Your Questions Answered: Homeschooling with Preschoolers in the Mix

One of the biggest challenges a homeschool mom faces is trying to get schoolwork done with preschoolers in the mix. My friends Jenn Faas and Laura Pitney are here to help me discuss this today.

Sonya: Between all of us, we’ve had 13 preschool kids. And you have one currently and a baby, right, Jenn?

Jenn: Yes.

Sonya: Okay, what has worked (or is working) to get homeschooling done with preschoolers also in the mix?

Jenn: I feel like one sanity saver for me actually doesn’t even involve the preschoolers. It involves my older kids. And that’s some form of weekly checklist. I’ve been doing that for years now, and without it, I don’t know what would happen. I don’t even want to think about that. It would be chaos in my house. The checklist is so I can be with the little ones—or do anything, anything that derails—and my older kids can just keep on going. They have a list of independent work that they work from, so they can just keep on going without me. Then when the little ones are napping in the afternoon, (well, I only have the baby napping in the afternoon now), there’s a little bit more downtime and that’s when I can come back and meet with the big kids and make sure that they’re on track. But if I’m unavailable, they can still keep working. They know what to do.

Sonya: I’m assuming that didn’t just happen overnight, that you had to train those older kids so they could stay focused and do the work on their own.

Jenn: Right, absolutely. And I even see that happening now. My seven-year-old is starting to ask for a list.

Sonya: Wow!

Jenn: That is one really interesting and fun thing about having big ones doing school and still having little ones, because they see what the older kids are doing and they want to be like the older kids. They look at them as role models. So now even my seven-year-old is saying, “Well what about me having a list?” and “Can you print me off a checklist?”

Sonya: And you’ve got kids all the way from your baby up to high school, correct?

Jenn: I do.

Sonya: Six, seven?

Jenn: Six, yes. So high school, middle school, elementary, preschool, and a baby.

Sonya: You look great.

Laura: You’re like my hero.

Sonya: One thing that I think is really important is before you start school for the day, spending time with the little ones so that they don’t feel pushed aside—never, you know, “Mom is always too busy for me.” Maybe you have breakfast, and then while the older ones are doing their chores, cleaning up their dishes or brushing their teeth or whatever it is, you’re spending one-on-one time with that preschooler, just to help them know that they are important as well, before you say, “Okay, now I need you to go over here and play quietly while we do this.”

Jenn: Sure, because you can’t expect so much out of them until you’ve really filled their tank. I’ve heard that compared to a bank account: you have to put money in in order to take money out, right? So you have to spend that time with the little one in order to have some expectations of them after that. And so that’s definitely a helpful thing to make sure that they get some one-on-one time first before you move onto the next thing.

It’s really important before you start school for the day to spend time with the little ones so that they don’t feel pushed aside—never, you know, “Mom is always too busy for me.”

Laura: I think a big factor in what you just talked about with trying to get school done—homeschool while you have the little ones in the home too—is to have a plan and be organized.

Jenn: Sure.

Laura: Some moms do that by the day; some people do it by the week, by the month, or whatever that looks like. But I think when you have little ones around, and you’re still trying to accomplish school with older kids, you just need a plan. Of course, that plan gets messed up.

Jenn: Derailed a lot, right.

Laura: But set yourself up for success by at least having a plan of what to do, or a rotation, or assign time with older kids just so that they can work on a relationship. We’ve talked before about having work boxes, something for those little ones to do or something for the older siblings to do with the younger sibling. So I think being organized and at least having a plan is a good starting point.

Jenn: Absolutely.

Laura: For me, I have a general plan of what our school day looks like, but it’s usually the night before that I’m like, “Okay, what’s going on tomorrow?” That’s all I can take right now, is about a day ahead—just with the busyness of life. And so, yes, I have the big picture done, but I really make sure I give focused attention the day before for the next day so that I have all my ducks in a row.

Jenn: Right, that’s good.

Laura: Sometimes it’s the day of; but I really try to do the day ahead, just so that when I wake up the next morning, I feel like I know what’s supposed to happen.

Jenn: Because sometimes you never know when that next morning will start. Sometimes it starts at 5:00 A.M. And you roll over and there’s a preschooler there, right?

Laura: Staring at you.

Sonya: That’s true! Now do you all have special toys that you used with your preschoolers or that you still do, something that they only get access to during school time?

Laura: I do. I have different “manipulatives” that I’ve used over the years that is a special toy or a box of toys to get out. One thing that I feel has worked well with my preschoolers is, if I’m sitting down at the table with a older kid to work on, say, copywork or something along those lines, then I may have my preschooler in the high chair next to me or on the bench next to me and that’s their time to use crayons on a paper. I try to mirror some of the activities that apply, just because that makes them feel big. But it also can be a distraction. So I think it’s just a fine line of figuring out what you can do with the younger one. But I feel like it’s really important for them to still feel like they’re being included in school (if you want to call it school). So I have set toys that I pull out, and they’ll either do near me or where I can see them.

Jenn: And I have that too. I have a closet where I have some bins of different toys that only come out during school time. If the preschooler is cooperating and is quiet enough for us to continue schooling, then they can do those in the school room. But if they start getting too rowdy or they don’t want to do those anymore, then they can go into the playroom where they have free range on other toys. So I kind of have that balance of both: some things are special and only come out during school time, but if that derails then they can go get some other things that are just regular toys.

Laura: We’ve talked about this before, that it’s really hard to teach your preschooler the boundaries of those toys and your expectations during the school day.

Jenn: Yes.

Laura: So we had talked all about we need something like a bootcamp week.

Jenn: Yes, practice.

Laura: Exactly, a practice—the expectations and what they’re going to do. Because it’s really frustrating when you have this great idea and this great plan, and you start your school day and you’re going to do it, but then the kids don’t have a clue what is expected of them.

Sonya: Somebody forgot to tell the kids.

Jenn: Or you’ve worked on these habits and you’ve kind of set these different things up, but then at some point there have been inconsistencies. Consistency is a huge challenge. It’s really hard with many children to just be consistent on every single thing that you’ve put in place every day. It’s so hard.

Laura: That’s why we have coffee.

I think it’s important that we remember that we need to work with that preschooler on obedience all day long. Not just during school time.

Jenn: We do. So we have had those bootcamp weeks where we’re like, “Okay, remember, these were the things that we have put in place that have kind of fallen by the wayside. Let’s practice those things and get back in the saddle again.” And so that’s helpful to just refocus. And I think it’s okay, too, to take a break—to take a little break from school and get some of those things back on track. Because in the long run, you’re going to get so much more done than to just keep going as it is if you need to work on some things. Does that make sense?

Sonya: Absolutely.

Laura: For sure.

Sonya: And maybe not even just bootcamp to review expectations in this situation, I think it’s important that we remember that we need to work with that preschooler on obedience all day long. Not just during school time.

Jenn: Sure.

Sonya: So that, like you said, it’s consistent. They know that they are expected to obey, no matter when or what. You talked about it’s important that they feel included. With many of our school subjects we can include them. I’m thinking picture study, they can look at the pictures; music study, they would love to march around to the music or whatever it is; nature study, they’d love to do that. What other kinds of things might we include them in? Ideas?

Jenn: I include my little three-year-old guy in a lot of things that, because he sees the older ones doing them, he just wants to be a part of it. So when you set up that expectation of, “This is a privilege for you to do this,” then they almost have to rise to the occasion and that’s a big deal. So he will sit and listen to different books that I’m reading some of the other kids that you wouldn’t think he would sit through, and then he asks to narrate. That’s the funniest thing.

Sonya: Oh, how fun!

Jenn: Yeah, it’s funny. They hear the lingo, and they hear these things, and they want to be a part of it. So we always let Charley go first to do all that—all that kind of stuff—because, you know, he just wants to be a part even though he may not totally get what we’re doing.

Sonya: And I assume we work with the older siblings to respect that and honor his narrations, whatever might come out of his mouth.

Jenn: It can be comical sometimes, so they like it, yes.

Sonya: What fun!

Jenn: They like to be included. They really do.

Laura: You mentioned the subjects of music and art study and those type of subjects that are short, focused lessons, but then a lot of our school lessons are—well, I say “a lot,” but quite a few are—me reading out loud. So one of the ideas that I have always implemented is the blanket time. That has been a lifesaver when I have crawlers or even a three-year-old. Whatever the age, them learning that boundary of, “Okay, I just put your special quilt out and you need to play quietly and stay on this quilt,” and then I can sit in the chair and read out loud. That way the younger one might not necessarily be directly involved, but they’re at least in a safe, quiet place that they have earned my trust, so that I can focus on the older kids, whether it’s reading or if we’re having a discussion, whatever it looks like. But the idea is you’re implementing those good habits that you’ve already built up to.

Sonya: Yes, you wouldn’t just plunk them on a quilt and expect them to stay there. You’ve been working on this over time.

Laura: Right, and then I can carry that other places—like church, for instance. Our church has family worship, so when mine were little, I would literally bring that same blanket and put it down near my feet or in a place that wasn’t in the way so that they knew their boundary. Those are the kind of habits that you use all the time, but you can use to your advantage during school time.

Jenn: Absolutely.

Laura: Especially when you need to give attention to the older kids. Book time on their bed is another great station, if you will. You can give them an instruction and just say, “Stay on your bed and look at these picture books for a little bit.”

Jenn: You did use the stations a lot.

Laura: I did, and that helped. So again it was me trusting my child to obey and follow whatever guidelines I gave them. But I knew that child, that preschooler, was having book time in their room, and I could do one-on-one time with another kid, whatever the subject was. I had lots of stations around my house. But that was just how we had to function. I had to know where my kids were, especially my little ones. They had to learn their boundaries and earn my trust to where they could, you know, get those special privileges. But it also freed me up to be able to get the things I needed done with the older kids or even just sitting down for a few minutes in some peace and quiet for my own sanity, it still applied. So I think the bootcamp week . . . or even if you don’t have high schoolers or older kids, keep that in mind as your big picture goal as little ones come along. Those habits are so important for the younger ones, so that you can accomplish your school with the older ones.

Jenn: So when you’re doing the stations, another thing I was thinking of, in the last episode that we talked about preschoolers, we mentioned that visual timer. And that’s another place where that visual timer really can come in handy. I love that thing. And so then they know how long they’re expected to stay in room time.

Laura: Eternity. No, I’m just kidding.

Jenn: Or blanket time.

Sonya: Because when you’re out of sight, it’s like, “Did Mommy forget me?” And if they see that timer, they know they’re not forgotten.

Jenn: Right, and then you can build up too. You can start with five or 10 minutes and then you can build up to a longer period of time, so you can work for longer with the other ones. Laura, you’ve done the stations; we’ve done something similar to that. I have, I call it “work boxes.” I can’t remember where I got that term. So for my smallest ones, I would have only special manipulatives set up in these little—

Laura: Cubbies.

Jenn: Cubby-type things. And they were only allowed to do those during school time. So when I’m working with the other ones, they can choose any one of the things that are in those cubbies. But they can only do that during school time. Then ideally, I try to switch those out every week, and then I leave them in for the whole week. But that doesn’t always happen, because of consistency.

Sonya: Give me some ideas of what these things, these magic toys or manipulatives, are. What kinds of things were in your cubbies and work boxes?

I just looked at everything I have in my house and wrote down what I have and what kind of variations I can make on that.

Laura: The work boxes were kind of different than just the special toys set aside to pull out. The work boxes, which I’ve done over the years too, are more like purposeful things, like to help with motor skills. It’s not formal schooling, but it’s things that the kids could do. So it might even be like play dough. They could get that work box out, sit at the school table with us, or in the high chair, and use their hands with that.

Jenn: I have a master list of all the things, because it’s hard to think about what all you have when you want to switch that out and you’re trying to work quickly. And if you do it every week, you think, “Oh, what do I have?”

Sonya: “Where am I in the rotation?”

Jenn: So I have a master list. I just looked at everything I have in my house and wrote down what I have and what kind of variations I can make on that. So I’ll put a puzzle in one. I’ll just pick out five different picture books and put that in one of the boxes. I’ll put, we have little child scissors. It’s difficult for the little ones to open the scissors; they can close them, they just can’t open them. So they’re special scissors that have a little—

Laura: Spring in them.

Jenn: Yeah, a spring, so that they open themselves. And those are great for, you know—

Laura: Learning how to cut.

Jenn: The three- and four-year-olds and learning how. I’ll just cut long strips of construction paper, and they just cut them. And then as they get a little bit older, I’ll draw lines on the strips different ways, or even a zigzag if they’re capable of that, and then they’ll cut them on the line. It’s amazing how long they will sit there and cut strips of construction paper, because they just want to use the scissors.

Laura: I was thinking, we had the large tweezers, and you would pick up the little pom poms and put them in the jar.

Jenn: Right.

Laura: But the jar, we cut like a little star out and they had to kind of shove them in a little.

Jenn: I think we made a bunch of things to do together. There are those busy bags and things like that. There’s so many ideas out there of all the little things for toddlers. If you look up “busy bags,” it’ll give you all these ideas. You could get together with some others moms and just make several things.

Laura: Lacing.

Jenn: And then write it down, so you don’t forget what they are. Taking a pipe cleaner, and just putting beads on a pipe cleaner. Different little activities like that. And then some of them they just get hooked on and want to keep doing it over and over and over again. So it’s kind of an open-ended thing.

Laura: It seems like we made our list of work boxes and planned it out at the beginning of the school year, beforehand. That way they were ready to go whenever we did start school, and then we had them on hand to rotate out. Again, it’s doing the prep work and the planning ahead of time. That way, you have those needed resources. So the work boxes, I feel like, were more purposeful to skills that they will need for handicrafts, writing, using a spoon. That’s how I would filter between the work boxes and just a special closet with toys.

Jenn: Right.

Laura: And I’ve used those plenty. My kids still love to get those types of toys out that now they remember using as a little one. Stencils. I mean, I know that’s hard for preschoolers, but even like the fat crayon and just, stencil.

Jenn: Stamps.

Laura: Stamps are good.

Jenn: I have a bunch of stamps and one big ink pad that has different colors on it. And they’ll just stamp and stamp and stamp.

Laura: So an unsupervised three-year-old with stamps doesn’t sound great. So what I’m saying is, it’s great to pair an older child with a younger one to do some of those special work boxes, because that will free you up to work with an older child or something like that. So take advantage of your pairing.

Jenn: Yes, definitely take advantage of the older kids. At my house we call it Sibling Time. And I try to start with the youngest children together. So they kind of rotate through kids. And because the youngest one maybe can’t keep the little one entertained as much, my seven-year-old would have sibling time with the three-year-old first for a little while. And then my 11-year-old would have sibling time with the three-year-old for a little. So the three-year-old is getting time with each of his siblings. But then, by the end, when he’s more—

Laura: Like over it—

Jenn: Yes. It’s the 17-year-old that’s going in there. So she can handle him much better and is more prepared to come up with something creative to do with him. And they look forward to doing that so much. You can also use that to your advantage of giving those older ones, “Okay, these are the five different things you can choose from to do in Sibling Time.” You can help with handicrafts; that’s something that my 17-year-old now will do, cross stitching with my 11-year-old. And it’s a special time for them.

Sonya: So, it’s not just with the preschooler?

Jenn: Right, not just with the preschooler. We mix it up.

Laura: It definitely changes the dynamic when you have all the kids together versus allowing the siblings to have one-on-one time with each other. It just helps form those relationships.

Jenn: Right, it does. So I guess I kind of have two different Sibling Times. I have the rotating out with the youngest, just to free me up to be able to do work with all of the others.

Laura: The older ones.

Jenn: And then after lunch we have a Sibling Time where the older ones will kind of switch. So the boys will be with the boys, and the girls will be with the girls. And then they’ll switch the next day.

Laura: And that gives the older kids just a few minutes of a break from their school classes. As they get older in their school years, they have a bigger workload; so it’s almost like that gives them something to look forward to, where they can set their schoolwork down for a few minutes and then have, I guess, a fun time—even though it’s still school related, really, I mean handicraft time or whatever it is.

Jenn: Or they can read to each other. That’s one of our choices: the older one can read to the younger one or the younger one can read to the older. Both beneficial. So it’s really a win-win situation for us. That’s been a really helpful thing in my homeschool.

Sonya: So let’s wrap up with this question, then: How do we keep the balance? With so much of Charlotte Mason, it’s all about balance—you know, book work and working with things, and inside and outside, and teach the person but you still make progress. In all of this, you have to keep a balance. Talk a little bit about balancing your homeschool and your preschoolers.

Jenn: Well, we were talking about how to make sure that we’re not neglecting the older children, but I think recently in my homeschool, I’ve had kind of the reverse, the flip side of that. I felt like, in taking some time for reflection, that I was maybe neglecting my younger children in some of the things that I had done with my older ones, but wasn’t doing with my youngers. So we just decided to take a week off—this past week actually—and I scheduled two field trips that were geared towards my younger kids. That was something that I had done all the time with my older ones. So I think reflection is a key thing. For me, my oldest is signing up for the SAT now and dual enrollment and we’re looking towards graduation and those kind of things, so I have gotten a little wrapped up in that. I think reflection is a vital piece of homeschooling, just looking and taking some time to think about those things and think about each one of your children and what their needs are. I think that’s huge in order to find the balance, just taking the time to think about those things for each particular child.

Sonya: Good word.

Laura: And you may do that monthly or you may do that at the summer or whenever before you start school. I like to plan; I’m a planner. So for me, when I hear you say that, I may say, “Well, I’m going to pick out one thing this month to do geared towards this kid.” Next month I’m going to pick one thing that’s geared towards this child—or if we do age groups or younger and older. So it’s kind of like how we do our school lesson planning: we look at the big picture of what we want to accomplish, and then we work our way backwards to breaking it down. It could be the same thing with the focus of activities or children or one-on-one time. Big picture overview, and then work your way backwards practically of how you could implement those really good ideas.

Sonya: Thank you for this discussion. It’s been good!

How about you? What has worked well for your home school when you have preschoolers in the mix? Leave a comment and share your idea. And if you have a question you’d like us to discuss, put that in the comments too. Let’s get your questions answered.


  1. Loved this post! As a Mom of 9 ages 13 down to 5 months, it is good to hear other Mom’s have trouble sometimes being consistent and needing to regroup. I always enjoy hearing about how to keep the kiddos involved and yet doing their own “learning”.

  2. Thanks for all the ideas! When you talked about a check list for the older kids, what things do you include on the list? Is it just school work and chores? Do they have a set checklist for each day of the week? Do you have a website you could recommend for busy bag ideas?

    • Sara, here is some more information from Jenn:

      I use a weekly checklist that I update and print each weekend for the new week ahead. Doing this weekly allows me to be flexible if something comes up or I need to make changes. It has each day of the week listed with the assignments underneath. I only include those subjects that they eventually work independently on- I do not include those things we do as a family (picture study, music appreciation, Shakespeare, geography, etc.). I try to be detailed in the expectations for each subject on the checklist. For example:

      O Complete lesson 15
      O Check answers

      O Read for 30 minutes
      O narrate

      O Read pgs 17-22
      O Written narration

      O Read 8 pages
      O narrate
      O add to Book of Centuries

      O Study passage

      O Read one chapter of term biography
      O narrate

      I usually start my children with a weekly checklist in middle school or late elementary school. In the beginning, it is a tool to start handing over a bit of responsibility and to help foster a sense of ownership in their day (and to help me out when little people need attention!). When they first start using a checklist it helps to keep them on task with what comes next, especially if I get tied up with a younger child. They know that if it is not something they can do on their own, they can just move to the next thing on the list. The checklists do change from year to year depending on the child. As my student moves toward more independence, they will begin to complete more assignments on their own. I like to sit down with my high schoolers at the beginning of the year and ask for their input as far as arranging their schedule. I want them to begin taking more ownership of their day. This year I have a senior in high school who has planned her entire school schedule on her own. I was here to guide her with any questions she had, but she created her own weekly checklist this year and is looking forward to owning it! The goal is self-education. It is definitely a process- but one I think worth implementing, especially with younger children in the mix.

      For busy bags, I mostly looked on Pinterest for good ideas. I really don’t have a particular website recommendation. I just remember spending some time searching out various ideas, making a shopping list, and having a busy bag making party with Laura!

Comments are closed.