Training Children’s Minds

Training Children’s Minds

Posted in Keystone Magazine Articles

by Barbara Smith

For the first 10 years of our home education, Craig did all the academic stuff. My education was very poor: the NZ state school system, including an expensive girls’ boarding school, did not cater to my kinaesthetic learning style (My parents did all they could to give me a good education, driving for miles every day of my primary school then sacrificing to send me to a good school as a boarder but the school system let me down). So when our situation changed and demanded that I do the teaching, I thought I had to be ahead of them all the time and was frantically trying to study up on every subject. Then I worked out that I probably only needed to be one night ahead. But praise the Lord, I discovered that if I just get in there and learn along side of them, which was the usual situation anyway, my excitement about learning things was contagious! We all enjoy our time a lot more when there is excitement in the air.

I am convinced that, if I can do it, then by God’s grace anyone can do it, and do it well. Ask the Lord to give you a conviction that your unmatched commitment to your children will cause your tutoring/mentoring home education situation to produce superior results. Your home education programme, almost regardless of what it is, has vast advantages over even the most gifted of teachers in a classroom simply because it is you, their mum, doing one-on-one for as long as you like, any way you like, any where you like, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. With such a conviction you will be spilling over with the kind of confidence that stirs up not only your own children but nearly everyone else you engage in conversation to want to know more!(Excitement, enthusiasm, conviction and lastly confidence…those who have heard me speak know I am developing some of these things at least, even if my formal education was no good. And don’t be fooled by this essay: much of the grammar and punctuation are a result of my husband’s editing skills!)

Keep it simple and set yourself up to succeed. Big ambitions and big plans are great, but if they are unrealistic, you will burn yourself out and set yourself up to fail. I’m currently teaching a 15-year-old, a hyper-active 10-year-old and a typical talkative 4-year-old (while the 18-year-old is at polytech fulltime and the two eldest are travelling overseas, all 6 totally home educated).I know this is a piece of cake compared to some of you, so just apply the principles. We always begin with our Number One goal: reading the Bible together and discussing it as a family around the meal table. We also pray and sing Psalms and hymns together. Being the number one priority, Craig takes the lead. We believe that whatever the Dad does with the children is considered by the children to be a bit more important than usual, especially if it is done at the beginning of the day. Since Craig’s office is here at home, we read the Bible and pray after nearly every meal. Sometimes this takes 10 – 15 minutes and other times we have long discussions. (We know of Dads who start work so early each morning that they structure their day the Hebrew way, beginning it at dusk! In that way the Father is still able to lead family worship at the beginning of their day!) If this is all we manage to get done in the day, we don’t worry, for we have at least achieved our Number One goal. Our day was a success!

Next I set out to train the children’s minds in capacity. At school and with some curriculum, children are taught facts for a test. The test comes and goes, and they immediately forget most of what they learned. We need to train our children’s minds to remember important facts long term.One of the most effective ways of doing this is Scripture memory or poemsor maths facts etc . Now I am not talking about the way Scripture is usually taught at Sunday School, learned in order to get the lollie or the sticker and then forgotten. In fact, I am not talking so much about Scripture memory as I am about Scripture review. We want every Scripture our children have ever learned to be firmly remembered, imbedded in their minds forever. It is hard work to learn verses by heart, so why learn them to forget them next week? The key to remembering verses for the rest of their lives is review, review and more review. So this is how we begin nearly every morning after breakfast and chores: reviewing, that is, me hearing them recite their newest verses nearly every day for at least 7 weeks. Then I review those verses only weekly for a few weeks and finally they end up being heard only once a month.

Review goes like this: the child always says the reference, then the verse, then the reference again. The standard is word perfect….near enough is not good enough, especially when we are handling God’s Word. Either the verses or just the references are written on file cards. To keep track of where we are, I have a box with different sections in it. In the front I have two separator cards for the daily review: behind the first are the ones I need to do that day, and behind the second go the review cards once we’ve done them. The next section has 12 separator cards with the months on them, January to December.In the first three monthly sections I have five separator cards: one each for the four weeks of the month behind which I put the verses for once-a-week review and a “monthly” one behind which go the verses for review only once a month. There are several ways this can be set up. The important thing is to set up a system that suits you and works for you. I have a friend who has a system set up under each child’s name, and that works well for her.

Nearly every day we do the daily review. As soon as possible in the week we do the weekly review so that it doesn’t all fall on a Friday or Saturday. Once the weekly review is completed we work on the monthly review and try to do this from the beginning of the month so that the monthly review does not all have to be done during the last couple of days in the month. Today is 18 May and I have just finished Charmagne’s monthly review items for May. Charmagne is 15. But I only finished Alanson’s monthly review items for April last week! Alanson is 18 and a lot harder to catch between his study, work and social commitments.

Children from quite a young age can learn surprisingly large portions of the Bible or quite long poems. When Charmagne was 4 & 5, we were teaching the older children James chapter 1.One day Charmagne began to prompt the older children as they recited it. We asked her if she knew James chapter 1 and got a real surprise when she could say most of the 26 verses with just a little prompting. We had not been working with her on it at all. She had picked it up from listening to the older children every single morning. Ten years on Charmagne can still quote James 1 to me faster than I can read it.

This way of learning can be done individually or as a family. It is more fun as a family and more the Hebrew approach to learning. I especially like this article on Scripture Memory:

(18/8/12 We went through a stage of reviewing as a family but I am back again to listening to each child’s verses seperately. I am now listening to the last of my 8 children – they are 14 (boy), 11 (girl) and 6 (girl). We begin the day with family workship at 6:30am. At 7:00am we begin our memory work with reciting together all our new passages/catechisms/maths facts etc. I then listen to the 14 years olds  daily/weekly/monthly verses etc. while the two younger ones listen in (the 11 year old will do the 6 year old’s long hair nicely for me, sometimes they also massage my feet and brush my hair during this time as well.) Once the 14 year old has finished his reciting he goes off to have his Quiet Time, music practice and other things. The 6 year old listens with me to the 11 year as she recites her memory work. It is amazing just how much the 6 year old has picked up just listening to her siblings, so it has been much easier for her to learn her memory work. This can take us up to 2 hours a day.  I have to discipline myself to do this. The reward at the end is breakfast and satisfaction with the progress we are making in memorizing the Bible/catechisms/maths facts etc. )

As part of this review I have other things that we are committing to memory. So these things slot in with the verses. We are learning a simplified catechism for children as well as the Heidelberg Catechism. (A catechism is a summary of Christian doctrine in question and answer form. For a huge list of creeds, confessions and catechisms see The boys are learning their math facts which I have written out as flash cards for review during this time. Jedediah (4) has done the “+ 0” facts and is up to 5 + 1 = 6 in the “+ 1” facts. He just loves going through them. Both the boys are learning Latin words and the verb conjugation chants. Jedediah knows that “I love” is “Amo” and can do the “Amo” chant: amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant. I have a card for Jedediah’s alphabet and another for his numbers. Charmagne and Jedediah made up cards with each letter of the alphabet plus a picture or drawing of something beginning with the letter on that card. Now Jedediah also knows most of the sounds because we go over them most days like flash cards. Both Jeremiah (10) and Jedediah are learning the books of the Bible and the Apostles’ Creed. Another project we are planning on is learning the Treaty of Waitangi.

For something a little less formal, I try to read to the boys for about two hours a day. I read to them while they do the dishes (we don’t have a dishwasher), play with Lego, colour in, brush my hair, massage my feet and any other time that is suitable for us. I like to read a series of books or to have a pile of books always handy. If I don’t and I finish a book before they’ve finished the job, I am likely to tell them to carry on with the dishes just this time while I go do something that is really pressing. Next thing I know, a whole week has gone by and I still haven’t gotten around to selecting a new book to read because there just seemed to be all these “really pressing” things come up all the time.

I try to read a wide range of books: biographies, autobiographies, historical fiction, Church history, books on science, nature, musicians, artists, etc. We have a published timeline close by plus others each child is constructing to which we can add dates and events as we read about them.Having these timelines, a globe and maps nearby helps to bring alive the things we are reading about. Craig also tries to read to the children most nights.

The next two most important things for training the children’s minds are the two kinds of narration. I’ll read a passage to the children, and they have to repeat to me everything they heard. I’ll do easy pieces with Jedediah and more difficult ones with Jeremiah. They often try to begin telling me from half way through the story, especially if it is a longer piece. But I make them go back to the beginning, and it is amazing how much they remember when pressed to remember it. This is training them to listen and at least remember and perhaps even comprehend whatever is read to them. We want them to listen attentively whenever the Bible is read, whenever a sermon is preached, and I dare say the skill will come in handy during lectures at university, should they ever go there.

Next I get Jeremiah to read to me, then to narrate back to me what he has just read. This is training him to focus and concentrate on what he reads as he reads it. It will save him countless hours of frustration in the future. I know what it’s like….I have to read and re-read passages over and over, for my mind wanders all over as I was never taught to focus.

All these things are priorities for me, and I work at doing them first on most days. If this is all that I end up doing in a day, I’m really not worried, for I have achieved the important things with the children.But I do like to get more done.

So, if it is a good day, I do some more work with Jeremiah on his phonics. He can read but is not reading for pleasure yet. His mind works faster than his lips, and so he does a fair bit of guessing when he is reading. I am trying to slow him down a little and getting him to work on reading accurately. This year I have begun writing with him. This is the 3rd or 4th time we have started to learn this skill. The previous starts were all disasters, so I simply assumed he was not ready yet. He will do a couple of pages in a hand-writing guide book and has also begun to copy the Bible into a notebook. (Charmagne has also been copying out the Bible for a while, and says it is a really different and interesting way of getting familiar with the Scriptures.) At the moment we are also working on a project covering North American geography, history, music, art, etc.

Dr Moore’s formula has impressed us, so along with the academics we like to focus on work (chores, work ethic) and service to others. With our older children we concentrated mostly on the academics, and the standards around our home suffered because of it. I was swayed by the poem “I’m rocking my baby, the cobwebs can keep”. This is fine if you just have very young children, but I let my older children get away with not doing many chores so that they could focus on the academics. Now I believe that training the young children to do the jobs around the house to a high standard is training them to do their studies later in life to a high standard.

Most chores are considered duties, their proper service to the rest of the family as part of the Smith Family Corporation. They aren’t paid for these, nor do they get pocket money. There are occasional and regular bigger jobs around the house where they can earn money. So when your children want to begin helping around the home at age two or three or four, exploit the opportunity: get them to do a job, any job, and train them to do it always right. If we are sticklers for quality and faithfulness with the older ones, they will often be great teachers of and far more exacting on their younger siblings than we would be! Service outside the family can be part of multi-tasking: if the children bake a cake and take it to some older house-bound person, they can then ask the person what it was like growing up way back then. This is work and service and history all in one.

We have been influenced by the thinking of:

Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn . Have a good look at this one, especially at “Ten Things to Do with Your Child Before Age Ten”.

Roland Meighan (University of Nottingham School of Education) in Home-Based Education – not “Does it Work?” but “Why Does it Work so Well?” quotes Alan Thomas’s research: “Families starting out on home-based education who at first adopted formal methods of learning found themselves drawn more and more into less formal learning. Families who started out with informal learning at the outset found themselves drawn into even more informal learning. The methods that both groups grew into had much more in common with the methods of younger children. The sequencing of learning material, the bedrock of learning in school, was seen increasingly as unnecessary and unhelpful.

“Learning to read was a central concern, but parents showed less anxiety when their children showed no inclination to learn at the usual age. Curiously, these children who learned to read relatively late still went on very quickly to read material suitable for their age. Most of the children were voracious readers.

“Thomas stresses that his work is in the early stages and should not be regarded as the last word on the matter. Nevertheless, he is already aware that his research challenges one of the fundamental assumptions of schooling: the almost universally held view that children of school age need to be formally taught if they are to learn. In school this may be the case but at home they can learn just by living.”

Jeff Richardson, Monash Universtiy, Melbourne says, “The evidence shows overwhelmingly that these children perform extremely well, above average, when they re-enter formal education. That appears to be across the board, whether they sat at home and had formal lessons…or whether they were up-a-tree hippies who had no formal learning pattern. On any measure you like, socially or academically, they will do better.”

Diana Waring

Jonothan Lindvall

Dr Raymond and Dorothy Moore in Better Late Than Early

You may have noticed that I have mentioned no text book learning above. This is because we don’t use text books until around 10 or older. Some children, especially girls, may want to begin text-book learning before 10. If so, go for it. Charmagne went straight into Saxon 65, a grade six text, at age 11 with no earlier exposure to any math textbook.

Life is a great teacher. I begin teaching shapes when I am cutting the toast for the toddler. Once the toddler knows the shapes we get started on fractions. Sometimes they know 1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8 before they can count to 25 because of cutting the toddler’s toast into 1/8ths. As they get a bit older and can handle baking, they learn more about fractions as they double or halve recipes. The clock or a watch is the best way to teach the time. The toddler quickly learns 7am, 12 noon and 6pm as the meal times. Our 4-year-old knows 3pm on the clock as he is not allowed to ride his bike outside the gate after that time because the school children are loose on the streets. We talk to our children as we go through the day so they pick up an incredible amount. We have found that most children do not necessarily learn as they interact with textbooks or workbooks. Just because a child has a lot of written work does not mean that child has learned a lot. But children do learn as they interact with their parents or with other adults, especially if they are encouraged to ask a lot of questions. When questions are coming thick and fast from the child and adults are giving serious answers, lots of learning is taking place. Now some children learn best from texts and work books. It is the preferred learning style for a significant number of children. If that is your child’s style, then go for it. But if your child doesn’t appear to be a book person, it may be time to change to something that works for that child.

Some people will be very nervous with the approach I’ve described above, and will want to follow a systematic scope and sequence to fill in all the gaps. Again, this particular learning style just doesn’t suit many children. In addition, learning gaps may be overrated. Do you know everything? Of course not. That is to say, you have learning gaps! Learning to recognise our gaps and knowing how to fill them when required is real education. Naturally as parents and adults who have gained a lot of understanding about the real world and the kind of education that really is needed out there, we will have a good outline of skills our children must master and knowledge our children must know. This will form the core of our curriculum. And as long as the children are asking questions, those interminable “Why?” questions, they are filling in the major gaps according to their own little scope and sequence system which the Lord seems to hot wire into almost all children. Again, here is where reading a wide range of books on a daily basis gives untold opportunities to discuss and explain an incredible number of issues and concepts that just crop up while your several minds are engaged with the passage.

The next step in training our children’s minds is to give them The Tools of Learning. These can be mastered in two to four years. I will explore this in a future article.

From Keystone Magazine

May 2002, Vol. VIII No. 3

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