hour ahead of them, try just 15 minutes – enough time to at least list the stuff you want to get done.

Use Lists
This brings me to my second lifeline – lists. Whether I make my list before I go to bed, or before the kids get up, I find having a list tremendously helpful. I even break it down into categories – places I need to go, business to take care of on the computer, household chores, and phone calls. I star anything that really needs to get done today. This way, when I have five free minutes, I know to squeeze in a call to the pediatrician to make an appointment, not sort through four boxes of hand-me-downs in the basement.


You may have to use that hour in the morning to find time, but as much as I hate to sound like a fitness magazine, it is true – starting the day with exercise really does improve my mood. Plus, it is a huge gold star in my “what have I accomplished today” column, thereby giving me the freedom to be more relaxed about those elusive tangible results that sometimes evade us homeschooling moms.

Maintain Focus with the Kids
If you’re having a good, productive day with the kids, stick with them. Don’t be fooled by their being engrossed in an activity and think you have time to call Aunt Mabel (you’ve been meaning to call for weeks, I know). Those engrossing activities have a way of getting boring very quickly when the kids realize you’re not really paying attention any longer. After all, if you’re not, why should they be? Whenever I lose focus on school, so do the kids.

Make Judicious Use of Television
I have an almost zero tolerance for television. I’m entirely comfortable with my kids growing up without the common cultural bonds of terrible television. However, we do make a very limited use of DVDs from Netflix and the library. One of my all-time favorite TV series is a PBS production called “Liberty’s Kids,” an animated show about the American Revolution (with many of the voices done by famous actors). My kids have begged me to let them watch it, and although I usually watch it with them, occasionally I use that half hour to tackle a few things on my list, especially phone calls. (I doubt this works, though, if your kids watch TV frequently; candy isn’t as appealing if you eat it all the time.)

Remember Your Own Nutrition Needs
Don’t forget to eat, and eat well. In my fervor to keep our day rolling and my kids well nourished, I often find that I haven’t fed myself properly. In our house, breakfast and lunch seem like the perfect time for me to read aloud . . . but then I wind up not eating! Plus, feeding your family nutritiously is time-consuming and sometimes I’d just rather skip eating than stand at the kitchen island slicing more fruits and vegetables for me. Make time to feed yourself, too – hungry, cranky mom is not fun for anyone. If I’m being nasty around two in the afternoon, my oldest will say to me, “Mom, have you eaten lunch today?”

Stay Available when Choosing Your Own Tasks
Keep an easily interruptible task in your hands while doing school activities with the kids, something like sewing or knitting, not “War and Peace.” Sometimes your kids don’t exactly need your full attention or assistance, but you still need to be available and physically present, like for questions about the color of the pony in their picture, or the proper use of capital letters in a paragraph. I find that the computer is not a good choice, as it gives the kids the impression, perhaps rightly so, that you are more immersed in what you are doing than in what they are doing. Flip through catalogs or a magazine, copy a recipe onto a 3×5 card, make a list of field trips you want to take – just make it something simple, so that when junior wants to know the capital of Greece, you aren’t frustrated at having been interrupted.

Get Outside
Take the kids for a walk, a hike, or a bike ride. If you live in a regulated state, like I do, physical education is a requirement. Going outside is not ignoring school, it’s gym class. A little fresh air will do wonders for you and the kids and make it easier to re-focus when you get back. Better yet, explore outdoors for hours and gym class becomes science, too.

Deal with Non-homeschooling Challenges
Some days you just have to throw in the towel. I recently had a series of health scares and suddenly had to spend a lot of time on the telephone talking with physician offices, making appointments, etc. If you’ve got something truly significant hanging over your head – and I’m not talking about the big pile of laundry created while you were on vacation, or the half-painted dining room wall, because those things you should learn to let go of – then sometimes you have to deal with those challenges as best you can and let the kids play on the swing set or trash the basement playroom. Give yourself permission to get a handle on life. Hopefully, the next day you can return with greater interest and energy.
Life is not a to-do list, a race, or a contest. If you didn’t return any phone calls, or get to the dry cleaner, or give yourself a desperately needed pedicure today, it will all still be there for you to do tomorrow. I recently read an article by Susan Wise Bauer in which she encouraged homeschooling moms to read more and clean less, as the former would have a much more significant impact on our children than the latter. You may not agree with her homeschooling philosophy, but it’s tough to argue with that idea.

Your kids are home with you because you chose to have them there. This time with them is a gift most others do not get with their own children. You may not get to the grocery store today. You may not even get a present for a child’s birthday party tonight. I’m sure you have something edible in your pantry, and I’m sure you could give that child a present in a week and she would still be delighted to receive it. Wouldn’t you rather play Monopoly with the kids anyway?

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