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9 Tips for Juggling Life—and Lesson Plans—Like a Pro
by Vicki Bentley
HSLDA Toddlers to Tweens Consultant
I once got the chance to watch a world-class juggler on stage. It was amazing. I found myself wondering, How did he keep all those balls (and later, bowling pins and knives!) in the air at once? The whole act felt like it could come crashing down at any moment—and yet it didn’t.
Do you ever feel like you’re juggling what seems like way too many balls, perhaps about to drop a few, frantically trying to keep it all going? I know I do. Preparing meals, going on field trips, planning lessons, actually teaching those lessons, spending quality time with little ones . . . the list goes on. If we’re being honest, some days we’re really just thankful we kept the kids alive and everyone has eaten.
Watching that juggler, I realized that many of the principles and techniques he was using could also be helpful in the context of a homeschool. So here are nine juggling tips from the pros—I hope you’ll find them both practical and encouraging.
1. Start by tossing one ball first, then add another, then eventually another. We tend to think we have failed if we can’t handle it all from the get-go, but it’s okay to start with one step at a time—you’re only human! Start juggling one ball, then add another, and another, as you master each step of the process. (I’ve found that the most logical first ball—and usually the most productive—is my routine.)
2. Juggle intentionally—not accidentally! I think this bit from my article “Help! I’m Organizationally Challenged!” is helpful here:
When you feel so incredibly overwhelmed, just start with the basics: What is getting dropped that just can’t? Meals? Bedtimes? Basic housekeeping? Re-visit your routine—I don’t mean the sort of schedule that has you checking the to-do list every eight minutes, or dinging a bell to move from lunch to naptime. I mean covering at least the basics and having some regularity to your day.
This is juggling with intention.
3. Relax and visualize what you want to happen. The juggler has a mental image of where the balls should be, how he should catch them, how high he wants them to soar, and so forth. Similarly, try to picture yourself calmly and efficiently moving through the motions of your day. Make a short list of what has to get done each week. At a minimum, make a list of the basic housekeeping or cleanliness standards that you consider non-negotiable. Then add in any other tasks that are on your gotta-do list. This is visualizing what you want to happen as you juggle your tasks.
4. Focus on the throw—not on the catch. It’s tempting to focus on the result instead of the process. Ask yourself, “What is the next step?” For example, if you want to teach little Susie to read—this is the “catch” or the goal—it probably isn’t going to happen the first day. What items on a to-do list would help—what are your individual “tosses”? Maybe adding 20 minutes of family story time to the daily schedule, researching phonics material, and asking a homeschooling friend for advice—these could be check-off items to get you toward your goal. This is focusing on the throw, not the catch. Concentrate on the process, and the results will eventually follow.
5. Pause between each throw. In a juggler’s act, it looks as if everything happens simultaneously, but it’s actually a quickly timed series of consecutive events. Likewise, instead of trying to accomplish everything at once in homeschooling, it’s helpful to build in some down time and catch-up time. This is what Dr. Richard Swenson would call the margin (think white space) in your day—whether it’s time margin, financial margin, emotional or physical margin, lesson planning margin. It’s the pause between each task. Here are a few ways you might squeeze in that breathing room:
- Set goals for your children.
- Break down your curriculum into manageable chunks and a workable plan. If you are teaching multiple skill levels, learn more about the options for multi-level teaching, to maximize your time and effort.
- Lay out a basic plan, with an overview of what each week might look like in order to accomplish your annual goals—for example, one lesson of math each day Monday through Thursday, with Fridays for math games.
- Build in some down time. The tendency is to see all that “needs” to be done (or so we tell ourselves) and to cram all we can into every waking moment. But life is going to broadside your efforts at some point in the year—someone will be sick, an appliance will bite the dust, a friend will need a ride somewhere, or spring fever will hit. If you have built in some down time already, you’ll be less likely to feel behind.
In our homeschool, I realized I could do anything for eight weeks if I knew I was getting a week off after that! So our yearly schedule was eight weeks on, one week off, for five cycles each year, with four weeks off at Christmas and four weeks off in the summer. Those weeks off gave me time to evaluate our progress, re-group if necessary, and accomplish some projects other than homeschooling. As Mary Jo Tate phrases it in her encouraging and informative book, Flourish: “Find peace in the space between the ideal and reality.”
6. Hold each ball loosely in your hand. It’s always a good idea to be flexible with your plans—don’t be a slave to your schedule or to unrealistic expectations.
7. Focus on what you can realistically handle at once. What season of life is this for you? You may find that some of your activities are more than you can realistically juggle at once. It may be time to say no to some activities, volunteer work, or pastimes that take a lot of your time (including excessive computer time—let’s be real here!). Or it may be time to delegate some tasks to your children or to other helpers.
8. Realize that “dropping” is inevitable. Perfectionism is incompatible with juggling. An occasional “drop” is a normal part of the process; forgive yourself when it happens.
If you feel that you’ve dropped the ball and it’s rolled too far for you to catch it and get back into the act, I hope you’ll find encouragement in these words from “When Life Broadsides Your Homeschool”: “You can’t change what you have or haven’t already done the last year. Just start where you are, ask the Lord to make you a ‘joyful mother of children,’ pray for grace and wisdom (and strength and patience), and move forward.”
9. Remember that this takes practice and persistence. Stick with it! You’ll get more comfortable and confident as you go along.
If you have questions along the way, HSLDA’s educational consultants are happy to help members homeschool from preschool all the way through high school, including parents of students with special needs.
You’ve got this!