Eliminate Busywork

In homeschooling busywork is work we ask our kids to complete that has very little value. They don’t learn from it. They do not have to think about it. Busywork most often comes in the form of a worksheet. But we can also assign busywork in textbooks or reading books that are too easy or too boring. The key feature of busywork is a mom’s sense that school is going well because her kids look busy. Don’t be fooled by appearances. Eliminate busywork and add genuine learning activities to every school day. 

Busywork can be easy or hard

There can be easy busywork. Kids can fly through it quickly because it requires very little thought on their part. We used to have phonics workbooks like that. My oldest daughter was always happy to complete a couple pages of phonics a day. There were cute pictures. It didn’t require much writing at all. She was done fast and free to run and play for a few minutes. She breezed through all eight books. When she was done I realized she still couldn’t spell. When we started using All About Spelling I realized there were enormous gaps in her understanding of phonics. She had not learned a thing from all those workbook pages. We had both been happy, it was easy, but it was totally worthless from a learning perspective. That’s busywork.

Busywork can also be challenging. One workbook asked a series of questions each week, each answer was to be written as a complete sentence. The amount of writing required was hard. At the same time the answers were rote repetition of the material my kids had just read. My daughter did not have to think about ideas, she just had to be able to repeat them in complete sentence format. The worksheet did not require the the skill of narration, nor did it encourage the creation of well written sentences. It was lifeless and dull. My daughter perceived the worksheet as a lot of hard work, yet it did not encourage her to think or remember the ideas from her reading. The worksheet might be handy for use in a classroom, but it did not fit well into our homeschool routine at the kitchen table. It was just busywork.

What do children learn from busywork?

When your kids reach the end of a worksheet, are they done whether they learned the concept or not? Maybe your kids randomly match facts on the page, and when they finish they have not learned anything at all. But you set them free because they finished the worksheet. The focus has become filling in the blanks, not understanding.

On the other hand, your kids might have understood the idea immediately after reading the instructions and they did not need any practice. Maybe they learned it in a library book last week when you weren’t looking. But because you spent money on this workbook, you insist they complete every page.

The primary purpose of busywork is to have something to show for the school day. Busywork never considers the actual educational attainments of the child. My primary goal for my students is to be sure they are learning, and real learning began to happen when I began to eliminate busywork.

Eliminate busywork to reduce monitoring

I used to think that by adding worksheets and busywork to my kids’ lists of tasks, I could keep them occupied during times I needed to help their siblings. The idea was to keep them out of the way. It seemed convenient.

One of the most fundamental rules of successful homeschooling is that your kids do what you ask them to do. In order to train your kids to always do what you ask, you’ll spend most of their elementary years constantly monitoring their work (okay, high school too). Is it done carefully? Is it done thoroughly? Did they do it when you asked them to sit and work on it? Catch sloppy work right away and ask them to redo the question. If they finished half the page and ran off, call them back and ask them to finish. When you ask your kids to do math and they disappear, you hunt them down and bring them to the table and watch them hold the pencil in their hand and write down an answer.

If I assign busywork to keep my kids out of the way, I still need to make sure their work follows all those basic rules. All of a sudden busywork is not very convenient for the me. I thought I was saving time but instead I was enforcing expectations, checking and rechecking work. I was constantly interrupted while I was trying to work one on one with another child. At the end of every school day I had pages of unchecked work hanging over my exhausted head. It never saved me time. And I always ended up frustrated.

I was assigning tasks which did not help my kids learn in a meaningful way and left me feeling harried and overworked. We were wasting a lot of time: my time and their time.

How to make more time

On the one hand we could never get enough done and I was always exhausted. Then I began toying with ideas of mastery level learning and spending more time doing the basics really, really, well. We needed to find time to focus on the basics. How could I find more time to improve the basics when we were so busy cranking out the busywork?


Eliminating is hard. No joke. The first workbook was easy to cross off my list. It was low-hanging fruit that I knew was not doing us any good. But eliminating one book only gave us 15 minutes of extra time. We needed much more time than that. I eliminated more, and more, and more. I began to worry that maybe my kids would not be learning anything at all. It was scary. I would lay awake in bed at night and worry about failing my children.

Eliminate busywork to make time for important learning

I was convinced that having children who could read well, write well, and master math was crucial. To achieve that goal, I needed time – and the only way to gain time in a busy schedule was to cut something out. I cut and cut and cut.

By eliminating busywork we were doing more. My kids could read carefully, in a wide variety of subjects, with plenty of time to comprehend and discuss them with me. My kids had time to practice writing every day. We had time to buckle down and make sure we did math properly every day. We were focused on the most important learning not frittering our time away and having the joy sucked out of our homeschool life.

Simplify your days by eliminating busywork

I don’t think I need to say much to make this clear.  If you have four kids and they each have eight workbooks, that is 32 workbooks. For each workbook, you first have to find it every school day. You make sure your kids open to the right page and complete it. Then you have to check and grade it. When you’re done you have to put all 32 workbooks away. Or leave them stacked on the dining room table and just move them around for meal times. If you have six or eight kids you have enormous numbers of books to deal with every day.

If you have four kids and they each have 2 essential workbooks and an oral narration or writing project each day, your life is much simpler. Breathe a sigh of relief and take time to cuddle up on the couch with your kids and read a book. When you can quickly clear the table and add a candle – that your boys will be happy to help you light – you’ll sit down to dinner a “joyful mother of children.”

Eliminate busywork and discover joyful learning

Have you ever finished a fill-in-the-blank worksheet and thought, “Wow, that was amazing”? Our world is full of incredible facts and ideas, and our first exposure to them should amaze us.

For instance, consider the number nine. When you add the single digits of any multiple of nine the answer is always nine. Three times nine is 27 and 2+7=9. 18 times 9 is 162 and 1+6+2=9. Math is fun folks! Drill away with your little ones on your nine fact families. Then teach this little trick; any child who can add single digit numbers can do it. Your kids will love to instantly tell you if 2862 is divisible by nine. The kids will have a fun parlor trick to show off to friends and family. You won’t need a worksheet. Just paper and a brain, maybe a calculator if your brain is a little rusty (like mine).

Here’s one more example: have you ever finished a typical vocabulary worksheet – one where you draw lines between a word and its definition – and thought, “That was fascinating!” Probably not, at least I never did. But did you ever look up a word in the dictionary and read the definition, then check the etymology and connect that word to two others that you already knew. For example, hydro– comes from the Greek meaning water. We use it in words like “hydroelectric plants” (creating energy from running water) and hydroponics (growing plants in water). But in the dictionary, in the midst of these familiar words, is hydrogen. Now why would hydrogen, a gas, be named after water? Now we get to think about science, and the history of chemistry, and who named hydrogen. Aha!

Does your family expect school days to be full of fascinating, wow, aha, moments? Realistically, every moment won’t be a wow moment. Sometimes learning is boring. Often learning is repetitive. But there should always be a sense of expectation that keeps turning the pages, looking for more. There is so much joy in teaching students who love to learn.

Do you sense that joy when you stand over your kids demanding they write an answer on every line before they can move on to the next subject? Pushing our kids through page after page of worksheets sucks the joy out of the process for moms as well.

School work will never be sheer joy

I am not going to lie, when you ask your twelve-year-old to pull out the dictionary it is not always a joyful process. First, he moans, “Not the dictionary.” Next he can’t find it. After he’s checked three shelves, you have to find it. When he finally has it in hand, the weight of the book pulls his feeble body to the living room floor. Then you discover he never really learned his alphabet and is not sure which comes first: F or P. It is not all joy. But if you push through the incredible difficulty of looking up a word in the dictionary there may be a moment of wonder waiting for you.

Someday your kids will grow up and tell you how thankful they are that they were homeschooled. Some will. You do your part by giving them the kind of childhood they could be grateful for. They might list off the things they loved. Worksheets will not be on the list. Unless your kids tell hilarious stories of stacks of unfinished books they somehow managed to sneak under your ever-watchful eyes. You will either throw them away in June, after graduation, or discover you can save money by reusing them with the next kid down. This is true and kind of funny, especially when they have graduated and are not your educational responsibility any more.

Eliminate as much busywork as you can and be able to laugh at your shortcomings. You will have joy for years to come.

How to eliminate busywork in your home

Is your family drowning in busywork? Are you always busy with school but never have enough time for mastery level learning in the core subjects? I encourage you to make more time for the most important things. How did I eliminate busywork?

One piece at a time.

I began by noticing specific times I felt frustrated or overwhelmed. When you have a bunch of kids and are chronically overwhelmed this is may be how you feel all day every day. Why? First, it means you are in a busy stage of life. Then, more importantly, it means you need to make some changes. Some things cannot change. If you have five kids, you’re stuck. Unless you add a sixth. But when a dry, boring, textbook is three grades too easy and becomes a daily source of frustration, you have a problem you can address. If your kids produce an Everest of paper that you never look at, you have a problem to tackle. Those feeling associated with books or papers are your clue that here is an area you can make a change.

I’m sure you can easily think of one workbook that does not engage and educate your kids the way you thought it would when you bought it. Eliminate that one first. Don’t worry about wasting the money you spent. If the book is not effective you are wasting your time, and your time is far more valuable. You may think of twenty frustration points but pick just one.

Now you have a few extra minutes in the day. You replace that meaningless work with meaningful learning. In this case you will actually be accomplishing more. Or you can give focused attention to something you were formerly doing in a distracted, inefficient way. I am not advocating you spend less time on school work. I am advocating you use the same amount of time in the best possible way.

Next, stop and wait for a week or two. How are things going? My guess is that things will be going well. You will like the change. There may be a little sliver of peace in your crazy day. Now you are ready to try again. Find another area for improvement. Eliminate busywork. Replace with something better.

The time may come when you begin to wonder if you are about to eliminate too much. You can stop and stay in the comfort zone. That’s okay. Or push yourself over the cliff. If you maintain focus on teaching reading, writing, and math in pursuit of mastery, whatever mastery level means for the age of your kids, they will learn far more than you ever thought possible. Nothing in your home will look like traditional school. It will be infinitely better.

Eliminate busywork. Do less to accomplish more.

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