Back to School Planning and Prep
Planning and preparing for back-to-school is a major undertaking for most homeschool parent-teachers. It involves a wide variety of activities that are usually done just once a year. Because it is done so infrequently, it’s difficult to get good at this task. If you’re relatively new to homeschooling, this task can be especially challenging. This article provides practical guidance to help both new and experienced parent-teachers do a better job planning and preparing for back-to-school.
Let’s start by defining the major steps of the back-to-school planning and preparation process. Then we’ll look more closely at the activities involved in each area. The major steps of planning and preparing for back-to-school are:
- Evaluate the Previous Year
- Identify Changes Needed for the Upcoming Year
- Develop an Overall Plan for the Year
- Research to Fill Any Gaps
- Develop a Rough Budget and Set Priorities
- Purchase Curriculum and Materials
- Develop Your Schedule for the Year
- Prepare Weekly
- Prepare Daily
I know nine steps seems like a lot, but don’t be overwhelmed—these are actually quite achievable. The last two steps are part of your weekly preparation but are included here to be complete. Let’s work through these steps one-by-one so you understand what is included and what you need to do.
1 – Evaluate the Previous Year
Take a pad of paper and make some notes as you think through how the previous school year worked out. If this is your first time homeschooling, think through the previous year in public or private school. If you homeschool more than one child, think this through for all children you teach. If you are in the habit of keeping notes throughout the year (this is a great practice), then refer back to those notes. Use these questions to stimulate your thought process:
- What were the biggest successes? What worked well and was effective?
- What were the biggest struggles? What didn’t work well?
- In which areas did each child excel? What did they enjoy the most?
- Where did each child have difficulty? What didn’t they like?
- What do you want to do differently during the upcoming year to address any of these issues?
As you answer these questions, consider the student’s preferred learning style, curriculum by subject, weekly schedule by student, teacher preparation time, organization, space available for schooling, or any other factor that had a big impact on the previous year.
2 – Identify Changes Needed for the Upcoming Year
Now think ahead to the upcoming year and note what will be different. As your children mature and advance by grade, there are additional or different subjects that need to be covered to keep pace academically. Transitions from elementary to middle school or middle school to high school bring significant change. Other things to consider are changes in your schooling philosophy, participating in a local co-op, classes at the local college, or partnering with another homeschool family for advanced science, math, or other subjects.
You also need to consider your students’ interests and aspirations. Are there areas in which they need to spend more time or pursue advanced studies? What about each child’s growing independence? How should you challenge them in this area?
3 – Develop an Overall Plan for the Year
You have identified key issues from the previous year and changes needed for the upcoming year, now it’s time to pull it together into a plan. If you have a lot of issues, prioritize them by importance (high, medium, or low) and focus on the most important issues. For each child do the following:
- List the issues that you need to address or the changes you want to make.
- Address as many of these issues as you can as you:
- Develop a list of the subjects and courses that need to be covered.
- Identify any subjects/courses that will be addressed through outside options, such as local co-op or college.
- Identify curriculum by subject/course that you have and will reuse for this child.
- Identify curriculum for other subjects/courses that you know you want to use.
- Identify subjects for which you need to find new curriculum.
4 – Research to Fill Any Gaps
It’s common to know you need to make a curriculum or other change based on past experience and yet be uncertain of the specific change to make. This is when you need to invest research time. Start by talking with friends to find out what worked well for them. Then go online to trusted reviewers, blog sites, and other sites that share experience and expertise. Identify options and then research enough to make a good decision.
Recognize that every situation is different and no review, recommendation, or evaluation will perfectly address your specific situation. There are also plenty of conflicting reviews and recommendations because of different perspectives and experiences. Seek to make decisions based on a step-change improvement rather than looking for the elusive ideal. Once you’re confident in a curriculum or other solution to improve your schooling results and address particular issues well, just go with it. Rarely is it worthwhile to invest more research time looking for something a little better.
5 – Develop a Rough Budget and Set Priorities
Now that you have an overall plan, it’s time to think about cost. Even with only one student, it’s unusual that you can afford everything you want for homeschooling. If you have more than one child, budget becomes an even bigger issue.
Start by adding up cost for new curriculum identified in your plan. Then, consider the cost of other necessary materials, like science lab materials and school supplies. Also, take into account extracurricular activities, like music and sports.
More than likely, once added up, costs will be higher than expected. Education is expensive! But it’s also priceless. Your decision to homeschool and give your children a superior education consistent with your values requires both investment and sacrifice. Homeschooling often means you need you to make other changes in your family budget and lifestyle to invest more in education. And that investment typically increases as kids advance to high school and beyond.
However, there are some very practical ways to reduce your education investment without sacrificing results. Likewise, there are ways to defer costs over a longer period of time to better fit your budget. Here are some ideas to consider:
- Reuse curriculum from an older student whenever possible. Just buy new workbooks.
- Identify where you can buy used curriculum from friends or online.
- Prioritize critical curriculum components (student text, lab manual, etc.) over lower priority components.
- Plan to use the local library to minimize purchase of extra or supplemental books.
- Plan to purchase typical school supplies in August when they are on sale.
- Plan to use options like Home Science Tools’ customizable curriculum lab kits to buy only what you need at the lowest possible cost. You can also easily break up lab materials into two or three purchases over the course of the year.
- Consider teaching a particular course together with another family to share costs. This especially makes sense with expensive high school science courses.
- Consider sharing materials with another family to share the cost. This makes sense with large purchases like a microscope for high school biology.
- Take advantage of opportunities to spread payments out over three to six months without interest. This is common with payment options like PayPal Credit. You usually have to spend $100 or more with one store to use this feature, so plan purchases accordingly.
6 – Purchase Curriculum and Materials
You’ve done a lot of work making sure you have a workable plan and now it’s time to execute that plan. Purchase your curriculum first per your budget. Shop around to make sure purchases prices are at or below your budget. Then make other critical purchases, like hands-on science materials to go with your science curriculum. Finally, buy supplemental materials or general school supplies.
7 – Develop Your Schedule for the Year
When you get your curriculum, spend some time making sure you understand the general preparation requirements. Then develop a weekly schedule for each student and for your preparation time. This schedule should include the following:
- Time for each subject for each student
- Time for preparing, reviewing lessons, gathering materials, etc.
- Extra-curricular activities like music and, sports
Consider the best time of day to schedule each subject for each child. Math and science are usually best in the morning when students are fresh. Science labs with an older student may be best in the afternoon if you have young children who nap. Again, you’re not looking for perfection, but a workable plan. You can always improve schedules as the year progresses.
This schedule becomes a map for you and your students. Stick to it to ensure you cover everything every week, and yet be flexible when necessary, as things will not always work out as planned.
8 – Prepare Weekly
Every week, take time to review curriculum for each course you are teaching. Make sure you know what will be covered that week. This preparation is usually best done on the weekend as there usually just isn’t time during the week. Make sure you also gather all the supplemental books, science materials, and other materials you need for the week, so they’re readily accessible when you need them. Make copies of worksheets or materials needed by your students. If you have two or more students, consider using a box or bin to store everything each student needs for the week. This makes everything handy for both you and your students.
Consider using an assignment book as well for each student. Writing down all the assignments each week helps communicate expectations to students effectively. It also provides an easy means for students to check off assignments as they complete them. These assignment books are also excellent documentation of what was covered over the course of the year.
9 – Prepare Daily
Your weekly preparation will greatly reduce the additional preparation work needed daily. Each evening review the curriculum or lesson plan for each subject and student. Outline your own lesson plans when necessary. Know what you will teach and discuss versus what your student will read independently.
Consider ways to reduce time in preparing breakfasts or lunches to avoid cutting into your school schedule. Some food preparation can be done the night before or in batches. Remember: Your most stressful days occur when you do extra things or unexpected appointments are required. Whenever possible, plan accordingly.
Why Teach Hands-on Science?
In this planning article we mention the importance of obtaining the materials for hands-on science. You may be wondering why hands-on science is so important. Children of all ages are naturally curious and love to explore the world around them. You can easily feed this curiosity engaging them in learning real science hands-on. This is learning that lasts a lifetime and enriches their future. We believe hands-on science is the only way to teach science. Watch this video to see what other parents have to say about hands-on science. And remember, we are always here to help you successfully teach your young scientists.