Homeschool Behavior Issues? Kiss Them Good-Bye with These Tricks

January 27, 2021

Sonlight logo


Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, meaning if you decide to make a purchase via my links, I may earn a commission at no additional cost to you. See my disclosure for more info.

Homeschool Behavior Issues? Kiss Them Good-Bye with These Tricks

The following post comes from an interview between host Stephanie and her guests Judy and Sarah. Watch the video embedded below or read the full transcript to learn gentle and effective ways to resolve and prevent behavior problems in your homeschool. 

Stephanie (00:02): Hello everyone, and welcome. Today we’re going to be talking about teaching your kids to focus and help kiss the behavior issues goodbye. At this point you’ve been homeschooling for a few months now. If you’re new and possibly for a few years now if you’ve been around, but you might have additional issues this year that maybe you haven’t had in the past. It’s kind of a crazy year, and maybe you’re new at this. So we thought we’d get on here and talk a little bit about these issues.

Stephanie (00:32): I am joined today by Judy and Sarah. Judy works here at Sonlight with me, and Sarah is a YouTuber at Our Tribe of Many, I always have to make sure I get that right. And I’m going to let them introduce themselves.

Stephanie (00:51): So Judy, welcome.

Judy (00:53): Thanks Steph, it’s good to be here with you today. So I am a retired homeschool mom of three amazing adults, have grandchildren, and we did Sonlight all the way through and are now starting second generation Sonlight-ers in our family. And as Steph mentioned, I work for Sonlight as the marketing sales coordinator, so I have the privilege of putting together teams every year to send out to conventions all around the country and in Canada, except for this year. But we hope to be back out there and seeing you all next summer.

Stephanie (01:29): Perfect. Thanks for being here, Judy. And Sarah, welcome.

Sarah (01:33): Thank you, Stephanie. I am Sarah Mwania, and I have 10 children. I’ve been married to my husband for 18 years, and our oldest child is 16. So I have seven students this year. We’ve been homeschooling our whole school journey and, yes, seven of them and then three little ones tagging along. So it’s busy at our house.

Stephanie (01:56): Yeah, for sure. Sarah did say that she’s got a sleeping young one in the room next door. So if she gets up and we all know how that is, or a lot of us do.

Sarah (02:07): [crosstalk 00:02:07] It will only be for a second.

Stephanie (02:11): Well, I appreciate you two joining. When we started seeing questions about this on our groups, and then I spoke with Sarah and she said, she’s getting a lot of questions. And I said, let’s talk about how we can get kids to focus and hopefully work on some behavior issues if you’re having any.

Use Incentives to Get Kids to Focus

Stephanie (02:28): So first of all, how do you get your kids to focus on a particularly hard day? Maybe you’re having a hard day, they’re having a hard day; maybe it’s a combination of both.

Sarah (02:40): Well, I could start here.

Stephanie (02:42): Go for it.

Sarah (02:45): I do think that once in a while, the day is just so hard that we just stopped. And I haven’t done that for a long time, but I used to employ that a lot more when my children were younger, and it’s just easier some days to just say, “Hey, let’s just call it good, what we did. And let’s start over tomorrow.” And sometimes you just need that. But I do find that whatever is happening at the end of the school day is great incentive for finishing on a hard day. So we really focus on what’s coming after school, especially on hard days. And even in the morning, we’ll talk about what’s going to happen when we get all together, what’s happening at the end of this day, so it’s a lot of incentive.

Sarah (03:29): And then, sometimes things are hard. Sometimes things are hard for the kids; sometimes it’s hard for me. I also like to look at the broader picture, like are we hungry? Are we really tired? Are we not going to bed early enough? Are we getting enough exercise and kind of look at those broader scheme things, which maybe you forget about when you’re in the moment with a hard situation. And really it’s something maybe that doesn’t have anything to do with that math problem, like hunger or not going to bed early enough or that kind of thing. So if it’s a pattern, I really look at the tiredness and sleeping enough and all that kind of stuff.

Sarah (04:09): But I think that what happens at the end of the school day is so important to getting through the school day, just knowing like, hey, we’re going to play with friends later and you get to go outside and that kind of thing.

Judy (04:24): I totally agree with Sarah. I think setting expectations is huge. And for kids, especially who have shorter attention spans on a daily basis. When I would start like math with my kids, I would tell them, so we’re going to work on this for about 20 minutes. And for at least one of my kids, it helped to set a timer because then there was hope that it was soon going to be over. And so it’s easier to focus if they had an end point insight and this wasn’t going to go on forever and ever, and ever. And she’s absolutely right. Being able to say, “This is what we’re aiming for today … is going to happen at the end of the day, so we need to get this done first.”

two kids reading books together next to a dog

Remove Distractions to Help Kids Focus

Judy (05:05): I also had one child, excuse me, who was so very easily distracted. And so a good friend of mine made a suggestion. We bought a refrigerator one year when this child was younger. And we saved the refrigerator box. And we cut it down into a cubicle, and we put it on top of the dining room table. And so for certain subjects where this child really needed to focus and not be distracted, she got to go to her office and sit in that cubicle and do her work. And it was amazing just the mere fact that she couldn’t see what was going on around her, how much that helped her to focus. So sometimes you just have to be a little creative.

Stephanie (05:55): Yes. I have an ADHD child and we start with exercise. So a lot of times I’ll be like, go run around the cul-de-sac 10 times and then come back and we’ll do math. And I didn’t get that at first, but after a while, I was like, “Oh he’s just really antsy. He needs to get some of that energy out.” And there’s another homeschool mom I’ve talked to recently, and she said she had the same sort of situation. And she said, I did not use exercise as a reward. I actually did that first and then they were tired, and they would concentrate a little bit more when they’re tired. So if you have those really active kids, that might be a solution too.

Scheduling Tricks to Motivate Kids Through Tough Subjects

Stephanie (06:41): Judy kind of talked about it a little bit with math and setting a timer, but what about if they’re struggling to concentrate on a certain subject. Is there some way that you focus their concentration on writing or math or maybe it’s reading aloud, and you find that your kids kind of like roaming around the house while you’re reading. Is there anything that you can do to really center their attention?

Sarah (07:07): Well, with all different kids, you get all different situations and so different. I feel like every one of them has gone through a phase where they struggle with a subject. And I think it’s very normal, sometimes they struggle with every subject just for about a year. Like for me, it’s oftentimes around seven, eight, sometimes nine years old where they’ll go through a phase, usually it doesn’t last a year, sometimes it does where it’s just hard to motivate and get done with everything. And if there’s one subject, there’s a lot of things I’ve employed. We’ve gotten little timers that they use and I’ll switch from having to do this lesson a day to just doing 30 minutes or 20 minutes, like Judy said. I’ll just switch my method for them of how we get through it sometimes.

Sarah (07:52): Or I give them their assignment early, and I write all their assignments down, and I give them the option of getting up before everybody else even maybe. And they can get it all done by themselves. And that can be very motivating for some personalities to just have that independence, to get up early and do it themselves. In very desperate measures, I have used like after three problems, you get a chocolate chip on your way. I mean, I’ve used a lot of things, and it’s usually just a little season we have to push through, or just a phase of a subject like this section of math that we don’t like and it’s hard to get through.

a little girl smiling and doing school work

Let Kids Move to Improve Focus

Sarah (08:29): I have friends and family members that will use a penny system or something because we work as adults and we get paid and that’s our reward. And so sometimes for some kids, they don’t care at all, and some kids that can be very motivating. And then some of them I’ve done what you’ve done, and we’ll do like 10 jumping jacks and then we’re going to do this problem. And it just helps, especially boys. I’ve noticed that in my house at least. [crosstalk 00:08:54].

Judy (08:52): I think, too, some kids are just movers and shakers by nature. And so asking them to sit still is an almost impossible task. For at least one of mine, I began to realize that when I would say, “You need to sit still while I read this,” that all of his energy was focused on, “I’ve got to sit still, I got to sit still.” And he was not getting a thing.

And so if I put him in a rocking chair so he could move, or if I set him on the floor with some LEGOs in front of him and just told him, “I can’t hear your mouth, but your hands can be busy.” It was amazing. Later on when I would go back and talk about the story we had read how much detail he recalled because he was expending energy at the same time. And in reality, I’m the same way. I can’t sit still and watch a movie. I have to have something going in my hands, cross-stitching or crocheting or something in order to help me focus on what I’m doing. So I totally get it. It’s very frustrating.

Sarah (10:02): I think for read-alouds in particular, I’ve had some kids that really need something to do with their hands. We really like kinetic sand or LEGO or drawing, a chalkboard or whiteboard. And then I’ve had some kids that, one kid in particular, that cannot do anything with his hands, or he will not know anything I read to him. And so it’s interesting that he was thrown in the mix right in the middle there, and it kind of threw me off for a minute. And then I have had one that needed to read along with me as I’m reading aloud to really understand and to be able to answer any questions about it later, so to really comprehend. So the reading aloud thing, I think you really have to figure out what’s best for your kid and how.

Sonlight advertisement

Sarah (10:42): But at one time, I’ve been pregnant a lot of times, and I had this these bouncy balls that pregnant women like kind of sit on. I gave that to one of my little boys and he just would bounce on that while I read and it helped all a lot. So there’s a lot of different tactics to employ.

Stephanie (11:02): I sometimes will kick the chair out while mine’s doing math. Math is always a problem, but he’ll like dance around and do his… and it works. Anyway, the point is it, it could be anything but there’s a lot of ideas that you could try from from you guys. So thank you for sharing that.

Judy (11:24): And I think too, it’s important just to drop in here real quick, to remember that sometimes there are physical issues that are at play when a child struggles with learning. Have you had their vision checked lately? You mentioned, Sarah, that a lot of your kids struggle when they get to be seven or eight. Every one of my children, when they hit puberty, life changed for that year while they got used to all the hormones that were rolling around in little bodies and adjusted their emotional responses and reactions and their ability to focus. So I think it’s good to remember too, that sometimes there are outside forces at play and maybe you just need to stop and kind of investigate what those might be.

Making the Shift from Mom/Dad to Teacher

Stephanie (12:14): Very true. So for the new homeschoolers, for the people who are just now starting to homeschool, what advice do you have for them to see you as teachers? So like you’re changing your role from just mom or just dad to also a teacher.

Judy (12:35): I think there’s a rule of thumb that I heard years and years ago, and I think it’s probably pretty true. That if you’re taking your child out of a classroom experience, take the number of years they’ve been in that. So if you’re pulling them out of sixth grade and figure that the transition to homeschooling is going to take about one week for every year that they were in the classroom. So if you pulling them out of sixth grade, you can expect about a month, month and a half of transition. And it’s a time when you just have to demonstrate grace and help them to understand you’re not the only one that’s going through some transition here, I’m having to get used to new things, you are. But I think at the same time there has to be boundaries and you have to tell them what the expectations are.

Judy (13:25): I remember reading a study once about a class of children who were sent out on a playground every day, and it’s pretty well known, so you may have heard of it. But they tried taking away the fence on the playground to see what the kid’s reaction would be. And the reaction was that they all stayed in the very center of the playground, they didn’t feel safe enough to move out and around, but when they put the fence back up and created boundaries for those kids, then the kids felt free to play and run and move around. And I think it’s very similar in a homeschooling situation. You may have to remind them in a variety of different ways, whether you have a chart on the wall or whether it’s a conversation you have regularly. I think you do have to establish boundaries. One of which is I am your teacher, and there’s a measure of respect that goes with that.

Sarah (14:21): I absolutely agree. I haven’t had that particular situation since we started that way. And now when I talked to my kids about it, they don’t see a difference between teacher and mom, which I don’t know if that’s good or bad. When you think about it, as mothers, we’re teaching our children all the time, whether we’re teaching them how to empty the dishwasher and we’re teaching them how to get themselves ready for the day and all those kinds of things. And so I think if I was in that situation I would do exactly what Judy talked about and make sure that the boundaries and the expectations are very clear.

Sarah (14:58): And then maybe in that transition period or while my kids are learning that, I’m also doing school with you, is looking for opportunities maybe to make it fun and enjoyable in that transition. Like maybe going to a nature center and teaching them as we walk and just getting them used to, I’m taking over this part and now and I’m teaching you your school. And we’re going to do it in a lot of different ways, and some of it’s going to be fun and maybe that might help the transition. I don’t know, that would be something I would definitely try I think. Because it’s something that I employ now is also like just breaking it up with a lot of fun. And I think a lot of classrooms do that, teachers in classrooms too, especially for younger kids. So that’s something I would maybe try.

kids playing together outside on playground equipment

Be the Yes Mom

Judy (15:45): I got a mentor when I was a young homeschooling mom who said to me, “One of the best things you can do is always look for ways that you can say yes; don’t always say no. And so the more times you can say yes, the better off you’re going to be.” It was a very little thing, but wow what a difference.

Sarah (16:05): Yeah. If you’re teaching math and you just decide to get in the kitchen and make some cookies and demonstrate, they’re going to see, wow this could actually be a lot of fun and tasty way to learn. It’s going to be fun here too, it’s just going to be different. And I love that. Many yeses.

Stephanie (16:26): We’ve talked a lot about setting goals for your homeschool with your husband, but also maybe having your kids set some goals too, and allowing them to sort of own those goals and then helping them accomplish them, is another way that you can get them involved and see you differently.

Teaching Multiple Children and Dealing with Sibling Rivalry

Stephanie (16:47): So one of the questions we get a lot is about sibling rivalry, I struggled with that word I have to say it really slow, rivalry. Anyway, when you’re teaching multiple children and you might have some attention issues, how can you overcome that in your homeschool?

Sarah (17:12): Like with certain kids feeling like they’re not getting enough attention. I know in my house, my kids are very aware of how much time they’re going to get with me every day from the beginning. And we haven’t had a lot of siblings… in fact, they probably would wish I’d spend less time with their school. No it’s my turn.

Sarah (17:37): I realized the expectations are very clear ahead. In fact, even they know six days ahead when they’re going to meet with me and go over everything. And everybody gets that chance, except the kindergartner I work with every day all of her stuff, everybody else I work with certain things, the days they need them, all of this. And they all know it ahead of time and they all want to come help with the kindergarten. So I think for us, the expectations has worked really well. They know ahead; they just know. So they’re not worried that they’re not getting enough time.

Judy (18:17): One of the things that I found worked in our house, while our tribe wasn’t quite as large as Sarah’s, we really focused on a team mentality in our household. And that wasn’t just for school, that was for everything. I constantly rehearsed that team vocabulary all the time. If we work together to get this done, then we can go do this. I would talk to my older children about how they could be an encouragement to their younger siblings. And so I think it kind of goes back to that say yes thing. Again, instead of always disciplining or correcting when sibling rivalry took place, I looked for ways to flip it around and get in front of that curve and develop that team mentality: “I need you to help me with this. We need to do things together as a family, because if we don’t, then we miss out on so very much.”

Judy (19:24): And so I think when you set that expectation and you rehearse that day after day after day, it just becomes second nature. Well, of course, I will go help my brother pick up his toys. And I think some measure of sibling rivalry is pretty normal, we’re all wired to look at ourselves first. And so it’s a transition to get them to see others first but a team mentality, I think helps.

two kids reading a book and playing together

How to Handle Outright Refusals

Stephanie (19:59): Absolutely. How would you handle a refusal of work or when behavior causes issues when you’re teaching? That’s a question we get a lot too.

Judy (20:10): I think you have to remember that it’s not personal. I think one of the biggest challenges I had as a mom was every time my kids disobeyed, I looked at it as a personal attack against me. And I had to learn to step back and realize that they were being normal children, normal human beings, and that I needed to not react, but I needed to be proactive. And so there were times because there’s going to be behavioral issues in the moment that you weren’t prepared for, and you wonder where did that come from. There were times when I would look at my kids and say, “I need to not see your face for five minutes.” I would know inside of me that I was struggling keeping my anger in check or my frustration in check, and so very often I would say to whichever child, “I need you to go sit on your bed for five minutes, and I’m going to take a break and then we’re going to have a conversation.”

Judy (21:20): And so it became less about in the moment yelling or screaming because that accomplishes absolutely nothing. And it became more about get away from me and give me a few minutes to get my act together, to perhaps stop and say, “Lord, I really need wisdom with this one.” And then we could have a decent conversation.

Sarah (21:45): Yeah. I love that. I did the same thing we talked about in the beginning where I look at if it’s happening over and over with a child, if they need more sleep, if we’re trying to do something at the wrong time of the day when they’re hungry or sometimes those physical things really do come into play a lot. But I think I had one that was the most difficult of not wanting to get school done. And I was just continually having problems over and over. And I did something probably unconventional. My husband and I decided to kick him out of school for a little bit. I told him, okay, you’re done until… when you’re homeschooled, I feel like there’s a certain amount of personal responsibility you have to take, and I can’t drag you through this material. And he was a pre-teen at the time. And so I just let him quit. At first he was very happy, of course. I knew he would be. And he saw his other siblings continue to work, and we let it go on for a month. And I tell you what, he came back so motivated. He did not like watching them all move ahead and him not. And that was something that the Lord had showed me to do, and I talked to my husband; he agreed.

request a sonlight catalog

Sarah (23:03): It was not something I would have ever thought of myself to just kick him out of school. And the ramifications, the positive ramifications have gone so much farther than I ever thought. And it was just a God-idea that he gave me when I prayed about it. And it changed everything for us. So I think really just seeking the Lord when you have a continual thing going on and just asking for his wisdom can make such a big difference. But yeah, I love the things that Judy mentioned too.

Judy (23:35): That’s a phenomenal idea. And I think you nailed it with the God-ideas. We had a year that we took. My husband and I watched our kids struggle with homeschooling. And so as we plan for our coming school year, we took a year off. Now we still read and did some math, but the rest of the time we worked on character issues. We did character studies, and we created opportunities for our kids to serve one another, we have a lot of long conversations. And let me tell you the same as Sarah said, I never would’ve thought of that, that was a God thing for sure, but what huge benefits that reaped. And so I agree sometimes you just have to say, “Lord, I’m stuck., I don’t have a clue here., I need you to give me some insight.” And he never fails to do that.

Sarah (24:35): One thing I would encourage people who are homeschooling in the trench of it, now that I have… I’m not as far as Judy, but I have a 16 year old now. And there are things I wondered about along the way, like “Are we spending enough time here? What if we took that month off?” That’s detrimental, all that time. And if you just keep plodding along and work on those character issues and make what’s important, important, which sometimes we forget about, for sure, and just remind ourselves what’s important. It really does work out. And when they learn those character issues and they learn how to learn on their own, it works out. I haven’t gotten that far, but my oldest two are in some community college courses, and all my fears are like, okay it worked out so far because we focused on what’s important which is them learning how to learn themselves and character and the disciplines and all those things.

Stephanie (25:37): And I bet both of you experienced as your children are in community college, the ability to address their own education, which is something I think a lot of people will go through high school and traditional school or public school and realize that they don’t know how to approach their professors when they get to college. They don’t know how to take on learning themselves. And you’re really teaching that if you homeschool. [crosstalk 00:26:07], giving them the right guidance.

Sarah (26:11): If you could just keep plodding along and just keep plodding along, they develop a love for learning when they learn this way, I think. And that’s what I’m seeing that is maybe different than how I felt for my education. And I love seeing them go in and just be hungry to learn and love it so much. And also be equipped to be able to keep up.

Judy (26:36): And I think you and your spouse have to be on the same page, different, have different convictions and viewpoints about discipline and how to handle those things in your home. As a parent that is absolutely your right and responsibility, but I think it’s a huge deal to make sure you’re on the same page so that you’re doing this together and not at odds with each other. Because boy, I don’t know about your kids, Sarah, but my kids knew my husband and I didn’t agree on something. There were times when they could figure out a way to play that, us against one another. And I think it’s very helpful to make sure you have that conversation with your spouse.

Sarah (27:24): Amen.

a boy sitting down reading a book

How to Handle Laziness

Stephanie (27:27): So we’ve had a lot of people asking about if their child seems lazy, maybe they’re not working as hard or maybe they’ve learned that behavior at public school for a few years now. So how would you advise them to overcome maybe lazy behavior?

Sarah (27:46): Do you want to [crosstalk 00:27:50]-

Judy (27:46): There’s definitely a difference between being one student among 20 and being one student among however many siblings you have. And so again, there’s going to be a transition time when it suddenly dawns on your student that what I could get away with in a group of 20, I can’t get away with here at home because mom sees what I’m doing all the time. Again, grace is a big thing, you got to give him a little bit of time to readjust their thinking and realize laziness won’t work in a tutorial relationship. It doesn’t work. I think you also have to be able to talk through it with your students. I mean, there are always going to be situations where you as a parent have to say this needs to be done and so we need to get this finished this way. But I think a lot of times a conversation will help, and maybe you need to motivate them a little bit.

Judy (29:00): We did a thing that we called a redemption box. And so when we struggled with finding ways to encourage motivation, and we would talk about what was really important, whether it was a toy, a favorite toy, or a piece of technology or whatever it was. And I would give them a very clear expectation, “I need this done in this timeframe, and if it’s not here’s the consequence.” And one of the things I used to say to my kids all the time, and as they got older, they got sick and tired of hearing it, and that was “Your choices have consequences, but they’re your choices.” And so that redemption box came in there because very often the consequence was if you choose not to get this done, then the consequence is that I take this. And it goes in the redemption box, and you will need to do something to redeem it, to get it back.

Stephanie (29:58): That’s a great idea.

Sarah (30:02): At our house, with laziness, we’ve dealt with laziness. And one thing we’ve just always done is when they’re lazy about something and don’t do good work, they get more work. And that wasn’t something actually I would naturally want to do, but that was my husband who he would always do that with the chores. And so I realized that works well for school as well. So we would just give… Well, if you’re not doing it well, if you’re being lazy about it, then you’re going to get another job or you’re going to get more problems to do. And they sit there, and it does make for an uncomfortable day or two. And then they realize it really does pay off to do a good job the first time.

Sarah (30:46): And I would say… Okay, let’s be happy about it. You didn’t like that? He doesn’t like that. I do notice that there were some things that I was letting them be lazy on even as they got older and older in some of like showing their math work or doing a good job in this way that they write sentences. And when they started going to the community college, I noticed that some of that stuff they had to relearn or it became a problem. And so it makes me even think differently about my next ones of, it’s really good not to be lazy in these things because eventually you do have to deal with it. And so I’m talking to my kids about that as well. Like if you don’t learn it now you have to learn it later and it might be more uncomfortable and painful later, too. But yeah, we do more work when we’re lazy. [inaudible 00:31:40].

Stephanie (31:43): I think Sarah just made our video, at least 20 times cuter.

Judy (31:48): Yes. I agree and more real.

Stephanie (31:52): Yeah. For real. This is like… guys, right. I think that those are great ideas. I think giving more work because of what they’ve done is a great idea. And I love the idea of redemption box, as well. So I think that both are great.

Stephanie (32:12): Hi, welcome back. I said you made our video like 20 times more cuter.

Sarah (32:17): A little louder.

Stephanie (32:18): That too. Anyway, I appreciate both of you joining to talk a little bit about maybe focus and behavior issues. And I hope that this has been helpful for whoever is listening. And I appreciate you both. If you’d like to learn more about Sarah and her adorable family, you can find her on Our Tribe of Many on YouTube and Judy and I will see you soon.

Judy (32:45): All right.

Sarah (32:46): Bye.


Seven Ways I Keep My Kids Focused During Reading Raising Kids Who Can Focus in a Distracted Digital Age From Public School to Homeschool: Deschooling

a picture of a little girl hanging on a boy

Related resources

  • child playing by himself

    The Importance of Scheduling Quiet Time for Kids

  • pyramids

    Reasons Why It is Important for Kids to Learn History

  • Living Math Books

    Using Living Books to Teach Math Lessons & Review

  • 10 Homeschool Scheduling Tips To Help You Plan Your Year

    10 Homeschool Scheduling Tips To Help You Plan Your Year

  • children playing with blocks

    The Best Tips for Homeschooling Multiple Grades & Levels

  • pile of books

    The Best Children’s Encyclopedia Books for Reference