From the Mailbox: Troublesome Students

This is part of a series of articles based on actual questions I have received and my replies to them. Real names will not be used, and I will address my responses to a generic “Mom”; if you are a homeschooling Dad, the advice can usually be applied to you as well. The wording will be altered from the original letters (and often assembled from multiple letters) and personal details will be omitted or disguised in order to protect the privacy of the writers while still maintaining the spirit of the question. If you have a specific homeschooling question that you would like me to address, please write to me at If part of your letter is used in an article, your identity will be concealed.

Dear Carolyn,
I have tried to homeschool both of my children at the same time, but I cannot make it work. They pick on each other, fight with each other, act up, act stupid, act silly, and do everything they possibly can think of to prevent any teaching, learning, or schoolwork from taking place. It is driving me crazy. I can send one or both of them to a Christian school, but my desire is to be able to teach them myself at home. Why can’t I handle this? They are my kids, and I love them dearly, but I can’t get the two of them to cooperate with me at the same time. What am I doing wrong???

Dear Mom,
Please consider that my reply is accompanied by a great big hug. I do understand what you are going through, although much of my own similar experiences had been forgotten until your letter dredged up the memories of siblings kicking each other under the table and making faces at each other, disrupting each other’s concentration. I will offer multiple suggestions here, but you can decide what order of trying things works best for your situation.

Set your boundaries for acceptable behavior during class times, and make sure that your children understand what the limitations are. Establish exactly what the consequences will be for crossing those boundaries (I restricted privileges; it worked well for my son), then enforce your rules and reward good behavior. The rewards part is the most important, because no one wants to live in a world of only punishment. Remember, though, that this is homeschooling (not school-at-home), and try not to be overly strict on permissible behavior — relax and enjoy each other. When I made time for a little fun, we enjoyed our days so much more than if I had kept things strict and tedious.

Seating arrangements: My children (at first) sat opposite each other at a table approximately 3’x4′ with benches on the two long sides. Your letter quickly brought back the memories of how they would swing their legs (often without thinking about their actions) and end up kicking each other. I had to enforce a rule of “keep your feet under your own space” — and allow them stretch breaks to get away from our school table and exercise their muscles. Your letter also suddenly reminded me of setting up a visual barrier for a time: I propped up something tall in the middle of the table to prevent them from distracting each other with stares and goofy looks.

Broken Rules: When one of my kiddies did upset the other by breaking the no-kicking rule, I kept the rule breaker at the table with me, and allowed the “good” child to go elsewhere to work on his/her lesson. That way, they did not learn that breaking a rule earned them free time or a privilege or break — it backfired and earned the victim a privilege. However, beware of the sneaky child who can irritate a sibling just enough to force retaliation, making the instigator look like the innocent victim — it happens!

Spread out: Sometimes we moved to a larger space where I could sit between my two children with them both facing the same direction. No more foot contact or eye contact was possible, except through me.

Rewards: I praised them and gave rewards for good behavior, not just punishment for bad behavior. A behavior chart can be beneficial (especially for boys) to track how long each student can go without breaking the rules: how many lesson periods, or minutes, hours, or days. Again, give rewards — perhaps offer home-made coupons or tickets for each successful time period of good behavior and allow the tickets to be traded in for a special treat. Your goal is to establish a pattern of good behavior and turn that pattern into a habit.

Maturity comes with age: Discuss your expectations with your children, one on one, and explain how you expect their behavior to improve as they grow older. Do not underestimate how much your students are growing and maturing by expecting their previous (undesirable) behavior to continue. No one wants to be stereotyped for his entire life, so watch closely for every little sign of improvement in their behavior and praise, praise, praise.

Get the wiggles out: Your most important tool in changing your students’ behavior will be physical exercise. Boys, especially, have a difficult time sitting still for lessons — there are just too many fascinating things in this universe to be explored and investigated. I sent my son out into the backyard to burn off a little steam before trying to sit him down for schoolwork. I gave him frequent breaks to run, jump, and play. A friend had shared with me about sending her children outside to run laps around the house until they were so tired they could not do anything BUT sit still and listen to Mom. It works wonderfully! With a few repetitions of that preparation technique, your students will gladly sit down and behave themselves. Kinesthetic learners need to get their large muscles moving first, just to kick their brain cells into gear, as if their minds cannot process information until their hips and shoulders have been warmed up.

Physical Separation: As your children show ability and responsibility, you can separate them for lessons. If your home situation allows, place one child in the kitchen and the other in the living room, then you shuffle back and forth, giving assignments and checking on their progress. I do not expect you to do this forever — you are trying to teach each child how to work independently. When each one has understood how to do his OWN lessons, then you can begin to bring them back together for short periods and see their behavior improve.

Since your older child will probably spend more time at his lessons each day than the younger one needs to spend, try to stage the schoolwork so that the younger child can entertain himself during the periods when the older one needs your help. Allow the older child to do reading subjects or seatwork in his bedroom (away from his sibling), as he proves himself responsible at independent work, allowing you one-on-one time with the younger student. (Families with more than two students can expand these ideas as needed to suit their circumstances.)

Controlled Togetherness: Try reading aloud to them for together time — some fascinating, mind-stimulating books about mysteries or investigations. Seat them far enough apart to prevent physical contact, and let them use art materials or play with Lego’s quietly while you read to them. I strongly recommend that each child have his own activity during the read-aloud time, not letting them have a chance to quarrel over possession of the Lego’s or crayons. Again, you are trying to teach them how to behave when sharing the same space, so start with them apart and slowly bring them closer together while observing your boundaries of acceptable behavior.

You can do this, Mom. The first year of homeschooling is definitely the hardest, and if this is your first year of schooling both children at home, do not assume it will always be like this. Do not beat yourself up for past failures — learn from them. I was afraid to try homeschooling until my younger child was in 1st grade, simply because he was such an extremist toddler/preschooler that I thought he would consume all of my time and energy. Once he was old enough to sit down and do lessons, things went much better. Make your schedule work in your favor, separate your children when you must, and teach them how to co-exist by using controlled situations. Remember, Mom, our children may have more energy than we do, but we have the advantage of more experience!

For further tips on bringing peace to your homeschool, see the following articles:
Is This “Acceptable Behavior”?
“Parent” Is a Verb
Family Is Spelled T-E-A-M
Siblings As Best Friends
From the Mailbox: Disrespectful kids
Kids Will Be Kids
Spoken Destinies & Learned Behaviors
Teach Your Students to Teach Themselves
Teach Your Children the Art of Amusing Themselves
Your Children Will Not Always Be Like This
Homeschooling Failures I Have Known — and What Can Be Learned From Them
From the Mailbox: Read-Aloud Disruptions


  1. Charity says:

    Great as always, Carolyn. I am blessed to have a "school room" with desk chair and work table, so our disruptions are much more verbal than physical. This totally reminded me though, that praise is always more motivating than punishment, and I have a hard time practicing that sometimes. I usually end up staggering their subjects and that helps. Otherwise both boys will say their math lessons to themselves outloud and confuse the other one. :P

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