homeschooling

How to make a homeschool daily schedule work

Does the word schedule make you break out in hives? Do you picture yourself harried and deflated at the end of a day on a homeschool daily schedule? Maybe for you, like me, that’s a vivid memory, not a theoretical picture.

Schedules get a negative reaction in the homeschool world, and I totally get why.

I mean, can I schedule diaper blowouts and my doorbell ringing and the toddler pulling an open bag of powdered sugar onto herself? Where does that go in the schedule?

One thing we learn as soon as we try to live by a written schedule is that we are not actually in control.

Guess what? That’s a good thing.

If you hate the thought of schedules, if you’ve tried a homeschool daily schedule and it didn’t work, I have three secrets that I hope will cause you to reconsider and try again – in a new way.

A schedule isn’t the boss.

There’s more than one way to use a schedule.

Before we talk about the secrets that make schedules work and the results we can get from them, we need to get clear on what a schedule is and is not.

The normal way to approach a schedule seems to be to plug all our tasks into time slots, then pull out our hair when we get derailed and it all falls apart. Obviously, we conclude, homeschool schedules don’t work.

We blame the schedule and we try to homeschool without one. But then we’re exhausted in a different way, with the fatigue that comes with having to make too many decisions on the fly and bully or cajole our children through their work.

The biggest problem with most homeschool schedules is the same as with most planning. We write down our ideals. We fill out the calendar, planner, or template with wishful thinking.

Despite what some say, there is no magic in writing it down. Simply having written something will not bring it to pass. Writing is an exercise in thinking, and if we’re stuck in wishful-thinking planning, our plans won’t get far.

The goal for both planning and scheduling needs to be to think through our families’ situations and needs realistically and make a plan to use our time wisely and effectively – not perfectly.

As we make our plan, we take into consideration the fact that we are human, that we run out of energy, that we need breaks, that we dislike some of what needs to happen.

On top of that, a homeschool plan also needs to that into account the fact that we’re working with children. We’re working with our specific children, too, with known needs and desires and temptations and issues. All that needs to affect the plan and the schedule.

Just because you’ve tried a schedule before and it didn’t work doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try again.

Being rigidly scheduled or flying by the seat of your pants are not the only two options.

I challenge you to try a schedule for your homeschool again, taking into account the following three secrets proven to make your daily plan workable.

Does the word schedule make you break out in hives, especially when it comes to your homeschool? If there's one thing that trying to live by a schedule teaches us right off the bat, it's that we are not actually in control. And that's a good thing.

Secret #1 – A homeschool daily schedule should be visible to everyone.

When I first started homeschooling, with a five-year-old, a three-year-old, and a baby, I kept a clipboard. Everything I needed, including the schedule, was on that clipboard.

It worked because I was the director at that point. My children could not read and needed to be prompted to do the next thing.

I didn’t realize it was a temporary situation. I set myself up for a hard transition as my children became older and formed more firm opinions.

Because the schedule was only in my own head or in my own notebook, I was always directing everyone, telling them what to do. That might work for a five-year-old, but not so much a ten-year-old.

After all, I wanted to raise self-motivated and self-directed learners, but the way I was keeping the plan was preventing that from happening.

If I’m always the director, then they never get a chance to learn self motivation. Without knowing what’s next or what’s on the agenda, they cannot be self-directed.

Not only do I want them to become self-directed, but they naturally want autonomy as well. What looks like resistance and pushback against me turns out to actually just be resistance to stepping into another day with unknown, unwritten (to them) expectations.

So one term I wrote the schedule for the day on the whiteboard where everyone could see it. The arguments and resistance melted. I realized that my sons had thought I was making up our requirements for the day each morning and therefore assumed there was room for negotiations.

When they could see the definite work in a definite time, they could also see that there was plenty of defined time for play if we got our work done in a timely fashion.

So when they can see on our whiteboard that they have a certain amount of time for their work, a certain amount of time for recess, and a certain amount of free time, then they can carry themselves through those times without being bossed around by mom.

Even if the flow of the day might be the same, they are learning a more valuable skill: self-direction, accountability, and responsibility.

Result – A homeschool schedule reduces conflict.

When I was trying to figure out where to strike a balance between control-freak scheduler and fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants anti-scheduler, I came across this passage in Charlotte Mason’s first volume:

I never would have guessed, but having a visible schedule with each hour assigned a specific kind of work has done wonders for the discipline and atmosphere of our homeschool.

“Let us look in at a home schoolroom managed on sound principles. In the first place, there is a time-table, written out fairly, so that the child knows what he has to do and how long each lesson is to last.

This idea of definite work to be finished in a given time is valuable to the child, not only as training him in habits of order, but in diligence; he learns that one time is not ‘as good as another’; that there is no right time left for what is not done in its own time; and this knowledge alone does a great deal to secure the child’s attention to his work.”

Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p. 242

Here are the three secrets from this insightful paragraph alone:

  1. The schedule is a duty for both student and teacher. This schedule isn’t mom imposing her own will on everyone else by the force of her own control.
  2. The schedule is required for managing by sound principles. A daily homeschool schedule is a management tool that runs on wisdom, on principles.
  3. The schedule is something written out for the child to see. Mom doesn’t keep it in her head or in her own binder, barking orders left and right to keep everyone marching to her drum. Therefore, the schedule becomes self-motiving to the child.

Because they see the outline of the day for themselves, they learn that giving each task its own time is the only way to unlock the planned recess or free time.

If they spend 20 minutes “looking for their book,” then that has to come off of some time block on the schedule, and it’s going to be their free time.

So, instead of procrastinating by dawdling, they are actually spending their own time. In our house, learning this lesson took a few hard days, but because the reasonable time-bound expectation was clear and on the public notice board, it wasn’t a fight between mom’s will and child’s.

Much homeschool conflict comes from Mom micromanaging and nagging, but when both she and her children can refer to the written schedule, both also have better accountability.

Secret #2 – Homeschool schedules remind us of our commitments.

Yes, it is true your homeschool schedule will rarely, if ever, work exactly as written.

But 70-80% each day is still a huge benefit over perpetual scrambling and aimless wandering.

If you add extra margin into your schedule, planning 30-40 minutes of work for each hour, you can reach 80% of your schedule 80% of the time.

The goal isn’t to pack as much into our days as possible. Our goal is to make time for our priorities and work from that plan.

As Stephen Covey put it:

“The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”

As Charlotte Mason said, we are to give each duty “its own time.” And when we reserve that time slot for each priority, we will be more satisfied in our day’s work because we too will learn “that one time is not ‘as good as another.'”

The reality is that without a written reminder of what must be done and how it all fits together, we forget. Perhaps we remember with just enough time to scramble and do it, but that increases our stress and reduces our satisfaction in getting it done.

With a homeschool daily schedule, we can stop scrambling and stressing and move from one thing to another with calm clarity.

A schedule is a note from our reasonable, committed self to our in-the-moment, tempted-to-skimp self. We can follow our commitment and grow in maturity and responsibility or we can give in to self-indulgence or self-pity and let ourselves off the hook. Letting ourselves off the hook never brings long-term satisfaction, however.

We want to grow in faithfulness and fruitfulness. The written schedule reminds us how to do just that. It reminds us of what’s important and that time is not unlimited.

Creating a space in your day for fulfilling your duties is a tool we can use to grow in self-discipline.

Result – Our homeschool daily schedule ends overwhelm.

Essex Cholmondeley, a teacher-student under Charlotte Mason’s instruction, wrote of how having a time-table, a schedule, affected them:

Again, to many of us life was overfull. We [refused to] be hurried [on by others]; we liked to say ‘I will do it in my own time.’ But at Scale How [the teacher college] time was to be respected, given to the thing or person claiming it rightfully. Then there would always be time, without over-pressure or distraction.

This sense of time value was hard to achieve but it bore the test of experience during the two years’ training. […] It did not seem possible to find a moment for everything, yet if no time was wasted there was plenty of it and no hurry.

Plenty of it and no hurry“: Is that not what we are after?

Are we willing to give our time to the “thing or person claiming it rightly” in order to achieve that sense of time value?

It takes upfront work to determine those duties and to write out a fair time-table where we cut back on time wasters and lower priorities in order to better execute our true responsibilities.

It won’t be perfect or work the first time, but as we practice and refine, we can also find what we wanted all along: the sense of not being hurried while still doing what must be done.

Secret #3 – Schedule blocks with margin.

A lot of the frustration in homeschooling with a schedule is that we try to have both a set amount of work (such as reading one chapter or working one page of problems) and a set amount of time.

However, when we add a person into the mix of time and task, things don’t always come out equal.

We are forced to consider: is the point that this student learns and grows or that we finish the prescribed lesson?

I would propose that if a student spends 20-30 solid minutes with you, going over long division problems, then it doesn’t matter how many equations you were able to tackle in that time.

Practicing the process is the point, not doing 10 problems. Likewise, setting the timer for a reluctant reader to read for 20 minutes is better than telling that child he has to read 2 chapters, no matter how long it takes.

Elementary age children cannot sustain attention and diligence for much longer than 20 minutes, so insisting they push beyond that is not helpful to your cause or to their growth.

Now, once division or reading is easy for them, they might be able to spend longer doing it, because it’s not as taxing. But don’t tax the student for more than 15-20 minutes at a stretch.

The schedule should also not try to pack as much as possible in. Transition takes time and so margin needs to be built into the plan. During some seasons we might even need to build in a 30-60 minute “attitude break” or “counseling” floating block. The schedule needs to align with the actual current needs, and it’s better to deal with attitudes and hearts than push on and get the tasks checked off.

Sometimes what we need more than a time-boxed schedule is simply a flow chart. What comes first? What happens next? Do we actually have enough time to fit those items in?

Follow the flow, then, without worrying about time in 15-minute increments, but also know that dawdling and procrastination will mean the last things never happen – or there’s never free time.

Having a schedule with blocks for a type of work, but not a set amount of work, is a good way to ensure regular practice in all their skill areas and also to keep their minds fresh by varying the type of work required.


Create a whole-life, whole-week flexible schedule.

I’ll show you how:

Get this handy template for figuring out your own time budget.

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47 Comments

  1. We still have 5 children at home, and I just can’t seem to keep up with everythingp. I would love a chance to win this!

  2. My biggest struggle when planning is figuring out how to prioritize yet still get done all the things I think I need to. It’s almost as if my family gets a “pick 2” option, where they can have decent meals OR get school done OR have a clean home, but not all three.

  3. I have 10 year old boy who I have always struggled with… I have tried everything to get him to do his schoolwork or his chores!

  4. Planning takes me an excruciatingly long time. If I’m not fully planned, any little hitch will do to derail our school day (not having the millions of construction paper shapes pre-cut for Saxon K kept us from moving forward for weeks). Anyone else get mired in the mundane?

  5. So, my kids can’t be the only people who, when given access to the schedule go and change it? I posted up a a chedule and my older son says, look mommy, today I have snack, art, lunch, and free time in the schedule, but my brother has to do all of these chores! That doesn’t seem fair, oh well, I guess I’m done for the day!

    Younger brother wised up and started manipulating his own schedule too. I recognize that this is a disciplinary problem, but really, do any one else’s kids do this?

    1. Could you print it instead, maybe, so they can’t?

      We did have an instance once when we first started where things were adjusted (it was more subtle, too; they were really trying to get away with it). We explained that that was a form of lying and cheating and would not be tolerated. Sometimes I think kids are unclear on where the line between joking and lying stands, and they need to be told where the line is and then we have to hold that line.

      I would totally make the one who changed it have the schedule he wrote for his brother and the brother get the one he made for himself. :) “He who digs a pit will himself fall into it.”

  6. Great point about not trying to fit in a certain number of problems or what have you AND a set time. I’ve fallen into that and it’s totally a recipe for disaster here. I do need to post a schedule that everyone can see… I think that would help. Problem is I have almost zero vertical space… I’ll have to think about how to do that.

    1. Maybe a printout in their binders or on a clipboard? I’m planning on going over ours before beginning Circle Time this year for my non-readers, because I think my 6yo will be getting more anxious about feeling out of the loop. :)

  7. I have issues being flexible once I’ve created a plan. I either stick to it ridgedly or end up getting frustrated with it not working out and trash the whole thing! I’m a planning disaster :(

    1. Maybe you can practice loosening up (oh, I know the trouble!) by picking only the essentials and “tethering” them to something already solid in your routine. So rather than watching the clock, you say “math right after chores” and “reading time right after lunch” or however it goes in your house.

      It’s ok to work yourself gradually in the direction you’re trying to go. None of us can change overnight, no matter how we want to. :)

  8. My greatest struggle right now is to not get off track with toddler or baby interruptions. It seems if we lose momentum to a dirty diaper getting everyone back together and moving is overwhelming. And the Pick Only Two problem someone else mentioned.

  9. I like the thought of only writing down the time not the amount of work to be done – I think my son will respond to this better.

  10. We are going to start homeschooling in the fall, and I am wavering between letting them enjoy their summer and getting an early start. But we need to decide soon!

  11. I struggle with narrowing down printed resources, getting overwhelmed with the limitless possibilities to study a specific topic, and never beginning or giving up if it doesn’t work the first time. Started school this week…will be making adjustment on scheduling times. Thank you for the thoughts.

  12. So much food for thought in this post. I have always used a prepared curriculum, but adding a third child into the mix this fall has me considering doing my own planning or altering what is already prepared. I am a little nervous, though! I am reading anything and everything I can get my hands on about planning! Thanks for this timely post!

  13. Well, we have gradually gone from Mother of Divine Grace with two older children and a baby to “unofficially unschooling” with the addition of 5 more including one set of twins. I know that God had to simplify things and my priorities were meals, a reasonably clean home and my sanity, not to mention a marriage in tact. I have been blown away by what they have learned anyway!

    Now, I’m getting the nudge that it’s time to rebuild our school with the wisdom and time that we have gained. This post was very helpful and I thank you.

    So, my biggest struggle is that when I’m overwhelmed, I find it hard to begin at all.

  14. Better scheduling and a more predictable, organized routine are two priorities in the coming school year. So much good stuff here. Thanks!

  15. Thank you for this! Scheduling school with 5 boys is a daunting task. However this was so helpful. I tend to make my own schedule and direct also. I am going to try posting a flexible schedule this year and see if it reduces some conflict.

  16. I think I struggle with getting all of what’s on my agenda done. I like the idea of setting a timer or a set amount of time and having really focused attention for that time. Thanks

  17. I love to make schedules – double the joy if it is a color-coded spreadsheet. Using those schedules, however has proven to be more of a challenge. I already like the idea of under-scheduling (or would that be overplanning?) to build margin into the day. Hmmmm, this package looks like a useful tool.

  18. My biggest problem is juggling 8 children to do some chores, lessons, and get along. I also need more time for me to plan and pray. My health has been a big issue and hopefully that will be better as soon as I have a major surgery.

  19. My current struggle is being flexible to meet the needs of new baby brother. I like to have school done in the morning and not drag on. We are all still adjusting.

  20. I love to read about planning, look at others’ schedules, get fancy with writing it all in the planner, and then if we get off schedule (usually after the first day!) then I ditch the plans and get discouraged… I’m trying to simplify the plans for this next year and focus on my daily prayer life.

  21. I Struggle with scheduling and keeping them sometime having 6 children and homeschooling them. This would be a great recourse to better our daily life.

  22. I find such peace in scheduling. When I can see a plan for the day, when I can see that there is time for the tasks that must be accomplished and time to rest and play, then there is no need to panic. Even “interruptions” can be borne with calm and patience because time can be built in for them as well!

  23. Great post! I am definitely a schedule maker, and get stressed when I can’t make reality fit =) I read something recently that was similar to what you said about scheduling 30 minutes into an hour. Then if the child finishes early, they have extra free time as their reward. If the child dawdles and it takes them longer, that extra time is already built in. Also, I do like setting timers for lots of things, including teaching my daughter to read (15 minutes of reading lesson at a time). Like you said, some things just shouldn’t be pressed too hard. Thanks for the encouragement and ideas!

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