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The Multi-Age Homeschool

The Elliott family, 2010

One of the toughest things about homeschooling is managing multiple ages at once. Since I believe that my job as a mother is to be with my children while they’re learning (see Deuteronomy 6:7 and Proverbs 29:15), I have to figure out how to be with seven different children at once. How can I teach the various ages effectively?

Babies and Toddlers

My youngest baby is crawling and almost walking. He loves to play near me on the floor — yet if I lose track of him, he also loves to crawl over to the bookshelf and pull every book off the bottom shelf. Our school room is in our basement, and he also enjoys crawling over to the laundry and splashing in a little puddle that comes out from under my washer. Furthermore, he enjoys pushing the on and off buttons on our computer and printer, playing in the kitty litter, and chewing on CDs from my CD player.

My house is not very big, especially when you consider that nine of us live here together. I only have 2-3 feet of space on each side of our “school table,” so there isn’t much room for a toddler there. I have crates, shelves, dressers, and and cupboards full of school supplies and other not-very-baby-proofed items everywhere, especially if I start working with, say, a third grader on her multiplication — and forget all about the baby!

So here are some things that help.

  1. I have a playpen down here. I move this just out of my eye-sight, place a handful of toys plus his favorite blanket in it, and give him 20-30 minutes of time in it each morning. It’s good for his concentration and attention skills, and this is just enough time for me to tutor another child.
  2. Older children babysit. My school-age children love having a 15 minute break from their math to go play with their cute little brother. They stay where I can see and hear, especially for those still learning safety rules. This is an excellent chance for them to practice their babysitting skills, and it again gives me tutoring time.
  3. Give him a nap. He’ll outgrow this soon, but until 18-22 months or so, my children still seem to enjoy a morning nap. They get most sleepy about 2 hours after they wake up in the morning, so the rest of us have to be hopping through our chores and breakfast so we’re ready for school before Baby’s nap. Our goal is to have our “together” school during his nap. When we stay on schedule, it works quite well.
  4. Blanket time, etc. When all else fails, Baby stays with us. He might be on a blanket right next to my feet, on my lap, in a highchair right next to me, or on someone else’s lap. It’s a little distracting for all of us, yes. But it works. I keep a plastic container of toys by the school table that’s just for him.


I also have a 3-year-old daughter. As she’s gradually outgrown the techniques I use for younger babies, she has developed an interest in what we’re all doing at the table. She’s also the one who is potty training and who needs the most attention from Mommy in character training. In other words, if I ignore her, it will show in disobedience, whining, and other sinful attitudes. Or… she could wander off and enjoy coloring on walls with markers for awhile.

Each of my children has done these things at one point or another in their preschool years, so to avoid it, I repeat Proverbs 29:15 to myself many times each morning: “The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame.”

  1. I keep her close to me, so that I can immediately correct any wrong behavior or attitudes. Sometimes this is very distracting to the older ones, but hey! “A school classroom can get distracting, too,” as I often remind them. “Learn to pay attention to your math anyway!”
  2. I start my morning by spending time with her individually, usually reading a few books together and sometimes learning something simple. I do this as soon as breakfast is over, while the older children are cleaning up the kitchen or watching the baby.
  3. During our “together school,” she often plays with Duplos, looks at a book, or quietly colors on paper.
  4. She has her own “school crate,” with crayons, paper, coloring books and other things that feel like “big kid” schoolwork to her. “Her” chair is right next to mine.
  5. I have small activities for her to do, such as matching games, stringing large beads on shoelaces, and playdough.
  6. Her older siblings take a 15-minute rotation time of playing with her also. We tend to take out one set of toys each day (such as Fisher-Price Little People), which I place for her on a large area rug. When it’s her siblings’ turn to play with her, their renewed excitement for those toys helps her maintain her interest, too. Most mornings, anyway. This is within earshot of me, so I can again correct any wrong behavior (such as, “Hey, that’s mine…”).
  7. I use a timer to help me remember to change her activity (or help her remember to use the potty). Otherwise, I have been known to completely forget about her. That’s never good….
  8. Toward lunchtime, it gets harder. I am not above giving her some apple slices and letting her watch a DVD. Fun music helps, too. However, I don’t do these very often, simply because our house is too small, and soon, my 5th and 6th graders are watching Sesame Street instead of science.
  9. Sometimes, if she’s just super fussy and nothing is helping, I’ll have her lie down for a brief nap, too. She doesn’t always sleep, but we at least all get a short break.

I think this is the hardest age! Take heart! It’s difficult for mothers all over the world today, as they attempt to homeschool their older children, too. All I can figure is that heart training is more important than math training, that learning to wait for young children and to care for their needs is part of our curriculum, and that before I know it, she’ll have grown up and I’ll wish for a little one in the house again.

Children Learning to Read

This year, I have a daughter who is just learning to read. This age presents some unique challenges. She is truly one of my “middle” children and can be in danger of getting ignored as I concentrate on babies and preschoolers, or on the weighty discussions of a teenager at the other end.

Most children at this age are eager to learn to read and do math, to study about bugs and God’s creation, and to soak up just about anything. Yet most mothers of children this age are quite tired, overwhelmed, and thinking more about what to serve for lunch than learning phonics and taking nature walks.

  1. This daughter gets top priority of my tutoring time. I have more “teaching equipment” for her than for some of the others, so I keep it all together in a pile. We start with a little bit of reading together (lest I procrastinate and never do it), then we get out a white board with our AAS letter tiles and flash cards. Next she gets out her phonics workbooks. Finally, we do math and handwriting together, some of which she can do on her own after I’ve read the instructions. This works fairly well, with regular interruptions from both younger and older siblings.
  2. During “together school,” which is still just a little bit over her head most days, she often colors at the table or sits in her seat and plays with Littlest Pet Shops or Polly Pockets. I like to keep her close because she’s learning much more than we give her credit for. For instance, during Bible time, she easily learns memory verses. When I read aloud, she often remembers details that are missed by everyone else.
  3. When her school work is done, she goes off to play. She might play on the main floor, or with another sister. Again, I try to keep her within earshot, because my job as a mother is to correct any wrong attitudes or words.

Elementary-Age Children

I have three children who are able to read independently and work relatively independently. This year, they are in the 3rd, 5th and 6th grades. Their school day starts with chores, then it’s usually time for our “together school” (depending on little ones, as I mentioned above).

  1. I love this age, and I wish “together school” could be three times as long. This is where I need to learn to teach my children all day long, as I work in the kitchen, sit at my computer, or drive with them to run errands.
  2. Like all elementary children, they get the giggles easily, wiggle a lot, tip their chairs while they’re working, need to sharpen pencils, and daydream. Sometimes I get tired of having to keep order. Yup, I’m reciting Proverbs 29:15 again… “A rod and reproof.” Giving “reproof” is just part of a mother’s day. Whew! (At this age, a “rod” most often consists of loss of privileges, extra division problems, or other natural consequences.)
  3. To give these children added responsibility, I use checklists and homework journals. I want them to learn to plan out assignments and to complete their work diligently. They place completed work in a designated spot, which I check later.
  4. I sit at the table and am available to answer questions, give help, and carry on conversations. However, I don’t have a formal tutoring time with each of these children. After our “together school” time, they work independently.
  5. When their school work is done, they have projects they enjoy working on. If they say they are “bored,” I have chores I’m happy to share with them. Otherwise, my bookshelves and craft cupboards are well stocked for exploration, scientific pursuits, or just a quiet book snuggled in a corner of the house. This is when “delight-based learning” kicks in at our house.


My oldest son is now 15 years old and doing high-school work. This is a little intimidating to me, in all honesty! I also feel a heavy weight of responsibility, realizing that we have a very short amount of time before he will be an adult. Is he prepared?

  1. Since I’m terribly busy and he’s got more time than he’ll ever have again at any time of his life, I emphasize reading for him. He has MANY reading assignments each day, from lengthy Bible passages, to non-fiction (how-to-live books), to classic literature and fun fiction of his own choice. (Sometimes I look at him with his nose in a book and would love to trade places with him!) He reads nearby, so we often get into conversations about what he’s reading.
  2. Some high school subjects require as much parental involvement as my kindergartner’s subjects. For instance, geometry… Spanish… biology lab experiments… I really struggle with these! I’ve been able to have some help from my husband, but otherwise, we’re finding that a couple hours of extended one-on-one time just once or twice a week does the trick. It’s not perfect, but it works.
  3. Again, I am learning that educational discussions (the heart of homeschooling at this age, don’t you think?) should not be confined to my morning at the school table. “School” can take place in the evening after supper, while making snacks in the kitchen, and as we take a walk, too! Before bed seems to be an especially good talking time for us, since the other children are in bed, Dad is home and can participate, and it’s finally quiet.

As I said at the beginning, I find myself repeating Proverbs 19:15 all day long! That verse means so much to me.

“The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame.”

I have to discipline, use words to teach, and stay physically with them. That pretty well sums it up. Also, I have to remember that we’re a family, in a home, and that education is only a very small piece of our priorities. Some days, we just have to put the lessons aside and concentrate on whatever lesson God is trying to teach us instead. That’s not easy for me, but I’m sure that He knows what He’s doing!


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  1. OY! I understand why I feel so rushed and frantic all morning long. My baby is 7 months, teething, very busy and trying to figure out how to walk. My 2 yr old is potty training, trying to keep up with big brother and wanting to do school too. My 5 yr old is learning to read, and needs frequent breaks for energy release. I love the idea about having crates for the younger ones to be near and play school. I’ll begin using my playpen too! Thank you! (Love the family picture. It’s nice not to try to get everyone just perfect.)

  2. Love these practical ideas! Can’t wait to start using them in the new year!

  3. I appreciate your posts! I have 5 kiddos: one 7yr boy, three 3yr olds two are girls and one boy, one 2yr old boy. It has been hard for me to keep them occupied. My oldest is in second grade and we are homeschooling because the school was highly stressing drugs for him. I knew that is not what we were to do and are now homeschooling. My pre-schoolers are not always taking a nap so it makes it harder to give my oldest the attention he needs. He is very distracted but is also very smart! Thanks again for your posts!

  4. I love the family picture! Looks like one happy family! I love the verse you mentioned, about letting a child be left to themselves, will lead them to shame the parent. Scary for sure. It seems the rule these days to just let the children entertain themselves, and not stress the small things- they say. But trully correcting the words, or attitude the children have is the best way to guide them in the right direction. Thanks for the helpful tips. 🙂

  5. First off I LOVE the family picture, it sure does sum up the craziness of a large family!!!!
    I loved reading this post. I believe the hardest part of home education is the fact that their is really only one mom, with so many needs and desires from everyone! I think the only thing not mentioned was…. we have to remember we are not super mom!!!!! I have a HARD time with that one!!!!
    Thanks for the great ideas and post. I love reading about others lives and ideas, it seems to always inspire me.

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