Homeschool Burnout: Causes and Coping Strategies

Attitudes are contagious. Mine might kill you.

Whenever homeschooling moms get together for more than a few minutes, the subject of burnout is likely to come up in one way or another.  Whether it’s the frustration of dealing with toddler potty training or addressing the changing moods of adolescents, having so much responsibility so much of the time is extraordinarily challenging.  These situations usually work themselves out, but sometimes a closer look and a new plan of action is called for.  This article examines the signs and causes of homeschool burnout, and offers specific strategies for getting things back on track.

Signs of Homeschool Burnout

The signs of homeschool burnout vary, but these are among the most common:

  • Feelings of envy toward non-homeschooling moms
  • Bitterness about the level of responsibility
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Lack of patience
  • Crying or lashing out easily
  • Change in appetite (Food is a major source of pleasure, or holds no interest at all.)
  • Leaving simple, routine tasks undone
  • Apathy or despondency about family life
  • Feelings of failure

Common Causes of Homeschool Burnout

Unrealistic Expectations. Oh, it all sounded so perfect in theory, didn’t it?  And the catalog covers reinforced this vision of neatly groomed children gathered ‘round the kitchen table, cheerfully completing their school work.  When they finish, they’ll probably thank Mom for her sacrifice and devotion and offer to help with the laundry.

I have not actually met this family yet, but I’ve seen moms with the vision.  Sadly, they have one of the highest homeschool dropout rates in our area.  At homeschool conventions, I’ve chatted with many idealistic first timers as they browse through the candy store of curriculum options, envisioning the delights of home education.  I’ve tried to walk a thin line in these conversations, offering both heartfelt encouragement and a word of caution. Yes, you can do it!  Yes, the rewards are many!  But homeschooling is not easy.  You and your children have a sin nature that will not magically evaporate on the first day of homeschool.  You have preferences and desires that will not always match up.   Some days, only you and the Lord will know what you’ve been through.  If you understand this in advance, it will not come as a complete surprise or a devastating blow.

Lack of Organization. The shoot-from-the-hip approach to household management that many of us got by with pre-homeschool simply will not work when we’re in the trenches.  Everything from dinner prep to library trips to science experiments must be considered in advance and thoughtfully brought into the framework of a complex lifestyle.  One of the smartest things my husband ever did was present me with a Franklin planner and a copy of The 10 Natural Laws of Successful Time and Life Management.  He explained that in his opinion, my job was at least as important and as complicated as that of any business executive, and having the right tools for the job only made sense. These two items revolutionized not only my daily household management, but also my thinking about how each day should be approached.  There are many excellent resources on the market for organization and time management, some of which were specifically created for homeschooling families.  A friend of mine made a very impressive custom planner using only Microsoft Word and a three-hole punch. And some moms do quite well with just the free calendar obtained from the local funeral home.  The main thing is to find a system that works for your family, and then use it diligently.

Fatigue or stress from too much activity. Can you really do it all?  Maybe.  But not well.  And not at the same time.  Editing the daily schedule may be one of the greatest gifts you can give your family. Focus on the things that are really important and scratch the rest off your list without guilt.  Perhaps this isn’t the year for horseback riding lessons.  And if sending out Christmas cards is more of a chore than a joy, try bowing out for a year and see if it leaves a significant void in the season.

Change of Condition. Everything was going along just fine, and then (fill in the blank) happened.  A child becomes seriously ill.  An elderly parent needs care.  A job change creates financial stress for the family.  Any number of things can cause tremors of trouble in a landscape that was previously stable and pleasant.  Give yourself some time to regroup and adapt to your new circumstances, and be realistic.  In times of crisis, a bare bones approach to homeschooling may be called for.  You can always pick the Latin or Art Appreciation back up when things simmer down.

Pride, Laziness, or Other Unrepentant Sin. I’m afraid I have to hang my head and raise my hand on this one.  Nothing can damage your day or your family like the harboring of secret sin.  How many of our confrontations with our children are exacerbated by pride?  How many of our unfinished tasks are truly a result of laziness?  How much of the perceived lack of support from our husbands is a result of our own disrespect for their positions and disregard for their opinions?  Rooting out besetting sin is painful and humiliating, but incomparably liberating.  The Excellent Wife by Martha Peace was instrumental in helping me identify unbiblical thought patterns and behaviors in my own life, and I highly recommend it to anyone dealing with these issues.

Diagnosing the Core Problem

Until you know the source of the trouble, you will not be able to take effective corrective action.  Here are some strategies for figuring out where things are going wrong.

Keep a stress diary for a couple of days. When you find yourself in the midst of distress or despair, make note of the specific circumstances.  What is going on that may have triggered these feelings?  What time of day is it?  Who is present? Where are you?  What activity are you engaged in?  Look for patterns.  If you discover that doing math with your oldest daughter in the family room just after lunch is always a bummer, you have identified some specific things you can try to adjust.

Write yourself a letter detailing your own complaints and frustrations. Putting things in writing can be extraordinarily helpful in clarifying issues. You may even want to set the letter aside for a couple of days and then write a response as if you were counseling a friend.  Often times we know the right thing to do and just need to take the time to think it through.

Ask your husband for an honest assessment of how he sees things. The unspoken thoughts of a homeschooling father could save many families a lot of grief. Perhaps he sees that you are struggling and has some valuable insight, but wants to spare you embarrassment and stress.  Pray for a tender heart and humble spirit, and then open yourself up to scrutiny.  Even in the unlikely event that nothing practical comes of this exercise, you will be blessed for your demonstration of humility.

Ask your children for their opinions. Yes, this can be a bit of a Pandora’s Box, but it can also be genuinely enlightening.  Admitting that things in the school room are not all they could be may come as a great relief to your kids, and asking for their input may generate therapeutic conversation and practical solutions.

Prioritize Changes. Maybe you’ve got the problems figured out, but you’re overwhelmed at the thought of addressing them.  Converting the garage to a school room is a major project that may need to wait.  Letting all phone calls go to voice mail during school hours can be implemented immediately.  Don’t get bogged down by focusing too much of your attention on broad, sweeping changes.  Just do what you can to make things better today, and make plans to implement change methodically in the weeks to come.

Strategies for Long-term Success

Live a Life of Balance. Try to find a balance between routine and variety.  It would be impractical to have Bible lessons outside during a picnic every day, but it might be nice every once in a while.  Likewise, creative incentives in the classroom can keep things fresh and fun, but it’s important not to go overboard. If we do, we may end up with kids who expect treats for every effort or accomplishment.  Homeschoolers also need to walk a fine line between time at home and interaction elsewhere.  Many of us joke about car schooling, and it’s only humorous because it’s true.  In the quest to provide a rich diversity of educational experiences, it’s easy to lose the plot.  So every once in a while, stand back and take a look at how things are going overall.  Any practices that are throwing off equilibrium should be adjusted.

Train Your Children:

  • To work independently. Some activities require direct, uninterrupted parental involvement.  Others do not.  We should expect an appropriate degree of independence from our children.  Excessive “What do I do, I don’t understand, I need your help” moments can ruin the school day for the entire family.  Some kids figure out how to use cries of helplessness as a form of manipulation. (Remember that sin nature?)  Others have simply never been trained to get on task and stay there without constant oversight.  The time and energy invested in training children to show initiative and work well on their own will yield a terrific return during the school years and well into the student’s adult life.
  • To be responsible and accountable. The default mindset on task completion should be “Get it done, no excuses.”  If extenuating circumstances are a daily occurrence, something isn’t right.
  • To lighten your load. Virtually every homeschooling mom I’ve met embraces the concept of children being responsible for household chores.  But the wheels often fall off the machine when it comes to implementation and accountability.  Choose tasks that you know they’re capable of completing.  Train them in the specifics of a job well done.  Follow up with quality assurance checks. (Doorposts has some wonderful resources for training boys and girls in household responsibilities.) For accountability, we implemented a rather unusual strategy with our kids.  We came up with a base weekly allowance (money) for each child that we felt was reasonable.  When they completed their chores each day, we inspected their work and gave them a percentage grade on their performance.  At the end of the week, we calculated an average, and that was the percentage of their allowance that was paid.  If they wanted 100% of their allowance, they needed to complete 100% of their chores to specification.
  • To be pleasant and respectful. Let’s be honest. Some kids are a joy to be around.  Some kids aren’t.  If I’m going to spend the bulk of my day with children, I want them to belong to the former group.  One of the pitfalls of homeschooling is that, in our quest to teach the paths of righteousness, we sometimes end up with precocious children who lack respect and discretion. Training your kids to be the kind of people others want to be around will benefit them in countless ways, not the least of which is greater happiness in the home.

Train Yourself:

  • To be disciplined. Maintaining the physical and spiritual disciplines that contribute to a healthy life is vitally important for homeschooling moms.  Spend time with the Lord daily and memorize scripture.  Get regular exercise, eat right, and groom yourself in a way that makes you feel human.  Don’t let the housework or the paper grading get too far behind.  If you need accountability, set it up.  (The Fly Lady is a there for you.)
  • To be restrained. If you call upon your husband to help maintain discipline in your homeschool, just stand back and let him take care of it without interference from you.  If you feel your children pushing you to the edge of sanity, take a moment to gain control before you speak or act. Don’t let excesses and indulgences creep in and gain a foothold in your life.  A friend of mine actually had her husband uninstall solitaire from her computer because it had become a source of struggle.  I really respected her for addressing the concern head-on.

Take advantage of outside resources. We live in an age of unprecedented access to information, and homeschoolers have never been presented with more options.  Teaching DVDs and CDs, co-op classes, and online tutorial services can bring unique expertise into our classrooms.  Concurrent enrollment classes at local colleges offer older students dual credit and access to specialized equipment and instruction.  Tutoring from older students at church or in the neighborhood can help out with everything from Calculus to computer programming, and special learning opportunities with family friends or relatives can expose students to a variety of vocational options.

Plan for an Imperfect Existence

  • If a curriculum isn’t working, scrap it. I’m pretty frugal, so I don’t offer this advice lightly.  But here’s the thing: you can always earn more money to make up for the cost of a curriculum, but you can never do anything to regain a wasted year.  Furthermore, a course that’s not going well is probably souring the student on the subject matter anyway.  Many of our loyal Shurley customers were in precisely this situation.  Their children hated English until they encountered a program that put success within their reach.
  • Devise strategies for dealing with preschoolers. Plan to spend nap times working on the most intensive subjects with your older children.  Put together a box of “school time only” toys that will engage little ones without creating a disturbance.  If possible, plan activities for younger children that coordinate well with what the rest of the kids are working on.  Position mirrors throughout your house so you can keep an eye on things from a variety of angles without having to get up and investigate.
  • Give yourself a few “Get Out of School Free” cards at the beginning of each semester. You know you’re going to need them, so why not plan in advance?  When an unexpected situation arises, you can take the day off without guilt, knowing that it won’t interfere with your overall schedule.
  • Always have an emergency dinner in the pantry. We all have days when the roast didn’t quite thaw, we forgot to turn on the crock pot, or a science experiment went into overtime.  Having a recipe and ingredients for a quick, easy “go to” meal can save the day.

Sharpen the Saw. To borrow a concept from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, if you don’t take the time to stop your work and sharpen the saw every once in a while, you will become progressively less productive. As homeschooling moms we are called to live lives of sacrifice, but we mustn’t become so child oriented that we cease to be individuals.  Maintain your personhood and share it with your children so they can enjoy who you really are.  Keep developing your skills and learning new things.  Celebrate the creative imprint of our Heavenly Father by practicing hidden arts.  (See Edith Schaeffer’s The Hidden Art of Homemaking.)  Seek out the fellowship and encouragement of other homeschoolers.  And continually work to maintain a strong marriage.  It is, after all, a representation of Christ’s relationship to the Church—an image that your children need to see.

Redefine Success. So you’re rounding the bend toward the final stretch, and you realize you haven’t run a very good race this year.  How do you get from here to the end of the school year?  First, set realistic year-end goals.  Take a look at where you are right now, and determine how far you can go.  Adjust your objectives, adjust your schedule, and keep right on going.  Don’t wallow in the guilt of not having met your own expectations—it wastes valuable energy!  When the semester is over, celebrate what you and your children have accomplished, perhaps with a year-end family assembly.

Remember that the Lord is Sovereign. We are responsible for living lives of obedience, but ultimately the outcome is in His hands.  Challenging times present a unique opportunity to express our faith in God’s ability to care for us.  If our children learn to trust in the Lord with all their hearts, the time will not have been wasted.

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This is so spot on. Thank you for these words of wisdom.


  2. I needed this so much tonight…thank you !

  3. Great things to think about. The only other thing I would add is some of those signs of burnout are signs of depression. I was suffering from uncontrollable fits of anxiety and depression that looked a lot like those signs and seeked out my doctor who I trusted and found that the antidepressant allows me to feel 100% better and now I can focus enough to organize more of the day and deal with the fits of my 3 little one not in school and handle the ADHD issues of my older boys. Sometimes seeking medical help is needed. There is no shame in that.

    • Absolutely. Serious situations may call for medical help, which should not be delayed.

  4. Any ideas on how to train your kids to work independently and how to be respectful? I have three boys and would love some advice. Two of which do their work and the other I believe has ADD. It has caused great anxiety in our school time.

  5. Utterly brilliant…you have restored me for today. My heartfelt thanks. 🙂

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