Homeschooling: How to avoid burnout

As a parent, you know that burnout is a very real condition. Once that little bundle of joy emerges from the womb, the day-to-day, the laundry pile that’s been sitting in the middle of the bedroom floor for a week, the sticky fingerprints on the door frames, the toilet misses, the revolving door on the kitchen, the week-long battle with hair lice, that 24-hour stomach flu that turned in 72 hours once it contaminated the entire family–it can become tiresome,  monotonous, and just plain hard. Despite the hard moments, parents have dreams. Our children represent a little piece of immortality for us and when that child is just a baby, a proverbial lump of clay, we are responsible for his or her development. Just like the perfect life we imagine when we marry our spouses, we have dreams and expectations for our children. Burnout happens when our dreams or expectations are a little unrealistic or blips in the goals sideline us. Little setbacks can lead to disappointment, frustration, and burnout.

For homeschooling parents, the pressure can be much greater and so can the burnout. Homeschooling parents, on top of the day-to-day routine, are with the kids ALL THE TIME, are responsible for the maintenance, upkeep, and education for those bundles of joy. On top of dreams, homeschooling parents have to choose the right curriculum, find a schedule that works, must assess each child’s learning style, and must keep  the love of learning burning. Knowing that you want your child to be someone important, that you want your child to reach his potential is a lot of pressure. What happens if you fail? You can’t blame the school district, or the teachers, or anyone else but yourself. And if you fail, oh my gosh, your child might not become what you wished for.

One major factor in burnout for parents and homeschooling parents is expectation, unreasonable expectations. We ALL do it! And we all beat ourselves up when we don’t live up to our own impossible expectations.

For example, in the early years of my parenting, some twenty-five years ago,  I thought my child would become a Doogie Howser! He started reading letters at 18 months. He started reading novels in first grade. He was a voracious reader and I thought, wow, I have so much responsibility to develop this intellect. This brilliance. I had the find the right programs for him. I had to get him tested. I had to do EVERYTHING in my power to make him into the prodigy I thought he was.

You know parents like that. I used to be one and in the beginning I drove myself crazy. After the second child and third child came along, the dream kind of took a back seat. I was tired, just staying on top of things. And my oldest? He grew up just fine.

Perhaps, you were like that. You dreamed (okay this is stretching it a bit but stay with me) that your future Einstein would be the ONE who solves the Twin Prime Conjecture. Or perhaps you’ve decided, since the U.S. lags behind other countries in STEM readiness, your child will follow on the heels of Steve Jobs. Only problem? You’ve never been one to embrace science,  math, or computer science and now you’re trying to guide your own child. Then again, maybe you’re not aiming toward the stars but you want your homeschooling environment to model a real classroom, one that lends legitimacy to your efforts. You’ve invested countless hours and money to convert your dining room into a state-of-the art classroom replete with a computer, progress charts, brightly colored posters, worksheets, Montessori-like manipulatives, and organization. Only problem? You’re really not that organized and our child resists it too.

These little blips on the radar, these obstacles on the path to achieving your goals and dreams are actually causing you to swerve off course, making you more than a little bit upset. And I’ve talked about it before. Your bad mood puts everyone in a bad mood. Your negative attitude can poison the entire family.  So if you’re heading to burnout, and you’re thinking about forgetting the homeschooling plan, take a moment, breath, and reflect.

What are you feeling? Let’s analyze it. Signs of burnout can include the following symptoms:

  • You cry more easily.
  • You lose patience if the toilet seat is up.
  • You overeat or you have no appetite.
  • You overreact.
  • Your decision are irrational.
  • You have no sense of priority.
  • You want everyone and everything to go away, to just leave you alone!

In addition to unrealistic expectations, other factors can contribute to burnout. A week when all the kids are passing around that stomach flu and all you’ve been doing round the clock is cleaning up throw-up is enough to set off a burnout episode. A new move, your husband’s new job, day savings, a new baby, or just too much structure can trigger burnout, can throw a wrench into a normally smooth homeschooling routine.

So what should you do?

From my tenure as an army wife, I have a handful of experienced homeschooling friends who offered up kernels of wisdom. Many parents in the military community homeschool. While reasons vary, the primary objective seems to be consistency. Military families undergo a lot of change and must find a way to maintain consistency. But perhaps your mission is more of a lifestyle change? Perhaps you homeschool because your children have special needs?

When you feel the signs of burnout, my friend Beth made it clear. Think about the reasons why you decided to homeschool and find a way to get back to that grassroots principle. Beth is a low-key breath of sunshine who has moved countless times during her husband’s military career and has homeschooled all eight of her children (I counted Beth. I think I included everyone.). There were times when her husband was deployed for long spans of time. There were times, after his retirement when they lived in different cities for his job. But through it all, she managed to homeschool. Her oldest is out of college and married. Her next two are in college, and she’s educating the rest. There  are good days, bad days, days when you throw in the towel and head to the park, days when you put the oldest in charge and head to the hairdresser.

So what are other tips to prevent homeschooling burnout?

Micki Colfax, author of Homeschooling for Excellence offers some practical tips to ward off burnout.

1. Lower your expectations. If you homeschool, you don’t have to be perfect and you don’t have to be superwoman. Pick and choose the activities or co-ops that work best for your family, and for your homeschooling goals. Sometimes a simple schedule change, moving school from morning to afternoon, moving the co-op to a closer location can make an enormous difference. This also applies to your child. Get to know your child before you impose your dreams on his learning. Perhaps he doesn’t want to become a mathematician? Then again, perhaps computer programming is his passion. Introduce your child to learning and feed that spark if it takes off.

Feed your child’s love of learning. If he wants to be the next great mathematician, encourage him. If he doesn’t, that’s okay too.

2. Stop comparing yourself to everyone else. You aren’t supposed to be like anyone else. You are you. If you’re homeschooling, you don’t have to be as proficient as a certified teacher. You only need to be a facilitator and a mentor for your kids. Also, and this goes back to the reasons why many homeschool, if you didn’t want your children to attend compulsory education because of the pressures of standardized testing, why pressure your kids to be as academically accelerated as those in the public school. Let your child set the pace. If you child enjoys the pace, wants to move faster, great! If your child needs more time for mastery, then slow down and relax.

3. Find support. Parents need support, a sense of community. Homeschooling parents especially need support to avoid burnout. Co-ops, homeschooling chat groups, online forums, and conferences can connect homeschooling parents with others. Having other parents to share ideas, to brainstorm with, or to complain to is healthy and constructive. The same is true for your children. Peer groups where kids can do problem-based learning under the tutelage of another parent with expertise can ease the load and can give you a much needed break.

4. Take a break. If you’re feeling overwhelmed one day, forget about school. Take the kids to an indoor trampoline and burn off steam. Head to the park, to an art center, to a friend’s house. Homeschooling parents need mental health breaks. So do kids.

5. Change your teaching style. Structured learning might sound great on paper but it might be counter to your innate style. If you’re trying to maintain a tight rein on structure, and your kids are feeling the tension, it’s counterproductive to the process. Also by changing the teaching style, you’re also teaching your child flexibility. Being flexible is a critical life skill especially when children learn that change is part of life.

6. Simplify. Mary Pride, author of The Big Book of Home Learning suggests that you ask yourself, “Am I overdoing it? Am I making simple subjects too fancy? What can I eliminate? Do I need to be doing this at all? Is my child too young for this subject? Should I give it a rest? Are there other worthwhile things we would like to study or do and come back to this later?” If your child is ready for more complex, they will show you. When you teach, their eyes won’t glaze over. They will remain intrigued, interested, and motivated.

7. Schedule time for yourself. This is important. Even if you have to pay someone to watch your kids a few hours a day, taking time for you can prevent burnout.

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Found what you just read useful? Why not consider sending a donation to our Kars4Kids youth and educational programs. Or help us just by sharing!

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About Merle Huerta

Merle Huerta is a staff writer with, a teacher, tutor, a retired army wife, and a mother of a blended family of 13.