Homeschooling with an Energetic Toddler? How Can it Possibly Work?

Anyone who’s had a toddler in the house for a few days knows how much time and attention they demand. Pairing a toddler with students sitting and studying seems a match destined to fail. Yet it can work.

More than a decade ago, I juggled homeschooling another’s child with two toddlers of my own. Later, we became a foster family and over the next seven and a half years, twenty-three different little ones came through our house as we homeschooled our older children. Many of these little ones were toddlers who came to us with difficult backgrounds, yet my eldest have been homeschooled from the beginning and are now in high school and managing just fine.

Homeschooling with a toddler in the house isn’t easy, but it can be done. Remember that it’s a marathon and not a sprint. There will be days (and weeks) where it feels no progress is made, but in the end, with steady effort and some good strategies, you will reach the end, despite all the interruptions and difficulties.

Some tips I’ve learned along the way:

  • Include the toddler in the lessons. Have a toy computer for him to use while the big kids are on the computer. Have coloring books for him to use when the bigger ones are working in workbooks. Let the little one draw on the bottom of a white board when someone else puts work on the upper portion. Have a spiral notebook for him to use when the others are writing in theirs. Give him a book to look at when the bigger ones are using their books–I like to tell him which page number to turn to and watch and see the toddler copy the big ones in trying to find what he thinks is the right page. Whatever the older kids are doing, find a similar thing for him to work on. Little ones want to be part of what’s going on and you’ll be surprised at how much they learn from hanging out and pretending to do lessons with you.
  • Take regular breaks during lessons. Get up and do chores and involve the toddler. All of ours have loved to “help” with putting laundry in the washing machine or using a whisk broom while we sweep or vacuum. Or have the little one run around in the backyard for a bit while the older ones take a break, perhaps by playing a game with the little one. These little breaks help everyone stay mentally fresh (and help you keep the house from falling apart) and burn up some of the toddler’s vast energy reserves.
  • Have some toys, puzzles, games, etc. that the little one can use while the big ones are working. Keep them special so they’ll be more interesting.
  • Keep a few great DVDs around to pull out when necessary. “The Letter Factory” and “Schoolhouse Rock” videos have been our favorites. Putting them on for the littlest one to watch while the bigger ones work in another room can work wonders (and the little one quickly learns phonics and other skills from it).
  • Make the most of nap times. The bigger ones can do lessons during nap times, especially lessons that require more concentration. When the little one outgrows the need to sleep at nap time, maintain nap time, for as long as possible, as a quiet time when he must be in bed but can look at books or play quietly.
  • Learn to do lessons with some distractions going on. We’ve learned to do lessons with toddlers playing at our feet. The toddler will interrupt lessons at times, but we give him some attention and then go right back to the lessons–much as happens in a classroom when some misbehavior or a message from the office or whatever interrupts the flow of a lesson for a few minutes. The world is full of distractions and learning to work at a task despite their interruptions is a good skill for life.
  • Take regular time out to run around–play in the yard, go to parks, take hikes on nature trails, go for bike rides, etc. with the toddler included. Chalk these up as P.E. for your school-aged kids, while you run as much energy out of the toddler as possible; then come back for lessons and the toddler should be too tired to cause as much trouble.
  • Make sure the toddler is taken care of. Food, diaper changes, drinks, and attention given in regular doses can prevent meltdowns before they happen, and a meltdown prevented means more time and energy available for lessons.
  • Likewise, give the little one his own time and attention. If he’s getting some attention of his own, some stories read to him, some time spent snuggling together, some activities designed just for him, etc., he’ll be less likely to demand attention when you’re working with the big kids.
  • Make the most of down times. Got the kids all sitting to eat a snack, eat lunch, ride in the car, etc.? Try to use that time for lessons, too. Use audio books, or read aloud to them, or play educational DVDs, or have a discussion about a lesson, etc. while they are all sitting still anyway.
  • Get some lessons that you can all do together. Educational DVDs that the whole family can watch together are great–the littlest one may not understand much but he’ll get more out of it than you might expect even if he’s playing with trucks as he watches. Science experiments can sometimes work if the little one can do something to help out; if nothing else, encourage him to look at what’s going on and ask him to draw a picture of it (while reminding him to only look with his eyes and not touch). Art projects can be done together with the littlest one working at his level. Field trips together can be good, especially if you go with another homeschooling family who can stay with the older ones if the toddler starts to have a meltdown.
  • Get some lessons and activities that the older ones can do independently. Sure, you’ll still have to check on them and answer questions, but if they can read a book on their own, or put together a project, you can focus on the toddler (or on other activities) for a while. Don’t forget to have the older kids help with meal time preparation and other activities; these can be part of their lessons, too.
  • Make the toddler the lesson. Consider studying child development or psychology or babysitter training with the toddler as an ongoing laboratory experiment. Then, when he suddenly melts down, the older kids can consider it a lesson as they try to help figure out how to calm him down.
  • Homeschool throughout the year. If you don’t take a long break in the summer (or any other time of year) from lessons, then taking regular bouts of time off to deal with a toddler won’t be a big deal (and the older kids won’t forget as much which means less time will be needed to review material).
  • Know when you’re licked. Sometimes, you just have to call it a day earlier than you had hoped to. Remember that the older kids are not only learning from the planned curriculum about academic things, but they are learning about parenting from watching (and helping) you work with the little one.
    • Don’t forget, too, that lessons at home shouldn’t require as much time as lessons done in a school setting because of the one-on-one nature of homeschooling. So time lost in dealing with a toddler shouldn’t be as big a deal as some might expect. It can help, too, if you remember to look for some humor in the situation. For example, feel free to throw an occasional question about the lesson at the toddler; his answer may make everyone laugh (or it may shock everyone if it makes sense).

One thought on “Homeschooling with an Energetic Toddler? How Can it Possibly Work?

  1. Here’s another idea I tried recently with great success. Instead of asking the teens questions from the day’s geometry lesson, I asked the toddler. Then I asked one of the teens to tell us if the toddler’s answer was correct. The toddler loved it, and the rest of us found geometry a lot funnier than usual.


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