The Secret to Planning Your Homeschool Day

Here’s the secret to getting through your lessons without needing big breaks. Planning and scheduling your homeschool studies involve several steps. Five steps, really. First, you start with the big overview, then zoom in on this year; then I like to take that year and break it into three terms and figure out what I’m going to be doing in each term. Then I take each term and do the last two steps: I plan my weekly schedule, determining which subjects we will do on which days of the week, and finally, once I have all of that figured out, I can plan my daily schedule with confidence, knowing that I’m not missing anything.

I’ve covered those five steps in more detail in another post and in my book Planning Your Charlotte Mason Education. Be sure to take a look at those if you would like more guidance walking through all the steps.

Today I want to focus on that last step: planning your homeschool day. Once you know which subjects you want to do each day, think about the order in which you schedule them. I want to share a little secret with you that will either help your child to pay attention throughout the day or make it more difficult for him to pay attention. 

Charlotte Mason explained the situation this way: “. . . this much is certain, and is very important to the educator: the brain, or some portion of the brain, becomes exhausted when any given function has been exercised too long” (Home Education, p. 24). 

You’ve probably experienced this for yourself. I often see it at homeschool conventions. The breakout sessions are so good, and there are so many of them, that the parents spend three full days finding the right room, sitting in chairs, listening to the speaker talk, and taking notes. Then they find the next room, sit in the chairs, listen to that speaker talk, and take notes. Then the next one, and the next one. By the end of the weekend, I can see that the listen-and-take-notes part of their brains has been exercised too long. It’s exhausted. And the more exhausted it becomes, the harder it is for them to pay full attention. They get distracted more easily; they don’t comprehend as quickly.

Now many of us would assume, “They need to take a break.” And we would be partially correct. The listen-and-take-notes part of the brain needs a break, but that doesn’t mean they have to stop completely. And it’s the same with our children. We see a child starting to go into a mental fog, and our first thought is, “Let’s take a break.” But taking a complete break has its own set of problems.  We all know how difficult it can be when we’re in a groove with our lessons and then decide to take a break. We can lose a lot of time trying to rein the children back in and regain focus after a break.

Happily, there is a better way. There is a way to make sure you don’t exhaust your child’s brain and still keep in a groove with your lessons. Here’s the secret:

“If the lessons be judiciously alternated—sums first, say, while the brain is quite fresh; then writing, or reading—some more or less mechanical exercise, by way of a rest; and so on, the program varying a little from day to day, but the same principle throughout—a ‘thinking’ lesson first, and a ‘painstaking’ lesson to follow,—the child gets through his morning lessons without any sign of weariness.”

Home Education, p. 142

Did you catch that? The child doesn’t need a complete break, only that one part of his brain needs to rest. How do you do that? Alternate the subjects so you use different parts of the brain as you work through your day in sequence. 

In other words, don’t sit on the sofa for hours at a time, reading and narrating books. You will over-fatigue the read-and-narrate part of your child’s brain. And the longer you continue to use that part of his brain, the harder it will be for him to pay full attention and to learn well. Use different parts of the brain as you progress through your day’s lessons.

If you’re using the Charlotte Mason Method, you will have on your schedule a wide variety of subjects that use a variety of methods. That’s good! All you have to do is arrange them in an order that uses different parts of your child’s brain—different types of efforts—as he goes throughout the day.

“All their lessons will afford some scope for some slight exercise of the children’s thinking power, some more and some less, and the lessons must be judiciously alternated, so that the more mechanical efforts succeed the more strictly intellectual, and that the pleasing exercise of the imagination, again, succeed efforts of reason.”

Home Education, p. 152

So you might do math first, working with the numbers part of the brain; then do some handwriting, a more mechanical exercise; then perhaps do history, requiring the child to listen and reason and narrate; then follow that with a picture study, allowing the child to look and imagine and discuss.

Do you see how that works? A wide variety of subjects using a variety of methods arranged in an alternating sequence to use different parts of the brain as you go through the day—that’s the secret to planning your homeschool schedule. That’s the principle to keep in mind as you plan. 

But we often get asked, “How do you do that? How do you know which subjects use which parts of the brain?” So I want to share with you a tool that you can use to figure that out. Let’s break it down, and I’ll walk you through the way that I think through this process.

Basically, I take each school subject on the docket for that day and think through three M’s: 

What materials are my child working with? 

What methods or skills are my child performing? 

And I also throw in What movement is my child physically doing?

I like to put it on paper or on a spreadsheet, so I can easily see all the answers at once and quickly spot anything that needs to be moved around in the schedule.

Down the left side, I list all of the subjects for the day.

Then I make three columns across the top and label them Materials, Movement, and Methods.


Here’s an example. Let’s walk through a possible day’s subjects with the materials, movements, and methods for each one. Don’t worry about the order in which you list the subjects right now. We can rearrange after we get the full picture of what we’re working with.

So let’s start with history. OK, first, think through what kind of material your student will be working with in the history lesson. And by materials I don’t necessarily mean “a book”; I mean What is he focusing on? Usually it will be words, numbers, pictures, objects, music, or sounds—things like that. For history, we will be dealing with words from a book, so jot down “words” in the Materials column next to History.

OK, let’s move on to the Movement column. Picture your student doing the history lesson. What is his physical position? Probably he’s sitting. That’s fine; write that down in the Movement column.

Last, think about the Charlotte Mason methods that your student will be using during the history lesson. History usually involves reading and narrating, but consider your child’s age. If he is younger, he will be listening to you read aloud and he will be speaking his narration; so write down listening and oral narrating. If your student is older, he may be reading the lesson to himself and writing his narration; so write down reading and written narration. Just think about the skills that your child will be using.

Historywordssitlistening, narrating

OK, let’s do another subject: math. For Materials, your child will be working with numbers and probably objects, since we often use manipulatives in a Charlotte Mason math lesson. For Movement, your child will be most likely sitting, but he will also be moving manipulatives with his hands. For Methods, your child will be listening and talking, possibly some writing.

Historywordssitlistening, narrating
Mathnumbers, objectssit manipulativeslistening, talking

How about picture study? The Material your child will be working with is a picture; the Movement, probably sitting; and the Methods or skills will be looking and describing.

Historywordssitlistening, narrating
Mathnumbers, objectssit manipulativeslistening, talking
Picture Studypicturessitlooking, describing

Let’s do one more: copywork. In this lesson your child will be working with words for Materials; he will be sitting and working with his hands for Movement; and the specific Method or skill will be writing.

Historywordssitlistening, narrating
Mathnumbers, objectssit manipulativeslistening, talking
Picture Studypicturessitlooking, describing
Copyworkwordssit, handworkwriting

Continue down your list of subjects in the same way. I’ve added several other subjects to this example chart. You probably won’t be doing all of these subjects on the same day; I just wanted to show you how this tool works with a wide variety of subjects.

Historywordssitlistening, narrating
Mathnumbers, objectssit manipulativeslistening, talking
Picture Studypicturessitlooking, describing
Copyworkwordssit, handworkwriting
Scripture Memorywordssitmemorizing, reciting
Hymn Studywords, musicsitsinging
Foreign Languagewords, soundspantomimelistening, talking, memorizing, reciting
Nature Studyobjectswalk outsidelooking, drawing

Just keep in mind that for Materials, think about what he is working with. It might be words, numbers, pictures, objects, music, or sounds.

For Movement, think about physical position. Your child might be sitting, working with his hands, or walking outside. Some children might be standing.

For Methods, think about the skills your child is using. He might be writing, listening, talking or discussing, reading, narrating, drawing, looking, memorizing, reciting, describing, or singing. 

Once you get those three M’s noted for each subject, put the subjects in the order in which you’re thinking you might do them during the day. Once you get them in a potential order, scan down through the three M columns and look for any identical rows next to each other. You don’t want identical rows next to each other. You want at least one word to change as you move from subject to subject, or from row to row, in sequence. One word change works; two word changes are even better.

For example, look at Scripture Memory, Hymn Study, and Literature on the chart. All three subjects have words in the Materials column, back-to-back-to-back. And they all have sit for the Movement column. Those clusters of identical words should attract your attention. But they are not identical. You will notice that Hymn Study adds music as another Materials component, and all three subjects use different Methods. So you’re okay having those three subjects in sequence, because you have a change in at least one column as you look through them.

If you see two subjects, or rows, that are identical in all three M columns, rearrange. Grab one of those subjects and tuck it into a different slot where it won’t be touching another of its own kind.

Once you get your chart finished, keep it handy. You can reuse those subjects and three M details as you set up your daily schedule for future terms.  

And don’t worry about getting it perfect. Do the best you can right now, and just try that schedule as an experiment. You’ll be able to tell how effective it is by observing your child as the day progresses. Short lessons that use alternating parts of the brain should make it easier for him to pay attention and keep moving through his lessons without needing a complete break. 

Remember, it will still require effort from your student, but a good sequence will require different types of effort as the lessons progress. He will still need to grow in developing the habits of full attention and best effort, but a good sequence of subjects will assist him in that growth, not hinder him.

So try that daily schedule and observe your child. If you notice that he continually struggles with mental fog during one particular subject, come back to your chart and look at it again. 

Be careful not to panic if you see him struggle a bit on one day. We all have good days and bad days. But if you see him continually struggle to pay attention in one particular subject, over the course of many days or weeks, then come back to your chart and consider rearranging it. Move that subject somewhere else in the schedule, then try it that way for a few weeks and see if that sequence works better. 

There’s no one magic schedule that’s going to work for every family. But that’s the beauty of homeschooling: you have the freedom to customize your schedule and tweak it as you go along in order to fit your child best.

Just remember, a wide variety of subjects using a variety of methods arranged in an alternating sequence. Use different parts of the brain as you progress through your schedule. That’s the secret to planning a great homeschool day.

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