A: I understand this very common question! Tommy wasn’t home one week before *I* began to wonder how in the world we would ever add formal home education into our days!
Two things were obvious.
One, I would be rising earlier.
Two, we would need a schedule with near-miraculous properties! The closer we got to August 5th, the first day of our new school year, the more I procrastinated over that schedule. I was pretty sure that when we laid it all out and crunched the numbers, we would prove once and for all that it was actually impossible!
Wow! What a job it was for the Musser Brain Trust to think it all through and conquer the myriads of details! But the result is a simple and workable schedule that serves us rather than the other way around. I see it as a gracious provision from the Lord just the same as a bumper crop of sweet potatoes. We work, but God gives the increase!
A lot of my job looks similar to managing a small business, except all the employees are in various stages of the training process.
Everyone has taken to the new routine, partly because there is something energizing and satisfying to little children about knowing what to do when, partly because we don’t have to spend as much brain power on our routine chores any more, partly because it’s more immediately obvious to each family member that their help is valuable and valued, partly because we’re all experiencing how much more smoothly life flows now, and partly because all kinds of free time materializes when our days are organized according to what makes the most sense.
By the time Tommy was first admitted to the hospital in mid-September, we’d had six weeks to practice the new routine, and as Laura declared more than once, that made all the difference while I was gone.
Just as indispensable as the schedule itself are the checklists. Every complex, multi-step task such as cleaning a bathroom, setting up for breakfast, or preparing for a trip has a corresponding typed, double-side copied, laminated, detailed, don’t-have-to-think-it-through-every-time! checklist. We made several copies of each checklist so that when one checklist gets lost, it doesn’t cause delays.
Daniel has a pm (before bed) checklist and an am (before work) checklist. Seven of the younger children have age-appropriate daily chore checklists. The children can use dry-erase markers to check off items if they find that helpful. Joseph is exempted from chores since he contributes a small sum to the household expenses. We use that to pay the Amish neighbor girls the going rate for about six very productive hours per week of household help. They change all the sheets and do nearly all the cleaning, including very heavy-duty cleaning. They are available for more time, so when we decide we need more than six hours a week, that can happen.
Daniel, 18, is working full-time with the family carpentry business now, but during the recent hospital season, he willingly stayed home. He was such a help to keep life as stable and ordinary as possible for the younger children while I was away as well as a valuable ally when I was home.
Since our older school-aged children are almost 100% independent in their studies, my primary task as teacher at this point is to oversee the bookwork of the four younger boys [John Michael, 8, Peter and James, almost 7, and Stephen, 5] and to conduct memory time for them and group history time for the younger boys and the older girls [Laura, 14, and Jane, 11 1/2].
We had to come up with an irreducible minimum of two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon for me to give close attention to teaching.
Here’s what’s working.
We moved breakfast back to an earlier time and lunch to a later time.
We moved every task possible from the morning to the evening before, and every task is assigned.
All that the four little boys do after being wakened is make their beds and come to the table. This turned out to be a smart move, as chore time for the little boys in the morning was like putting a wild card in where it can affect too much of the rest of the day. They weren’t as motivated to be diligent with their chores when they knew that the next item on their agenda was school work!
The little boys’ mealtime routines are so brief in contrast with Tommy, Katie, Verity, and Ben’s that we needed a plan for the time following each meal while I’m still very occupied with the little ones’ care. Laura is Verity’s helper at breakfast time and Jane is her helper at lunch time.
We made the post-breakfast time outdoor active time for them and Jane, and that’s been working very well.
This photo was taken back in August. They bundle up well now that the mornings are cold!
If one of the boys fails to observe the rules after one reminder, he puts his equipment away, brings his school box and school books to the kitchen table, and gets to work. There’s incentive for ya! That’s happened only rarely, as you might guess! And the physical activity before their seatwork has made a noticeable difference in their ability to focus.
Post-lunch time is rest time for Peter, James and Stephen. We have an extensive list of activities that are appropriate for rest time. They’re motivated to keep the rest time rules (stay on bed, no talking) because they enjoy rest time and prefer it to sitting near me with a school book. If John Michael has finished his morning schoolwork before lunch, he does a quiet activity at the kitchen table during this time–another positive incentive.
Post–supper time for the four little boys means “Clear your place, wash your hands, brush your teeth, change to clean clothes, free time until Bible time.” If someone has chosen to dawdle over their schoolwork earlier, he works on finishing those assignments before having free time.
We have three goals for the preschool years and none are directly academic, although our children work through a set of Rod & Staff preschool workbooks during those years. The three goals lay a foundation by helping our children begin to develop habits that are conducive to learning. The first is to sit reasonably still–self-control of one’s body. The second is to pay attention–self-control of one’s mind. The third is to follow instructions–self-control of one’s will. A failure to progress in these three areas will greatly hamper learning. So that has been the foundation under the four little boys as I teach them now.
One of our main academic goals for our typical children is that they become independent learners. By the time the children are doing elementary-level work, I challenge them to follow the instructions in their books without waiting for me in order to go on to the next thing. If they need help with something, I rarely give a straight-out answer if I can prompt them to think it through for themselves. If I’m busy with someone else when they need help, I remind them to go on to the next thing that they know how to do without help. Even when it’s not school time, if a child asks me how to spell something, they all know my answer will be, “You start it and I’ll help you if you get stuck.” Often they know the answer but their brain needs to do the work of focusing. We don’t want them to be paralyzed unless someone comes along to hold their hands. We don’t want them to wait passively for someone to tell them what to think and what to do next. This approach has worked very well for our older children and we plan to continue.
Morning school is for reading, writing, and arithmetic workbooks at the kitchen table, with Katie, Verity, and Tommy taking turns in their high chairs doing fine motor activities. I alternate those who need to read something aloud to me. A background of calm classical music, quiet reading aloud, quietly asking me for help, or murmuring to keep track of one’s thoughts are allowed, but otherwise we have a School Time is Quiet Time rule. Jane and John Michael are science buddies this year, which means they’re working through their Apologia Science together.
Afternoon school begins with memory time with the four younger boys. This consists of a large stack of phonics flashcards (“A-R says ‘AR,'” “I-N-G says ‘ING,'” etc.) and a folder containing laminated sheets of everything we currently want them to commit to memory, things like a chapter of Scripture, Shurley English grammar jingles (“Preposition, preposition, starting with an “A!” Aboard, About, Above–Across, After, Against…”), young children’s catechism, poetry, days of the week, months of the year, days of the months, our home address and phone numbers, and the list goes on. We simply run through each item once without pausing, except there’s usually a little echo from Verity, who sits on my lap for memory time before walking up the stairs to bed for her nap. Jane joins us for the Scripture, which we go over at the end of memory time before moving on to history time. BiblioPlan has been an excellent fit for us, as the planning and organizing has all been done. I get to do the part I love, which is to read aloud, teach, and discuss concepts with the children. It also involves extra reading and a worksheet for the older children, a map activity, and sometimes a hands-on project.
An upcoming post is in the works about Tommy, his needs, and how we’re addressing them.
Katie’s educational needs are being addressed by a great team this year and even with the family disruption due to hospital visits, we’re already seeing her make gains. I’ll talk more about her when I write her big two-year update post, coming up in less than two weeks.
Verity has a Daily Dozen checklist with various categories that we work from each day now that she’s not receiving formal therapy. Her activities fit into her routine throughout the day and target various skills. For instance, when Laura sets the breakfast table each evening, she sets out Chewy Tubes for Katie and Verity to use before they eat. After Verity is finished with her breakfast and potty (which has its own routine), Laura takes her outside for a walk on a variety of surfaces. Then she practices on her tricycle, and I come out to help her run. [More about helping Verity run in my next post.] After she’s finished with lunch and potty, Jane takes her for a walk to the mailbox to get the mail. Sometimes they stop to pick flowers or find fall leaves along the way. Speech continues to be one of her strengths, and speech therapy happens throughout her day.
One of Daniel’s am chores is to start the first two loads of laundry before leaving at 7 am. Then Laura takes over, advancing the laundry process on every odd hour until 1 pm. Pinning this task to certain hours helps her not to forget it, which is otherwise easy to do as all our laundry machines are in our basement. Then she folds it while we’re doing afternoon school all together in the living room. We’ve tried various approaches to laundry and have settled on the older guys washing theirs together and the older girls washing theirs together.
Afternoon school is finished and chore time is at 4 pm no matter what, and supper is at 5. After years of eating supper after Joe was home and showered, no matter how late that happened to be, we now have a set supper time for everyone who is home at the time. If the younger children finish their chores properly in ten or fifteen minutes, they have free time until supper. So there’s an immediate reward for diligence.
It’s Jane’s responsibility to get a simple supper on the table, since she prefers kitchen work and shows a definite gift for it. And we do eat simply. One of the first things I did after finding out that I was pregnant and adopting Tommy at the same time was to purge our recipe boxes of all superfluous and impractical recipes. Now that life is more routine, I’m back to bulk cooking and making freezer meals, our friends have insisted on a few more weeks of bringing a meal to church for us, and we utilize the crockpot, either in conjunction with a freezer meal or not. So Jane’s task might involve putting a few ingredients into the crockpot earlier in the day, or putting a casserole (that I’d previously made and frozen) into the oven, maybe cooking frozen vegetables, setting the table, and serving salad onto each plate. This takes her about fifteen or twenty minutes, and I’m often working alongside her. She is free to do more if she wants to, such as making biscuits, but that’s entirely her choice. She usually has some free time before we ring the bell for the children to pick up, come in, wash up and come to the table while several of us pitch in to serve the hot food onto the plates.
Bible time has been set for a time when Joe is always home and showered, the kitchen is cleaned up from supper, and the eight littlest children are all ready for bed. After Bible time on an ordinary night, they have free time until their respective bedtimes. Since the bedtimes are staggered, this provides me with an opportunity for one-on-one time with them.
With two bathrooms for fifteen people, showers and baths are planned, taking each person’s needs and preferences into consideration.
One of the problems that consistently gummed up the works in the past was seemingly random little chores like having to stop and refill a soap dispenser, refill humidifiers, sharpen pencils, run to the attic for more size __ diapers or run to the basement for more toilet paper. So all the refills were put onto either a daily or weekly checklist, depending on how quickly the item was used up. Every other necessary small chore has been assigned according to the youngest person who can handle it. I haven’t figured out how to replace light bulbs on a schedule or I would! Hee hee!
We built breathing room and flex time right into each day. As a result, we find that we’re running ahead of schedule a good percentage of the time. If there wasn’t sufficient flex time, I would suffocate and the schedule would fail.
Some flex times provide opportunities for important tasks that don’t need to happen every day. For instance, if I’m finished with the four littlest ones half an hour before morning school time starts, I might take the opportunity to accomplish phone calls that must be made during business hours.
Flex time has to be taken at certain times and not whenever we want it, but it’s there. Even with our best efforts, with our children’s ages and needs there will always need to be a wide margin for unpredictability. We might find that someone’s diaper leaked all over their bed, necessitating a complete cleaning of child and bed, plus a linen change. So that may not be the day I make the phone calls. <smile>
We have a standing rule that if we’re all ready for the next activity before the clock says it’s time, we go ahead anyway. It doesn’t always take up all the allotted time to accomplish things. If everyone is finished with their workbooks and Laura has lunch ready at 11:30 instead of 12:30, we go ahead and eat early. If the weather is so bad that the children can’t go out after breakfast (and it has to be pretty bad for that to happen), I have them go ahead with morning school followed by afternoon school in the morning, with a fun incentive for the afternoon. Sometimes we get so far ahead that we decide to do a craft project, bake cookies, or change our plans and make a favorite supper that requires more of a production.
We still have assigned nights for various activities, and sometimes have to be flexible with their scheduling because of outside opportunities.
Some areas of life are still under construction. After the disruption of hospitalizations were over and life settled back into a more normal pattern, we realized that we could get a pretty good idea now of what our life was likely to be like for some time. So we’ve been assessing, looking for areas of weakness and imbalance and brainstorming ways to address them. Our plan has to be sustainable over the long term for this to work in a healthy way.
For instance, I get very little sleep throughout the week, averaging about five hours a night. It’s a red letter day if I lie down to sleep by midnight, between the work I have to do, other evening plans, and older children who want to talk. For now, it seems to be okay as long as I get caught up on sleep over the weekend. Toward the end of the week I have trouble reading aloud to the children after lunch, as my eyes just will not stay open!
In other areas, we can clearly see that without concerted planning and effort, I would grow isolated, our marriage would atrophy, and our family would become more fragmented.
So I’m making appointments with friends for phone chats or meeting for coffee. Joe will be taking over for me at home with the eight youngest children when the ladies in our church fellowship meet so that I can be part of that, as I’ve missed so much over this past year. Every other month or so, I meet with a wonderful, mutually-supportive group of moms who have adopted kids with special needs from institutionalization.
Joe and I are fighting back against marital atrophy due to fatigue and a full schedule by amping up our usual date night. We decided to return to our first love and do the things we did at first by treating date night as a mini honeymoon. We still have room for improvement, but we’ve been there before and we’re determinedly going there again. God has used the tough times over the past few years to do a good work in us. Our marriage is healthier, stronger and closer than it was before we received our three special children from the hand of God. The more challenging life has become, the more we see Him dealing with underlying issues and binding us more closely together. So there, naysayers.
Now that it can take a gargantuan effort to go somewhere all together as a family (depending on what and where the event is), and because some of our children have very unique needs and disruptive behavioral issues, we can see how easy it would be to split into the Mom-Tommy-Katie-Ben entourage and the Dad-and all the rest of the children entourage. But giving in to what is easiest would not be healthiest over the long term. All the special care for a child as un-typical as Tommy, care that impacts every single area of life, can make him seem separate from the others. He has to eat different foods at different times in different ways. He can’t handle some things that are a regular part of our life, like sitting through an entire church meeting. We understand that to best meet everyone’s needs, it’s just going to be most practical and appropriate to split up sometimes, but we’re staying aware of this, brainstorming ideas, and taking advantage of opportunities for shared experiences to encourage a sense of cohesiveness, especially among the youngest ten children.
At times over the hardest weeks it sometimes felt like we were being stretched as thin as possible in every direction. Six hours a day feeding Tommy food he hated, only to have it shoot forcefully out one end or the other, necessitating more hours a day in cleaning it up. Being two hours away in the hospital fifteen days out of that one intense month in order to come up with a workable long-term solution. We found ourselves telling each other, “This is just a tough time and we’ll get past it,” and then laughing ruefully as we realized we were saying that with more and more frequency. I’ve felt the presence of blog readers who are silently waiting for us to fail so they can gloat over us and mock at God. I even felt an overwhelming, on-the-verge-of-tears moment when I heard that we needed to head back down to Delaware yet again after just getting back home. It helped me understand for the first time what an anxiety attack might feel like. I’ve had moments when my feelings have questioned, “Isn’t this getting out of hand? When will it end? Will it ever end? How can this be good for our family?” [Only to have Daniel ask, “What? Why do you feel that way? We’re doing fine; no big deal.”]
I had to learn years ago that it can take a while for our feelings to catch up with the truth.
My feelings were not telling me the truth, and I knew it.
The truth is that the details of our particular circumstances are not nearly as significant as the fact that all the circumstances of our lives come directly from God and He designed them to work His good in us.
His mercy and kindness and trustworthiness have become more evident to us than ever before through the hardest time we’ve ever been through as a family. He is so obviously using it to strengthen us and our faith in Him and is graciously allowing us to see it happening. We wouldn’t trade the hard days, past, present or future, for anything.
And that, my friends, is the current state of the Musser union.
Back, from left, Daniel, 18, Joseph, almost 20, Katie, 11 1/2, Joe, Susanna, Tommy, 16 1/2, Joshua, 16 1/2
Front, from left, Benjamin, 6 months, Jane, 11 1/2, Peter, almost 7, John Michael, 8, Stephen, 5, James, almost 7, Laura, 14, Verity, 3
P. S. The Ministry of Justice in Bulgaria requires notarized and apostilled post-adoption reports promptly at 6, 12, 18, and 24 months from the date of finalization. This report includes a home visit and written report by the family’s home study caseworker and original color photographs of the adopted child with his or her family, one of which must be a family photograph. So every six months we take our camera to church and ask someone to snap a few shots. One of the above informal snapshots will go into Tommy’s first and Katie’s final post-adoption report.
P. P. S. For more conversation about the chores our children do, you may want to read the comments to this post and join the discussion. I’m not publishing snarky anonymous comments because the world doesn’t need more hate, but I just might respond to them anyway, in an informed and grown-up way. <grin>