A Homeschooling Conversation with Susan Wise Bauer: Frustrated Kids, Making Changes, and When It's Time for a Break

A Homeschooling Conversation with Susan Wise Bauer: Frustrated Kids, Making Changes, and When It’s Time for a Break


The other week, I shared the first of this two-part interview with Susan Wise Bauer. She is the author of Story of the World, co-author of The Well Trained Mind, and she runs Peace Hill Press, which puts out a number of very popular homeschooling curriculum.

This is the continuation of that interview, as I (along with Tsh, Heidi, Jessica and Mandi) discuss some of the ins and outs of homeschooling.

Knowing when to switch to a new curriculum, finding what works for your child, understanding frustration, and letting go of the guilt… join us as we talk!

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How do you tell the difference between when a child is just going through a hard season or when someting (a curriculum or method) is not the right fit for your family?

Susan: Well, it depends on whether they’re giving you a hard time across the board. Then it might be a life phase that they’re going through, which sometimes they do. All the boys have had periods where they were unbearable to be around. Maybe it’s just a testosterone thing? Emily never did that (she says as she smiles over at her daughter Emily, and Emily giggles).

But if they’re giving you trouble with one specific subject, I think I would always blame the curriuculum before I would blame the kid. The first thing I would do is switch, then if they don’t like that one either, then maybe you’re dealing with a dislike for the subject. But the younger a child is, the more that their disike is an expression of something that’s not working for them, you know? So if a kid cries over a curriculum, always ditch it.

Stephanie: Really? Because my daughter’s been crying over math for a year, and I thought it was either a) I’m a terrible math teacher, or b) she’s just convinced herself she can’t do math.

Susan: You need to change the program. Tears are non-verbal frustration. They’re an expression of “there’s something so wrong here that I can’t even begin to put it into words”. They can’t even say to you, “I can’t do this”.

Jessica: Even in a kid that’s prone to tears over not liking something?

Susan: A year? No.

Stephanie: Sometimes she gets it, and when she gets it she’s happy and she’ll do her whole unit great.

Susan: If there’s a pattern of tears, that’s non-verbal frustation. Listen, I have criers. All my kids are criers (well, most of them). They just used to tear up all the time, but there’s a difference between that and the frustrated tears. Tears are a big deal, even in a kids that’s prone to tears.

And anger is a big tip-off. Because with some kids, that’s how it takes them. They just get mad at the curriculum, but that’s that same non-verbal frustration. They’re just feeling that there’s something so wrong here. You know, it’s how you feel in life when there’s a situation on that’s so knotty and complicated that you can’t figure what end to pull first– you either cry or you get mad. I would always pay attention to that.

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Real Differences Between Curriculum

Stephanie: I’m such a young homeschooler that we haven’t really played around with a lot of different curricula, so it’s hard for me to even imagine what would be so different about learning to subtract with this curriculum vs. with that one.

Susan: With skills areas (and math in the early grades is a skill), it’s like having a piano teacher that’s unable to communicate to the kids how to play piano. With skill programs, there are some that make sense and there are some that don’t. As an adult, you may look at it and you may not see the difference, but it’s the order in which the things are presented, it’s the form in which they’re taught to do it.

You know, Emily can do long division one way, and she can’t do it the other. The way that she can’t do it is the way that I was taught to do it, which is why we got a math tutor. The way that she would do it that made sense to her, I would look at and say “What? I can’t even understand what you’re doing here!”. Math curricula are like that. If even the format doesn’t make sense to the kid, you need to switch. It does make a difference.

A Homeschooling Conversation with Susan Wise Bauer: Frustrated Kids, Making Changes, and When It's Time for a Break

When It’s Time to Take a Break

Heidi: Do you ever suggest taking a break from a particular subject if that’s an ongoing struggle?

Susan: I think the first thing I would do is switch. If the frustration continued, then I would start to look for maturity issues. Is it just that the subject is too complex? Is there a mismatch between the child’s maturity level and the amount of material that’s being covered? And then I would get their eyes checked, do any evaluations if you think there is any other sort of processing difficulty. That would be the next step after that.

But, a lot of frustration really is just maturity level. Sometimes you need to just keep repeating the same thing for a little while and give that maturity level a chance to catch up.

Heidi: Not move on to the next level of things or next concept…

Susan: Some things just take time. And if you’ve got that clock ticking in the back of your head that says “we have to finish this by X”, that’s not really conducive to learning.

Stephanie: I feel that way all the time.

Susan: Yeah, I know. You need to keep not listening to that little voice in the back of your head.

Peter Bauer: I also think, particularly with math, even if you have a program that you feel basically works for you, you have to be careful… For instance, with Saxon you do the meaning, you do the lesson, and you do the timing tests. I had to stop doing the timing tests with my kids. All the rest of Saxon was fine for them but those timing tests freaked them out, and made them so uptight about math that I actually started going backwards with two of my boys, because they couldn’t handle it and so we stopped doing them.

Jessica: We did, too.

Peter: If you’ve got a kid that responds well to pressure, that’s one thing. But to put a kid under pressure at that age, when they’re young and they don’t respond well. That’s harmful.

Susan: You’ve always got to have the freedom to ditch a part of what you’re doing, without feeling guilty about it. This is one area where I can help Pete, because I was like, ditch the timing, and my mother also said ditch the timing. It’s good to have other voices saying yes, that’s a part of the program that you don’t need to do.

A Homeschooling Conversation with Susan Wise Bauer: Frustrated Kids, Making Changes, and When It's Time for a Break

Read more posts about (or inspired by) our weekend in Williamsburg:

From Tsh: My weekend in the middle of nowhere, Do what you love, and Classical afterschooling (Curriculum Fair 2012)

From Jessica: Let’s Tour Colonial Williamsburg, and the first of several posts that she has just begun on homeschooling and thoughts from our trip and time with Susan (more to be added soon).

From Heidi: Peace Hill Press Weekend Day 1, 2, 3 and 4

From Mandi: Homeschool in a Box, and Our Homeschooling Philosophy (And How It’s Changed)

At what point have you made a curriculum switch? Do you struggle with making changes or feeling guilty for the things you aren’t doing?

TLH AD BANNER FINAL 125Thanks to TriLight Health for their partial sponsorship of my trip to Virginia! You may have noticed me mention TriLight before, and that’s because I’m such a big fan of their herbal liquid remedies and supplements. Our family uses them frequently, and they’re one of my top recommendations for those wanting to use herbs for better health.


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  1. Yes definitely! Although I’m getting better about it. I wrote a post recently about “letting go of *should*”. It’s easier for me now that I have a few more years under my belt, but there’s still that lump in your throat. You wonder if you’re balancing being too easy on the kid and challenging them. That’s just part of parenting whether you homeschool or not I suppose. 😉

  2. I love the advice about ditching the timing tests. We do Rod & Staff and the speed drills freaked my kids out, so I quit doing them. I feel validated 🙂

  3. We are young homeschoolers, too. One thing that stuck in my head when I was doing a lot of research on different styles of homeschooling was “better late than early”. That doesn’t mean that we slack but if my son is super frustrated with something (usually phonics) we back off of that for a while and do something else — Maria of Math Mammoth says that some of those harder concepts will ruminate in the back of the mind so that when you come back to it it will likely be easier. That was true for me of Calculus — first time around was so difficult for me (who actually loved math) but when I took it again in college I aced it with an A.

  4. Dear Stephanie ~ I haven’t commented for a long time here…but I do appreciate many things about your blog. Thank you for taking the time to share your ideas and experiencing and for sourcing great contributing authors. 🙂

    I just had to let you know about the Math program that made things *click* for my children and even made them declare at times…*I love math!*, when it wasn’t their natural tendency to do so. 🙂

    Professor B Math makes sense. His motto was to *tell the truth* about math. He teaches each concept thoroughly and it makes sense! I never understood (really) how to add fractions with different denominators as a child…but I *get it* now! LOL! It’s been a blessing to our family. If you Google *Professor B Math* you will find their home page in the links provided and there you can view some of their methods and testimonials. I HIGHLY recommend it for elementary math for the basics (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division of all numbers including those in the billions, fractions and decimals).

    Oh…and one more thing…you must begin at the beginning. I made the mistake of not doing that with my oldest who was struggling in math because I thought it was too easy (he was in grade six at the time). I jumped into the middle of the first book. BIG mistake! He is now in grade 11 and plans to become and architect…no worries…it really does all come together! Precept upon precept…line upon line……

    Blessings to you!

  5. Thank you so much for relaying this interview! I tend to push my kids through frustration out of fear of letting them give up. And we’ve been having the same on and off tears and anger over Math. Now that I think about it, we had the same thing with phonics a few years ago, and I’d notice that after a few days (or weeks) of frustration, my daughter would suddenly have an “a ha” moment and seem to leap forward effortlessly. I need to remember to stop, listen and consider the maturity factor when we’re having trouble.

  6. Thanks for sharing your conversation with Susan. I love her advice about refusing to listen to the voice in your head that says you need to finish XYZ by such-and-such a time/age. Every child is different and learns at a different pace. And somethings will be easy for one child and complicated for another. As a teacher, it’s very frustrating to have to teach the same concept over and over and over, but sometimes, that’s what the child needs. Time to absorb the information that is being taught without feeling pressured to move on to the next thing.

  7. Thanks for asking such helpful questions. My oldest, in particular, just “shuts down” when he is being forced to learn something that is challenging. I have found that taking a break, and even discussing the importance of his learning it, to be helpful. I would agree that girls don’t have this problem as often.
    Just like potty training a toddler happens at different ages, so learning different concepts happens at their own time.

  8. I’m in the process of switching right now. My oldest is a gifted math student, and we used MCP and Saxon in elementary math, but when we came to middle school, pre-algebra, Saxon’s method of jumping from one topic to another daily really left no time for understanding things like decimals, negative numbers, fractions, and algebraic formulas. We will be receiving Art of Problem Solving’s Pre-Algebra in the mail soon. I hope that the mastery approach will help him to really understand the material. He always loved math till this year. Then it was fits and starts and failing tests. I thought “he’s bored” so I skipped him ahead again, but that wasn’t it. I’m pretty confident that the problem is the spiral approach. It doesn’t give his brain enough time to chew the material and file it rightly, so he kept losing it.

  9. That was a great dialogue to read! I’m in the midst of this very thing. It’s been driving me crazy trying to figure out if my DD has a learning disability in math because we get tears every.single.day from *my* favorite curriculum. We are making a curriculum switch, and that gives me hope that maybe *my* favorite curriculum just wasn’t *her* favorite curriculum. Thanks for that question!!

  10. Stephanie, thank you SO MUCH for recording and posting our discussion!! There was so much I had already forgotten! It is wonderful to read this again and feel inspired a second time.

  11. As a child, I was home schooled by my mom (just as the movement was gaining momentum). I remember telling her that I disliked the curriculum I was doing, so we switched. My complaint? Not enough color photographs!

    I would affirm the idea that kids learn at different ages and mental growth and readiness comes at different times. Pushing a child to the point of tears is not productive. As a child, I excelled in reading and grammar, but I struggled in math (not understanding algebraic concepts until high school!). One day it finally clicked. I had a cousin (also home schooled) that didn’t have any interest in learning to read until third or fourth grade. His mom tried and tried, but he just didn’t get it until one day. There are a lot of years to learn things, and some just are a little slower to “get it” than others, but they’ll get there!

    My husband holds two degrees in math and teaches at a university, so I anticipate our son (due very soon!) will have someone competent to explain math to him in the future. Thank goodness!

  12. We don’t officially homeschool yet, but the most helpful resource I’ve found so far for just condensing and laying out the different methods/approaches and naming off some good curriculum to research is the education chapter from your new book–The Heart of Simplicity! Richele does an excellent job laying everything out in a nutshell. We are hoping to do a homeschool/university-model school combo, and I was honestly pretty overwhelmed thinking of everything until I read that chapter!

    1. I know, I want to re-read Richele’s chapter as I go to plan our upcoming year of school. This will be my busiest year yet, with my second child now joining our oldest in being ready for some more official schooling, plus the two littlest ones… I know that I need to do some good planning and figure out how to balance it all, and I loved what Richele shared.

  13. *Absolutely* change it up! My other suggestion is also to think outside the box- identify how your child learns best (and this may not be the same for multiple children) and find learning opportunities that cater to those strengths. Another way of thinking around things is to realize that learning happens even if a packaged curriculum isn’t being used. Don’t be afraid to NOT use set curriculum!

  14. Um. So who cares about her answers. Are those the pictures of a real garden? Hers? May I please have the same?

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