Setting Your Child Up for Success in His Surroundings

Charlotte Mason Homeschool Customize Curriculum Surroundings Success

As I type these words, I am having a problem. It’s not that I’m struggling with the content; I have a good handle on what we’re going to discuss in this post. It’s not an issue with the skills required; I know quite well how to type and how to work my computer. No, the problem is that I’m being distracted.

For more than a year now we have had daily visits from a cardinal, who loves to fly up to each window across the back of the house and tap it with his beak. (I like to think that we are his nature study.) For a while his visits always occurred in late morning. But lately he’s been coming several times a day and at all hours of daylight. No set pattern.

When I’m sitting at the table or filling my water bottle in the kitchen, I love to hear that friendly flutter and tap and look up to catch a glimpse of bright red feathers. But when I’m head-down working on a project, especially a writing project, those same sights and sounds can be very distracting.

Distractions can play a large role in your student’s ability to concentrate too. It might not be a cardinal, but there are many other things in your home that can cause your child to have a hard time focusing.

As we finish up this series on how to teach the child, not just the curriculum, let’s take a look at some of those surroundings that might be distracting. Surroundings are not necessarily part of the curriculum, but they go hand in hand with it.

If you think back to our initial recipe comparison, we have talked about tweaking the content of the curriculum and adjusting the work, or skills, required. Today let’s focus on how it’s served.

Let’s discuss how you can tweak the way the curriculum is served in order to help your child feel more comfortable, focus better, and grow in confidence as he learns. Considering your child’s surroundings is a way to honor him as a person, not just as a performer of curriculum.

Be Alert to These Details

1. Sensory Distractions

If your student is having a hard time concentrating and seems distracted, take a look at her surroundings as they relate to her senses. Consider what she is seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling.

Is the light shining too brightly for her sensitive eyes? Or is the sun shining through the window and causing a glare on her paper? Anything related to what she sees can be evaluated and potentially tweaked. Perhaps it is difficult for her to read from a screen and she would do better with a printed page. Consider what her eyes are experiencing.

Also consider what her mouth and nose are experiencing. Some children have a sensitivity to smells and tastes. Perhaps the soup that you put in the slow cooker for lunch is giving off a strong onion odor that is becoming distracting. It might be strong enough that she even tastes the onion in her mouth. Of course, there is a difference between a smell that simply makes your child’s stomach growl and an odor that causes true discomfort. The point is to be aware of what smells and tastes might be a distraction to your child and make adjustments to eliminate them if possible.

The same is true for noisy distractions. For many children, the dryer humming in the background is not an issue. But for some children that dryer can sound like a jet plane spooling up beside them. In a similar way, some children love to have music in the background while they are working; it helps them concentrate. Others find background music highly distracting; it hinders them from concentrating on their work. Noise in a student’s surroundings can usually be tweaked to fit that child better.

Then don’t overlook surroundings that relate to touch or movement. A scratchy tag in a shirt can be a distraction. A sibling who is waving a toy nearby can be distracting for many children. For a child with sensory issues, that movement can cause huge anxiety; and when a child is fearful or anxious, it’s very hard to focus on anything else. Some children learn best sitting still; other children learn best when they spin or pace. Help your student identify how she learns best and tweak the surroundings to work with that tendency. If one child needs to move and another child is distracted by that movement, you might set up a “safe zone,” an area in the room where the moving child is not allowed and the other child can sit in peace. Adjustments can take some creativity, but the results of those efforts can be remarkable.

The general guideline to remember is that just because something isn’t distracting to you, doesn’t necessarily mean that it won’t distract your student. Watch for potential sensory distractions in your child’s surroundings that can be improved with a little tweaking.

2. Time of Day

As you think about how your curriculum is served to your student, also consider the time of day that you expect him to do the lessons. Many children are fresh and ready to go in the mornings; some might be better able to focus in the afternoons or evenings.

One of the beauties of homeschooling is that you can adjust the beginning and ending times of your school day. You don’t have to replicate what others do; you are under no obligation to mimic the schedule at the school near you. Find the best working hours for your family—a regular daily routine that fits best during this season of life—and arrange your curriculum to fit that time slot.

Or perhaps you don’t need to completely overhaul your schedule. It may be that your student struggles only one morning each week, because he has a late event the night before. Consider what adjustments you can make—either to the late event or to the morning’s lesson time—to help him be able to do his best on that particular day.

Homeschooling, and parenting in general, is very much a process of Try it, Evaluate it, Tweak it, and Try it again. Don’t be afraid to make a small adjustment and then watch to see whether it helps. If it doesn’t, you can always switch back. No harm done.

3. Sequence of Lessons

A final area to consider, when you are looking at how the curriculum is served, is the sequence of the lessons. This area is directly related to the curriculum. Your curriculum will most likely list the lessons in a specific order, but always remember that you can adjust that order to better accommodate your day and to help your child focus.

For example, the curriculum might list nature study last on the schedule, assuming you would use the afternoon and spend as much time as you want to outside. However, if you happen to live in the deep south and you are nearing the summer months, you may want to shift that particular lesson to early morning, in order to take advantage of the cooler temperatures.

Or perhaps you usually read and narrate history first thing, but your work schedule just changed and you have arranged for your spouse to help with some of the lessons; he wants to do the history reading. No problem. You can rearrange the order of the lessons to best fit this season of life.

The main thing to watch for as you rearrange is to try to alternate heavy-concentration lessons with lighter ones. So you might read and narrate, then move to a short copywork or transcription lesson, then do math and work with numbers and manipulatives, then look at a picture and talk about it. Try to use different parts of the brain in sequence as you work through the day. Don’t just sit on the couch and read, read, read all morning. Overusing that one part of the brain causes it to feel fatigued, which makes it harder to pay attention. Go ahead and tweak the order of the lessons as needed, but always try to arrange them in a progression that will help your student focus.

Doubtless, there are many other ways you can tweak the curriculum to help make it fit your student better. I hope the suggestions given in this series are just a starting point, a gentle reminder that you can and should feel free to make adjustments as you go along.

Curriculum should be your servant, not your master.

Just because it says it is for grade 5 or grade 2 or grade 10 doesn’t mean you are locked in. Look at the content, look at the skills it requires, and look at your student’s surroundings as you present the lessons. If something isn’t working well, tweak it.

Usually when a parent feels handcuffed to a curriculum, it is because of an underlying fear: “But what if my child falls behind?”

I encourage you to strike that phrase from your thinking. Whoever decided that all children of a certain age must learn in lock-step did a huge disservice to children! It is ridiculous to think that every child will grow at the same pace as all other children his age. Yet that is what grade levels condition us to believe.

Settle it in your heart right now: every child should be given the personal respect to grow at his or her own pace. Without a cloud of shame hanging over his head. Without a barrage of examinations from the adults in her life. Without anxious looks from his parent.

Charlotte Mason believed that the goal of education is to grow, and that growth encompasses much more than just knowing certain facts. Growth as a person involves all areas of life.

So rather than fixating on what grade level your child should be labeled with, why not focus on his growth? Look for growth in all areas. Celebrate growth.

Instead of letting fear drive you and worrying over “Where should he be?” start thinking in terms of “Where is he?” and “What’s next?” That’s all. “Where is she?” and “What’s next?”

No one knows how quickly your child will grow, least of all some author who wrote a curriculum. You know your child; that author doesn’t. You see where your child is flourishing and where he needs more time to grow. Use the curriculum as a tool to help you encourage the next step of growth in your child as he is ready. Keep your focus on your student.

Teach the child, not just the curriculum.


  1. What if nature is a distraction to my child?!? My 8 year old loves nature study and loves the squirrels and birds in our backyard. Our school/dining room has a lovely, large window and clear glass doors. He often stops us in the middle of a lesson because he has been looking out the window and calls all of our attention to the squirrel nibbling a nut in its paws, the blue jay on the porch rail, or the woodpecker in the tree. This morning he noticed that there are many young, small squirrels scampering about with the mature ones. This afternoon he eagerly wrote in his nature journal: “April 11, 2018 First baby squirels.” I want to capitalize on this- I love it that he is noticing so much about the natural world that I was oblivious to as a child. I love his sweet tenderness for animals. But I want him to develop the habit of attention! What to do?

    • Such a sweet love for nature. I agree, you definitely don’t want to squelch his attentiveness to nature happening around him, but at the same time, he needs to learn to turn the focus of his whole mind to what requires his attention at the time. Perhaps you could ease him into that idea gently by explaining that for the, say, history reading, you’re going to cover the windows just for 15 or 20 minutes to help everybody focus on the story at hand. After that time is up, remove the covering for a bit and maybe even take a “nature gaze” together. Then replace the covering for the next lesson, and so on. Perhaps that little visual guidance can help him learn to intentionally direct his attention to where it should be at the time, but still honor and enjoy all that nature is putting on display outside your window.

  2. How can I do this with my toddler getting most of my attention when I need to focus on my 2 older kids. Is there any benefits of doing school work in a busy house. I feel like it might help kids in a future with being able to read and study if they are in the public areas that are not too quiet.

    • It all depends on the child. For many children, a household with a typical amount of activity is just fine. They quickly learn to tune out extra noise or movement, or it might distract them for a bit and then they turn their attention back to where it should be, perhaps with a gentle reminder from a parent. But for some children, certain aspects of household activity can be a show-stopper; they are so distracted by something that it’s impossible to focus on anything else. The important thing is to become a student of your student. Observe him closely and carefully so you can know whether he is just being distracted for a moment or is being regularly incapacitated by something in his surroundings.

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